Is the "Conpocalypse" Nigh?
  • Is the "Conpocalypse" Nigh?


    With Gen Con 2015 over, attendees can kick back their heels and reminisce about their awesome con experience. And it surely was for many people. But there were also con-goers who didn't have nearly as pleasant an experience, and it has to do with the ascension of geek culture and conventions' inability to keep up. At heart, conventions are geared for growth. It's a good thing, and convention companies work actively with hotels, restaurants, and exhibitors to ensure more and more people come to the convention. But what happens when a venue runs out of space?

    Conventions Are Big Business

    Convention growth for Gen Con, San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) and New York Comic Con (NYCC) has reached stratospheric heights. The convention gatekeepers who put on these shows are delighted, as is the tourism industry and the surrounding service groups who help make these shows successful. According to Gen Con’s latest press release, they had their best year ever:

    Gen Con 2015 has set an all-new attendance record with a unique attendance of 61,423 and a turnstile attendance of 197,695, creating a six-year span of record growth. Since 2010, Gen Con has more than doubled in attendance. Year-over-year, Gen Con has experienced 9% attendance growth, primarily driven by 4-Day and Family Fun Day badge sales. Gen Con also has raised more than $38,500 for the convention’s Official 2015 Charity, The Julian Center. Gen Con 2015 also was the first time that the convention held more than 400 exhibiting companies and sold out the retailer-and-educator-focused Trade Day.

    Gen Con isn’t the only convention growing at massive rates, according to ICv2 columnist Rob Salowitz:

    I recently saw some industry research from the online ticketing and events service Eventbrite, Inc. that sized the fandom events market at about $600M domestically in ticket sales alone. If that is accurate, that represents about 80% of the comic publication market all-up (periodical, digital and graphic novel), which ICv2 pegged at about 750M in 2012. The old joke about there being more people going to Cons than buying comics? Funny because it’s true. Those big numbers don’t include the revenues generated at the cons themselves for exhibitors, vendors and D-listers selling signed 8x10s, or the ripple effect that they have on restaurants, hotels, taxis and retailers in the host cities. The organizers of the New York Comic-Con estimate their 2013 show, which drew 130,000 people, had a $70M impact on the city. Even in the Big Apple, that ain’t chopped liver.

    Salowitz returned to the topic again, citing a paper by Eventbrite that reviewed 962 events across the United States. Of that audience, 25% were game-related, 23% anime, 18% sci-fi/fantasy, and 18% comic book. Of the other miscellaneous role-play-type events, cosplay was 1% and LARPs were 0%. More startlingly is the growth of these events, which have been tracking annually at between 20% to 30%, with a current average of 25%. This is big money for event organizers: Salowitz estimates the entire fandom event economy could be worth nearly $3 billion in North America alone. The potential billions from conventions has not gone unnoticed. Washington Senator Steve Hobbs explained in his attempt to lure Gen Con to his state:

    These conventions are an economic windfall to the host city’s restaurants, hotels, and to the city itself. There are even businesses that rely on these conventions for their main source of revenue. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of nerds bring disposable income to these conventions. They want to spend that income on the latest card games, board games, rule books, figures, hotel rooms, and of course food and drink. They drive from all parts of the state and even come from out of state to spend a three day weekend rolling dice, role playing, and forgetting their mundane jobs in some high tech company.

    Of course, the success of these large cons hinges on their exclusivity. And that’s where the "conpocalypse" looms, somewhere between when die-hard fans stop attending the big cons and the smaller cons begin to surge in popularity. Larger cons become hopelessly mired in their chosen cities, lumbering institutions incapable of adapting to change. What's a con to do?


    And that’s where the "conpocalypse" looms, somewhere between when die-hard fans stop attending the big cons and the smaller cons begin to surge in popularity.

    What Will We Do When We Run Out of Space?

