So I returned to Houston for Memorial Day weekend, May 24-26, and my third year at Comicpalooza.
Once again, the convention was the weekend right before A-kon, which I was also attending, so back-to-back shows for me. This year, pre-show issues for A-kon were really, really stressful and frustrating, and I wasn’t able to give much thought to Comicpalooza as far as preparations went. But it was the smaller and much less hectic of the two cons, and I expected Comicpalooza to go more or less the way it’d gone the previous years; though this year, my brother wouldn’t be around to help me, as he’s staying in college for summer classes. :o
This report is 4,065 words long.
Comicpalooza saw a pretty big jump in attendance between 2011 and 2012, from 6,200 people to 10,600 people. (Wikipedia claims 2011’s attendance was also 10,000ish…but Comicpalooza gave me that 6,200 figure directly?) The projected attendance for 2013 was an ambitious 20,000 people, and with that goal in mind, the space the convention occupied at the George R. Brown Convention Center grew significantly.
In 2011, as far as I could tell, the con took up most, if not all, of the third floor. In 2012, the con was inexplicably confined to just three halls on the first floor. This year, the convention occupied both those spaces — all of the third floor and three halls on the first floor, leaving the remaining two halls on the first floor for Galacticon, a Battlestar Galactica convention sharing hours and partial admission with Comicpalooza. And even though Galacticon was technically a separate thing, this meant the entire convention center was occupied by geeks.
With the increase in space came some understandable shuffling around of events and stations, including moving registration to the second floor. There was also this note: all vendors and exhibitors, including artists, are now required to load in through the loading docks. Check-in for vendors would be at the docks as well, so no one would be able to check in at the street entrance on the opposite side of the building, and no one would be allowed through that side of the building without a badge. This is honestly fine and makes a lot of sense, but the non-docks side of the building was the side I’d always entered from. I’d park at the nearby lot and drag all my stuff from the parking lot to the convention center and check in from that side. It wasn’t ideal, but I’m generally wary of loading docks because 1) they’re usually crowded, and 2) mostly dealers use them to unload truckloads of merchandise, and it’s just weird rolling through with my suitcases and bags when everyone else has forklifts?
So I fretted a lot Thursday about how I was going to handle load-in. The last two years, I set up Friday morning, but this year, I was worried that load-in would be doubly hectic then with everyone at the docks, so maybe I should set up Thursday?
Most of the time, I can carry all of my stuff in one trip from the car by myself — it’s hard, but most of the time, I make sure that I can just because I have to. I’d known for a while that my brother wasn’t going to be able to help me this year, but I had all my leftovers from the ECCC x Ltd. Art show shipped straight from the gallery to Houston because it was convenient (and the gallery was paying shipping <_<), and that was an extra armload of stuff I don’t usually have. Loading in would be an ordeal because I’d have to make two trips, but I didn’t have anyone to watch either the car in between. People parking in the loading area get towed and stuff, right? Stress!
Yume, who was setting up Thursday evening, told me that the docks weren’t very crowded and that she and her helpers would be happy to help me watch my stuff, but by then it was rush hour, and I also didn’t want to drive downtown then, even if most of the traffic would probably be going in the opposite direction. In the end, a non-decision was a decision too, and I didn’t set up Thursday after all. Sigh!
Setup hours for vendors started at 8am Friday, but I was up at 5am for some combination of “I can’t sleep,” “I need time to get coffee,” and “I gotta beat traffic downtown.”
Coffee was had. My mom loaded me up with food for the day. Traffic wasn’t that bad, and downtown was pretty empty when I got there. I hate driving in downtown Houston though. You miss one turn and you’re stuck driving in circles for ten minutes because all the streets are one-way, but they don’t really form a grid, so you’ll think you’re going down a street that’s parallel to the one you missed, but it isn’t actually parallel, and then you end up in a completely different place than where you intended to go. :| There are also a lot of street signs you can’t see until after you’re missing the turn, and the entrances to the loading docks were marked as ‘event parking,’ which confused me and was the reason I missed my turn in the first place.
There is $10 event parking in the same area as the loading dock though, so while I had originally meant to load in and then park elsewhere (for $7), I decided to just park there because that mitigated all my issues with needing to make multiple trips to the car. Parking also meant it didn’t actually matter if the docks were crowded or not, but they weren’t crowded anyway. All my worries for nothing, as usual! Artist Alley was in Hall A, so I parked behind Hall A. Check-in was at Hall B though, (a compromise, probably, since dealers were in Hall C) so I had to walk over there to check in and get my badge before going back to the car to unload. Honestly though, the security at the back of Hall A was pretty lax. There were definitely people going in and out without a badge; no one bothered you as long as it looked like you belonged there.
