Con Preview: Fensterman on C2E2

From when it was announced way back in February of 2009, Reed Exibitions' Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo - or C2E2 for short - has enjoyed a hefty amount of press attention for a show that's never been put on before.

From the expansion of Reed's pop culture arm into a new comics-themed show beyond its already successful New York Comic Con, to its involvement in the so-called "con war" with Gareb Shamus' Wizard Entertainment, C2E2 proved easily newsworthy outside of a rollout of announcements that will see names as wide-ranging as Alex Ross, Chris Ware, Neil Gaiman, Joe Quesada, Geoff Johns and many more appearing over the April 16 - 18 weekend at downtown Chicago's McCormick Place convention center. But all that talk doesn't necessarily mean the show will be the landscape-altering event its organizers are hoping to turn it into.

To help parse out exactly where things stand with C2E2 from ticket sales and attendance to media hype and market placement, CBR News reached out to Lance Fensterman, Reed Exhibitions VP of Books, Publishing and Pop Culture, for a lengthy chat on what all the time building up the show may mean when the doors open to the public this Friday at 1:00 Central time.

CBR News: Well, Lance...we're just a bit out from C2E2 on Friday, April 16. This is the first year for this show, though I think that Reed has done some shows at McCormick Center in the past, right?

Lance Fensterman: Yeah. The last time Reed did a show in McCormick Place, it was probably 2004, and it was Book Expo America where Bill Clinton spoke. I was there attending as a bookseller. But that's the last show Reed did there, so it's been quite a while. It's a new, yet familiar adventure going into that building.

You guys have been promoting this show a good long while. You announced it in February of last year and held build up events and other promotional activities over the course of the past 14 months. From your vantage point, how are the trains running in this final dash to the finish line?

You know, I think - knock on wood - everything is going really well. You look at the chatter that's going on out there. You look at the blogs. You talk to the retailers...we've got tickets on sale at 30-odd retailers in Chicago, Illinois and Wisconsin. The awareness is out there. The buzz seems to be out there, and the measurements are strong. Ticket sales seem to be very strong. But everything happens in the last few weeks and on-site. So it all feels good, like the universe is giving us good vibes, but we'll know when we get there. We'll know for sure when we're walking out the door Sunday at 5:00. That's when we'll be able to measure our success.

Let's talk a bit about ticket sales. When you do a show for the first time and you're trying to figure out what to expect, it can be tough. I've heard you talk about wanting to avoid the traffic jams that NYCC saw in its first year. Where do you feel you are with that? Is it going to be a healthy show based just on pre-sale, something that could approach a sell out, or is the range for attendance still big?

It's interesting. Just before you called, I pulled all the registration numbers. We keep comparing ourselves to New York Comic Con, just because the floor and the paid exhibitors would be similar, but we're now quite a bit bigger than the first year of New York Comic Con, actually. But it's an easy comparison. Right now, our ticket sales are 57% ahead of New York Comic Con #1, which is pretty strong, to be honest with you. The exhibits - Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and all the booths - are about 30 to 40% larger than that first New York Comic Con, so this is going to be a big, robust show.

A big difference, though, is that we have the entire lakeside building [at McCormick Place.] The entire thing is ours. So I'm not freaked about capacity. We'll be okay. There's a lot of room to hang in, and we've spread out features around the building. So I'm not really worried about a sell out, per se. What I am worried about is people walking up and buying tickets because we're going to get jammed on site. So we're really encouraging people to buy in advance. And they're more expensive on site - part of that is because we want people to to buy in advance. You wouldn't walk up to a White Sox playoff game and expect them to have tickets or not to have a line or a crowd. But I think we'll be okay with capacity. We've got a lot of room there.

I know that certain big conventions - San Diego as the prime example, and NYCC to a certain extent as well - function as big, national events and draw in people from disparate parts of the country. Chicago, on the other hand, has always been a city that hosts the biggest of the regional shows and a lot of the attendees come from that Illinois/Wisconsin/Indiana loop of the Midwest. Where do you see C2E2 falling on that convention scale? Do you have a measure for where you're selling tickets to? Are you trying to make it a national show?

I think we'll be a national show. Will we be a national show in year one? No, I don't think so...not unlike New York Comic Con. It's interesting. The expectations are pretty high around a show like New York - and now as well with a show in Chicago - but it's easy to forget that New York Comic Con is now four years old. The growth has been astronomical, but it started out as a largely regional event. You can draw a lot of people from a five-state radius around New York City. And it's now grown into what is rapidly becoming a national event - an international event, even - in terms of where we draw people from.

So I think in year one of C2E2, we'll see it as a strong Midwest con drawing from the adjacencies - drawing from Indiana and Wisconsin and even from Michigan. But I think it's going to grow into a much broader and really a national con, but a Midwest event. When you look at our exhibitors, they're from all over the U.S., so the attendees will start to follow there as well.

