Monday, July 6, 2015

Comic-Con Tips

With the San Diego Comic-Con nearly upon us, now is the time of year when bloggers and others offer sage advice for attending the show. I’ve resisted doing so over the years because most of them are already pretty comprehensive, if not simple, good common sense—i.e., wear comfortable shoes; bring at least snacks and water with you to avoid the long lines, high prices, and poor quality of convention center food; leave extra space in your backpack/shoulder bag for purchases; plan your schedule ahead of time; and that old standby, wear deodorant as a courtesy to others (hygiene used to be a serious issue back in the day among fanboys). In addition, as an exhibitor and attending professional, my circumstances were usually a bit different—a booth gives me the luxury of a base of operations during the show.

Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to write some of my thoughts down, partly to see how things have changed over the years...

Driving down: When I was growing up, my parents always liked to get an early start on our vacation road trips, usually leaving the house just before dawn. Though I have fond memories of this, it’s not a tradition I’ve been able to pass on to my own family, none of whom are early risers. So my drive down every year to Comic-Con to set up my booth—with my wife and two kids following later in the day to join me—is one of the rare times I can hit the road in the early morning. I usually arrive in San Diego just as the convention center is opening up for exhibitors and, after years of doing this, I know exactly where to park so that I am directly below my booth on the convention floor and close to the elevators and stairs that take me upstairs. (My brother has also gotten into the habit of flying down early from where he lives from Northern California to join me and help me set up.) By late morning, my booth is usually set up, leaving my brother and I free to watch the convention center take shape, grab breakfast and check in to our hotel prior to that evening’s preview night. Two observations: one, It’s surprising how much still needs to be done in the convention center before the show begins that evening; and, two, although I’m pretty much going full speed on the way down, it’s surprising how busy the freeway is early in the morning! But the early bird definitely gets the worm.

Getting around the convention floor: In the old days, I used to methodically walk up and down each aisle and see every booth. Even with the show running four days (plus a preview night), I’m not sure that’s tenable nowadays given the size of the floor, let alone if one spends a lot of time attending panels. Indeed, its the crowds on the floor that usually dictate what aisles I’ll go down since some can get extremely bottlenecked. Fortunately, the convention floor is generally organized with like-minded booths and exhibitors grouped together: publishers, back issue comics dealers, original art dealers, Artist’s Alley, gaming, book publishers, entertainment companies and studios, and, of course, my own area, the Small Press. This makes it a bit easier to explore the floor, especially if you have specific interests, and avoid those areas you’re not interested in.

If you must get from one end of the convention center to the other, it’s often easiest to simply go out into the front lobby, walk down the length of the convention center, and pop back in where you need to be; or even to use a route using the upper flow levels. There will still be crowds, but not the kind of bottlenecks you’ll find on the main floor, even with the wider main aisles that are supposed to allow for better egress.

One of the perks of being an exhibitor is that I get to explore the floor prior to the doors opening to the public each morning without the crowds, which gives me a chance to scope out the booths and merchandise.

24-Hour Shuttle: The complimentary 24-hour shuttle and its various routes throughout the area are one of the great services at Comic-Con, which give attendees some flexibility in choosing where to stay and the opportunity to enjoy the 24-hour programming. It might be a bit of a hassle to be up at Hotel Circle or further out, but it’s certainly cheaper and the shuttles makes it feasible. But if you need to make a panel at a specific time, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time—at least an hour-and-a-half if not more—to get to the room. The wait for the bus, the many stops and especially the traffic can throw your schedule way off. Comic-Con actually does a good job deploying more buses during times of high demand, but you still need to take travel time into account when planning your schedule.

Attending Panels: I really have no words of advice here especially since, as an exhibitor, I actually spend most of my time stuck at my booth trying to make sales. Back in the day, I could stroll into any panel at leisure. You can still do that on some panels, but for the most part, expect to wait on a line to get in. And, of course, if you’re trying to get into the dreaded Hall H or one of the other larger, popular panels, expect to pretty much spend all day waiting in line or in the room.

