From our Twitter, you probably noticed that we’ve attended both Long Beach Comic Expo (last February-March) and Long Beach Comic Con (mid-September) this year. We’ve also written about the show favorably before. So why haven’t there been posts about the two most recent incarnations of the Long Beach festivities? Because they were both quite disappointing.
How is this possible? The Long Beach pair of shows have been well-received by fans and pros from the beginning, touting a locally-focused approach to a show centered on artists and comics. Despite the fact that the owners of the show, MAD Event Management, are East Coast based, the focus on the local community won Long Beach a lot of respect.
All conventions have growing pains, but Long Beach seems to be experiencing the convention equivalent of puberty: unsure of what its identity should be, making friends with the wrong crowd, and overlooking some very important aspects of running a show.
Ticketing and Entry
Ticket sales for both Long Beach shows seem steady, although if you’re planning to attend be sure to keep an eye out on local discount sites like Goldstar, Groupon, or Living Social. Both LBCC and LBCE sold discounted weekend passes through Goldstar in 2015 for prices that were on par with a single day ticket. Badge/wristband pickup for Goldstar/discount ticket purchases works exactly the same as regular pre-paid tickets, so these are definitely the best deal if you can get them.
One of the most talked about problems at LBCC in September was the lengthy entry line for pre-paid ticketholders. With a wait time of 30 minutes to one hour and a line that wrapped two to three times around itself outside, it was clearly a frustrating experience for both attendees and staff. LBCC crew working the line outdoors had real difficulty directing new arrivals and controlling the direction of the line – somehow it ended up in almost a spiral pattern, making it nearly impossible for newcomers to find the end. (In addition, several staff members were incredibly rude toward frustrated attendees waiting to enter, telling them that “there were people here waiting for the doors to open at 7:00am, so I guess you should’ve gotten here earlier.”)
— ConShark (@ConSharkNews) September 12, 2015
LBCC seemed woefully underprepared both for the number of people that showed up at what is the typical hour for attendees to arrive (mid-morning to early afternoon), despite the fact that these were all pre-sold tickets – so the con should know exactly how many people they are expecting. Both Long Beach shows heavily push pre-sales, as most cons do – since it gives organizers a good idea of how many people to expect and helps them pay off the expenses they incur in advance. When you have precise numbers like that, there’s no excuse for making attendees wait in a line that long. Making it additionally frustrating was the realization that there was no wait for on-site, day-of ticket purchases.
No idea what is taking the #LBCC badge pickup line so long given it's just scan ticket, hand you a wristband. On-site sales, no line.
— ConShark (@ConSharkNews) September 12, 2015
Strangely, there was not an issue with wait times for badge pickup on Sunday at the Con:
— Weird Life Of V (@WeirdLifeofV) September 13, 2015
And the wait to enter wasn’t even the first wait of the morning for most attendees: other big events in the area caused a major parking problem, forcing attendees who are used to parking in the convention center lots to hunt for space elsewhere. This is an understandable issue that many major events face, but LBCC had unfortunately sent an email out the day before the con with a parking advisory that made no mention of any other events or gave any alternate parking or transportation suggestions.
— Tammi (@tammipernoud) September 12, 2015
Fortunately, both these logistical issues were better in the spring at LBCE. Unfortunately, a delay of almost two hours between driving into downtown Long Beach and entering the convention makes a very bad impression upon first-time attendees to LBCC – particularly when it’s a con with a reputation of being small, manageable, locally-focused, and family-friendly.
And one minor but odd choice is the use of both wristbands and clip-on badges: at the spring Expo, weekend ticketholders were given two wristbands upon arrival and told to treat the Sunday wristband like cash – it was not replaceable, but also could not be worn until the second day. They were also handed a “weekend” badge in a plastic badge holder with a clip attached, but told this was not required for entry. Why Long Beach insists upon keeping one toe in the water on badges but sticks with wristbands for actual entry purposes is beyond me, and is confusing to many attendees.
The Long Beach programming schedules have always been a bit sparse – while there’s been a focus at the last few events to diversify the lineup and find unique programming, panels are still not the main draw for this event.
Again, however, logistical problems came into play at both shows in 2015. LBCC in September only had minor problems, but notably the parking trouble outside caused more than one panelist to arrive late to their own panel. Not having reserved parking, or some kind of assistance with this, for special guests slights both the guests and the attendees. The space utilized for LBCC also features the programming rooms on the lobby level – convenient for access, but when long lines and/or cosplayers are crowding the lobby, it creates an noise level that not even closing the doors can fully block. There’s not much the Con can do about this, but it can be a bit frustrating for panelists who are constantly being told to “speak up” or “get closer to the mic!”
However, the spring Expo had major problems with their panel rooms. LBCE moved into a new area of the Long Beach Convention Center last spring, and so did the panel rooms – into a downstairs area that was difficult to find and poorly signed. Worse, the printed schedules distributed to attendees used different room names than those that were on the doors of the actual programming rooms. Even the staff working the programming level were unable to figure out which room was which or give directions. Here, again, multiple panelists were late – sometimes by as much as 30 minutes! – because they couldn’t find the room and nobody from the Expo helped them find their way.
