WonderCon 2016 Talk Back (RFID, LA vs. Anaheim, and more)

WonderCon’s adventure in Los Angeles went pretty well last weekend, even considering some hiccups with the new RFID badges. As always, the con closed with the Talk Back, a sort of community town hall meeting with John Rogers, the president of Comic-Con International.

If you’ve never been to a Comic-Con or WonderCon talk back, a Pawnee town hall meeting will get you in the right mindset:

Anyway, here’s a rundown of the actual questions and complaints from attendees at the Talk Back panel.

LA vs. Anaheim

Several attendees argued in favor of LA, saying that panels were much less crowded then they are at, say, Comic-Con. “Keep the movie studios at Comic-Con,” and keep WonderCon the way it is. A few others enjoyed the new location because they live closer to the LACC, or are able to easily take public transit there.

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However, most folks at the Talk Back were happy to see WonderCon return to Anaheim next year: one specifically cited the programming room sizes at the LACC, a big concern for many fans going into the show. (One fan thanked CCI for doing “the best you could do with a difficult convention center,” which seems to sum up the attendee consensus on LA.)

In particular, the Agents of SHIELD panel was brought up to illustrate the room size issue. The lines for that event were long and the room was at capacity with enough people still waiting outside to fill the room twice over. When asked why this panel wasn’t scheduled in the much larger Microsoft Theater, Rogers declined to give specifics but said that many times the studio bringing the program is afraid to play to an empty room, so they request something smaller they know they can fill.

WonderCon moves off Easter weekend next year, but here's hoping the creative Easter cosplays stay.

WonderCon moves off Easter weekend next year, but here’s hoping the creative Easter cosplays stay.

One person did specifically request that they move Comic-Con to Los Angeles, citing the larger space. Rogers reminded the crowd that they are signed in San Diego through 2018, and that when considering a venue they have to look at space, layout, hotel options, and where their volunteer base comes from, just to name a few. You may recall that CCI has said previously that hotels are the main sticking point in their San Diego discussions.

When asked about the moves between LA and Anaheim, Rogers reiterated that it was “all about dates,” and mentioned that the Moscone didn’t have dates for them, either. Don’t hold your breath on WonderCon returning to the Bay Area, though – they’re contracted to be in Anaheim for the next two years and seem to have settled in there quite comfortably.

RFID Issues

Tap Stations

A common complaint about the RFID badges and tap stations were that it was difficult to reach your badge over to tap it. The badges were on regular lanyards, which have no stretch to them; most people were forced to bend over or contort themselves in some way to tap the badge. (Others simply chose to take the badge off from around their necks to tap it, which isn’t very convenient either.

Most people had to bend over to reach the scanning spot on the station.

Most people had to bend over to reach the scanning spot on the station.

Many Talk Back attendees stepped up to the mic to note this problem and offer solutions: one asked if the RFID stations could be made taller? Rogers said they would need to talk to the RFID contractor, since the stations were really designed for wristbands. (WonderCon and Comic-Con are contracted with Intellitix, which primarily services music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and EDC – all events that utilize RFID wristbands, not badges.)

Another commented that the stations were too tall for his wheelchair-using wife; she is fortunately able-bodied enough to lift herself out of the wheelchair to reach the tap station, but he noted that many other wheelchair-bound attendees are not so lucky. The floor pads near the tap stations, which cover the electrical cords, were also problematic for wheelchair users.

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Some events have utilized an archway that can detect RFID tags as attendees simply walk through. Rogers said they explored this option but it doesn’t work for Comic-Con: SDCC needs to be able to scan badges in a single direction to determine an entry or an exit. RFID archways don’t allow for single-direction detection like that.

Another solution proposed* was using wristbands like they do at the aforementioned music festivals; Rogers, however, said they tried using wristbands for exhibitors previously at Comic-Con and it didn’t work. It was also suggested to automatically reset the RFID system at the end of the night to facilitate an easier, quicker exit while a large crowd tries to leave the building (another trick pulled from Coachella).

Finally, it was pointed out* that New York Comic-Con uses lanyards with a retractable badge holder on the end instead of a stationary clip. This is probably a more cost-efficient (and easier) solution than building different sizes of tap stations.

*Full disclosure: the person who brought up Coachella-style wristbands was Dustin Ma, who’s written for us before; and the someone who brought up retractable badge holders was yours truly.

Frequency of RFID Checks

Many over the weekend complained about the sheer number of tap stations, requiring you to constantly tap in and out just to move about the convention center. Rogers said it was a combination of battling counterfeiting and anticipating bad weather.

He noted that they’ve long had a problem (presumably, mostly at Comic-Con) with a group of attendees entering the building, one person collecting everyone’s badges, and then going back outside to deliver the badges to more people – essentially, sneaking people in on real badges.

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Rogers also pointed out the big problem they have with counterfeit badges, saying that he’s “seen some pretty convincing ones” in his time. The usage of RFID was meant to combat both these problems, allowing security to easily determine if a badge is real and if it’s already been used to enter.

Additionally, WonderCon tried to anticipate possible rainy weather since this is an El Nino year. Fortunately, Easter weekend was warm and sunny; but Rogers said they knew people would want to enter at any available door if it was raining outside. “The challenge with this building is there are many, many, many different doors,” Rogers said. “If you come in from the South parking garage, how do you get in without getting soaked?” This required extra tap stations in areas that seemed redundant at the show.

