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March 14, 2010


CR Sunday Interview: Lance Fensterman

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I plan on speaking more than one time to the various convention organizers this year, as that aspect of the comics business remains in a crucially transformational state. Lance Fensterman runs this kind of show when Reed Exhibitions does them. Their inaugural Chicago show C2E2 is forthcoming in April, and their NYCC is scheduled to return this Fall.

I wanted to speak to Lance in person, but his schedule didn't allow. This e-mail exchange is what ended up being doable. I might have pressed him on one or two points had we talked in person, but to his credit Fensterman didn't outright pass on any of the following queries, some of which were kind of obnoxious. I'm grateful for that. I also think he's genuinely confident that his company's Chicago effort is going to work despite a case you might be able to build that says "hedge your bets": all hotels still available, repairing a generally damaged comic convention brand in the city, the task of enticing people past city limits and into downtown whether or not the infrastructure is there, Chicago's traditional and now very lost identity as a regional show, and the worries that retailers might have in committing to yet another comics show. I think they're in it for the long haul -- at least the long haul as measured in comics industry terms -- so it's worth keeping an eye on how next month's show turns out without making too many quick predictions as to what it means -- Tom Spurgeon

*****

TOM SPURGEON: Lance, you're approximately six weeks out from C2E2... how many advanced tickets have you sold? Has the con met its goals in terms of advanced sales? How much of the show do you perceive being sold in advance?

LANCE FENSTERMAN: Percents can be deceiving compared to actual real numbers, but right now we have a 50 percent increase in ticket sales over NYCC #1. We've used NYCC #1 as a comparable as we expected the shows to be similar in size when we hatched this plan a year ago. I think we are now seeing that C2E2 will be significantly larger. [Editor's Note: that show ended with 33,000 attendees.] We are really, really encouraging fans to buy tickets in advance as we do have some concerns about crowds walking up to buy tickets -- I need not remind any one of NYCC #1 and the crowds!

SPURGEON: Looking at the C2E2 web site, it appears as if you're still taking reservations at all con hotels... has the con met its goals in terms of booking hotel rooms? Should that be taken as a sign as to level of interest in the show overall?

FENSTERMAN: We secured a big bloc of hotels for the show. We typically do so so our fans, exhibitors, guests, etc have a diverse choice. Of all the metrics we have to measure success, I wouldn't put number of hotel nights near the top of the list (unless, of course, you are in the hotel business)

SPURGEON: For that matter, what's the show's capacity?

FENSTERMAN: We have the entire Lakeside Center at McCormick Place so in one sense I'm not concerned about capacity because we have over 600,000 gross square feet of building to work with between a few floors (more when you add in all the meeting rooms we have). I am worried about registration getting overwhelmed with people walking up to buy tickets, which we'll plan for, and the show floor getting really jammed with fans. We typically do a pretty good job though of building big aisles to keep people moving and creating lots of killer programming so people get spread throughout the building.

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SPURGEON: One thing you and I have talked about in the past is that a big part of C2E2's conception of a Chicago show is to bring it into Chicago's beautiful downtown. That carries with it some concern about access, especially for any suburban and especially out of town attendees. It looks like you're going to be using Soldier Field parking, but can you talk in more specific terms about how you're going to bring people to the show directly, how rigorous and timely a shuttle schedule you're planning, if you have any worries about parking capacity?

FENSTERMAN: Unlike New York, Chicago actually has good mass transit to its convention center! It's funny, in some ways, McCormick Place is much, much easier to get people to than the Javits (sorry, New Yorkers). We have a pretty massive people moving plan in place for C2E2; We have shuttles running from all of our hotels all day long. We have tripled shuttle service form what we provide in NYC. We will run shuttles form the nearest CTA stop from the El. There is a METRA (suburban commuter train line) stop in McCormick Place. McCormick Place is on several city bus routes. We have parking at Soldier Field and we also have parking below Lakeside Center where the show is housed. In short, there is no way you cannot get to C2E2.

