Friday, July 24, 2009
More than 120,000 people will gather at the San Diego Convention Center this weekend for Comic-Con International. Over the last 40 years, Comic-Con has grown into one of our city's biggest annual events. According to the latest estimates, Comic-Con annually brings more than $40 million to the local economy. What's the greatest benefit Comic-Con brings to our city? And, should the Convention Center be expanded to insure that Comic-Con stays in San Diego for years to come?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): Something that may, in some people’s minds, not be so sane, if you drive on any of the freeways leading to downtown this week, you know that something big is going on there. The traffic is crawling with Comic-Con fans heading for the huge convention at the San Diego Convention Center, 126,000 strong. That’s the limit that the convention center had to put on it. And think about the entire population of the City of Carlsbad and then throw in 20,000 more people and that’s how many people are attending Comic-Con. And then there are another 20,000 or 25,000 performers, so a lot of people. And their excitement is only matched by the excitement of the hotel operators and the restaurant owners anticipating a windfall. So, Tom, today is the beginning of the second day of the four-day event. Do you know how this year’s Comic-Con is doing so far? Is it filling hotels and restaurants and people buying things?
TOM YORK (Editor, San Diego Business Journal): I think it’s, as in previous years, I don’t think the economy has had much impact on people who follow the world of comics and action heroes. In fact, you know, 126,000 people is probably the equivalent of two Qualcomm Stadiums so there’s a ton of people downtown and it’s having a great impact. It’s sort of a – it’s a bright spot in the middle of the summer, especially this summer where tourism overall is down about 20% and, you know, the hotel rooms, for the most part, are filled up and it’s in all ranges, it’s not just the, you know, it’s not just one segment of the hotel industry. It goes from the cheapest rooms to the most expensive because we have a lot of people from Hollywood coming in to preview their movies that are based on these characters or based on characters that they’ve come up with. So it’s become sort of a – Comic-Con has become sort of a screen test, a geekfest, and sort of an eyefest all rolled into one.
PENNER: Okay, so to our listeners, I’m sure by this time you’ve heard of Comic-Con. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been to a Comic-Con or whether you’re planning to be at this one but I would like to hear your response. Do you think this is good for San Diego and good for San Diego’s economy? Because there is an indication that Comic-Con may, after 2012, move to another city because it needs to get bigger or wants to get bigger. And let me turn – Oh, let me give you our phone number so you can call us. 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Barbara, well, I raised the issue. The issue is do we need a bigger convention center to accommodate Comic-Con after 2012?
BARBARA BRY (Associate Publisher, San Diego News Network): Well, I think it’s a bad idea to expand the convention center to just accommodate one convention. I think there are arguments to expand the convention center because it might potentially bring us a lot more business. I think the issue is, where is the funding going to come from and how are we going to pay it back? Are – You know, with the economy in a turndown and, you know, it’s unlikely that it’s coming back quickly, you know, I don’t – I don’t know the economics of whether it really makes sense to invest in a new convention center at this time.
TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Sure, it does.
PERRY: This is exactly when you should invest, when things are down and everyone’s moping, show some confidence in the future, I would say, and go for it. In terms of Comic-Con, there’s a lot of money in those demons and zombies, I’m talking of the fictional characters, not the folks in their costumes. But, yeah, I think this is a wake-up call that San Diego needs about every other year. Expand it. Move out. Get bigger. Show some confidence.
PENNER: But, Tony, some analysts point out that Comic-Con isn’t all that important economically.
PERRY: No, of course not.
PENNER: And it doesn’t create long term jobs.
PERRY: Sure. Yeah, and that’s the argument always against these sort of things. And, indeed, if they weren’t here, mom and dad from Dubuque would be here in some of the hotel rooms, not maybe at the capacity they are now. But no analyst can actually ever tell you the exact formula for boosting your economy. This is the debate we have about stadiums and we have it about convention centers and throwing any public money at something. You either do it or you don’t. If we don’t, they’re going to Las Vegas where they will probably be a very good fit. Zombies do very well in Vegas.
YORK: Well, I was just going to say that the experts have looked at this and they say that the impact, the economic impact, is about $42 million in spending. So – and that’s over four days, so that’s, you know, that’s a fairly substantial impact but I…
PENNER: Excuse me, Tom. Just to plant it in my head, so that’s about $10 million a day…
PENNER: …and what would we get out of just plain tourism over the same period of time? Do you have any idea? I mean, is this much larger than we would get if we just had a normal tourist season? Summer tourist season?
YORK: Oh – Oh, yes, it’s – I’m not sure what the, you know, the number of people in town would be on an average late July day but subtract, you know, 125,000 people from that figure and, you know, you would come up with a number that’s substantially less. It’s really a big boost for the hotel industry here, the hospitality industry, right in the dead of the season, you know, and it’s one of those events that helps keep the San Diego economy a little bit more buoyed than, say, other parts of the state is that we have, you know, we have the baseball season. This year the Padres aren’t doing as well, so they’re not drawing as much but…
PENNER: And it looks like we do have a call from somebody from Comic-Con, it says. Steve from Comic-Con. He’s the Vice President of Public Affairs. Boy, I’m glad that you were listening, Steve, join the conversation.