    After the housing system collapsed last year under the load of so many attendees trying to book a hotel, Gen Con took steps to revise their system...and that system involved a large amount of randomization. In short, all customers who purchased eligible badges were randomly entered into a queue and then given access to the Housing Portal, one at a time. Gen Con claimed that these changes would:

    ...distribute the high demand on the Housing Portal over approximately one-to-two hours, instead of a minute or two as in previous years. While the new process may take customers slightly longer, a personal countdown timer will tell your exact entry time to the Housing Portal on your "My Housing" page. Access to the portal does not guarantee a downtown hotel room, but is intended to more smoothly distribute rooms throughout the entire housing block to interested parties.

    The wait time was considerably longer than two hours, with wait times extending past two hours and 40 minutes. Marty Walser vented his frustration at Raging Owlbear:

    As it turns out, while Gen Con does get a fair sized housing block, the downtown hotels hold back a lot of their inventory for themselves. The Gen Con block sold out within about the first hour, and yet there was plenty of downtown availability outside of the housing block if you were willing to pay $600 - $800 per night. Yep, hotel rooms that generally go for around $150 to $200 were priced 4 times higher (or more!) than usual during Gen Con if you reserved outside of the block (inside block pricing is about $180 - $250 per night depending upon how nice the hotel is). They know that gamers desperate enough to be near the convention center will pay ridiculous amounts.

    The strain was visible at Gen Con 2015, enough for Milon Griepp of ICv2 to notice:

    While the crowd was generally good-natured and Gen Con and convention center employees did a good job of keeping behavior reasonable, a safer way of handling the opening of the hall would be to have a queuing area. But that would take space that is not available in a maxed out convention center. The ReedPOP pop culture show C2E2 uses interior space in the mammoth McCormack Center in Chicago for its queuing area. San Diego Comic-Con creates temporary queuing areas under tents outside for its 6,000-seat Hall H, at times the most popular spot at the convention, and lines sometimes extend beyond the tents for another half mile along the waterfront (not a bad place to wait). But neither of those options is really available in Indianapolis right now due to a lack of space inside and unpredictable summer weather outside. That’s just one symptom of broader stresses.

    According to Griepp, the convention center is now at maximum capacity, breaking records with over 400 exhibitors and over 15,000 gaming events. It's not just Gen Con. At Comic Con, ad rates, hotel rates, and the cost of food have spiraled upward (in some places, ten times the rate) to take advantage of a captive audience.

    Welcome to the Lottery

    The end result is that despite pleas for larger footprints, more hotels, and more restaurants, cons can’t adjust quickly enough and have instead begun restricting the attendees through a variety of ways. Comic-Con and Gen Con both adopted a randomized lottery in 2015. The lottery approach to hotels was not well-received by Gen Con attendees:

    Some liked this new process, however, randomized access resulted in some individuals getting the reservations that they wanted, while some did not get their preferred choices. Gen Con will continue to explore options on how to improve and modify the Housing Registration process in future years. In any scenario, rising demand for downtown housing is growing faster than the amount of available properties.

    The problem with the randomization is that if you ended up at the tail end of the access, your hotel choices were already limited. Or to put it another way, hotels available at two hours and 40 minutes later were still available days later -- once you were past the two hour mark, the odds of getting a hotel in downtown were minuscule at best. The end result is that a loyal fan wasn't able to get a ticket or even a room no matter how hard they tried:

    Lines may still be first-come-first-serve, but autographs, purchases of SDCC-exclusive collectibles, and even parking and finding a hotel are in some cases done through a lottery system. Attendees put their name in if they want a chance at getting something signed or buying a new item, and they find out later whether they won or lost. It results in disappointments — someone told me they lost six lotteries the other year when trying to get Guillermo del Toro to sign their Pacific Rim poster — but it removes lines and fights and opens attendees up to actually experience the Con.

    ICv2 reported
    that the increasing battle for space has affected exhibitors at Gen Con as well:

    For 2016, Gen Con took the controversial step of eliminating the on-site renewal option for companies with less than 30 “Priority Points,” the equivalent of three years of buying a 10’ x 10’ booth. Instead those companies will go into a different process in the fall, along with new companies that want to exhibit. This was causing considerable concern among newer companies who wanted to be sure they had a continuing presence at the show.