Remember that WonderCon was held at a convention center they’ve never used before: Comic-Con knows the San Diego Convention Center much better, has a much better idea of traffic patterns there, and won’t need to brace for possible inclement weather like WonderCon did. Plus, they’ve had WonderCon as a test run. In all, it’s very likely that the frequency and location of the tap stations will be dramatically improved in San Diego.

Single Points of Failure

One of the challenges of an RFID system like this is the possibility of a single point of failure – if you only have one station and it has a technical problem, you have created a problem for many of your attendees.

This was a problem on Friday at the Microsoft Theater, where many attendees said their RFID badges were failing to read on the handheld scanners the security staff had there. This forced them to walk back to the convention center, wait in a long line at the help desk, and have their RFID badges reset. (In several cases, the reset still didn’t fix the problem, and attendees were upset to be missing their panel and walking back and forth between the Microsoft Theater and the convention center so much – it wasn’t particularly convenient.)

Rogers acknowledged the problem and said they tried to remedy it by providing a large number of handheld RFID scanners for Microsoft Theater security – they sent 20 devices – and have the badges scanned twice before entry to hopefully compensate for a possible faulty scanner.

Other Badge Complaints

The RFID portion of the badge is a thick plastic card, which is difficult to wedge into the lanyard’s clip. (This grumbling was made throughout the weekend but was only brought up once at Talk Back.)

It was also requested that attendee badges have names printed on them, or perhaps utilize an Anime Los Angeles-type system in which attendees can have their name or nickname printed on a sticker that is then placed over the badge. (WonderCon has never had attendee names printed on badges.)

RFID badges not having names printed on them is an issue for another reason, since some attendees said their group’s badges were handed to them in a stack – but if one has a technical failure, won’t it be more difficult to get the Help Desk to reset it if the wearer’s ID doesn’t match their RFID badge? This shouldn’t be an issue at Comic-Con, where all badges have names printed on them (and are being mailed in advance), but it’s worth noting for next year’s WonderCon.

Press, professional, panel speaker, and professional guest badges all have full names printed on them at pick-up.

Microsoft Theater

While some stood up to express their love of the Microsoft Theater, the issues with the security checks were brought up multiple times.

The Microsoft Theater required a full TSA-style security check at the entrance, including bag inspections and metal detectors. Throughout the weekend, what was considered a “prohibited item” seemed to vary: many cosplayers were turned away because of their prop weapons (despite having them tagged by convention center security), drinks were required to be discarded or emptied, and “professional” looking cameras were sometimes forced to be left with security while others were allowed to carry them in.

WonderCon posted a warning of the metal detectors on their website in advance, but the prohibited item list was never shared. Rogers seemed frustrated by the situation, saying that they were notified of these security policies only a few days before the show, and that they had told Microsoft Theater security to be more accommodating of cosplayers and prop weapons, at least allowing for them to be left with security.

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While parking was expensive at WonderCon, the Parking Panda pre-sale app was popular: one person asked if it could be utilized in Anaheim as well. (That’s another facility decision, not a WonderCon call.) Rogers did note that they always prefer when the convention centers pre-sell parking, but they have “yet to achieve that in Anaheim.”

Food Trucks

It turns out literally everyone everywhere hates convention center food and food trucks are our only savior. While food truck lineup and placement are usually a convention center decision (not a WonderCon decision), everyone will be crushed if someday the food trucks disappear.

Comic-Con Hotels

Rogers was asked about the upcoming SDCC hotel sale, to which he gave a cryptic response calling this year’s system similar but “more fair” and it’s the “same kind of process but with some wrinkles.” We now know that the 2016 Comic-Con hotel sale will be a random lottery: you can prepare with our tips and a look at the previous year’s forms here.

Other Stuff

  • One fan noticed the lack of crafters in Artists Alley this year; Rogers said he’d mention it to his floor management and see why the decision to place crafters in small press space was made. The difference between an Artists Alley table and a small press table can be hundreds of dollars.
  • Attendees thanked Rogers for the low price on WonderCon badges; compared to lots of other cons, WonderCon tickets are relatively cheap.
  • Rogers was pressed about possibly adding a third show to the Comic-Con stable, since the tagline on their WonderCon logo refers to a “family of conventions.” Rogers reminded everyone that they’ve called it a “family” of conventions for a while and until recently, they did have three shows (CCI ran the Alternative Press Expo in the Bay Area from 1995 to 2014, when they returned control of the show back to the original founder). “Three is a little bit more of a family, and now we’re two.” He said there are not any immediate plans for a third show and “asking on the Sunday of a show is probably not” going to get the most favorable answer. “Some of the staff would be up here beating me,” he joked.
  • One person praised the “how to draw panels,” saying they were “very entertaining” (yay!) and “a great time killer” (er…).
  • Trailers shown during breaks in the Masquerade program varied from animated children’s films to horror selections, and one parent asked for WonderCon to vet the trailer lineup better – many children attend (and compete in) the Masquerade.
  • On the other hand, one fan requested more horror programming overall at the show (so clearly there was some appeal for those horror trailers).
  • The line for t-shirt sales was very long, and one attendee requested they move to a pre-sale system that only allows for pickup at the show, which is what Comic-Con already uses.

All in all, a pretty calm Talk Back – RFID issues were to be expected, since this is CCI’s first effort with the technology. They got a lot of good feedback at Talk Back and throughout the show, so let’s hope that translates into improvements in the system for Comic-Con.

Did you have any problems at WonderCon last weekend? Let us know below in the comments.