SPURGEON: Lance, I've seen one or two things about the general support offered the show by the city of Chicago and Mayor Daley. While that's great, I don't know exactly what that means. Beyond general good will an you talk in terms of one or two specific things that the show has gained by having a solid relationship with its host city that it might not have otherwise?

FENSTERMAN: Chicago as a city is thrilled to have C2E2. They are thrilled to have Reed back in McCormick Place where we have not run a show in a number of years. They are hanging C2E2 banners for us around the city, they extended marketing and PR assistance to us, we've had amazing access to Mayor Daley (I had the honor of meeting with him on one of my visits, in fact). The city understands what we are trying to build a national pop culture event in the city of Chicago and, they are hungry to help us and embrace our fans.

imageSPURGEON: Can you describe the nature of your publicity push in Chicago in the weeks leading up to the show, either in contrast to or as a continuance of your publicity efforts so far? Are you doing radio, local print, television...? What's the specific goal of the publicity in the last few weeks?

FENSTERMAN: We've been building our publicity effort for a year, laying the groundwork with our formal "launch" announcement in February '09. From the start, we have wrapped the Chicago media into all our strategy and planning and it seems to be paying off.

So far, we have had an awesome response and I am sensing lots of energy. I was just interviewed by the Chicago Tribune for a preview piece and I am appearing with Geoff Johns on The Steve and Johnnie Show on WGN Radio on Thursday night, April 15 leading into the show. The Mash, which is the Chicago Tribune's free weekly newspaper which is written for and by high school students, is sending a staff of high school students to cover C2E2 and they are interviewing guests in advance, too. It's very cool. WMAQ, the NBC affiliate in Chicago has been in touch with us about doing a piece, and so has Time Out.

Remember... we're still five weeks out from the show, so this kind interest and commitment is a strong indicator of what's to come. We're looking at some really strong enthusiasm and I think we're going to be blasted all over the Chicago media. We will run a TV spots for the next four weeks, we have print ads running in the Chicago Tribune, the RedEye, The Mash and The Onion. The list is pretty long on the marketing side of things, but I'm confident Chicago will know C2E2 is coming.

SPURGEON: I'm a Midwestern native and was a longtime attendee of the original Chicago Con... but from Indiana rather than from Chicago. When that Chicago show worked, the parking lot and lines were filled with cars and people from Champaign and Detroit and Milwaukee and Akron and Indianapolis. Have you been able to target and/or reach out to potential attendees regionally? Can you describe in as much detail as possible what that's entailed? Are you in contact with comic shop owners in these towns, have you done publicity in places like that?

FENSTERMAN: We have reached out to limited retailers in cities outside of Illinois. We have largely waged a national campaign and a local campaign. Meaning we have ads running on every major pop culture web site (Newsarama, CBR, IGN.com, MTV.com, Ain't It Cool News, etc, etc, etc) and I described our local efforts in a previous question but regionally we have not done as much as we will in subsequent years. We felt that in year one, we needed that national pull and we needed to make sure all of the fans in Chicago knew C2E2 was coming, from that solid base we will extend out further and further. We see C2E2 as a national event rooted in the Midwest.

SPURGEON: A telling element of modern comics shows has been the publishers' collective ability to transform them into a kind of temporary news-event and announcement hub. The more cool titles and creative teams and events that get announced at a con, the more cool that con seems to a certain wide swathe of comics fans, and if there are no such announcements it makes the show seem out of favor, even lame. Are you working with the publishers on hand to give them a media platform, or to encourage their using the con this way? How so?

FENSTERMAN: Yeah, for sure. The first way we are working with them is when the event even takes place. Our customers asked us for a spring event and from there they wanted three major, national events, evenly spaced on the calendar they could use as platforms for announcements and launching new products and campaigns. C2E2 is the first step, with our friends in San Diego right in the middle of the calendar and New York Comic Con at the end of the year in October. This allows a time for these companies to refresh in between, reload, and then make more announcements. While it is premature to put C2E2 in the league of NYCC or certainly San Diego, we really feel this is what our customers asked of us we are confident they show will become.

