From Sunday's San Diego Union-Tribune
:Cause for CON-CERN
:Is Comic-Con really leaving San Diego?By Lori Weisberg, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 12:01 a.m.
Comic-Con International, the beloved behemoth of San Diego conventions, is in danger of leaving its birthplace for a larger home, spurring local tourism leaders to do all they can to keep the four-day show here.
The prospect of losing a bonanza worth tens of millions of dollars in local spending each year has persuaded hoteliers to double the number of rooms they commit to Comic-Con and provide free meeting space for a gathering that sells out months in advance and has a long waiting list for exhibitors.
After 2012, the event held each July at the San Diego Convention Center will be free to leave town.
If Comic-Con departs, so would its 126,000 attendees, who fill hotel rooms and boost the bottom line of restaurants, bars and local attractions. The San Diego Convention Center Corp. recently sent a proposal to Comic-Con seeking to extend its contract through 2015.
A task force, made up of some of the tourism industry’s heaviest hitters and officials from the Convention Center Corp., city and the San Diego Unified Port District, is leading an aggressive campaign to remind Comic-Con organizers just how well-loved they are. Whether such overtures are enough to stave off a competing bid from Anaheim is unclear.
Although the Orange County city does not have a bayfront convention center, it does have one that is far more spacious, offering roughly a half-million more square feet than San Diego’s, which was last expanded in 2001.
San Diego’s proposal was crafted after meetings with Comic-Con organizers to assess what issues they wanted addressed. While lesser concerns, such as the need to provide conventioneers with easier access to parking, were raised, the biggest issue is a shortage of exhibit space and hotel rooms with discounted rates exclusive to attendees.
In response, San Diego’s three waterfront hotels — the Manchester Grand Hyatt, San Diego Marriott and Hilton San Diego Bayfront — have committed to providing roughly 300,000 square feet of their meeting space free of charge in 2013 through 2015. In addition, the Convention Center Corp. is proposing to increase the number of dedicated convention hotel rooms from 7,000 to 14,000 and says it is working to boost the number for this year through 2012.
Although a citizens task force last year endorsed a $753 million proposal to expand the convention center by 1.27 million square feet, including 385,000 square feet of new exhibit and meeting space, there is no guarantee that will happen.
“Since expansion is a process we’re all exploring, it would be a shame for an organization that’s had so much success over the last 40 years to jump and leave,” said Sandra Moreno, the center’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “I’m hopeful the Comic-Con board will stay the course until they see how the expansion will work out. We would be very, very sad to lose Comic-Con. They are an iconic event here that brings tremendous media coverage. It’s a match made in heaven.”
Convention center officials are not blind to the appeal Anaheim might have, given its larger convention center and more affordable room rates. The city is also closer to Los Angeles, a plus for Hollywood studios and movie directors who have forged an increasingly tight bond with Comic-Con. Over the years, the event has transformed from a modest gathering of devoted comic book fans and dealers into a pop-culture extravaganza.
The Comic-Con board is expected to make a decision on its future within the next month.
Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer acknowledged San Diego’s appeal as a popular destination and the emotional draw of remaining in the show’s hometown, but ultimately, space is a driving factor in deciding whether to stay or go, he said. Four-day passes to this year’s convention sold out in September, and individual tickets for Friday and Saturday are gone, as well.
“We have to be aware of our attendees, and we don’t want it to be problematic for them to attend the show,” Glanzer said. “When you have to limit exhibit space and sell out early, those are negatives, but by San Diego trying to increase hotel-room blocks and utilize space at adjacent hotels, that may neutralize some of those things.
“It’s not a secret that Anaheim would love for us to move up there, and they have a world-class facility and a lot of hotels and have put forward a great location, but it will be up to the board to decide exactly what it is we can do. We have to look at the pluses and minuses of everything. It’s not just as easy as choosing a pin on a map and saying, ‘Let’s go here.’ ”
An Anaheim tourism official said the city is developing a formal proposal for Comic-Con but declined to reveal the specifics.
“The convention would be a big deal to anyone who would be able to bag it. Everybody gets immediately healthy with Comic-Con,” said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau. Ahlers said Anaheim’s largest convention is for NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants), which draws 90,000 attendees.
“Candidly, we think of Comic-Con as a good fit because we have a very nice, walkable housing package and a big convention center that is the largest in California. The emotion is with San Diego because it grew up there and is at risk of leaving, but nothing lasts forever.”
Tell that to San Diego Hard Rock Hotel general manager Matt Greene, who has urged fellow hoteliers to increase the number of rooms they set aside for conventioneers at guaranteed rates.
Many hotels have been reluctant to reserve a large proportion of rooms at the discounted convention rate, recognizing that high demand for lodging during the summer gathering helps drive nightly rates much higher.
At the same time, competition for Comic-Con is growing. Other cities, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas, have come courting in recent years. Comic-Con’s internal surveys have found that attendees spend $60 million on lodging, food and transportation during the four days.
“Those of us on the Comic-Con Advisory Board reached out to our counterparts and said, ‘Listen, you may be making X amount of dollars now, but when the contract is over and they go to another city because we didn’t give them enough rooms in their block, you’ll be making nothing over the same period,’ ” Greene said. “So we have to work together as hoteliers to provide them the rooms they need.”
The Convention Center Corp., with the help of the advisory board, has been able to increase the block of rooms to 13,500 and is hoping to expand the inventory even more. This year’s rates for downtown hotels within the block range from $149 to $352, according to the Convention Center Corp.
“The PR recognition from Comic-Con, whether it’s the celebrities or a movie release, is so strong that it basically brings a top-of-mind recognition worldwide to the city of San Diego and what a great destination it is, whether for a meeting or a vacation,” Greene said. “You can spend all the money in the world on advertising, but the PR is exponentially better than advertising.”
The 1,600-room Manchester Grand Hyatt, down the street from the convention center, has agreed to boost its 2013-2015 block of Comic-Con rooms from 700 to 1,400, a concession it needed to make in order to hold on to Comic-Con’s business, said Mike Waddill, the hotel’s director of sales.
“We’d be hard-pressed to book a weekend in July that would even come close to the revenues that Comic-Con brings us,” Waddill said. “It would be difficult, if not improbable.”
Heavy traffic and parking shortages may be a headache for locals during the event, but it’s proved to be a huge economic boon to Gaslamp Quarter restaurants, said Ingrid Croce, owner of Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar.
“It would kill the month of July if they weren’t here,” Croce said. “It’s like having Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl and Disneyland all at the same time. They want an experience that’s memorable, and that’s what San Diego delivers. I’m not sure they’d get that in Orange County.”