The Way You Attend Comic Cons Is Changing Right Freakin' Now

Credit: NYCC
Credit: ReedPOP

Comic conventions are big business these days—and the way you get in the door is changing fast.

Comic-Con in San Diego is the juggernaut with 130,000 attendees, and Reed Exhibitions’ New York Comic Con is creeping up fast with 116,000 last year. A nascent con in Denver just raked in 48,000 peeps, and would you believe there are two competing interests in Albuquerque? It’s true.

Quarter boxes and homemade superhero costumes aside, there’s no denying that comic cons can generate millions of dollars based on ticket sales alone—before you even start to think about sponsorships or exhibitor booth sales. And if there’s one thing con promoters like, it’s protecting their millions of dollars. So welcome to the future—your ticket with soon include a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip.

New York Comic Con is first out of the gate. Every attendee badge at the con this year, which takes place Oct. 10-13, will contain a unique RFID chip. Attendees will be required to tap in and tap out when entering or exiting the building. Reed said security is the main factor driving the change.

“By securing the entire building, we assure the only people in the building are verified, ticketed fans and customers,” said Lance Fensterman, global vice president for ReedPOP, Reed’s division for entertainment events. “This means less crowding for everyone. We will also be able to know in real time the exact number of people in the building at any given moment.”

Fensterman said Reed is also interested in “cutting down on badge sharing, gate crashing and counterfeit badges. Not only does this tick us off, it’s totally unfair to the people who bought tickets. Why should they be overcrowded by cheaters?”

Badge-sharing and related ticket dodges have become a massive problem in the business. Even at 100,000+ attendees, many cons sell out, pushed up against the limit of capacity and fire code. Tickets are coveted items, and the chiselers are everywhere.

And while RFID really can't prevent ticket scalping/sharing, it can help prevent counterfeiting. During 2012’s NYCC, people with boxes filled with counterfeit badges were reportedly peddling them on the sidewalk in sight of the Jacob Javits Center.

Beth Widera is the owner and operator of the Orlando MegaCon, a comic con with 66,000 attendees. She gives exhibitors three passes per 10-by-10 foot booth for staff needs. She used to do four. “Unfortunately, some exhibitors sold them to kids,” she said. “I hate that, but it’s impossible to stop them.”

RFID is a more secure system, with additional enhancements as well. Fensterman said that this year at NYCC, attendees will also be able to check in to their social networks at various areas of the show and hinted that, “in future years, it will bring a whole new level of interactivity between fans and fans, fans and artists, fans and exhibitors.”

Said interactivity will likely vibrate in your pocket. Sake of argument, if you choose to sign up your mobile number when you register your badge, your RFID and mobile number will be linked. It’s possible that when you pass by a RFID reader 20 yards from the Coca-Cola concession, you’ll get a coupon for 50 cents off a Coke beamed to your smartphone.

Adding personal information is strictly elective for NYCC at this point, but their terms clearly state that your badge “will be directly associated with you based on the personal information you provide during the activation process.” Reed is asking for information on a voluntary basis, with the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down being a bundle of 50 free digital comics from comiXology.

That information, properly used, is worth a lot more than 50 digital comics to some. Make no mistake: Reed Exhibitions does 500 events yearly, with more than 7 million attendees total. They know what they’re doing. Buddy Scalera is a SVP of content strategy at Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide. He’s also a lifelong comic fan who’s attended dozens of conventions, NYCC included.

“There are some valuable, sellable data sets that can emerge from the RFID,” Scalera said. “Mobile marketing is still a nascent industry so I think they need to be smart about how they use the data they collect. Right now, they have a very, very valuable asset, which is their proprietary opt-in list.”

As to tracking, Fensterman said that this year, readers will only be located at building entrances and exits. He does hold out the possibility that additional RFID readers will be added in subsequent years. “We may elect to do that if we see value and invest in additional infrastructure. This year is about successful implementation of NYCC ID. Once that is done, the options are pretty limitless of how we might use the technology to improve the experience for our fans.”

Reed has not entered this territory without doing their homework. They attended Coachella and other events where RFID-embedded tickets are the only way to get in, and rolled out a small-scale trial at their Fantasy Football Fest. Comic-Con in San Diego is also looking around, kicking tires. They’ve examined the RFID ticket systems at other large events, and will be seeing what happens at NYCC.

"We've noticed that whether it be the Olympics, Coachella, or any other large, popular event, there are still problems,” said David Glanzer, Comic-Con International’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations. “I don't know that anyone has the solution yet, but still, we're looking at it.”

Privacy concerns are always there. Each RFID tag has its own unique ID, 96 bits long—enough for every human being on the planet, four times over. If any convention operation wanted to, and was willing to go the expense of multiple readers, they could track the "Stan Lee tag" and find out where Stan the Man is at any time on the floor.

Still, Scalera thinks Big Brother is not knocking on the door. “Looking forward, it's unlikely that NYCC would do 1-to-1 tracking,” he said. “It's just not worth the effort or cost. But if there was a sponsor, it could become a convention reality in the future. And people worry about privacy, but really, that's just silly. You are going to a massive live event. You've surrendered your anonymity long before you've stepped into the hall.”

So for the time being, don’t expect Reed or anyone to be tracking Stan Lee, even to dispatch security to help him cross the floor if he’s running late for an appearance. “In theory I guess we could, but we don't plan to,” said Reed’s show producer. “My last name is ‘Fensterman,’ not Orwell.”

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