SPURGEON: Since you're starting this show from the ground up and don't have momentum on the side of your relationships with certain exhibitors, and because Wizard briefly had a reputation as a good retailer's show, I wondered if you could talk a bit about comics retailers coming to sell comics at C2E2. How many retailers do you have? Do you have any prominent ones you care to mention? Have there been any difficulties in getting retailers to sign up? What kind of things are you doing to support that area of the show during a time when I as a fan can go on-line and buy books that way? What will make that experience special for the people that come to buy comics? And do you think people still go to buy comics?

FENSTERMAN: Thus far we are enjoying strong success with the dealers and retailers for C2E2. Graham Crackers and Chicago Comics are some key partners on the show floor, but that's just the beginning (in fact even our pals at Midtown Comics are also participating in the show!) Dealers are price sensitive. They are not at a show to build brand or buzz, they are there to sell. In New York we've been very successful with our retailers and dealers and we've tried to replicate certain things for Chicago as well. For starters, we don't jam our show with media types charging our fans for a picture or an autograph. That creates a lot of competition for dealers for the limited money people are walking into the show with.

We have always believed that we charge a price for admission and then do our best to deliver everything after that free of charge. We don't nickel and dime or fans for everything. Secondly, we limit the number of dealer booths we sell. If the dealer section is too huge or that's all the show is, they have more competition for those dollars. We also work with our dealers and retailers on helping them with some of the union rules that exist in the large markets we operate in.

SPURGEON: Since I'm thinking in those terms, what does C2E2 offer as a national show? Say I have a Firefox window open to the Palmer House reservation site right this second, what will I get out of Chicago that I won't get out of other shows -- or to make it easier, what will I get out of that I won't get out of NYCC?

FENSTERMAN: For starters I think you'll get a whole raft of announcements, news, guests and exclusives you won't get anywhere else and I also think we'll deliver the Chicago vibe to you. From the guest lists, the artists, the parties after the show all will be distinctly Chicago.

SPURGEON: What are your some of your benchmarks for success with this show, Lance? What will make this a successful show? Is there a percentage of attendance capacity you're shooting for? If there's going to be room for improvement in any one area, a learning curve, from what area of the show do you think that will come.

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FENSTERMAN: It's five things really: 1) A busy show with tons of fans, professionals, creators and thus happy exhibitors. 2) Buzz before, during and after the show that raises the profile of our business within the media and promotes our customers. 3) Happy fans. We do extensive surveys after ever show and I want to hear they were thrilled with the event. 4) Happy exhibitors. We do those same surveys for our exhibiting customers as well and I want to hear that the show went well, business was good, they saw new fans and they made a new contact to grow their business. 5) Happy professionals. and creators. We let booksellers, librarians, rights professionals, creators into our shows for a reason -- we believe they are the heart of the industry, but also the future. We want business to be done at our cons not just fan fun. We believe it is our responsibility to help grow the industry.

SPURGEON: How deep is your commitment to a Chicago show -- how many years planned ahead and committed are you, or is this a year to year decision? For that matter, your partnerships like the Diamond Retailer Summit and the concurrent academic conference. Are those ongoing commitments or is there a wait and see element to all such partnerships?

FENSTERMAN: We are committed to Chicago. We have a multi-year deal with McCormick Place because we are committed to the vision our customers had about three massive "tent pole" events in different parts of the country and different times of the year. We think Chicago needs an event like this and our customers want it. While I don't think it's appropriate for me to speak for Diamond, we are committed to creating valuable experiences for the retailer community with Diamond for years to come.

SPURGEON: I'm walking out of the show during its last hour on its last day and you're walking in. We stop to talk. What are we talking about?

FENSTERMAN: What beer I'm going up to my office to open.

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posted 3:00 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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