One tip I have given people who tell me they wish they could attend certain panels about their favorite comics or television shows: many of the panels make their way online pretty much in their entirety (officially) not too long after the show (if not sooner). The only items usually not included in the videos are any clips/previews played, for copyright reasons. I often half-joke that I have to look at the feeds like everyone else to know what announcements or surprises have happened at Comic-Con. But in this era of social media and 24/7 news cycles, there's no need to feel left out whether or not you're at the show.

Food: As I’ve gotten older, food has become more important to me during Comic-Con. Being at the convention for long hours, a good meal is one of the few times to relax with friends and enjoy a respite, so fast food doesn’t cut it for me! The convention center is notorious for its overpriced, mediocre food selection. Hot dogs, pizza and stale, pre-packaged deli sandwiches are the main choices. There is a rather hidden restaurant at the convention center that is surprisingly not too crowded so you can find a seat, but again the food selection isn’t anything to write home about. There used to be a few small food vendors (I recall one place where you could find some pretty good gyros), but those disappeared years ago. Though the walk is a hassle, your best bet during convention hours is going to the Gaslamp District or one of the adjacent hotels for slightly better and a more diverse selection of food. Comic-Con also occasionally offers food trucks, but that varies from year to hear. There’s a Ralphs grocery market across the street that’s also convenient.

I especially like a relaxing sit-down dinner afterwards. Although the main drag of the Gaslamp—5th Street—is packed at dinnertime, going one block over in either direction you can actually find places that can seat you right away. These are generally nice, sit-down restaurants that are mid- to high-priced. I actually have compiled a list of places I regularly visit while at Comic-Con. This includes Little Italy–it’s a little too far to walk (but doable for those who don’t mind) and, again, it’s a bit more relaxing than just being outside the convention center.

I also always have a pretty solid breakfast in the morning because you really need the energy to keep you going through the day.

Money: Bringing plenty of cash used to be always important, especially since the lines at the ATMs at the convention center could get really long (assuming they didn’t run out of cash).. But the advent of pay services like Square and PayPal—which allows even the smallest vendor (like myself) with a mobile device to accept credit and debit card payments—has been a great boon that has lessened the need to have a lot of cash on hand. But it’s still probably wise to have some pocket money to be safe. Bank ATMs are easily available across the street from the convention center.

Mobile Devices/Battery Charger: I remember the old days when Comic-Con had a message board to allow attendees to leave messages for friends! It’s way overdue, but this year I finally invested in an external battery charger for my iPhone. I’ve had to limit my social media participation during the show because by the end of the long day—with no close access to a wall plug—my device ran dangerously low on juice. The heavy-duty charger I purchased should now solve the problem!

Camera: After years of putting it off, I finally purchased a higher-quality digital camera with a powerful zoom lens. The main reason was because I realized I needed something a bit better for my kids’ Little League games and graduation events, but of course the potential to take better pictures at Comic-Con (and vacations) is a plus. And I went ahead and got extra battery packs too!

Life Outside the Convention Center: Though I wouldn’t do it myself, one can conceivably enjoy some of the Comic-Con experience without even having a badge! There are a lot of “off-site” events for both badge holders and Comic-Con “crashers”—indeed, the whole of downtown San Diego and the Gaslamp District feels like one extended Comic-Con party at all times of the day and night, including the now-traditional Zombie Walk down the Gaslamp, the NerdHQ event, co-founded by Zachary Levi (Chuck), which features alternative programming and high-profile guests while also raising money for Operation Smile (sited this year at the New Children’s Museum across the street.

Back in the day, I recall there would be after-hours parties that were a must. These days, especially with the entertainment industry dominating so much of the show, parties have become more fragmented and exclusive, at locations like the Hard Rock Hotel. Nevertheless, cartoonist and comic-book professionals still have their favorite after-hour watering holes to hang out, talk shop, and network.

As for myself, with a family in tow, and exhausted after a full day on the floor, I tend to get a late dinner with friends as soon as the main floor closes, which is when I primarily get to see some of the craziness of the Gaslamp, and then go back to the hotel to catch up with the family and hit the hay.

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