Not to give you too much info, but the proposition that got our exhibiting customers excited was that they wanted three major, big, national cons spread out across the country and across the calendar. And we could help them with two-thirds of that equation. So we have always been very respectful of San Diego as the leader, as the institution. We would never, ever step on their toes in any way, shape or form. Now you've got Chicago opening up the year, San Diego right in the middle and New York rounding out the year. That's been the goal all along - to be two-thirds of that three-pronged, big ass celebration of pop culture that's happening.

I didn't want to dwell on this, but the entire "Con War" element of pre-C2E2 talk has loomed large for the past few months, and there is definitely a perception of competition, not just between you and the Wizard shows, but right now there are many conventions jockeying to be called one of the two or three biggest shows in the nation. Does talk around Wizard's show, other shows or whatever affect how you go about putting together or promoting C2E2?

Honestly, this affects us zero. I don't see a con war. There is no con war. I'm not sure what constitutes a war, precisely, but I'm not in one. We worry about our customers. We focus on our customers and focus on providing an exceptional experience for our fans and value for our exhibitors. I don't really know that if you stacked the two up [between C2E2 and Wizard] with an objective view, I don't know that there's a comparison. I'm not engaged in a con war. I'm worried about my customers, about taking care of them and providing them what they asked for. Honestly, of course I read up on this. You pay attention to the blogs about what's happening in your market, but what anyone else in the space is doing really doesn't impact our decisions at all. What our customers want - that impacts our decisions, because they're the ones that are going to reward us for providing a large-scale, well-organized and well-resourced event that provides value to them. They buy a ticket, and they can come in and see everything that they've told us they want to see, not walk in the door and pay at every table for a picture or a signature. We're interested in providing the value and the experience they've asked us for.

Well, I think if anything has drawn people to think you're engaging in this in an active way, whether it be with Wizard or whoever, it's that tagline "The Con Chicago Needs, The Con You Deserve." That's the rallying call. What do you feel that downtown offers outside of the obvious city center of restaurants and hotels? What is the key point that makes it a bigger show than something somewhere else?

For starters, it's what our customers - our exhibiting customers specifically - said they wanted, back to my original point. They said they wanted a large, professionally run, well-resourced event in downtown Chicago. Secondly, Reed as an entity and our Pop Culture group really don't do secondary markets. It doesn't fit with our style of event. We do large events, not because we're "better" or whatever. Honestly, we just don't do small events because it's not our strength. We're built as an organization to do large-scale events, and that lends itself to major markets. Also, a really important component to our shows is media. Part of our job is to grow this business - to provide new customers to our exhibiting customers. Not the same old folks over and over again. And one of the ways in which that's done is through the media coverage that comes with being in a major media market. A lot of times, say, ABC News or the national news won't typically go to a secondary or suburban market. That's not on their radar. It's a part of who our identity is and a part of [being] what our exhibiting customers told us what they wanted. And then from there as we go forward, it becomes a part of the identity of the show.

Speaking of the identity of the show, there's been a lot of creator and guest announcements, some special events, from Neil Gaiman's CBLDF fundraiser appearance to the Diamond Retailer Summit, and generally a big deal made of the "name" exhibitors showing up. From all the appearance and programming news, this seems a very comics-centric show. New York has grown into a show with a movie component, and every year people talk about San Diego practically being overrun by Hollywood. Was it a conscious choice to keep things more comics focused for this first C2E2, or is it a bit harder to pull those bigger media players to the middle of the country?

We've always said with New York that comics are at the center. It's the primary pillar of the show, and from there we move out into video games, Hollywood and TV, anime and manga and so forth. We're starting in the same place for C2E2 and asking "What is the central pillar for this event, and really, so many of the spheres of pop culture?" And that's the original content creators. It's comics and the creators who make them. So we were very intentional about starting there. If you look at a show like New York, we started there as well. In a lot of ways, we still remain there. The guest list at a show like New York Comic Con is 80 or 90% comic creators. Now, a lot of those other spheres have become a part of it, and quite intentionally, but we're starting with the comic creators.

To your point about movies and TV, it's definitely a different proposition for them. They've not had a strong professional pop culture event happening in middle America, so you're asking them to participate in something different that they haven't before, in a part of the country they haven't before. It's also our first event. It's never been done. So I think we're going to do okay with those other spheres, but I think it's something that we're going to see grow.

Back to one of your other questions, that's also something where we'll see this grow from a tight regional show to a much broader regional show to a national show. Those things all kind of come together, and it's a process. We've been successful in New York, but it's a process. And this is a launch. We've never done C2E2 before, or anything in the Chicago market, so we're staring with the pillars we'll be able to build on.

