Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) once again invaded downtown Seattle for the weekend. To the dismay of many attendees, the world of Comic Cons doesn’t run on magic or any other supernatural force. No, like any business, it runs on a combination of propriety software, business intelligence, mobile apps and Microsoft Office. And when a convention center with thick concrete walls and overtaxed WiFi threaten to disrupt communications, the team turns to walkie-talkies.
Ahead of the ECCC, plenty of technology went into creating the experience. I had an opportunity to sit down with Mike Armstrong, operations manager for ReedPop, the company that produces the convention.
First of all, Armstrong was candid: Like many businesses, ReedPop has acquired and built software over a number of years, and much of it doesn’t talk to each other. We agree that software to integrate these systems, generating insight and operational efficiencies, is perhaps the big challenge for businesses in the 21st century.
There was a little technology that starts to look like magic to attendees. Beacons were strategically placed around the Con and tied into the app. Beacons were used at previous cons by prototype game BattleKasters, but now this proximity technology is being used to remind those walking through the floor what’s happening directly within reach. The app welcomed attendees to different sub-locations, like The Block. It also helped keep sponsors happy by telling them to stop to taste a new Mountain Dew product when visiting the Sheraton gaming location, for example. Of course, for major events, the app also used time to push notifications out about MainStage events so those who didn’t create their own schedules still knew what was going on.
Perhaps more magical and more meaningful to ReedPop’s strategy is the use of location data from the conference app to produce heat maps for where attendees wandered in the city. As one of the larger conferences held in Seattle, this provides ReedPop with good data to share with local businesses about capacity and promotions, and to share with the city of Seattle to consider opportunities, and to think about how to better deploy any services related to the 85,000 or so people who attend the ECCC. Armstrong says, “This is a perfect city for a comic con because everything is so central.”
Moving people can also mean moving them to action. With limited access, as well as limited time, not everyone can attend ECCC but, unlike its distant cousin in San Diego, main stage panels and appearances are broadcast live over Twitch. They also live broadcast events from two other stages during the event.
“We want as many people to see the content as possible.”
Their goal, even if someone can’t attend, is to connect them to the community, perhaps have them attend another Con, to watch a show they might not have heard of, perhaps even to visit their local comic book shop and pick up some new issues on a Wednesday, some day in the future.
Planning and Sales
Before ReedPOP can deliver real-time experiences to their attendees, they have to do a lot of blocking and tackling to coordinate everything from which booth is where, who has paid for space, getting attendees tickets and coordinating show operations.
Like many conferences with show floors, ReedPop employs ExpoCAD to design the floor layout. This process starts with input from the Washington State Convention Center’s layout and dimension data. ReedPop designers then parse out the floor so that the sales team can present options to exhibitors. Prior to sales, the basic drawings are cleaned up and annotated by internal designers. Another pass is made ahead of the show to transform the illustrations for the conference guide.
The Registration Process
The first time conference attendees see technology is the registration process, which is run by ECCC vendor Showclix. Now that ECCC is selling out, it is important that tickets be sold effectively, and for ECCC, this means invoking the waiting-room-to-transaction experience that has become satirical fodder in pop culture. The reality is a huge number of people want to attend comic cons (which now take place nearly every weekend somewhere in America) and these “waiting rooms” act as a valve to keep servers from crashing during the initial onslaught of requests.
Unlike some conferences, ReedPOP still mails tickets, so that people don’t need to wait in lines at ECCC in order to pick them up, or to line up for ticket issuing.
They do, however, tie a unique code to each attendee, which they document in the e-mail receipt. That ID is used to register tickets, and that turns on access to the MyShow features.
Given the complexity of the schedules, I asked Mike what system they used to manage the complex relationships between panels, celebrity signings, and photo ops.
It turns out that scheduling is so complex and so dynamic that it can’t be done well with any existing applications. They do have their own proprietary schedule capture tool, but Armstrong said it is really two people, their scheduler and the person who handles celebrity relationships. The output of their temporal juggling work is done “is largely done in Excel’ before being released to design for the conference guide and the website. “These are two people who have done this for a very long time who can catch things when they can see conflicts.”
During the show, the focus is on keeping everyone safe and happy.
Happiness at a Con comes from enjoying unique experiences that can only be had there. That means tracking your time so you don’t end up too far from your favorite celebrity when it’s time for a signing, finding your favorite artist on the floor, or queuing up for one of the many show exclusives. And these days, helping people stay on schedule and find their way around, means delivering an app.
As any software developer will tell you, coordinating systems integrations doesn’t always go as smoothly as desired. The new ECCC show app from mobile developer Aloompa didn’t get integrated with MyShow ahead of this year’s ECCC, which resulted in personal scheduling information from the web not being fed into the app.
But the app did provide its own personal scheduling capability, integration with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, along with ECCC’s own news feed, the lists of guests and their panels, signings, and photo ops. The app included a show floor listing and a map. They also created an ECCC photo hunt feature to gamify the show. The app’s push notifications were instrumental in keeping people informed of cancellations or revised panel locations.
On the safety front, the biggest operational issue is a “Code Adam,” which means lost child or lost parents. An image of the person or persons is immediately dispatched via enterprise messaging app Lua to everyone on the staff, creating an immediate network of human sensors who can keep an eye out. This type of unified reaction wasn’t even possible a few years ago. Now it is a critical operating expectation that saves frayed nerves and tears.
Planning for the Future
Like comic book heroes Tony Stark and Mr. Fantastic, ReedPop is always looking for ways to innovate. Armstrong is laser-focused on lines.
“The goal for these shows, as we get to a certain critical mass is, how can I keep people out of lines as much as possible. Disney does it best. How can I keep people on the show floor, experiencing things, spending money with exhibitors, spending money with us, as opposed to somebody standing in line for three hours because they want to get into the ‘Walking Dead’ panel.”
Armstrong and team are looking at several technology innovations to help people experience more and stand around less. One answer is RFID tags, the other asynchronous transactions.
ReedPOP introduced RFID bands into their New York Comic Con venue about three years ago as a way of managing access to the Jacob Javits Center in New York. RFID was implemented initially to crack down on ticket counterfeiting, which was rampant at the New York event. They also found that RFID produces data about current counts of people throughout the center, including panel room counts. This data can then be used to look at trends, such as busiest times and most attended panels. RFID can also cut down issues like limited main room panel access by having credentials loaded on the tag. Look for all of those features, and more, at some point in ECCC’s future.
Armstrong said ReedPOP is also looking at enhancing the mobile app to deal with asynchronous transactions, such as ordering a show exclusive, paying through the app and then just going by to pick it up without waiting in another line. “We want to save people time and let them experience more. If people are today having, say, five great experiences when they visit ECCC, how much better is their experience going to be if they have seven great experiences?”
Better integrating sales and operations, more automated scheduling and improved communications will require continued innovation and system integration. And all of that work must happen while a continuous string of events pours out into the future. While ECCC may not run on magic, the team won’t turn away a little abracadabra when it get close to show time.