10 Lessons from Comic-Con for Event Professionals

Managing large-scale events is a massive undertaking in timing, crowd control, and security but there’s a lot more to learn from Comic-Con than just handling people. Comic-Con delights and surprises. Check out these suggestions from Con for improving any size event.

Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC) is like walking into the Emerald City if the Emerald City was in Gotham and the Wizard of Oz was played by Wonder Woman. It’s vast, and you can’t possibly see everything you want to, even with press credentials. Sessions overlap and lines are not only a daytime occurrence. If you want to ensure your ability to get in to see some drooled-over and much anticipated screenings of comic book heroes brought to life, you should probably get in line now for next year (but don’t. The event is over, nothing more to see. Move on).

SDCC grew out of a comic book publishers gathering 46 years ago. It’s hard to imagine the humble beginnings of this event that now makes up nearly 25% of the San Diego Convention Center’s annual traffic. estimates that the event brings approximately $140,000,000 into the area.

Wouldn’t you love to have that kind of interest in your conference? Managing large scale conventions is an undertaking. Here are a few tips you can learn from this extreme Geek event.

Getting Away from it All

Virtual reality has been toyed with for years but it reared its head, quite literally, at this year’s Comic-Con. Attendees could virtually visit Conan O’Brien’s Office by putting on a large replica of his head.

Pokémon Go! was also a big hit with a session dedicated to it. Virtual and augmented reality aren’t just for early adopters anymore. They’ve now become mainstream interests and will continue to grow as several large gaming companies are bringing VR and AR to home systems in 2017. It might be time to start thinking about introducing more game aspects and augmented reality into your events.

Becoming Someone Else

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority had a hit when it used the “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” slogan. One of the reasons it was so wildly popular was because people loved the idea of becoming someone else in Sin City. This same concept is popular at most Comic-Cons, with cosplay (attendees dressing up like their favorite characters). Still, encouraging your attendees to be the person they want to be (whether that’s Batman or someone really interested in learning more about professional growth at your conference) is an appealing idea. Support what it is that each person wants to get out of your event and market it accordingly. Are people looking to get away or be part of something larger?

Interaction is the Goal

At the same time that virtual reality is hot, Comic-Con offered tons of hand-on exhibits and interactive opportunities that weren’t technology-based. One of these was a wall of Post-it Notes that enticed people to draw their own comic or post a message. These types of activities are perfect for creating ice breakers and giving people things to do as they wait. A wall like this can be a good idea outside of a dining room if you anticipate lines for food or a session room.

Delight with Giveaways

Events like Comic-Con are filled with giveaways but chances are the sponsors they secure have much larger budgets than most. The lesson to take from Comic-Con is not to simply give things away, although there was plenty of that. But there were also plenty of giveaways tied into the attendees doing something for them. For instance, Hot Wheels gave away free Star Wars trench cars to attendees who took a picture, uploaded it to Instagram, and used their hashtag. It’s a fun way to generate a buzz.

Create the Hype

Both Comic-Con and South by Southwest (SXSW), and other mega-conferences don’t strive to offer every attendee the same opportunities. They don’t try to scale everything for everyone. Some people will get to enjoy things that others don’t. This tactic (and necessity when you have a group this large) of giving exclusive opportunities generates a lot of talk, interest, content, and hype. For instance, at Comic-Con some lucky attendees got to ride in the Ghostbusters car thanks to the movie and a partnership with Lyft.

Set the Stage Early

If you have the type of conference or event that could benefit a large cross section of people (and not just a tiny niche), you may be well served to do what a lot of exhibitors did at Comic-Con. Exhibit space is like Super Bowl, expensive and limited. Many vendors took to the nearby streets in creative ways (Elvis on stilts impaled by a shark head, anyone?) to draw attention to their movie, game, or show.

You too can create an inviting atmosphere from the moment your attendees arrive. This sets the stage for a wonderful experience and makes whatever unfortunate travel delays that may have occurred getting there fade into the ether.

Plenty of Photo Opportunities

Photo sharing platforms are big and you can assume your attendees are using them. After all, everyone has a camera in their pocket. Great conference organizers, and savvy vendors, understand giving people fun backdrops, props, and other photo opportunities means people will share, share, share. Just don’t forget to encourage the use of a hashtag when they do.

People Don’t Take a Vacation from Their Lives

Even when people pay to attend your event, they’re not leaving their lives behind. This includes their favorite hobbies or relaxation activities. In the case of Comic-Con, there were a ton of people playing Pokemon Go!. Instead of trying to battle or ignore whatever the hottest trend is look for ways to embrace it. Go! entertained a lot of attendees as they stood in line and there are a lot of lines at Comic-Con.

Attendees Love the Unexpected

Organize surprises for your attendees that spread through word-of-mouth and last-minute invites. For instance, create a Twitter meet-up by sending out invitations over Twitter with the meeting hashtag or a bulletin message over your event app. These last-minute, impromptu meet-ups of fun giveaways get people really excited and “train” them to pay attention to the streams.

Don’t Overschedule

A frequent problem with large scale events like this is that attendees must do more than just select the sessions they want to attend. They must plan strategically to see what sessions are in the rooms before their desired session, and often they must leave their current session early before the coveted one fills up. This disrupts the session before it and means they don’t get the full benefit since they’re thinking about the next one and when to leave in order to secure a spot.

Don’t feel the need to place sessions back to back throughout the entire event. Allow for lots of time in between sessions so people don’t feel rushed. If you know you’ll have a very popular session, consider broadcasting it somewhere outside of the room, a place you want people to congregate, like an exhibit hall. This assures that even those who don’t get into the room can enjoy it and you get traffic in a place of your designation.

In Conclusion

Finally, managing a large-scale event of techies and self-professed nerds isn’t easy. Lines and disappointments are unavoidable, but if you find ways to surprise and delight attendees the positives far outweigh the negatives.