It actually took three trips to unload the car, but maybe I took my time because I could. u_u
Comicpalooza’s 8′ tables gave me the extra surface space to display the two framed paintings I had for the Ltd. Art show, but I’ve reached the point where I’ll never have enough vertical space to display all my prints ever again. I could probably stand to retire a few of them, but in the meantime I’ll just rotate what gets displayed depending on the convention. A lot of people have commented that the opening of my printwall keeps getting smaller, but it has actually been about the same for the last few cons! And it definitely hasn’t been as small as it was at Otakon last year. That was the smallest window I’ve ever had, and it kind of sucked, so it won’t ever be that small again. XD
The Artist Alley and Dealer’s Room both doubled in size between this year and last. In 2012, Hall A of the convention center contained autographs and all the vendors — artists and dealers both occupied about half the hall. This year, the entirety of Hall A was artists (and fan groups). Hall B was all autograph booths and lines. Hall C was all the dealers. Essentially, the contents of last year’s Hall A got spread out across three halls this year. If Comicpalooza was really expecting to double attendance, then I guess this made sense in the most basic way, but from the start, I felt that the 20k attendance estimate was overly optimistic and/or overambitious…
I was finished setting up by 10:45am. Exhibits were open to VIP badge holders at 11:30am and to everyone else at noon, so I had a bit of time to wander around before showtime. Only about a third of artists were set up, but I still made a full circuit of the Alley. Good thing, too, because this was really the only time I had to say hello to people, including Chrislea, Matt Frank, Brett and E.K. Weaver (Big Big Truck / TJ & Amal), Tod (Uniique Designs), and Kalo, even though Kalo was just diagonally behind me.
There weren’t many attendees raring to go when the gates opened Friday, but I got hit with one of my most intense repeat commissioners pretty early on again. Last year, he came around first thing to commission pencil sketches of all the Doctors, minus Ten, and later commissioned me for a bunch of superhero ladies. This year, the starting order was for fifteen pencil sketches of various characters, followed closely by separate order for a color sketch. And once again, he provided references for everyone! It was a really nice way to start the weekend. :3
Aside from this though, Friday afternoon was very casual-slow. I think there were actually a fair amount of people drifting around, but the crazy roominess of the convention space made it less evident.
The George R. Brown Convention Center is huge. Each of the halls on the first floor are huge, and the ceilings are at least 30 feet high, making them seem even more massive and cavernous. It was probably a ten minute walk from the far end of the Artist Alley (Hall A) to the far end of the Dealer’s Room (Hall C) if you walked at a normal speed, didn’t purposefully walk through crowdy spots, and didn’t get distracted. All of the roller derby players milling around kept their skates on; some people got around the hall on skateboards, and I saw more than one person with an electric scooter. A lot of people complained about all the walking.
There was probably twelve feet of space in the aisles between artist tables — good to alleviate crowding, yes, but it also made it really easy for attendees to walk along one side of an aisle and completely miss the other side. It was enough space such that artists couldn’t really call out to some passing attendees without yelling, and no one ever likes yelling.
I spent some time doodling to amuse myself, but the day dragged, especially since I didn’t have coffee. :(
I wondered about the general traffic flow of the convention. A lot of attendees were mentioning not being sure where stuff was. There was supposedly signage here and there, but I never noticed any. Registration was on the second floor, but I don’t know where it “emptied out,” so to speak. Where was the most obvious place for attendees to go after they got their badges? Up to the third floor where all the panels were? Or down to the first floor for vendors and autographs?
I really didn’t like that autographs were in between the dealers and artists. I think it usually works out better when all the vendors are near each other because then attendees have a one-stop shopping destination and aren’t surprised when they encounter another place to buy things later. Autographs, for the most part, also had to be purchased, but they’re still not really vendors… The lines for most autographs were relatively short, but attendees done getting autographs didn’t really seem to drift over to the Alley…or even back to Dealers for that matter. And the lines being short meant most of Hall B was empty, and big empty spaces deter people from crossing through them.
I’ve said a lot that the Artist Alley of most conventions, especially anime conventions, are incidental features. Few people seek it out specifically, but if they have to walk through it to get somewhere else, they’ll usually stop in for a look. This phenomenon isn’t as big an issue at comic conventions, where prominent guests are frequently also placed in the Alley, but Emerald City Comic Con this year proved that guests in the Alley doesn’t always mean more eyeballs for everyone else, and Comicpalooza is a misnomer anyway.
