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January 25, 2009


CR Sunday Interview: Lance Fensterman

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Lance Fensterman assumed responsibility for the New York Comic-Con (and, I believe, the New York Anime Festival) after being brought aboard at Reed Exhibitions to run BookExpo America, itself one of the most important shows for comics publishers in this day of bookstore distribution.

New York Comic-Con has a short but interesting history: seeing general success and support almost from the start, rallying from a first year of turning away people at the door that already paid, lurching back and forth between winter and spring, arguably settling into an identity that's a bit more traditional con and a bit less "focused BEA for comics people" than some hoped, and in terms of the convention scene overall providing what many saw as a pop in the nose to a Wizard Entertainment group that seemed for years to be heading towards a New York show themselves. I went to NYCC last year, and while I had a great time in New York and enjoyed the ICv2.com-sponsored conference the day before, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the show itself.

Still, and I think Fensterman is aware of this, it's a big comics show in New York City. The possibility of a self-sustaining convention of any non-horrible kind taking root in the publishing and media capital of the world is enticing enough you're going to let it sleep drunk on your couch and leave wet towels on your unvarnished coffee table for a lot more years than you'd allow a show anywhere else to do the same. And again, most people in attendance and many exhibitors seem to be moving towards the positive experience camp, if they're not already firmly there.

This year's edition of the show, once again at the Javitz Center, is February 6-8. The publication of the following represents a frighteningly quick turnaround, but I wanted to get it up today for few reasons. First, I wanted to give Fensterman a platform to talk about his show while people are still making attendance and coverage plans. Second, it looks like the show will be making announcements about its future between now and the convention's opening that could make this interview a bit less vital in terms of being up to date, which means I can take care of them in a news story rather than updating this more structurally complex piece. Third, I really dreaded writing another essay about the economy this morning, and I suspect you dreaded reading one.

I appreciate Fensterman's attention to what turned out to be a lot of questions. Beyond the economic impact points, there seems to me to be at least a couple of potential news stories germinating here. One is that Reed seems to be making plans to continue the show and is about to secure a settled date for the convention rather than wherever it fits on the Javits calendar. Another is that Fensterman refuses to deny or, really, the way I see it, speak in direct fashion to questions about Reed planning a proper comics show of this type for Chicago. I'm also relieved that someone at the show finally admits flitting around the calendar is weird. Thanks, Lance. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Lance, as I recall you came over to the show last year. Just to give me a sense of how you initially came to the show, can you talk about why you took it over, maybe what set of skills you hoped to bring to bear on the show, why you got that gig?

LANCE FENSTERMAN: You are correct sir, I was brought on in October of 07 to take the helm at NYCC. I was an independent bookseller before joining Reed to run BookExpo America, the big publishing show and apparently I didn't screw that up too much as they promoted me and asked me to run all of our publishing and pop culture events. I have experience in this space and a passion for it but I also bring some "non traditional" sensibilities to the table. I'm not a "trade show" guy like a lot of people in this building, so I think I was seen as being a fan, a guy who loves his customers and can relate to them and someone that would bring a different type of thinking to the event. I also have a pretty deep entrepreneurial background in my life and Reed really values that, especially on an event like NYCC and NYAF, we get to be inventors...

SPURGEON: A lot of what I read about last year's show was pretty immediate reaction, which is common for shows like these -- you interview the organizer in the glow of the con's success. I know that you guys have longer evaluative periods than that. Is there anything that came out of the show once you really examined it that was different or maybe had a greater emphasis than your initial take on 2008?

FENSTERMAN: Even in a longer view, I really feel like the '08 event was an arrival for the con as a true national event, which is extremely exciting. I tagged that event as the one that would really establish us as a "go to" and I think it did. Now, having said that, I also think we saw a lot of challenges come out of it like the constant shifting of dates that we've suffered through at the hands of Javits' lack of availability. Constantly shifting around on the calendar is a huge impediment to being a real anchor on the con calendar. The '08 event also reminded us that even though we have improved every year, we have to keep working on the fan experience in terms of logistics. I can't understate how much we have improved, but we have a long way to go -- but that's customer service in any arena, you can never rest on your laurels or take your customers for granted.

imageSPURGEON: To what degree and in what ways do you think you're still in a learning curve on this show. Like last year I know you had a concert -- it went well, reportedly, but I was thinking that might have been something slightly out of your comfort range in terms of organizing. Are there aspects of the show that are still kind of an adventure for you? Which ones?

