Hoteliers share their experiences and advice for hosting attendees of increasingly popular comic book, anime and pop-culture conventions.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Comic book conventions mean big business for hotels. People travel from all over the country and even internationally to attend these conventions dressed as their favorite characters from comic books, movies, TV and video games.
San Diego Comic-Con, which begins 20 July, creates enormous compression, said Dania Duke, GM of the Hilton San Diego Gaslamp Quarter, located across the street from the city’s convention center. Her previous property in San Diego’s La Jolla neighborhood would sometimes have triple-digit bookings for comic-con rooms, she said.
Because of its proximity to the convention center, the hotel experiences a buyout during comic-con.
“They essentially sell out all of the hotels downtown with fans attending comic-con because they take up such large blocks at every hotel,” she said. “It’s 90% to complete buyouts of properties. It compresses everybody out east and north as far as even the Carlsbad hotels.”
The price point goes “way up,” Duke said, and booking hotel rooms becomes difficult. Most business travelers who frequent San Diego know to avoid the city during the convention or at least stay outside the downtown area, she said.
The Hilton San Diego Gaslamp Quarter is always preparing for San Diego Comic-Con, said Patrick McTigue, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. In fact, the property is working on contracting rooms out for Comic-Con through 2021. It’s an important convention for the market, he said, so the hotel is always looking at future years.
For the 2017 convention, McTigue said the hotel started preparing in December and January.
“We start with things like getting movie studios doing site selection, which are open public spaces they can post their activation,” he said. “They’re doing things for television, movies or video games, all around pop culture.”
During site selection, McTigue said employees show off the hotel as a blank canvas to allow the studios and game designers to transform the space. In the past, the hotel has hosted virtual reality experiences and had TV studios create spaces to allow fans to step into episodes of their favorite programs.
“They’re really working with their creative teams and fabricators to transform the look of our hotel into a movie set,” he said.
Once they are past that stage, the hotel’s employees spend the next several months working out the logistics and coordination, McTigue said.
The hotel’s site is unique, Duke said, with a five-acre park east of the property where a lot of activation takes place. The property is also able to host private activation controlled by a security entrance in the hotel’s second level.
“We’re able to create a whole other indoor/outdoor venue for them,” she said. “It’s pretty attractive when you’re here to be able to experience that.”
The Even Hotel New York Times Square South works with its New York housing partners to contract rooms and negotiate group rates for its annual New York Comic Con, said InterContinental Hotels Group Area GM Dieter Schmitz. The contracts are typically signed one year ahead of each show, he said.
Once the hotel staff negotiates the terms and signs the contract, he said, they block the rooms and the housing partners sell the rooms to attendees on their websites.
“Three weeks prior to arrival, we receive the list of attendees that we enter in our property management system,” Schmitz said.
Each guest is responsible for payment, he said, and the cancellation terms are pretty flexible. The hotel offers complimentary rooms based on the number of rooms booked, such as one comped room for every 40 books and one discounted room for staff.
“It's important to negotiate market-appropriate rates and to pay attention to the contract details,” Schmitz said. “Once the housing partners start selling, the block is closely monitored to ensure maximum pickup.”
The guest experience
Comic-con is about engaging and letting attendees jump into pop-culture experiences they watch through different forms of media throughout the year, Duke said. It has kind of a cult following, she said, and everyone knows what’s going on in San Diego. Locals come down to the hotels and bars, even if they don’t have a ticket for the convention, just to see what’s happening.
The attendees save up all year long to attend the convention, McTigue said, and they put a lot of thought into their appearance and costumes.
“They’re not just coming down to come and see,” he said. “They’re coming down to engage and be part of it.”
The leadership team at the Hilton Gaslamp lets the staff know what to expect during the convention, he said, and they find out what the hot buttons are and what attendees are likely excited about.
“We encourage (staff) to wear their favorite superhero shirt,” McTigue said. “We want fans to have that unique experience to know our team is here to complement that experience. We make sure they have that tremendous experience they’re looking to have by being authentic and celebrating our own pop-culture heroes throughout the week.”
The biggest way to be successful is to know the mindset of guests and what they are accustomed to, said Clint Militzer, GM of the AC Hotel Atlanta Downtown, which hosts attendees from various comic book conventions, such as Dragon Con.
“Really try to focus on that: What the guest is going to really need,” he said. “What are some things they’re looking to do?”
It’s normal to have multiple guests staying in each room during the conventions, Militzer said. To prepare, the staff stocks the rooms with multiple towels ahead of time so the guests don’t need to ask. They also stock extra water bottles, he said.
“We expect there’s going to be a lot of makeup that people use, so we stock the rooms with makeup wipes to make it easier so they don’t use my towels,” he said.
Schmitz said his hotel offers an oats soap that is suitable for guests with sensitive skin they can use to wash away their makeup at the end of the day.
For a visual component that guests can interact with, Militzer said his hotel plans to put up a photo area in the lobby with a backdrop matching the theme of the different conventions this year.
The AC Hotel Atlanta Downtown has a boutique feel to it, he added, and its bar doesn’t have any beer on tap, but it does offer wine and different craft cocktails.
“We will have fun, themed cocktails and try to promote the space so guests can enjoy it,” he said.
When it comes to comic book conventions, the staff loves hosting the attendees because they’re the most down-to-earth and fun people, Militzer said. The staff and other guests have fun seeing everyone in their cosplay, he said.
“They take a lot of pride in how they look, so we take pride in how we present ourselves as well,” he said.
During these conventions, the staff wears pins provided by the convention organizers which display dragons or anime, Militzer said. The staff doesn’t go so far as to wear superhero costumes, he said, but they try to have some fun.
Dragon Con is usually in September, Militzer said, which puts it near the first big football game of the year. There’s always an overlap of convention attendees and sports fans, he said, but they seem to mesh together well.
During some of the smaller conventions, there’s a big mix of convention attendees, families on vacation and business travelers, he said, so having an interactive photo area is important.
“Our regular guests love seeing that,” he said.
The Even Hotel New York Times Square South has happy hour every day at its restaurant, Schmitz said, so the bar tends to get busier than usual during the convention.
“It’s a great place for attendees to mingle and meet other comic con-attending guests,” he said.