Lessons Learned from Silicon Valley and Emerald City Comic Cons
When caught up in the fervor of a comic con, be it looking at the latest art, brushing elbows with celebrities or ogling cosplayers, it is easy to forget that these fan fests are real businesses.
This year I have spent time looking at audacious start-up Silicon Valley Comic Con (SVCC), and the well-established Emerald City Comicon (ECCC). As expectations increase for efficient, well-produced events that fill major convention centers with tens of thousands of people, so too does the demand of technology to turn dreams into reality.
The uniqueness of these businesses and their history can offer insight into processes that pop up elsewhere in the business world. Here are a few observations and lessons learned that can benefit almost any company bringing together large groups of people with the intent of creating an experience.
Tickets need to go mobile
The last time I visited Disneyland, I didn’t have a ticket when I arrived. I parked my car, stepped onto a bus and downloaded the Disneyland app onto my iPhone. I bought the ticket and received a code. When I arrived at the gate, the attendant transformed my code into a paper ticket (without a paper ticket, at least at Disneyland, no Fast Passes). He also took my picture. I’m sure in a few years I might not even need the paper ticket. My phone, with its near-field-communications (NFC) capabilities, could probably handle everything.
But here’s the issue: Counterfeiting. With just badges, there are problems with reuse (scalping was rampant in Seattle) and reproduction. And that means doing something about in-and-out, or capturing the state of the ticket. If the person has already scanned in, then they can’t scan in until they scan out. Disney handles this with hand stamps and photos. Scan the ticket again, and show a hand stamp visible under black light, or UV-A.
SVCC employed RFID. If you weren’t wearing the band, then you could not get into the show floor or into the main stage. No badges outside of press and VIPs. The band was the pass for everyone else. That cut down on fraud, but it created some momentary logistics issues (see Boundaries require the right definition below) with traffic flow.
ECCC, run by New York’s ReedPOP, didn’t utilize any security beyond visual badge checks. For New York Comic Con, the entire Javit’s Center is locked down via RFID, which they reported worked great, except for smokers who need to tap out to light up.
Comic-Con International in San Diego employs bar code readers at the main doors. Once in, it’s just a visual badge check as a second level of access control.
With all the mobile technology, the phone would seem the ideal technology, but it may well be that is over engineering the problem. An $800 phone should be an expectation for a Con attendee when an RFID deployed wisely could do a better job for just a few cents.
Apps can make the experience
Both Cons shipped apps ahead of their 2016 shows. ECCC’s included some purchasing functions for on-site experiences, like photos and autographs. Unlike admissions, discussed above, apps used during the event can be a key point of access for one-time events like signings and autographs. They are also critical for orientation, personal scheduling and engagement through social media. Slack is still given for apps that aren’t great, but expectations will increase year-over-year, so apps need to reflect the entirety of the experience and operate seamlessly with whatever web services are deployed. ECCC’s scheduling service, for instance, wasn’t integrated in time with the app, making those attending the show choose between the web or the app for creating personal schedules.
In the future, the app is the key to reducing the most draining and negative part of a Con experience: waiting in line. If forced to wait in line, attendees can do something, like order a show exclusive to be picked up later, or connect via social media. Even better, single event ticketing will minimize line time so that attendees can be doing what they should be doing, namely, buying stuff and having fun. The app would notify them that it’s time for the event, which they can enter without too much queue time, except perhaps the moment required to scan a digital QR code for admission to the panel or other event.
Boundaries require the right definition
SVCC deployed RFID wristbands to control traffic flow and capture data about the state of the show floor that was used, for instance, by the fire marshal to ensure adherence to code. Unfortunately, the boundary points were too narrow. SVCC controlled access to the floor and the main room, but that meant that if you wanted a snack or to attend a panel in a room on the lower floor, you had to leave the controlled area, which generated a few frowns.
SVCC was a compact show, but the RFID stations made it more compact than it needed to be. When lining up for the main room panel, it became very difficult to navigate the main path to the floor. It was especially time consuming to leave a big panel and migrate to the floor if another big draw was lined up awaiting entrance. People form walls, and unless you account for those walls in planning for movement, you will miss traffic flow issues that aren’t obvious on just a floor plan. There was a lot of unused space downstairs that could have been used for queueing lines that would be escorted up when the doors opened, keeping the entrance and existing traffic better separated.
This same phenomenon happens in San Diego, as the intrepid seekers of time in Hall H form lines that twist the seemingly straight path to the adjacent Hilton into a meandering adventure through grassy berms, blocked roads and concrete curbs.
Sometimes people are the best reasoners of data
Everybody is looking for an algorithm. At ECCC, the best scheduling approach wasn’t a what, it was a who: two people within the ReedPOP organization who managed event and celebrity schedules. Their process: turn notes into spreadsheets. Keen eyes looked at booking times to avoid conflict. Could a scheduling algorithm be written to that would take all of the variables into account and spit out a schedule for the show? I’m betting it could. But when it comes to the show and the dynamics of events like this, having people with deep knowledge of how they got to the schedule, the trade-offs and the negotiations, may well prove useful when a room switch is demanded, or a celebrity is offered a chance to fill in when another celebrity cancels. And could a sophisticated algorithm be deployed for the cost of two staff members? That’s doubtful.
System integration is everybody’s problem
As companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce and others sell nearly turn-key systems that provide transformative capabilities for those who can deploy them in a clean, start-up environment, many organizations remain a hodgepodge of older investments in services and PC software, along with people and practices that glue together these disparate systems. The Cons are no different. But unlike a general services business or retail, when SVCC launched, there was no turnkey system to run all aspects of the convention. Running these events isn’t a big market for software developers, so no Con ERP exists. What do exist are a number of non-specialized solutions that must either live separately or integrate with some things, and not with others, and not always through the most modern means. There are, for instance, celebrity photo service providers who offer proprietary, purpose-built transaction systems, but those operations are run like standalone businesses within the Con, offering little visibility into traffic or revenue in realtime.
The lack of integration doesn’t necessarily lead to a lack of innovation
The lack of integration doesn’t mean a lack of innovation. ECCC deployed beacons that provided proximity alerts to shuffling show goers, along with a tracking feature in the app that fed into a heat map of movement in and around the Washington State Convention Center. Realtime data helps them understand current reach from a safety and traffic flow position. Longer term, this data will help facilitate conversations about merchandising and advertising opportunities.
Up, up and away
Technology is going to continue to change how comic cons work, from the buying of tickets, to hotel room distribution to signing up for a celebrity moment to buying a coveted show-only exclusive toy or image. But it’s probably going to take time to gel, if it ever does. As much as we think that the 21st Century has probably already created all of the basic business software we will ever need, we are reminded that many businesses, especially the kind that strategists admire—one-off, unique, strategically differentiated opportunities for engagement and value—often don’t gain a big enough market to drive the development of software to meet their distinctive needs. They end up making do with software that can be repurposed from elsewhere for some similar vertical functions, and making do elsewhere until they can fund creating the software that would really transform their business. Until then, in many ways, comic cons, while big business, will remain a bit quaint and antiquated—but that, after all, is also part of their charm.
For a deeper exploration of each of these comic cons, you can read Dan’s posts at GeekWire: