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A convention that began from scratch in 1970 is a shining example of how success comes simply from engaging with your customers and understanding their needs, says Errol Oh

This article was first published in the October Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Maybe people should stop calling Comic-Con International in San Diego a geek fest. It’s a dismissive and inadequate label when you consider that during the few days every year that the show is held, it dominates the world’s showbiz headlines.

An article on MovieWeb, an entertainment website, says this year’s instalment of Comic-Con in July was ‘nothing if not a cavalcade of breaking news stories every five seconds’.

The show began more than four decades ago as a comic book convention, but has grown well beyond that. Today it is more a centre of pop culture. That’s a fair description of a major platform for movie and TV studios to reach out to the media, fans and audience. If you want to generate maximum buzz about a film or series, you make it a point to offer something exclusive at Comic-Con.

In addition, it’s a focal point for animation, games, science fiction, fantasy and horror… Yes, this is the stuff that geeks love, but that alone does not explain why Comic-Con has drawn an annual sell-out crowd of 130,000 in recent times, and gets the global attention that any convention organiser would gladly give his right arm to have.

The fact is, the show is a huge success simply because it’s the ideal medium for certain industries to engage with their most committed and influential customers. And that makes Comic-Con itself a business triumph.

According to the San Diego Convention Center Corporation (SDCCC), which runs the show’s main venue, Comic-Con has for years been the top economic generator among the dozens of conventions hosted by the Californian city. It estimated Comic-Con 2013 would inject $175.4m into the local economy. Back in October 2010, when confirming that Comic-Con would remain at the San Diego Convention Center until 2015, the SDCCC estimated the show’s economic impact between 2013 and 2015 would be close to $500m.

San Diego fought hard to win that decision for Comic-Con to stay put, as it had faced competition from Anaheim and Los Angeles. A pivotal factor was the venue expansion plan to cope with Comic-Con’s growing needs. Last October, the city’s mayor announced the Comic-Con commitment has been extended to 2016, allowing more time to obtain financing for the expansion.

One may imagine that Comic-Con is driven by a band of entrepreneurial and marketing geniuses. That does not seem to be the case, and it certainly was not so at the beginning. The roots of Comic-Con go back to a one-day event in March 1970 called San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Minicon; about 100 people turned up. A group of fans of comics, movies and science fiction put it together to collect money and drum up interest for a larger convention.

The first incarnation of Comic-Con was the three-day San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Con in August the same year. It had more than 300 attendees.

‘From the beginning, the founders of the show set out to include not only the comic books they loved, but also other aspects of the popular arts that they enjoyed and felt deserved wider recognition, including films and science fiction/fantasy literature,’ says the Comic-Con website.

That appears to still be the guiding principle. The show is presented by a non-profit educational corporation ‘dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution
of comics to art and culture’.

Cynics may argue that Comic-Con has transformed into a Hollywood showcase, but the truth is, the show works only if it matches the passion and expectation of fans. After all, that is how business is – the best are those who understand what the customers want and provide exactly that.

Errol Oh is executive editor of The Star

Last updated: 10 Oct 2013