Despite these issues, both Long Beach shows continue to explore interesting panels that are on-topic but feel unique compared to other area shows. The Con featured an entire “Space Expo” programming track (and a matching booth on the floor). Both events continue to cater to the Girl Scouts, including offering private badge workshops on geek themes. This effort to include young girls in the geek world, and to allow them the opportunity to learn about creative jobs from professional guests, is incredibly important and relatively uncommon at other SoCal cons. Plus, the new Dwayne McDuffie Diversity Awards have found a home in Long Beach.
It’s odd and unfortunate to see logistical problems plague the last few Long Beach events, considering neither was their first attempt at hosting a con – especially since those problems can overshadow or even keep people from attending what is shaping up to be a distinctive programming lineup.
In the exhibit hall, things seem to be shifting away from the original vibe of the show. At a time when WonderCon was becoming more media-oriented and many comics shows felt small and resale-focused, Long Beach hit the SoCal scene with a dedication to comics and artists that felt big. In fact, the majority of their exhibit hall has always been dedicated to Artists Alley – a section that is often relegate to the back corner at larger shows.
So as the Con and Expo continue to mature, it’s disheartening to see a change in the show floor that puts a big new emphasis on celebrity autographs and photo ops. These can be big money makers and big for publicity, although – as the cancellation of actress Chloe Bennet the morning of her appearance showed – withdrawals and cancellations can be common. (Understandably so – booking working talent means their work, as actors, takes precedent; or, in Bennet’s case, family emergencies that prevent travel can often come into play.) Photo ops and autographs are the bread and butter of cookie-cutter shows like those in the Wizard World lineup.
No one will begrudge a fan who comes out to the con to meet their celebrity idol, and it hopefully entices them to take a few minutes to wander the aisles and maybe support an artist they like. But it’s tough to feel excited for this change when the first thing you see upon entering the show floor is the large signing and photo op area. Artists, who once felt like the true focus of the show, are beyond a curtained-off photo op zone, t-shirt vendors, and corporate sponsor booths.
And those also impact the first impression the Con has on attendees new and old. Yes, conventions are expensive to put on, and corporate sponsors help defray some costs; but too many, or too much prime real estate spent on them, and it begins to cheapen the feel of the show. With Artists Alley in the center of the show floor, attendees had to wander past booths for Kettle Chips, T-Mobile, Jarritos, Chevy, Nesquik, Jerky Hut, and pushy “prize network” tables just to get there.
Attendees pay $30 admission fees for various reasons – some to attend panels, some for celeb encounters – but most come to walk the exhibit hall. This means many attendees pay money for the privilege of going inside to spend more money. In the age of Etsy, where they could buy from artists around the world without leaving the house, why bother attending a show? Because there is an implicit expectation that the organizers will curate quality vendors that speak to the interests of the attendees. When you crowd your show floor with Chevy trucks and T-Mobile salespeople, it begins to feel like the convention equivalent of paying $8 a month for Hulu and then realizing you still have to watch commercials.
On a positive note, there were lots of great booths on the floor: the Space Expo area at the front was a big hit with adults and kids, featuring hands-on exhibits and lots of experts to talk to. Around the corner, local groups like the Lego Builders Club provided a fun space to look at their creations and participate in building something of your own. The Cosplay Corner grows stronger, with many exhibitors choosing to do some kind of live demonstration rather than sit behind a table waiting to sell autographs. This kind of activity and interaction is delightfully lively and one can only hope exhibiting cosplayers at other shows can also follow this trend. In the back, the gaming area was very well attended, and the many fan groups that were set up found themselves managing quite a crowd. Several Star Wars groups were arguably the most popular, combining the palpable excitement for Episode VII with fun games for families; plus, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Battlestar Galactica fan groups were all represented as well.
And, of course, Artists Alley is still a highlight: larger than the average Alley, this one features many different types of artists working in different genres, styles, and mediums. There are also a handful of craft booths in there, but the focus remains on sketches and prints, with many artists accepting commission requests.
Attendee engagement and creation of a community are what give a con its identity and make it popular enough with regular attendees to keep the show coming back. Corporate sponsors and celebrity photo ops don’t really contribute to this – but great community groups and interactive spaces on the floor do.
None of this is to say that the Long Beach cons are beyond repair: certainly, nothing with as solid a foundation as this one started with can be unsalvageable. And it’s not an entirely bad way to spend a weekend, particularly for local families and more casual attendees; plus, hardcore comics fans can still find lots of their favorite artists tabling here. But let’s hope that these are just some intense growing pains – and not that LBCC will wake up in a few years and realize it’s a completely different con than what it set out to be.
Long Beach Comic Expo returns February 20 – 21, 2016. Long Beach Comic Con returns September 17 – 18, 2016. Both are held at the Long Beach Convention Center.