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Welcome To Nerd Vegas: A Guide To Visiting Comic-Con International 2014 (The Placeholder Edition)
posted May 25, 2014
, also known as CCI, Comic-Con and San Diego Con, is the largest gathering of comics industry professionals and fans in North America. It is a show of great importance to hundreds of pros in related publishing, merchandising and film businesses.
In 2014, the show is scheduled for July 24-27, with a preview night
on July 23. This is I believe a one-week-later-than-traditional placement for the event, but no one will mind the extra week of preparation.
What follows is a short list of observations related to early-in-the-cycle issues that will hopefully prepare you in a timely fashion for your San Diego con-going experience next summer. This post will be available in the archives for the remainder of the Fall and Winter and then supplanted by a brand new, full guide on Memorial Day 2014 (May 26).
For more information, a fuller idea of what you may be getting yourself into, and a lot of not-always-successful jokes, go to last year's full guide.
Why Should I Attend Comic-Con International?
Comic-Con International has become a crossroads meeting ground for all of North American pop culture entertainment. It offers a massive main-floor shopping experience; sophisticated programming ranging from premiere movie trailers with stars in tow to comics how-to sessions; an exuberant social experience in the cradle of San Diego's high-end downtown hotel, bar and restaurant district; and the potential for quality face time and professional networking opportunities in comics and a dozen related entertainment industries. It is the biggest public event in the North American comics industry calendar year, and an increasingly important weekend for the film, television, toy-making and prose publishing industries.
For an idea of the range of experiences available to con-goers, start here.
Why Should I Not Attend Comic-Con International?
Comic-Con International can be expensive, difficult and exhausting. The flush of new attendees over the last half-dozen years has made it harder than ever to secure a hotel room and, once there at the show itself, to see all of the events on the convention floor and in the programming halls that one might wish to see. While the convention continues to offer unique shopping opportunities, the chances you and I can find the bulk of what we want to enjoy our hobbies outside of convention-floor shopping has increased in exponential
fashion over the last 20 years, making CCI less necessary in that way.
If you have a focused
fan interest, say a single property or individual creator or sub-set of artistic expression, there are smaller conventions that might be tailored to your focused agenda and thus better serve your needs. If you just want to look at a few comics and meet some cartoonists, you may be able to do that at one of the great regional conventions that have popped up around the country without the cost and stress of going to San Diego.
It's also always worth mentioning that the basic convention experience -- wherever it's offered -- simply isn't for everyone. For every person that comes face to face with a crush of people in costumes and folks trying to sell them things and lines to get into rooms to hear people talk and thinks it's heaven on earth, there is another person for whom all of that is closer to hell.
What Questions Should I Ask Myself Before I Commit Either Way?
1. "Do I Really, Really Want to Go?"
Again: If it feels like it will be a chore in any way, don't go. It's not a requirement. If you're connected in any way to people that are going, or a fan of something receiving special consideration at a specific year's show, you may feel a twinge of regret caused by being left out, but that feeling goes away really quickly
2. "Do I Need to Be There the Whole Weekend?"
I almost never go the full length of the show. Greatest benefit? There's no better way to reduce the costs of a convention than to cut the time spent there.
Second greatest benefit? It's much more likely you'll leave wanting more.
3. "Do I Need a Room or Just a Bed?"
Figure out exactly what you need at all stages of your trip and what you're willing to accept. For instance, in terms of where you stay, a bed may be easier to find than a room. A room anywhere in town will be easier to find than a room right next to the convention center. A series of rooms for a bunch of your family members is going to be more difficult to track down than one room for yourself. And so on.
4. "Do I Want to Go for Realistic Reasons?"
A comic book convention is not a young-woman-with-her-first-job-in-the-big-city movie. If it were, there are way more of us playing the wacky supporting character role than the lead. Go for the experience you're likely to have, not the experience you think you deserve.
Also: there's always a chance that if you target one type of entertainment, one creator or property, one thing you want to do at the show, that person or film/book/comic might not be represented at the show that year.
What Was 2013 Like That Should Indicate Some Of What Might Be In Store For 2014?
2013 was a bit odd for longtime con-goers. It was an atypical year for being a very, very typical year. No big event stands out -- no one standing in line was hurt, no one was stabbed in the face, no event or cartoonist appearance or even celebrity pop-in caused the kind of buzz that makes one look up from one's safe place in front of a longbox. It was very, very pleasant, though, and populated on the comics end by a lot of longtime con-goers and veterans of this specific show. There were very few of those people slackjawed and dazzled and amazed on the comics end of things, very few people to kid about being exhausted and overwhelmed.