    David Villegas at Gamer Nation Studios was one of those newer companies:

    A single priority point is earned by paying $1200-$1800 for a single 10 foot by 10 foot booth. So, my company has 3. Others I know have less, a few have more. This represents a thinly veiled attempt to allow the largest vendors of the convention to book all the space they need or want, and leaves the indie publishers and small shops out until the cattle call that happens on-line, when hundreds of would be vendors will be seated at their computers furiously refreshing their computer screens to take the scraps that are left at the end or back of the exhibit hall in a mad rush that resembles the housing and event registration mayhem that also happens on-line and leaves hundreds of people screaming bloody murder each year. They get the last spaces if they are lucky enough to get in before the spots are sold out, of course.

    Attendee and exhibitor tolerance may be a sliding scale depending on the age of the con-goer, with older con-goers unwilling to put up with some things that younger fans might tolerate; conversely, older con attendees tend to have more spending power and are willing to pay for premium access that the younger attendees might not be able to afford. The end result of democratization through lottery is that the established customers lose out. Fans may well be wondering if it’s all really worth it.


    The end result of democratization through lottery is that the established customers lose out. Fans may well be wondering if it’s all really worth it.

    Local Con Uprising

    The answer seems to be smaller cons in more locations. Eventbrite’s latest survey indicates that fans prefer smaller, more general cons:

    Given a choice between “fan events with a single focus (comics, games, sci-fi, Star Trek, Doctor Who, etc.)” and “fan events that cover the whole pop culture spectrum,” fans prefer more general pop culture shows by a margin of more than 2-1. 42% of fans surveyed say that shows between 10,000-50,000 are just right. 37% prefer smaller than 10,000, 20% prefer bigger shows.

    Even Comic Con is feeling the pinch:

    Part of the challenge to the cultural hegemony of Comic-Con is the rise of other events. The comic convention scene is booming. I was at Denver Comic Con and Phoenix Comicon earlier this summer, and both cracked 100,000 attendees, which would have been unfathomable just a few years ago.

    So how are the big cons responding to the overcrowding? New York Comic Con convention organizer Reed Pop dealt with its overstuffed attendance of over 133,000 (which strains the limits of the Javits Center) by broadening the scope to include a week-long series of over 100 events called Super Week in 2015. Reed Pop is expanding its reach to comic book conventions in Paris, Australia, and India. They even host a smaller convention during the summer that focuses solely on comic books, Special Edition: New York.

    Gen Con tried this tactic in the 80s, scaling back from Gen Con SoCal (the last was in 2006), Gen Con East (the last in 1982), and Gen Con South (the last was in 1984). But instead of expanding to other cons in other states, Gen Con is doubling down on Indianapolis by expanding in the city -- plans that were briefly derailed over Indiana's controversial RFRA amendment. Gen Con Senior Marketing Manager Jake Theis spoke to ICv2 about Gen Con's space challenges and their plans to address it:

    In terms of potential space to grow, just seeing the amount of renovation that they’ve done to downtown Indianapolis, with Lucas Oil coming online and Georgia Street expansion, it seems that Indianapolis’ ability to find interesting new space in the downtown is something that they’re very terrific at.

    By WTHR's estimate it will take four years before Gen Con will be able to expand convention space into Lucas Oil Stadium and other hotel spaces. Gen Con isn't the only convention dealing with a surge of popularity. Comic-Con has started hosting events outside the Convention Center, including the Central Library, located past Tailgate Park. Like Gen Con, Comic Con is also doubling down on San Diego, but it is not without controversy:

    A new 406,000 square-foot, $520 million expansion to the center was to be contiguous – built next to the existing center on San Diego Bay. Convention officials have paid a pretty penny to private leaseholders of the public property since 2008 to secure that site – known as Fifth Avenue Landing. The project was going to be funded by a hotel tax, but that plan was struck down last year because it was approved only by a group of hoteliers, not the general public. Now another piece of the puzzle, approval from the Coastal Commission, is facing a legal challenge that will likely continue for four to five years. The project is now money-less and still legally troubled.

    For some conventions, attendance is going up but hotel use isn't. One possible reason? Airbnb:

    Although hard evidence of the cause has been difficult to pinpoint, a consensus is forming among industry professionals that it's the sharing economy -- in this case alternative lodging sites such as VRBO, FlipKey, Craig's List and, most significantly, the fast-growing Airbnb -- that are drawing attendees away from more traditional lodging offered by typical hotel room blocks.

