As the comics convention scene has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five years, one of the central questions has been whether or not the Midwest can carry a major event the same way the original Chicago Comic-Con did in its heyday as the #2 con in America. This year, ReedPop’s Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo (known as C2E2) brings its third outing to the city’s McCormick Place with an eye towards definitively establishing themselves as the Midwest con of note.
That hope doesn’t come without challenges as the previous two years have gone well but still not been massive blowout events for fans and publishers. Ahead of this weekend’s event, CBR News spoke with ReedPop’s Global Group Vice President Lance Fensterman about where the show is at, how C2E2 expects to up their game in terms of space, guests and fans this year and when they’ll know if their big push to draw more Chicago attention has paid off.
CBR News: This year with C2E2, what do you see as the primary focus for the show? We’ve had two years of the show where we’ve seen adjustments year-to-year. What were you guys looking at most for 2012?
Lance Fensterman: Growth. Really it was about delivering the full package — the guests, the exhibitors and the fans. It’s kind of like each year we got one or two right. And that’s expected. You launch something, and you learn as you go about what fans in the new market want. So this year, the goal is “Let’s nail all three. Let’s get the show floor. Let’s get the crowds. Let’s get the guests.” This year, it was really about the event coming into its own.
Let’s look at each of those ideas in their own turn. You moved halls a few times, but have you settled into the spot in McCormick place that you really want long term?
No. [Laughs] This is actually the third space we’ve had. We were in the West Hall last year, and we’re in the North Hall this year. It’s been three shows in three spaces, and it’s been a whole complicated batch of issues on what’s available when. But West Hall, where we were in 2011, will be the permanent home. We’ve secured that for the next several years. It’s not that big of a deal. The show floor this year is going to be fine. We really liked West, but we couldn’t get it. We’ll correct, thought.
On the guest front, you’ve got a long list of comic folks and some Hollywood and literary talent, but one of the standouts from last year was the comedy night which returns headlined by “The League” actor Stephen Rannazzisi. Looking at the guest list broadly, what are the things you’ve tried to do to make the Chicago show a unique thing unto itself?
We’re really working to have balance between comics, TV/film, comedy and music. We want to balance it out and make it a rounded event. Again, comics and comics creators are always right in the center. That’s our pull, and we have far and away more guests in that category than from anywhere else. But fans have told us that they really want to see a diverse array of guests. We really enjoyed the Comedy Death Ray event last year. That was rated very high in our surveys last year. So this year, we decided to do a twist on it, and it’s a little more local. There’s a lot of Chicago comics coming in. We didn’t want a carbon copy. We wanted to do the event again with a slightly different flavor.
The third plank is guests. And the one thing I’ll tell you is that despite living in Chicago, I sit on my couch for work all day and never see the sun, so I’m not always the best at gauging what the show outreach looks like across town. But when I have ventured out this year, I have noticed a lot more C2E2 signage in the El Train stations with your guys’ “Avengers Vs. X-Men” themed ads. Was there a bigger push on the advertising front and who you’re trying to draw into the show?
Totally. Again, we did a lot of focus groups with fans in Chicago and guest surveys, and everyone came back time and again going, “You’ve got to be on the [Chicago Transit Authority].” So we invested in some CTA advertising and in some billboard advertising. And we also did more TV spots that were targeted and genre-specific. And we did this deal with Pepsi where we’ve got that same art on like 100,000 or something two-liter bottles of Pepsi products in hundreds of locations throughout Chicago. It’s been pretty cool.
One of the balances of this show has always been that Chicago is a major metro area, but it’s also a hub for states in the Midwest. Do you have an idea of how well you’re doing at bringing in folks from Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc, or do you have to wait until the show’s over to see how that works out?
It’s funny you ask that. We don’t really look before the show. The data we have is not easily bundled. But we look after the show, and then we know where the people are coming from. Last year, we found that a quarter of the audience were coming from 50 miles away or further, and then a smaller group — maybe 10% — were coming from 150 miles away or further. So you basically got a quarter to a third of the audience coming from well outside the greater Chicago metro area…which is cool! That’s what we want. We want to build that kind of event where someone’s going to drive from Minneapolis to come to the show or Madison or Milwaukee or wherever. And that will only grow with time as the stature of the event grows, but it’s already beginning. We’ve seen that. And actually, when we talk about CTA ads and Billboards, we actually thought we’d been doing better outside the city than inside the city. And since there’s three or four million people in the Chicago area, we wanted to focus on bringing in folks from the neighborhoods. We know there are tons and tons of fans from right in Chicago, and we knew we had to focus on it with CTA ads and more Chicago metro stuff.
The element that you guys maybe had to deal with more than any other concern for this show was the timing since earlier in the year, as WonderCon and some other events were looking to find their place, you moved a month later than last year’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend event. Did that pivot have a lot of impact on how you both planned and advertised the show?
It hasn’t dramatically changed it, but the schedule has gotten crowded for convention season whereas we didn’t feel it was so crowded when we launched this event in 2010. I think that’s great. It’s a good thing for the industry that cons are thriving, but it just means that we have to start planning a little bit earlier — especially with key guests and reaching out to people to make sure they can make the time. That’s the biggest change we’ve made, I think. That and getting Cubs tickets. [Laughs]
Now that some things are falling into place in terms of the bigger Reed schedule where you have a show to go to almost every week for the spring and summer, what are the elements you’re most looking forward to when it’s time to hit the Chicago stop on the tour?
I think the diversity is good. The fact that we have major comic guests and then John Cusack and then Anne Rice and then Charlaine Harris — that’s a really interesting lineup! That’s going to draw in distinct, different audiences. The fun thing about these shows is the cross-polination of the different audiences and what they care about. And hopefully they’ll discover something they didn’t know about. So I think the diversity is what I’m excited about. I’m also really excited about the reception so far. I just got my info sheet, and we’re pacing ahead about 45% from last year on ticket sales. So I’m excited to see the people, because I think we’re going to have an awesome crowd. The most exciting part of any show is when you open the doors and people pour in. That’s why you do this.
The other thing to ask about this year is that the challenge of the show from its very start was “Can you make a big show like San Diego or New York and put it in downtown Chicago and make it work?” Every year, you’ve had some issues and some pivots. How do you view the model of Chicago at this point in the show’s life? Do you feel confident about retaining not just fan interest but also exhibitor interest?
We don’t have the answer yet. We have most of the answer, but we’re not going to know until Monday the 16th. Right now, the show floor in terms of exhibitor participation is almost twice as big as it was last year. Like I said, ticket sales are around 45% ahead of last year. So the metrics are there. But you don’t know if it works until you see it. The third year is a really pivotal year. The show needs to come into its own right now, and it need to click. We want all the people to walk out on Sunday afternoon and say, “That was a killer show.” What we’ve had in the past is different groups saying that, but not everybody. That’s the goal. And it’s tough to expect a home run in your first year, and even in your second year that’s rare. New York Comic Con was a freak in that way. It’s normal that you adjust and change and listen to your customers on what worked and what didn’t. We’ve had three shots at this point to deliver the space, deliver the content and deliver the crowds. And again, pacing looks fabulous. But pacing is not how an event is judged. It’s the outcome. We’ll know on Monday. You almost always know right after how it’s done unless you’re totally tone deaf to your customers. So I feel great about it, but we’ve got a ways to go yet.
Stay tuned all weekend for the news from C2E2 right here on CBR!