When the show came off, Kim Thompson's passing was still on the mind of a lot of people on the comics publishing end of the show, so there was a lot of talk about his legacy. This included a lot of talk at the Eisner Awards from nice people on the podium like Chip Kidd and Neil Gaiman, but also just sort of casually. Although I sense that this must have been intensely wearying for those constantly receiving this specific attention, I also think it was genuine and very, very nice. Kim was missed.
The show was pretty fascinating from a comics aspect. That Wednesday and Thursday were slower than the usual crush but Sunday was a pretty solid day traffic-wise was just the start of it. I still think publishers are still piecing together how to use the show itself. The backstage aspects of the comics show were thriving
: it was meeting central. Every single person I talked to was having meetings or on their way to one, or waiting around to have dinner with someone who could potentially do something for what they had going on, if only down the line. Panels continue to be thoroughly well-attended, especially noticeable with those that played to almost empty rooms a decade ago. What was confusing to many of the publishers to whom I spoke was how to make use of time on the floor, how to launch a book at the show, how to best show off their cartoonists. So expect publishers to make a more concerted effort to kind of narrow their focus and really hit a few strong goals in years to come.
I did not get the same sense I did in 2012 that a certain kind of comics figure was departing the show entirely, but whether that was because this shift had stalled or had already completed in favor of a new status quo, I'm trying to figure that out.
It was a very good year for second-tier mainstream publishers, or at least seemed that way: Image Comics, Boom, Archaia, Oni all seemed super busy and excited to be on the floor. As mentioned, there was also a crush of traffic on Sunday at all opublishers, or at least it seemed there was as opposed to a traditional top-heavy shopping weekend. I'm not sure there was a book of the show, but I'm not sure how genuine the efforts were to find one, either. Certainly folks were delighted to meet the usual array of cartoonists-rarely-seen, like Tom Gauld.
A lot of publishers and cartoonists and even comics fans on the floor spoke with fondness of the days when Comic Relief served as an anchor retail presence on the show, a place to send people for books more generally when a publisher wasn't carrying a specific item.
I also think the show turned a corner in terms of just having a lot of its energy outside of the convention center. Walking five or six blocks east used to be a ticket to a deserted movie set. A combination of off-site anchor events and people doing things like renting restaurant for private events really spread out the traffic. I bet just about every single comics person had something important or vital to their weekend to do that wasn't in the convention center. It feels like the Big North American Show is ready to step squarely into a new phase of its existence.
Your Possible Response One: "That All Sounds Like A Bit Much. I Think I'm Going To Skip It The Year. That Okay?"
Oh, sure. I think unless you're really focused on going it's probably too big an event at this point to "just attend," even for a day. We'll miss you, and hope to see you in a future year when you're geared up to go. Can I maybe interest you in a TCAF
, an Emerald City Comicon
, a HeroesCon
, a C2E2
in the meantime?
Your Possible Response Two: "Okay, That All Sounds Awesome. I'm In. So What Do I Need to Do Right Now?"
1. First, make certain you can afford what you're getting into.
As mentioned, it costs a decent amount to go to Comic-Con International. Air travel, hotels, meals, convention expenses, anything you're planning to buy, incidental costs like cab rides... Don't get caught short. I have a friend that actually stashes away money orders to "pay" for the trip as early as possible. My friend is kind of loopy, mind you, and bound to do things like count all the bugs he may see in a weekend, but his thinking is that if he pre-pays for the trip, he'll be happier about going and he'll avoid additional stress that might spoil his weekend. It's difficult to fault this logic.
2. Once you've made the decision to go, register as early as possible.
If you're going as a con attendee -- as opposed to an industry professional or as press -- you can sometimes get discounts for registering for the show before certain dates. More to the point: if you don't register early, you may not get to at all
. Last year's show sold out of four-day passes and then individual passes months before the show began.
If you're an industry professional or a press person, the convention will offer limited windows for registration in the spring. They come up more quickly than you think, and they are not
guaranteed. Make a habit of visiting the Comic-Con site.
3. Bookmark the convention's web site as early on as possible; include the Toucan blog.
It's still the best place for announcements and the like. If nothing else, keep an eye out for 1) their announcement of the day hotel rooms will start being made available through their travel partner (known among longtime con-goers as The Day Of Massive, Soul-Destroying Frustration), 2) registration information by type of admittance sought, and 3) their growing guest list. You really don't have to follow #3, but it's fun.
