Phoenix Comicon 2017 will be bigger than ever in downtown Phoenix.
It’s been quite an up-and-down year for Phoenix Comicon.
The pop culture convention hit record attendance last year with 216,219 total visitors over four days. But with that came long lines on the Friday of the event, with many in elaborate costumes waiting for hours in the summer heat to pick up or purchase membership badges.
The convention’s parent company, Square Egg Entertainment, faced backlash back in December 2016, when it decided to staff all volunteers through the Blue Ribbon Army, a pop culture-oriented social club, which requires all members to pay annual dues. This led to a lot of back and forth with the community and past volunteers, eventually leading to the implementation of a paid staff model.
The popular pop culture convention continues to grow each year, and returns May 25 through 28 to the Phoenix Convention Center. Organizers are expecting a 10 percent increase in attendance, and are preparing by making a number of changes to improve the experience.
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Last year’s line fiasco was a result mostly of two major issues, according to Phoenix Comicon marketing director Kristin Rowan.
“It really was the perfect storm,” she said. “The Wi-Fi was not capable of handling the volume because we had an increased attendance of 30,000 from the year before. It was more people going through the line and we didn’t have Wi-Fi dedicated to registration.”
This year, organizers have implemented some preventative tactics.
“We started mailing out badges for anyone who purchased a badge in February to mid-April,” said convention director Matt Solberg. “Thousands will get their lanyards in the mail and not have to go to registration, which ideally will put less of a strain on site.”
Registration at the convention will be laid out differently, and sign-up and programming tables will be moved out of the area for better flow, Rowan said. Also, there will be dedicated Wi-Fi at registration.
“The biggest change overall is switching to a whole new ticketing system,” said Jen Palmer, director of operations. “Now we can scan completely from a smart phone or piece of paper to make the process simplified and much quicker on site. We had the opportunity to test it at a previous show and it works very smoothly.”
To make the process go more quickly, convention-goers should either print out their barcodes or have them pulled up on their smart phones. There will be a specific line to purchase memberships, which can also be bought on smartphones while waiting in line.
And no one will have to wait outside. This year there will be a “pre-function” area inside for any overflow before going into the registration room.
“The likelihood of it happening a second time is low, and we put steps in place and fixed as many of those problems as we can control,” Palmer said.
The growing convention also needed to better organize its staffing process, which was becoming unruly, and also make a change to comply with labor laws. But the decision to change the staffing model created a social media uproar in December, with many concerned about being required to pay dues to volunteer, and others skeptical of Solberg’s ties to the Blue Ribbon Army. Solberg resigned as equity and board member of the social group, and invited the passionate pop culture community to voice their opinions on the issue.
They were presented with two options: an all-paid staff or the volunteer partnership with the Blue Ribbon Army. Past volunteers were invited to vote for their choice, and the Phoenix Comicon’s eight directors deliberated, choosing to go with the paid staff model in the end. The company has been working with a staffing agency to fill positions.
“The firestorm was not fun, but I think we have a stronger show and a better team because of it,” Solberg said. “Everyone knows that this year we are really going to step up our efforts.”
This created about 350 staff positions, eliminating about 1,000 volunteer positions. Solberg said 95 percent of the employees hired have been involved with the convention in the past, and they are now filling positions to work at the convention.
So how will the event look with a dramatic decrease in staff?
“The goal is that it’s seamless, and there is no impact to attendee experience,” Solberg said. “But there will be some areas where the experience is impacted from the previous year. The celebrity booth will have less overall people involved in that area…We won’t have as many information desks. We looked at which ones were used and which ones weren’t, so it will be a minimal impact to attendees. We’ve offset it with a much more mobile-friendly website.”
New this year
The Phoenix Comicon website has been redesigned, with the schedule more prominently displayed. There’s a “Browse Panelists” function that allows users to look up the schedules of Comicon guests. Besides the search bar, users can also find events based on the venue locations, genre and other tags such as “18+” and “Youth.”
There is also a new Phoenix Comicon app where users can access programming and maps, get updates about changes, build their own schedules, buy memberships and see the list of celebrity appearances.
Phoenix Comicon has also expanded this year, with more space added on the third floor. This has created two full exhibitor halls of vendors and creators. A large, covered tent will be added to the outdoor programming, serving food and drink, offering more options besides the convention food stalls inside.
This year, some panels will feature reserved seating. One of the major celebrity guest announcements this year is iconic actor Dick Van Dyke, and record attendance is expected to see him, so all panel seats will need to be reserved.
Front of house reserved seating and some of the photo ops with Van Dyke are already sold out, but people can still purchase general reserved seating, autograph sessions and the 3:30 p.m. photo op on Saturday.
There have also been several cancellations from guests, including Joan Cusack, Charlie Cox, Arthur Darvill, Ming-Na Wen and Jenna Coleman. For those who purchased photo ops or autographs with any of those stars, they can request a full refund or swap them for another celebrity.
Couple shares their tips for bringing kids to Phoenix Comicon while keeping their parents sane. Louie Villalobos/The Republic
Phoenix Comicon details
Thursday, May 25: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. registration, 4-9 p.m. exhibitor hall, 10:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. programming.
Friday, May 26: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. registration, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. exhibitor hall, 10:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. programming.
Saturday, May 27: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. registration, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. exhibitor hall, 10:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. programming.
Sunday, May 28: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. registration, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. exhibitor hall, 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. programming.
Location: Phoenix Convention Center, 100 N. Third St.
Admission: $75 for full event membership, $299 for fast pass membership, $20 for Thursday only, $30 for Friday only, $45 for Saturday only, $30 for Sunday only. $10 for children ages 3 to 12. Free for children ages 2 and younger. Prices will go up at midnight on May 24.
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