FENSTERMAN: Like I said, we need to constantly be in learning curve mode to some degree. Once you think you know it all, you will start to take you customers and fans for granted. We did a series of "con fabs" this year which were really feedback sessions for fans to share with us what we did well and did not do well and we've employed all of those learning's into this years show. I'm really proud of that. This is the fans show, we just build it. You brought up the concert and I thought the T.M. Revolution concert was amazing. I was proud of it and I think it proved to ourselves and customers that we can pull of anything even an arena quality rock show complete with massive lighting rigs and fog machines. The rub with that one came when the bills arrived! I cannot tell you how much we spent to outfit that theatre for the screenings and concerts but it was an insane amount of money to assure the fan experience.

SPURGEON: I greatly liked the New York in Spring aspect of the show last year. This year it's in February. Is it common for your group's shows and/or shows at the Javits to move back and forth on dates like this one has? Why is that? I'd love to know if you think you'll one day be able to settle on a time for the show and what that time will be.

FENSTERMAN: It is not common at all. Almost all events that Reed runs have consistent dates, frankly its part of running a professional event. Unfortunately, we have had extreme difficulty in securing consistent dates from the Javits Center. This comes from the fact that the building is insanely busy (and we look three to four years out trying to find a consistent home), we need a lot of space for growth and for all of our fans and that the Javits did not know what to think of us for the first few years -- they were skeptical. The good news is that we've won the Javits over, they now see that NYCC is becoming a city wide cultural and media event -- Crane's Business named us the fourth largest event that takes place in NYC -- and we have been working with them to secure a consistent set of dates for the next four years. We'll be ready to announce that shortly, but Javits has really stepped up and even moved other shows to accommodate us. This is all another sign of NYCC's maturity in becoming a serious city wide and national event.

imageSPURGEON: I wanted to ask you a few questions about the economy in the hopes that you'll feel free to be expansive and specific in your answers. First, has there been, or do you foresee, any changes in plans regarding this year's show from any of your vendors or exhibitors? Has anyone canceled, changed the level of their presence, decided to bring fewer creators along…?

FENSTERMAN: I am knocking on wood as I type my answer here, but the answer, broadly speaking, is no. We've had a few exhibitors not come this year that have in the past due to the economy, but very few. We are poised for growth on the show floor and to date ticket sales are up 10-15% over this time last year. I have always maintained that if we create a kick ass con our fans will reward us by spending there stretched dollars with us. And if we offer value to our exhibitors they will see us as a help to there business and an event they can't afford not to come to. So far, we seem to be accomplishing those goals. The biggest challenge has been with toy companies as the Toy Fair event is immediately after us which has lead to attrition from toy companies. I was crunching some numbers last night and if had kept the same number of toy companies from last year we would have been on path for massive growth on the show floor once again.

SPURGEON: Second, how does your show planning take into account a less aggressively successful economy. Do you focus on local guests? Do you focus on more local advertising, say? Is your message different when you ask people to spend money right now? Do you emphasize different aspects of the show given that overall outlook for a lot of people out there?

FENSTERMAN: We focus on the same things we always do with perhaps a bit more urgency: Build an amazing event that will wow our fans and provide value and return on investment for our exhibitors. Really, that is it, it's a simple mantra, but it bears out. If we build something worthy of a fans price of admission, we believe they will reward us by choosing to come. Logistically we are working on some things to make exhibiting less expensive for our customers for next year's show. NYC is an expensive place to do business, that's a fact, so we are developing some plans and making some investments to try and ease that burden.

SPURGEON: What's different about your programming this year?

FENSTERMAN: There is slightly less of it. We felt that last year was a bit more than the facilities could handle and that resulted in some crowding issues that I was not pleased with. So we pulled back our number of panels about five to eight percent and staggered start times to assure that we did not have the same congestion problems in the panel area that we had last year. We also took out more space at the Javits to accommodate for the crowds. I'm also seeing a bigger push from TV this year than last and while I'm not certain, I think some of this is attributable to our position on the calendar before sweeps.

SPURGEON: Comics convention are odd beasts -- part industry get-together, part socializing hub, part public showcase. I think NYCC more than any other show kind of wears those various aspects out in the open. Do you think you have an identity now? I know for example it's a show that a lot of the book publishers seemed excited about, not just because it's in New York but because it's a format and approach that's more familiar to them than some of the other shows. What would you ideally like the show to be? Do you see that beginning to take shape?