While it’s been officially a multi-genre convention for all the years I’ve gone, I’ve come to the conclusion that Comicpalooza is mostly a sci-fi convention. Yes, there are events and programming for a variety of things, but a majority of its guests are best known for being in sci-fi series, with the biggest names in the last two years being Patrick Stewart and George Takei. A significant percentage of the attendees show up for the guests alone, so interest in self-published comics, illustrations and other typical offerings of the Artist Alley vary greatly. Comicpalooza being “bundled” with Galacticon also really highlights the sci-fi domination.
Since Artist Alley was in Hall A, there was nothing past us, so no one could pass through AA on their way to something else. I never saw much of the Dealer’s Room over the weekend, but the grapevine said dealers weren’t getting much traffic on their side of autographs in Hall C either. I also heard that one of the reasons for the split this year was because dealers complained about AA/DR placement in 2012 and felt that the proximity of artists was hurting their sales. Well, apparently, distance from the artists didn’t help them either. u_u
The show floor closed at 8pm. After packing up for the night, Yume, her two helpers, their friends and fellow artists Jessica and Priscilla, and I decided to go to dinner. They were all staying at the Hilton attached to the GRB and were loath to abandon their hotel parking spaces, but one benefit of me driving a minivan: all of us fit! Downside: apparently I’m a crazy driver. 80% of con friends who have ridden with me concur. MAN WHATEVER, GUYS.
After getting lost trying to get out of downtown, we ended up at Star Pizza near Kirby/Montrose, which is an area I know slightly better since I used to work near there. It was nice catching up with Yume since she wasn’t able to attend IKKiCON and wasn’t going to be at A-kon. And Jessica had apparently commissioned me at a prior Comicpalooza and is my friend on Neopets, ahahahaaaa, so that was cool to find out?? It was her first time tabling, so I also got to spew endless garbage about Artist Alley over delicious pizza. I know, shocking. Me? Talk forever about Artist Alley? Ha.
We got lost on the way back to the convention center/hotel, but phone GPS came to the rescue in the end. Have I mentioned how much I hate downtown Houston? Because I really hate downtown Houston.
I picked up a venti macchiato and parked in my usual side lot Saturday morning. I had forgotten that last year they upped their price to $10/day for parking, which means there’s really no point in not parking in the lot by the loading docks. Dammit. Trying to get in from the non-dock side of Hall C, B, or A was difficult, too. Most of the exterior doors were locked. A small gathering of GRB staff were clustered at one of Hall C’s vestibule doors when I got there, trying to get the attention of someone inside because someone had let the door close, locking them out. <_< And when someone did come by to let us in, no badges were checked. >_> Hmm.
VIP opening time for Saturday was 9:30am, so I was ready to go by 8:45. Chely, friend and former coworker, also showed up a little past nine with two additional coffees for me in exchange for using my extra badge for the day. Friday, I didn’t have nearly enough coffee. Saturday, I had plenty (but never is it too much)! Buwahahaha!
Traffic was not significantly better than the day before, but again, the spaciousness of the venue made it a lot harder than usual to gauge. I was doing a few more commissions than my last several cons, but not by much, and roughly 75% of my commissions were from either repeat customers or friends, so that isn’t saying much for new exposure. It is, of course, always super great having people come back year after year, and I love drawing friends’ characters, but for a convention expecting to double attendance, the lack of new faces was a bit worrying.
I don’t have anything else to say specifically about Saturday, honestly. The floor closed at 8pm again. It was a good day of socializing, but day end tallies revealed that Saturday’s sales were down 14% from last year. (Friday had been almost exactly the same.)
I had a lot more stuff this year than last (just compare the table photos!) and a few items saw small price increases, so a 14% drop in revenue means I saw more than a 14% drop in sales. I still can’t find an official attendance number for Comicpalooza this year, but I’d be shocked if they actually hit their 20k goal. Even if that’s the case though, I can say for certain that 20k people didn’t come through the Artist Alley. I wonder what percentage of attendees skipped it? And if they weren’t patronizing dealers either, where did they go? Did all the $50 autographs eat their spending budget?
Sunday’s hours were from 10am to 6pm, which are pretty long for a Sunday. For a lot of my slower cons, including terrible awful Aki Con, things inexplicably pick up on Sunday, but while Sunday sales were better than Friday, there was no crazy surge of activity. Traffic throughout the weekend rarely fluctuated in terms of people being around, though there would be pockets where no one was browsing, just wandering around. The last few hours of the day really dragged.