    Airbnb was originally created back in 2007 to accommodate conference attendees precisely because local hotels ran out of space. There are risks to using Airbnb of course:

    Seasoned Airbnb guests might understand that they're taking on some risks by booking outside of the block, in a neighborhood that might be removed from host hotels. But if a conference officially partners with the site, other attendees might not be so savvy.

    Be it Airbnb or some other arrangement with local hotels and convention space, the big cons are going to have to come up with new ways to accommodate attendee growth or risk losing them to smaller conventions. Salkowitz thinks attempts to grow in one city is becoming unsustainable, particularly as conventions in general increase in number:

    Indianapolis is scheduled for not less than ten conventions this year, ranging from the recently-completed Indiana Comic-Con to the big tabletop gaming show Gen Con over the summer. This has local media concerned about oversaturation, and they might be right to be concerned. Even the hardest core fans only have so much money and so much shelf space. With the mainstreaming of geek culture, we’ve seen that even small markets can sustain a big show or two per year, but five, six, or ten? That’s starting to feel like a bubble.

    Is it a bubble? With conventions locking themselves in for the long term (Gen Con until 2020, San Diego Comic Con until 2018) it seems these cons are going to find out just how dedicated their fan base really is over the next three years.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 48 Comments
    1. Lanefan -
      I guess I'm in the minority, then, as I'd rather see the various cons decide on their specialty and stick with it. I don't care a whit about anime, or electronic gaming, or cosplay, or LARPs to a large extent; if I go to GenCon I'm going for RPGs, with card and board gaming in there as a nice variety; and for RPG-based entertainment e.g. Killer Breakfast. So maybe I now look to GaryCon, with worries it too will soon outgrow both its mandate and its rather limited digs.

      I'm not a fan of Pathfinder but PaizoCon is exactly the sort of thing I'm thinking of - a con that knows what it wants to specialize in and plays to that strength. If I like Paizo games, I go. If not, I don't. Nice simple choice.

      As for GenCon, its main issue is not the convention centre itself (it's more than big enough) but Indianapolis' abysmal public transportation system which makes non-downtown hotels a non-starter unless you came by car (or rent one; and downtown parking can be hard to find on Con days) or are willing to pay for taxi rides all the time or risk GenCon's rather hopeless - and expensive - shuttle service. A 24-7 light rail service to the airport, which the city needs anyway, would bring all the airport hotels into play and really solve a bunch of problems at once...at least for a while.

      Lan-"but GenCon still needs to decide on its specialty sooner rather than later"-efan
    1. Lhorgrim's Avatar
      Lhorgrim -
      That was a good read.

      I haven't been to GenCon since 2009. Having a family and an unforgiving work schedule have kept me from attending. I thought about going this year (I retired in July), but tbh the housing lottery plan made me decide to skip it. I finally have the time to go to the con, but I didn't want to get stuck in a hotel away from the venue.

      Maybe next year...
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      I guess I'm in the minority, then, as I'd rather see the various cons decide on their specialty and stick with it. I don't care a whit about anime, or electronic gaming, or cosplay, or LARPs to a large extent; if I go to GenCon I'm going for RPGs, with card and board gaming in there as a nice variety; and for RPG-based entertainment e.g. Killer Breakfast. So maybe I now look to GaryCon, with worries it too will soon outgrow both its mandate and its rather limited digs.
      I think you hit the nail on the head. Cons SHOULD specialize, should limit their audience, should focus on one thing. But you can make soooo much more money focusing on being all things geeky to everybody. It's a difficult temptation for a large convention to resist, and the bigger they get, the harder it is to stop.
    1. Weird Dave's Avatar
      Weird Dave -
      I've been going to GenCon since 2001 (I know, I'm a youngster), and for quite awhile that was my only convention for the year that I attended - it was firing on all cylinders and had a strong RPG focus. However, for the past few years, I've been branching out - GaryCon is a fantastic small-ish con (getting bigger though) and though I hate the drive from Minnesota to Fort Wayne, IN, Winter Fantasy had a nice small intimate feel. Gamehole Con is a great one in Madison that's focused on RPGs, and Origins is becoming a more interesting draw than GenCon because of its focus. Next year I'm looking at possibly attending Con of the North here in Minnesota (which I haven't attended in almost 15 years), GaryCon, North Texas RPG Con, Origins, GenCon, Pacificon, PAX Prime, and Gamehole Con - but I can't make them all, and Indianapolis is definitely getting on my nerves as an attendee. I'm sure PAX Prime has its own share of issues too, but at least they'll be NEW issues (well, NEW to me at least).