4. Start thinking about a room.
Because hotel rooms are so expensive, and because so many people want them, a lot of potential attendees make securing a room at Comic-Con a minor hobby on the level of cleaning out the car or shampooing the dogs -- something you look into once a month or so. The convention will provide the opportunity to reserve discount rooms through their site in Spring 2013. Getting one on that day or on one of the days immediately after is extremely
competitive -- although seemingly less so in 2012 than in the previous few years -- to the point of throwing your laptop into the wall and screaming "I Hate Comics" for three and a half hours. If you can find a room you can live with at any time between the moment you decide to go and the moment you get on the plane, snatch it up! Rooms at several standard San Diego hotels are currently open via the various search engines, albeit at far higher prices than you might be able to secure through the show. Still, some folks place a premium on piece of mind.
5. If you're reading this after the New Year and before Memorial Day, make getting a room a major priority.
Many of the rooms are snatched up before the con makes their rooms available, and many of the con rooms are snatched up in the first hour or so upon going on sale. After the con's rooms see their initial sell out at some date early in 2013, take the best rooms you can find as soon as you can find them.
6. Don't all the way panic on the room thing, but don't sit back, either.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: It's not impossible to get a room later in the Spring.
It's just really, really difficult, and it's admittedly a lot harder now since changes were made last year in how hotel rooms are secured through the convention. Before 2011, scoring a late room was one of those reasonably easy things that no one talked about. You just had to monitor the convention site daily for returned rooms, perhaps splitting your time between two and three hotels as individual nights were easier to get than a bloc of four straight evenings in one place. You also saw rooms pop up from the boutique hotels that one imagines gave up on providing those rooms to Hollywood people at full price. In 2011, a more severe advanced room fee -- one full night -- and a ratcheting up as to when that becomes non-refundable fell into place, working together to really calcify the ability to seize rooms late. I bet you could still do it, but it's going to be hard. Take care of it as early and with as much decisiveness as you can -- and monitor when the hotels become non-refundable for a likely date up to a week before when a group of rooms might go back on the site.
7. As far as rooms go, keep in mind this general rule.
Closer is better. Certainly that's not always the case. Sometimes a nicer hotel further away is the better choice. I stayed further away in 2010 and loved
it. In fact, I tend to favor the slight removal that comes with a hotel on Broadway than the cloistered feeling I get staying at a hotel right next door to the convention center. All other things being equal, however, you want the closest hotel you can find. This is doubly
true if you have things you have to carry back and forth with you each day. Hotels past Broadway going North or hotels going east more than five or six blocks require a mental adjustment, as you will not be able to easily pop back to the room whenever you want. Hotels further away than the highways require a major
mental adjustment and, realistically, a car.
8. Start paying attention to air travel.
Once you're committed, and if you're flying, it sometimes pays to start paying attention to air travel through your favorite on-line ticket site
in order to secure the best prices. As fuel prices fluctuate and airlines cut flights, it can be expensive to fly unless you seek out this kind of bargain.
What Can You Tell Me About The Hotels?
1. The hotels in San Diego basically fall into six different groupings: 1) those hotels right up next to the convention center (Omni
, Hilton Gaslamp
, Hilton Bayfront
, Hard Rock
, Marriott Marquis and Marina
), 2) random hotels sprinkled throughout downtown (Solamar
, Horton Grand
, Embassy Suites
), 3) the Broadway corridor about five blocks removed from the convention center (Westin San Diego
, Westin Gaslamp
, US Grant
), 4) the remainder of the downtown hotels varying distances from the convention center (La Pensione
, Holiday Inn On The Bay
), 5) the Hotel Circle a few miles north of town (Crowne Plaza Hotel San Diego
), and 6) everything else that's miles away (Dolphin Motel
, Hotel Del Coronado
2. As stated above, the closer you are to the convention center, the better off you generally are, especially if you have to lug stuff back and forth. However, the first three groups are more than close enough for anyone but the most picky convention-goers, and with a car just about anywhere in the county or slightly outside of it can be made to work if you consider it part of the adventure rather than part of the hassle.
3. I've stayed in a lot of the San Diego hotels at this point, and they've all had something to recommend them and, better yet, it's not hard to pick up on the majority of these things just by doing a little research
. There also tend to be trade-offs. For instance:
* I felt my room at the Hilton Gaslamp in 2009 was sort of cramped, but the hotel was right across the street from the convention center, had easy-to-use valet parking and had a little-used but perfectly serviceable business office I made use of when my computer broke down. My stay there in 2013 was much, much improved; my room was even huge. Go figure.
* I've never liked the Hyatt all that much. The rooms are ordinary, and I never found the staff all that friendly. Still, it's fun walking through that huge lobby as if you're a Captain Of Industry. While it's no longer Team Comics' absolutely
default, late-night, hanging-out place -- it has competition from off-site locations and directly from the Bayfront Hilton -- if you have the time and the money you can have fun with room upgrades and the usual, full array of stand-alone, big-ass hotel services.