FENSTERMAN: I think first and foremost NYCC is a New York show. Maybe that seems obvious, but so much of our identity is this city. It's the base of publishing -- both comics and traditional. Beyond that, I would like us to be viewed as an event where business gets done. We are strict about our professional/trade hours, we have strong trade programming, we have a business center on the show floor for meetings to be conducted all those factors are contributing to the business of rights, licensing and other pieces of the business of this business being done at the con. This is an aspect I would expect to see increase in future years -- not at the expense of the fans, but in addition to all that we do for the fans.

SPURGEON: How important is booth placement to you? I know that some exhibitors from 2008 feel they were stuffed into some odd locations, although at the same time it seems there's some thought given to spreading the bigger exhibitors around the main hall. Do you feel this is an area of improvement for 2009?

FENSTERMAN: I was overall pretty happy with the floor plan in '08, I felt that it had good flow and accommodated the 67,000 people that poured through the aisles. Now having said that, booth placement is a no win on any event of this size. We recognize that we will not please everyone, but we do our best. We try to spread the big booths out across the floor while accommodating everyone else as well, but with 500 or so exhibitors it gets tricky -- like a game a Tetris! Overall, I feel we succeed more than we fail in this area.

SPURGEON: I'd love to hear you talk as specifically as possible about any city or civic support the show receives. Is New York invested in the show to the extent you'd like to see that relationship developed?

FENSTERMAN: Simply put -- no. It's hard to make an impact on a city of this size and to date we have had no support of any kind from the city (with the exception of the Javits Center really working with us this year to find consistent dates). If we were in a smaller city or a smaller media city, we would own the city already, but NYC is hard city to own. Having said that, I did mention that after 3 years in existence, we are the 4th largest even in the entire city – that's no small impact to have made this quickly in a city of this size. We continue to work with the city on how we might better partner but they have a lot of big issues in front of them, like directing air traffic along the Hudson.

SPURGEON: I once heard a con person asked if the weekend of the con that you organize is like being the mayor of a small town and they suggested it was more like being that town's garbage man. What is the weekend of the show like for you? Is it constant troubleshooting, is it big picture stuff, is it doing following-through on media...? How do you feel those days?

FENSTERMAN: Hmmmmm, I don't know that I feel like a mayor or a garbage man. I think I feel like a kid whose parents are away for the weekend and I threw a party that is rapidly getting bigger and bigger! My job on site is to assure that everyone is having a good time and all is going smoothly. I do a lot of media, but I also spend a lot of time with fans. I'm typically the first person to the building every morning to meet the fans that are waiting and let them in. I meet with Public Safety to assure we have no crowding issues, I spend time in registration talking to fans, I have business meetings with my customers and make sure they are doing well, I check out the popular panels to assure they are well attended and running smoothly and I get to be a fan just a little and go see a few minutes of the stuff I am interested in. Really though, I run for four days straight doing my best to be a good host and assure everyone is having fun. It's tiring and that beer that arrives in our offices around 10 PM is about the best tasting beer I have all year.

SPURGEON: About once a month I hear a rumor that Reed is planning a Chicago show, sometimes with sub-rumors that it's to be held in downtown Chicago and that it's going to be scheduled during the second half of the calendar year. Can you confirm or deny that general rumor and/or the sub-rumors? Have there been discussions about Chicago? Beyond that specific pair of questions, is there a general desire to expand into another comics show? And has the economy changed any of these conversations?

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FENSTERMAN: I would like to do a show in February in Florida. I could catch Twins spring training game, get away from the cold Northeast, now that would be nice! We are always looking at our options and where our customers tell us they feel there is a need. We are not in the business of expanding for our own desires to expand, that is not good business and we would not do it. Any moves we would make would be because our customers have told us they want what we have to offer in a given market. So this is to say that I don't have a driving desire to expand into more comics shows, but I do have a desire to meet customer and market needs where they might exist and if I feel what we do well can be applied and we can serve our fans and our customers. We are lucky at Reed in that we are allowed to run our businesses like small business with the resources behind us of a big business, so we have the ability to be nimble and react when the market conditions are right. Looking back in '06 we launched NYCC, in '07 the NY Anime Fest in '08 we entered into a relationship with Penny Arcade Expo, I think that pattern illustrates our ability to meet our customers needs, take risks, commit the dollars to creating great events and a pattern of being aggressive when the opportunities are there.