      Cons are a great part of the hobby that I hope continue for many many years to come, but it's becoming harder and harder to justify the cost - mental, physical, and monetary - of GenCon.
    1. Crothian's Avatar
      Crothian -
      I stopped going to Gen Con three years ago. It was too big, too difficult to get a hotel room, and I realized I was going only to see friends and not to do anything official with Gen Con. I go to Origins every year because it offers me what I want from a convention. It has a large enough base for a wide variety of games and activities but not so large that it is near impossible to get into. This year I booked my room less then a month before the convention and did not need to be on a wait list or anything.
    1. BrockBallingdark -
      I had a discussion with my gaming friends when I got back from Gen Con and asked how it was. I said... kind of a mess. Don't get me wrong, I had fun but I'm only there for RPG gaming. Like a couple others have mentioned, I'm not into the Anime, electronic, card-games or game boards. Chicago has it's own specialized Cons, it's own Anime and two Comic cons but nothing RPG specific.

      I know am eyeing GaryCon and GameHole con for 2016. Not a Pathfinder fan, so I won't be going to Paizo Con ever. The fighting for Events and rooms is finally getting to me. Maybe I'm spoiled and remember how Gen Con was back in Wisconsin, I love that it's become so popular but it's forgotten why it was originally created.

      I just want a place to RPG game and call it my haven every year. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next 5 years with Gen Con.
    1. arjomanes -
      Quote Originally Posted by Weird Dave View Post
      Next year I'm looking at possibly attending Con of the North here in Minnesota (which I haven't attended in almost 15 years), GaryCon, North Texas RPG Con, Origins, GenCon, Pacificon, PAX Prime, and Gamehole Con
      I've lived in Minneapolis for over 10 years and I haven't been to Con of the North yet either. I plan on GaryCon this year too, and maybe it's finally time to give Con of the North a shot.
    1. Hand of Evil's Avatar
      Hand of Evil -
      My comment from Facebook -- You trademark "conpocalyse"? You should, it has sci-fi movie all over it.

      Sooner or later you have to put a cap on the number of attendees, this may be to meet safety requirements. Gen Con just has had amazing growth but somewhere down the line that may start to level out.

      People say move but just draw a 500 mile circle around Gen Con to see where it is pulling people from, you would have to find a location that will be able to support that draw and Indy is growing with Gen Con to meet demand.
    1. pickin_grinnin's Avatar
      pickin_grinnin -
      These days I only go to conventions that are focused on one hobby, or one aspect of a hobby. Even then, some of them are getting too big to be fun anymore.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hand of Evil View Post
      My comment from Facebook -- You trademark "conpocalyse"? You should, it has sci-fi movie all over it.

      Sooner or later you have to put a cap on the number of attendees, this may be to meet safety requirements. Gen Con just has had amazing growth but somewhere down the line that may start to level out.

      People say move but just draw a 500 mile circle around Gen Con to see where it is pulling people from, you would have to find a location that will be able to support that draw and Indy is growing with Gen Con to meet demand.
      The magic number seems to be 50K. Once you exceed that, which Gen Con just did in 2015, people start to get annoyed.