After some wishy washiness on my part because of a headache, I joined Erika, Meagan, Yume, and Yume’s helpers for dinner at IHOP after we’d packed up at the end of the day. We were all driving separately with me leading the way, but while we did get separated, we all managed to make it there within a minute of each other, so HURRAY. We ran into some of the other artists who were just leaving in the parking lot and chatted for a little bit before going in. Dinnertime conversation was a bit subdued because of collective exhaustion, but I’m glad I got to hang out with Yume a bit more since I probably won’t see her at another con until next spring!
Comicpalooza was okay?
Economically, yes, it was a pretty big disappointment. Gross revenue was down 3% for the weekend from last year, which isn’t a huge drop, but if the con really did double its attendance, then that’s pretty sad. Add in the fact that table cost and travel costs (gas, parking, airfare) both increased this year, and that’s a 16% drop in net revenue — more statistically significant and doubly disappointing.
Other artists I spoke to had a variety of responses. Some did really horribly, including a few who did not break even — always upsetting to hear, especially when they’re locals with no lodging and minimal travel costs. A small handful did “great,” but most of those were either very new Alley artists, or those who did not do a lot of conventions, so I think their “great” is extremely relative. <_< Most did “okay,” with almost everyone who had attended Comicpalooza previously saying that “it wasn’t as good as last year.”
Regardless of the final warm body count, Comicpalooza definitely expanded their vendor space too quickly. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to double the number of vendors over just one year. ECCC did this too, and even though they did see a 10k increase in attendance this year (53k to 64k), [most] artists didn’t seem to feel that in their sales.
Comicpalooza’s long-term goal is getting the con to a 50k-75k attendance range. I don’t know what they’re aiming for in 2014, but I hope they don’t expand vendor space again — they could maybe even stand cull back a little. This year, there were roughly 150 Artist Alley tables and at least 120 Dealer’s Room booths, not to mention miscellaneous fan group tables and non-profit exhibitors like the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Even if there were 20k people there this year, that’s too many vendors and exhibitors vying for attention.
For comparison, A-kon 2012 last year had roughly 22k attendees. They had 135 AA tables and fewer than 100 DR booths. A-kon at the Sheraton Dallas also occupied a space a fraction of what Comicpalooza had at the GRB, which basically guarantees better traffic to all vendor areas. On the flip side, ECCC this year had 450 AA tables, I don’t even know how many DR booths, and a more comparable venue — and even with a 64k attendance, that comes out to a lot more attendees per vendor than Comicpalooza. So if Comicpalooza is modeling itself after the big name comic (but really multi-genre, multimedia entertainment) conventions, then I suppose it’s not too far off there.
But that isn’t really good news for vendors.
All that said though, the general atmosphere of the convention is one of the most positive and friendly I’ve experienced — even when there wasn’t much going on, I wasn’t stressing too much.
The spaciousness of the venue and the casual traffic it facilitates means it’s a lot easier to connect with and have conversations with attendees. It wasn’t crowded. There were virtually no choke points. Cosplayers stopping for photos in the middle of the aisle didn’t cause chaos. In this sense, it was a really amazing show. Comicpalooza still feels very much like a casual, homey, local con. And while I don’t doubt they’ll get their 50k-75k attendance sooner or later, there’s room enough at the GRB for the relaxed atmosphere to stay for a few more years.
Houston’s the biggest city in a very populous state; even Comicpalooza being the weekend directly after Dallas Comic Con this year didn’t seem to matter much. Things will probably get more chaotic as they scale up, but in the meantime, it’s a pretty low-fuss convention. Registration isn’t a panic attack inducing affair, and even though they did have an email snafu earlier this year, staff is pretty responsive.
In previous years, Comicpalooza was very open to feedback and seemed earnest in their desire to make things as good as possible for both vendors and attendees. I think it’s hard for a convention to cut back on vendor space once they’ve expanded it, but I hope staff still gets the message that most vendors didn’t do as well this year.
Right now, I’m actually not sure if I’ll be returning to Comicpalooza in 2014, but this is more because of scheduling issues than anything else. A-kon won’t be the weekend directly after Comicpalooza next year. I don’t want to fly into Texas twice, but I don’t really want to stay for a three week stretch either. Memorial Day weekend has a lot of other conventions, including MomoCon for the first time next year, and I do kind of want an excuse to visit Atlanta again… so yeah, I dunno!
If I were still local to Houston though, there’d be no question. Yes, this year could’ve been better, but Comicpalooza still gives me pretty good vibes, and back-to-back with the drama con that was A-kon this year (don’t worry, the report’s to come), good vibes are worth quite a bit.