* The San Diego Marriott Marquis and Marina is consistently underrated: it's super close, obviously, but it's also generally nice, it has a lot of extras including a nice buffet breakfast in a newer space just past the Starbucks area. I always like eating breakfast there because it's the modern funnybook equivalent of chowing down at some Hollywood studio lot mess hall circa 1940. The major drawback with a place like the Marriott is that at times you feel like you've never left the show -- probably because you haven't (the con has placed events in that hotel for years).
* Stay at or close to the Omni to get a piece of the per diem action any of your "special guest" friends are flaunting.
* The Westgate and the US Grant (and the Bristol to a lesser extent) are basically old-timey hotels from the '60s and '70s still hanging in there -- they're furbished in modern fashion, for certain. It's just that they seem to me like the kinds of hotels my Silent Generation parents would frequently target, the ones where my dad insisted we put on ties before hitting the lobby -- like The Drake in Chicago, or The Columbia Club on the circle in Indianapolis. Until at least recently, the Westgate even had a piano bar where a lady sang Mabel Mercer songs at four in the afternoon. The potential downside to these hotels and their classic, hotels-for-adults attitude is they seem to expect you to act like an adult, too, which at times during a four-day pop culture wallow hardly seems fair.
* A lot of people use the Embassy Suites if they're sharing space and wish to enjoy the convenience of a free breakfast before they head over to the show. Then again, a lot of people complain about that breakfast.
* The new boutique hotels are great places to dawdle in the morning, better places to have any friends in the area meet you for drinks and in recent years have become a bit more Hollywood-oriented, as has the Omni (although perhaps a bit less brazenly and thoroughly; still, that's the hotel for random celebrity encounters, it seems). Good luck finding a room at any of them or, for most folks, affording the one you can find.
* The two Westins are solid chain hotels that have upgraded on the experiences provided by past owners. You might not be looking for four days of "solid," though. I stayed at the Westin Gaslamp this year and they had totally re-done the lobby so it was very, very nice and much less cramped. I thought the service was really good, too, until Sunday when they didn't have enough people checking bags in -- an avoidable situation. Anyway, I'd stay at that one every year if I could. I'm very comfortable there. They also need to go full, free wi-fi, but I get that hotels sometimes are locked into sort-of crappy plans.
* The Horton Grand feels a bit like a comfortable bed and breakfast in terms of staying in the rooms, and is in a location that's about as quiet as you get on that relatively low a floor in downtown San Diego. It can also be a bit too quiet for some folks, and is neither far enough away from the convention to put you in a different neighborhood with unique restaurants and a sense of leaving the show behind, nor is it so close that you'd volunteer to pop over from the convention center when you have 30 minutes between panels.
Anyway, you get the idea. There's no systemically, automatically bad hotel choice since the days where after about the first half-dozen you were talking dives and Navy personnel sex-with-prostitutes places. That doesn't mean they'll all be great, but there's a good chance they'll all be pretty good.
4. As nearly all the hotels available have something to offer your stay, other than the general principles involved in terms of maybe staying within close proximity of the convention center if you can help it, or making sure you get your chain points, or -- if you're paranoid -- reserving a room that you can cancel after you see what you get in the rooms-through-the-convention lottery next Spring, you're probably going to find something you like about your convention hotel. You're probably going to find something that annoys you, too.
5. In the end, your hotel is probably going to be selected for you as much you choose where to stay. Price points, availability through the convention's hotel lottery, your needs in San Diego will all conspire to mercilessly winnow your options. If you have the luxury of choosing where to stay, you probably also have the luxury of taking the time to decide where that will be. The rest of us will scramble to find out where we end up. There's no wrong way to do it. Heck, some people aren't staying in hotels at all anymore but in rented apartments and houses. These days, a bunch of kids always seem to be sleeping outside. In the end, where you stay is probably going to be a bonus feature to your weekend, not the make-or-break proposition some would have you believe.
What Are Some Of The Different Ways I Can Arrange A Comic-Con Vacation?
1. The Classic! (Wednesday PM to Sunday PM/Monday AM)
Fly into San Diego on mid-afternoon Wednesday. Go to Preview Night. Attend the con Thursday to Sunday. Leave late Sunday night or early Monday morning. Gorge on comics and pop culture between your first airplane landing and your last airplane leaving. Compare notes with other full convention attendees about what a rigorous enterprise this is.