      P.S. "Conpocalypse" will be a Syfy movie soon, I'm sure.
    1. UnsounderGnome's Avatar
      UnsounderGnome -
      I didn't really feel like convention space was much of an issue this year at Gen Con, despite the record attendance again. The only time I felt it got too crowded was Saturday right after the costume parade. I think the bigger issue is downtown hotel space. I live in Indy so I don't have to deal with it, but apparently it's a nightmare to get a room nearby. I have been hearing about plans for a hotel being built over Crowne Plaza or at the corner of Illinois and Market St for years. Nothing to show for it yet, but even 1 new downtown hotel would go a long way.
    1. RangerWickett's Avatar
      RangerWickett -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      As for GenCon, its main issue is not the convention centre itself (it's more than big enough) but Indianapolis' abysmal public transportation system which makes non-downtown hotels a non-starter unless you came by car (or rent one; and downtown parking can be hard to find on Con days) or are willing to pay for taxi rides all the time or risk GenCon's rather hopeless - and expensive - shuttle service. A 24-7 light rail service to the airport, which the city needs anyway, would bring all the airport hotels into play and really solve a bunch of problems at once...at least for a while.
      I would love if Indy put in Light Rail. Like, start today, and maybe it'll be done by 2019.

      In the meanwhile, is there any way GenCon can get the downtown hotels to put more of their rooms into the housing block? I mean, I'm sure they'll get bought up too; it just seems dickish how much they charge.

      I'll definitely look into AirBnB the next time I go.
    1. Vampyr3's Avatar
      Vampyr3 -
      I've said before, and I'll say it again... it's time that Gen Con starts putting a "cap" on badges sold...
    1. scottcoz's Avatar
      scottcoz -
      Quote Originally Posted by Vampyr3 View Post
      I've said before, and I'll say it again... it's time that Gen Con starts putting a "cap" on badges sold...
      I'd be in favor of this, too. I have found Gencon frustrating in recent years - the amount of time spent in lines, or having to move very slowly (through the exhibit hall, for example) because of the sheer amount of bodies in your way, ends up wasting a ton of your time.
    1. Crothian's Avatar
      Crothian -
      Quote Originally Posted by Vampyr3 View Post
      I've said before, and I'll say it again... it's time that Gen Con starts putting a "cap" on badges sold...
      I don't know how much that will help. I know plenty of people that go but never buy a badge.
    1. pickin_grinnin's Avatar
      pickin_grinnin -
      Quote Originally Posted by Crothian View Post
      I don't know how much that will help. I know plenty of people that go but never buy a badge.
      Maybe you shouldn't be allowed into any of the areas without a badge, then.
    1. pickin_grinnin's Avatar
      pickin_grinnin -
      One of the problems I have noticed at some of the general conventions I have been to in the last several years is congestion problems caused by cosplayers. I'm not running down cosplayers at all (I like seeing their costumes), but when the dealers room and other areas are already congested, it gets MUCH worse when people are stopping to admire and photograph the cosplayers. I have seen aisles get completely blocked for 15 minutes or more because so many people are gathering around a cosplayer with a particularly nice costume to get photographs.

      I can't think of any solution to that, but one benefit to sticking to more focused conventions is that (generally) there are fewer people with really elaborate costumes, hence fewer traffic tangles (in my experience, at least).
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by pickin_grinnin View Post
      Maybe you shouldn't be allowed into any of the areas without a badge, then.
      The issue is hotel space. They don't care about the official areas. You can spend the week in hotels, bars, and restaurants and meet everyone you want to, get in loads of gaming, and have a wonderful time in a city temporarily crammed with gamers.
    1. pickin_grinnin's Avatar
      pickin_grinnin -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      The issue is hotel space. They don't care about the official areas. You can spend the week in hotels, bars, and restaurants and meet everyone you want to, get in loads of gaming, and have a wonderful time in a city temporarily crammed with gamers.
      Ah, that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
      The magic number seems to be 50K. Once you exceed that, which Gen Con just did in 2015, people start to get annoyed.
      Actually GenCon blew away 50K a few years ago. It's been over 60K last year and this year. (actual people badged for at least one day; they sold well over 150K worth of badge-days this year)
      Quote Originally Posted by Vamypr3 View Post
      I've said before, and I'll say it again... it's time that Gen Con starts putting a "cap" on badges sold...
      No. Just...no.

      I'd rather not have my vacation plans decided by a screen-refresh race in late January. (or a lottery, if they go to that sort of system)

      Lan-"loser of screen-refresh races since the dawn of history"-efan
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