STEVE (Caller, Vice President of Public Affairs, San Diego Convention Center Corporation): First of all, I’m not from Comic-Con. I’m the Vice President of Public Affairs at San Diego Convention Center Corporation so…
STEVE: But just with that correction, I just want to say that one of the things that’s important to think about with the magnitude of an event this size is that hotel rooms are filled up all the way up into Carlsbad. And because of that, the hotel rates, typically, are 15-25% higher for the four-day period that Comic-Con is in our facility. And it is the highest occupancy rate in the hotels all year long for these four days and has consistently been that way for the last couple years. So the higher rate pushes additional tax revenues into the city that you wouldn’t normally get on a week before or a week after when you just have a normal tourism week in the city of San Diego.
STEVE: The other point I want to make is, is that conversation about expansion is not about just Comic-Con. There are dozens and dozens of events that have outgrown the facility and some of the most lucrative medical meetings that this facility hosts have outgrown us and as a result we are losing some of the market share to some of the other cities that have facilities that can accommodate those…
PENNER: Well, thank you very much, Steve. That’s good for you to clarify. Don’t go away yet because Barbara Bry wants to…
BRY: I’d like to ask you a – Steve, I’m interested to know whether the proposed expansion is big enough to accommodate Comic-Con or whether they’d still have to go to Las Vegas, you know, which probably, you know, has some of the biggest convention space in the country.
STEVE: Right. Well, yes, the proposed expansion would add up to 200,000 square feet of exhibit space and then an additional 100,000 of meeting rooms. And keep in mind that they not only use the exhibit floor but they’re in meeting halls, there’s panels, etcetera. So it would definitely accommodate their growth. But another thing is, is that it’s not just the size of our facility that helps us be successful. It’s the nexus of the hotel rooms around the downtown, it’s the restaurants, it’s the fact that you can get on foot from hotels to restaurants to the convention center and around. And, you know, I don’t know if you’ve been in Vegas in July but I don’t think…
BRY: It’s awful.
STEVE: I don’t think you want to be in a Chewbacca outfit or a…
BRY: It is hot.
STEVE: …Darth Vader outfit in July but I think that, you know, realistically, they, you know, there are other cities like Anaheim that could appeal to them and make them an offer.
PENNER: Okay, Steve, I’m going to have to ask you to wrap it up because we’re almost out of time and I do want to see if I can’t get another caller in and also Tom York wants to respond. Tom.
YORK: Well, I just want to say that, you know, I don’t know about temperatures in Las Vegas in July, I do know that it’s hot and you probably don’t want to be out there but the fact is that Las Vegas can accommodate I know at least 215,000 to 230,000 people because they used to do that with Comdex before that fell apart during the dot-com bust. So they’re, you know, there’s – you can just automatically move up to Las Vegas without much ado so I think the city has some hard thinking to do.
PERRY: And you have to watch out for the San Diego mentality that says, what? Someone leaving San Diego? They’ve done it before and we never learn our lesson.
PERRY: Jerry Sanders says that we turn away a year’s worth of conventions every year. We turn away enough people to fill the convention center twice over.
PENNER: Let’s see if we can get Becca in from South Park. She’s been waiting for quite a while. Becca, you’re on with the editors. Please make it brief.
BECCA (Caller, South Park): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I’ll make it short. Sorry about that. My dog is…
YORK: Is that a seal or a dog?
PERRY: It’s chasing the seals away, I think.
BECCA: I grew up in San Diego and I watched it being a just a giant nerd-herd when I was little. So now this worldwide event and I think it’s a really important thing for San Diego to be encouraging people from everywhere to come and, you know, hang out, spend money, you know, stimulate the economy.
PENNER: Yeah, I think you raise a really good point and we’re going to kind of wind up on that…
BECCA: Sure, sure.
PENNER: …point, Becca. The value to San Diego other than the economics of it, does it bring value and how do you quantify that? We’ll start with you, Tony.
PERRY: Very hard on a numbers basis. No one convention or event means much in a multi-billion dollar industry, as our good friend Don Bauder is always pointing out when we talk about stadium expansion, etcetera, etcetera. But I think you have to keep the attraction fresh. We’ve got this great weather, we have to keep the attraction fresh. We’ve thrown in our lot with the tourist industry. We got to bring the tourists, and we have to give them attractions to bring them here.
PENNER: Okay, Barbara Bry.
BRY: I think it – This Comic-Con gets worldwide attention. It’s being covered by the New York Times, the BBC, you know, all over the world. And I – it brings positive coverage and attention to San Diego.
PENNER: So does that give any city that hosts it a special status among convention cities?
BRY: Yes. I think Comic-Con is – you know, gives you more attention than a big conference of radiologists.
PENNER: Well, depending on…
BRY: Even though the radiologists will come and spend a lot of money.
PERRY: That’s right.
PENNER: Okay. Tom, your comment on – Comic-Con is celebrated as almost an event of mythic proportions by a lot of people. Is it celebrated in the same way by downtown business interests?
YORK: I think they love the mythology of it because it translates into dollars. I would say one thing about an expansion of the convention center. Maybe it’s time for the city to look at specializing, coming into a niche rather than trying to go for every convention of a certain size, maybe go for certain niches. Maybe the limit is 126,000.
PENNER: Well, I thank you all very much. Tom York, San Diego Business Journal, Barbara Bry, San Diego News Network. Los Angeles Times brought us Tony Perry. And, again, I say that you can comment on these stories any time you want to by going to the Editors Roundtable page at KPBS.org. And we thank you very much for being with us. I especially want to thank our listeners and our callers, and we’ll be with you next week. Remember to tune in tonight to San Diego Week on KPBS Television, Friday night at 7:00. I’m Gloria Penner at KPBS.