SPURGEON: So to be clear: Are there plans for a Chicago show? Have there been internal discussions about a Chicago show?

FENSTERMAN: No immediate plans are in place for any kind of event in a new market this year, but any time our customers tell us there is an opportunity in a market, no matter where that is (including internationally) we will conduct our due diligence to explore those opportunities.

SPURGEON: Something I found very interesting about NYCC is how large the single vendor table section is, those tables where you have one or two artists seated at chairs facing forward -- I don't know if you guys call it Artist Alley. Now with some shows, that section just as much about tradition and a certain way comics has always done things -- since you don't necessarily fall into either of those categories, I was wondering if you could talk about that part of the floor, in a business sense and in the sense of providing a certain kind of experience to attendees.

FENSTERMAN: The show is about artists and fans connecting and Artist Alley (yes we call it that) is the most focused expression of that connection. We feel as though it's an incredibly important aspect of NYCC. We have consultants who help us "curate" artist alley as we always have twice as many requests for space as we have space and we felt it important to have an independent voice guiding us on how the tables are distributed. I'll be frank, it is an immense amount of work, with virtually no financial gain for the con, but it is a critical part of the show for both the artists and the fans. I'm proud of what we've done with Artist Alley.

SPURGEON: According to what you might know from having heard back from vendors or surrounding business, or we comics people really as cheap as we're sometimes told?

FENSTERMAN: Ha! Let's see, how can I approach this one! In all genuineness, most people associated with the world of comics are small business owners and free lancers, if you are not creative in how you market and conduct your business, you will not have a business, I know this first hand from my own background, and I respect it. It was a learning curve for Reed in the first few years though. As a company Reed often deals with big companies that pay to have all of there materials sent to the convention center. On NYCC a huge percentage of our customers cart in there own materials. This created havoc with the unions at Javits as there are strict rules around such matters. Last year, we created a program and spent a large amount of many to hire union labor to help our exhibitors haul everything in. The meant the unions were happy (I have no interest in waking up under the new Jets stadium one day) and our customers got free labor and didn't have to break a sweat. So that's my way of saying that I don't think comic folks are cheap, but rather resourceful! And I'm proud of how we've tried to help them be resourceful out of respect to there business.

imageSPURGEON: How do you, personally, know if a show is successful? Is there a sign you look for, a certain level of buzz or a certain ferocity to the crowds? At what point do you take that first breath of air in knowing that things have gone well? Is that something you know at the show, going in, long afterwards...? What's your measure of success?

FENSTERMAN: I take a breath on Sunday night when the con is over and not until then. Seriously. We measure success a few different ways; ticket sales and crowds, we want the place jammed. Is it cool? The con has to be cool, fun, exciting, new and engaging. Media coverage as we want this event to raise the awareness and stature of the popular arts in culture at large. Did everything go relatively smoothly on site? The president of Reed joked with me that this is the only event Reed runs that one measure of success is if every customer actually got in and got in safely! Lastly we do in depth and intense satisfaction surveys after the event to all of our constituents (pros, fans, exhibitors) that give us pages and pages of data on which the event is rated. This is a process we take seriously as if the show was not well received and the fans and customers were not happy our compensation reflects that. I only point that out as it underscores a lot of my answers here -- our driving goal in all that we do is to promote a healthy growing industry, create an event that makes our fans happy and helps our customers business. This is at the core of all of our decisions and it's a blast every day to come to work and find ways to wow our fans and customers.

SPURGEON: Hey, before you go: Is there anything to be said about BEA 2009 and comics' place in it? Has comics settled into a groove at that show, or is there anything you'd like to see done that hasn't been done yet?

FENSTERMAN: BEA '09 is going to be an interesting event. The publishing world has been a tumultuous one this year and you are going to see a number of changes in how we do things at BEA this year. Does graphic literature have a larger place in those plans? I certainly think it does as graphic literature is one of the bright spots on publishing's sales lists right now. In an even broader sense though, I think the NYCC has a few things it can learn from BEA and BEA certainly has a some learning it can take from NYCC, that's what makes my role fun -- and maddening -- but mostly fun!

*****

* photos from my own trip last year; that's 2008 GOH Mo Willems (on the left) and Vito "I Am Comics In New York City" Delsante (on the right). I have no idea who those ladies at the booth might be, or who's in that signing.
* logos from the NYCC site

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