Like I said, the build up to the show, with over a year of promotion and events, and you guys now talking about wanting this to be one of the three biggest shows in the country - well, that puts a lot of pressure on the show to be a very big show right out the gate. Do you have a clear picture for yourself of what constitutes a success versus what would be underperforming for you?

Good question. One that I think about while laying in bed at night a lot. [Laughs] There are three or four kinds of measurements. On one, we already have a passing grade, and that is the show floor and the participation from the exhibiting community, if you will. Marvel and DC are already in 2,500 to 2,800 square foot booths. A booth of that size for those publishers has never, ever been built outside of New York and San Diego. Period. Plain and simple. But if you just go down the list, all of the major companies and major players are there. We've succeeded with that exhibition floor, and I'm pleased with it.

The other measurement is ticket sales. Did we pack those aisles for all the companies that have faith in us? It's incomplete right now. Are the numbers good? Yeah. I'll take 57% pacing ahead, and that's great. But it all comes down to the coming days and on site. We've got to pack those aisles. We'll see about that.

The other two kind of critical things are: are people happy? It's wonderful to sell tickets and get people in the door. But then to have them find out they've got to pay for everything they want to do, while we don't do that we've got to make sure they're happy. We're not interested in one time customers. We're interested in people marking this down on their calendar every year for the next 20 years and knowing this is where they are going in April. That's the wow factor we have to give both fans and exhibitors, and that one we're not going to know until after it's over. We're going to know by what we read on the blogs and by the pretty intense surveys we put out, but it's all about how happy our fans and our customers are.

The other piece is media coverage. As I said, media is critical. Are we lining up the media outlets that need to be there? Absolutely. But we need to see where the buzz is after the show. Again, part of our goal here is not only to preach to the converted. Anybody can do that. Our goal is to bring in new customers on top of the existing ones. That means making waves through the mainstream press, making waves through the comics press, getting the buzz out there and getting people reading about C2E2 and letting them know things were happening there - people were having fun, announcements were getting made. And those are the five major ways we measure success. Like I said, one we've got in the bag, one is halfway there, and the other three we'll know on April 18th and thereafter.

Like we've been saying, it's been four years of New York Comic Con and over a year of building for this show, and Reed's pop culture unit has grown in many other ways outside those shows, with you guys picking up the Penny Arcade Expos and the Star Wars Celebration show. Do you have a plan for yourselves in terms of more comics shows or even a California comics show? Are those discussions you've been having?

My job now is to grow this group and grow it dramatically and into all corners of pop culture. And that's something we talk about internally all the time. I would make a prediction that I don't really see us doing another comics show in North America. To my point earlier, we're not really interested in doing 15 of these small. We're interested in doing a couple of these massively and very, very well. Our model is not to do middle market autographing celebrity shows. We don't do that. It's not what our customers want, and it's not what we're built to do. So I don't see us doing any more comics shows in North America. However, there's a big world out there and a lot of emerging markets that our exhibitors are really interested in. As a company, we have offices in four countries around the world. That tells you something. And if you look at a Star Wars Celebration or the success of a Penny Arcade Expo or our partnership with UFC and doing their fan events - there's a lot of opportunities out there in the broader pop culture space to do some really cool events and deliver some really cool content to really hungry geeks of different stripes than just the comics stripe. And we're looking at lots and lots and lots of various interesting opportunities to create cool communities around cool content all over the world.

To wrap, what is the thing you're most specifically looking forward to for your weekend in Chicago?

[Laughs] Okay, so there are a couple of things. Number one, Goose Island's 3-1-2 beer is outstanding. I'm looking forward to that, and you can only get it in Chicago, as you well know. Secondly, I'm a massive Chris Ware fan. I'm very excited that he's going to be at the con. He doesn't do a lot of shows, so I'm very excited to meet him, see his work and hear him speak. And this also kind of fits in with Penny Arcade Expo that we just wrapped, but I'm really excited for the webcomics presence that we've been able to build at the show. There's a good 20 webcomics creators with booths or panels or who are somehow involved in the show. I think that's cool, and it's something that perhaps not all the fans have seen. It's something that fits with our model of wanting to grow the business. This is an emerging part of comics, and I think the fans haven't been able to meet them in the same way they've been able to interact with traditional comics creators. And lastly, my understanding is that the new DC leadership team will be well represented at the show, and I'm looking forward to interacting with them and hearing what they have to say. There have been a lot of changes this year in our industry, and I'm looking forward to hearing that discussion and maybe taking part in it a bit to learn where the business is going. That's my short list, but you noticed I started with the beer. [Laughs]

C2E2, the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo, lands at Chicago's McCormick Place April 16 through 18. For more info on the show, go to C2E2.com.

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