By Gabriel Neeb
The Comic Con International: San Diego holds a Talkback Panel every year to try and figure out what went right and what went wrong. The format of the Talkback Panel does not lend itself to formation of easy narrative. One representative from CCI sits behind a desk and answers questions from the line of convention attendees, taking down notes and suggestions, and responding when necessary. This year, the task fell to John Rogers, President of Comic Con International’s Board of Directors, to moderate the panel.
I attend Talkback to start the process of bringing myself down from the experience of CCI. Four or five days of intense exposure to fantastic events and ideas alters attitudes and removes you from the experience of daily life. I love the intensity, but I need to land in the real world with the wheels down. Talkback helps to lower my mental landing gear.
When there are few problems in a given year, the panel can be full of compliments. When there are big problems, Talkback can be unpleasant.
So how, based on the questions formed by the experience of attendees, did the convention do this year? It did well- which is great for the convention. However, there are some troubling aspects that need to be addressed in the future. If you want to skip to the end, I’ll save you the trouble. I’m sure CCI will make substantial fixes to these areas, but they’ll need another Talkback panel in 2013. After all, a perfect convention wouldn’t need feedback.
The most troubling failure had to do with the treatment of disabled attendees getting into panels and having access to autograph lines and giveaways, the sort of things most attendees take for granted. For a handful of panels, and at least one panel each in Hall H and Ballroom 20, the security guards and line monitors took the number of specifically designated disabled seats (seats with a red covering) as the upper limit of how many disabled Attendees could be allowed into that panel. For instance, one attendee cited an instance where the guards allowed only 84 disabled individuals into Ballroom 20 because there were only 84 seats with the red covering (Ballroom 20 has around 3500 seats). This tactic was repeated elsewhere by what I hope were ill-informed and confused personnel. Another story related by an Attendee involved a woman on a walker being removed from an autograph line because she was “too bulky” (the words told to her as she was kicked out). There is no happy ending to any of the stories, but I took some level of comfort in the moderator’s extensive note-taking and additional questions as each attendee described their experience.
The incidents themselves are troubling enough, and they indicate a failure of training and communication with the support staff necessary to manage tens of thousands of people with tens of thousands of physical and mental differences. To make matters worse, CCI has had a traditionally robust and often commendable section dedicated to disabled services. While there’s usually one or two complaints at a given Talkback panel (out of two or three dozen attendees commenting), at least a third of the attendees had some story or request. With the culture getting unhealthier and the number of military personnel leaving service for one physical or mental issue or another, attention must be paid to this or CCI, and society in general, will have larger problems in the near future.
A popular topic at Talkback has been how accessible the big panels of Hall H and Ballroom 20 have been. This year, these rooms were packed with fans that spent 15 to 20 hours in the outdoors to get in. I have one friend who spent six hours and didn’t get into the Firefly Reunion. A number of ideas were floated by attendees including a “Hall H” only pass- which was quickly downplayed by the moderator and the groan of the audience as such a creature would violate the conventions purpose of “celebrating the popular arts.” A more accepted (by moderator and audience) suggestion, given the ubiquity of media devices attendees possess (iPads, iPhones, etc), was for the big panels to be streamed to attendees. As the price would probably be less than an actual televised transmission (which has been looked into and dismissed as prohibitively expensive), it was believed that this was a more acceptable compromise for exposure.
Physical presence, the actual number of attendees in seats, was addressed by some attendees suggesting the use of Petco Park for panels. The moderator quickly dismissed this as at least two thirds of the seats are in the sun, which might be fine in April, but not so much in July.
Another suggestion which often comes up in Talkback was the possibility of clearing rooms, but this time there was a twist. One section of a particular panel would be “Current Panel Only” seating: attendees would have a special line for a single panel- they would be led in to those seats and then forced out at that panel’s end. This produced a positive response from the audience, though the moderator was a bit confused by the concept and downplayed the possibility since it involved the creation of more lines.
The Talkback Panel reflected positively on the organization and execution of CCI this year. With the exception of the horror stories about disabled access, most of the attendees seemed more interested in suggesting ideas and procedures. Even what might have been the controversial move to place 2013 registration for attendees solely on-line in August was greeted with satisfaction by a few attendees, even if there was some confusion as to how it would work (same as regular registration). The moderator did say that registration for professionals was a mess and work was underway to improve that area.
The atmosphere of Talkback was much more positive than the last one I attended in 2011, where attendee after attendee castigated CCI for the asinine pre-registration procedures at the Manchester Hyatt. Aside from the problems mentioned above, I take comfort in the willingness of CCI organizers to listen and take abuse. It means a better convention, if not a perfect one.
At this point, I would like to encourage future attendees to attend Talkback Panels in the future. The City of San Diego is trying to approve an expansion of the convention center. For various reasons I’ve developed as a resident of San Diego, I’m pretty sure it’ll happen. If it does, something needs to happen which no one has probably considered. The organizers of CCI: SD need to have a role in the planning. It is the biggest client of the convention center, and their input can have a positive affect on future conventions since they could modify designs that pleased architects, politicians, and builders- but not attendees. And CCI:SD can only provide good input, if attendees provide good ideas for that input.