2. The Hard-Core Industry Touch and Go! (Wednesday PM to Saturday AM)
I like to go in Wednesday and leave Saturday morning while everyone is still reasonably fresh and ready to go and before the weekend's slight shift in emphasis in the direction of blockbusters and big mainstream hits. In 2008 I went for two days and one night (Friday). There's no better way to cut costs than to go on a limited schedule and there's no better way to avoid burnout than to go for one or two days rather than four.
3. The Prime Time! (Friday AM to Sunday Noon)
Actually it's not true that the really big panels are only on Friday and Saturday, not anymore, but you can pretend that's the case and show up for the weekend and act like you're dismissing the preliminaries (Wednesday-Thursday) and the Wind-Down (Sunday afternoon). If you do this one, you're required by con law to tell people that all you did on Sunday is have breakfast and leave. "I didn't even go to the show on Sunday." Having fresh eyes and healthy feet when everyone else is starting to flag can be an advantage as well.
4. The Clowes! (Saturday AM to Saturday PM)
Wake up, fly down, pop over to the convention center, set up, sell art, shake hands, sell more art, sign autographs, get treated to dinner, leave. I kid, but day trips of the drive down or short flight variety are a way to cut out a lot of the hassle and still get a big chunk of what's fun about the show. It seemed like every single person I talked to over the age of 40 has considered shifting over to this kind of schedule.
5. The Extended! (Monday AM to Monday PM or Tuesday AM)
A lot of my comics industry friends make a full week out of CCI, heading out on Tuesday before the show and heading home Monday afterward. Going for an extra day allows you the time to more easily enjoy different aspects of the city, enables you to fly in and out on potentially less crowded aircraft, and makes it so that you can relax into the show and decompress after it's done.
This isn't just an option for the rich. I know some very economically-challenged comics publishing employees that have slipped a real vacation on the end of the show by having their company shift the date of their return flight and booking a couple of extra days of hotel rooms at non-convention price levels.
6. The SoCal! (Wednesday and Sunday -- or more -- in Los Angeles; Thursday/Friday/Saturday in San Diego)
For those of you that have friends, family or business in Los Angeles, LAX may offer a cheaper flight destination, and may have better times available, than coming straight into San Diego from your town more than 400 miles away. The commuter flights and AMTRAK options to get to San Diego are plentiful and, all things considered, modestly priced. My brother is in LA, and this is what I did in 2009 and 2010. The thing that's nice about this is if you initially miss out on getting a hotel room you can still commit to your time in Southern California knowing that you can likely stay an extra day up in LA if you have to.
7. The Vegas! (Monday-Tuesday before or after CCI in Las Vegas; Thursday-Sunday in San Diego)
I used to extend my CCI visits by going to Las Vegas, which I think is a perfect place to decompress and relax after a long weekend of walking around and looking at funnybooks.
Okay, I'm kidding: I just sort of like going to Las Vegas.
The two big advantages here are 1) the cheapest days of the Las Vegas hotel week tend to be the Mondays through Wednesdays that fall on either side of Comic-Con, and 2) as is the case with LAX it may be easier to find cheap airfare in and out of Las Vegas -- at much better times -- than what's available from your home airport.
Say you have
to be in San Diego on Wednesday at 3:00 PM to meet with a publisher. You find out the only flight from Indianapolis on Wednesday puts you in San Diego at 6 PM. You could
go to San Diego Tuesday and pay $275 for a hotel and sit around waiting for everyone else to show up. Or
you could go to Las Vegas on Tuesday and stay at the Flamingo for $89 and break even playing blackjack for three hours and see Donny Osmond and eat lobster bisque and then fly out Wednesday morning to San Diego well in advance of your 3:00 PM appointment.
Plus you can tell people you had
to go to Vegas to save money, which is funny.
I did this one in 2012. It worked out great. I would have had to leave at 7 AM if I had flown to Tucson, but instead I got to stay in San Diego to about 3 PM and have a long breakfast, see some programming, do some shopping and say hey to everyone. A really good day, that last day in San Diego. In Las Vegas I impressed none of the young people with my comics-industry body at the pool, ate a lot of great food, wrote my final con report and got plenty of rest before I took off for home. I enjoyed it so much I'm probably going to make this my default strategy for however many years I still go to the con, or at leas for as many years as I can afford to do this.
That's it for now. Get your passes or figure out which pro or press ones you'll qualify to receive. Bookmark the convention site. Buy your tickets for travel. Think about hotels for now, and pull the trigger on one either through the lottery or when you feel like it's time. Come back in May for the full guide. Between now and then feel free if you have specific questions. I may not be able to answer them, but I sure like reading them.