29 MARCH 2016
With Hotel Day lurking ominously around the corner, you might not have San Diego Comic-Con parties on your mind - not yet. But if you want to host an event at the Con, it's time to start planning. I don't mean some big splashy studio party, but rather a fan meet-up, dinner, networking event, happy hour, 12 step meeting, cosplay photo shoot, nerd contest or some other event.
A few things to keep in mind:
Location is everything.
Most likely you want to be downtown. It seems like parties and festivals that happen out of walking distance perform okay, but draw more non-attendees than not. Sometimes tying an event name to SDCC is just a marketing ploy to draw in locals who want to commingle with strangers. But if you're genuinely trying to organize something for attendees, you'll have the most success if you find a spot nearish the convention center. People just get too tired at night to start Ubering into other parts of town past a certain hour.
Consider hotel space.
I know everyone wants to have their event at a trendy Gaslamp watering hole or fancy restaurant, but those spots are in demand and often expensive to rent. Yet the bigger downtown hotels usually have plenty of space - small conference rooms and meeting spaces. Yes, the lighting, chairs and carpet usually scream Corporate Training Session but you can use a few creative tricks with decor and lights to change the ambiance. Last year you could book some meetup rooms through SDCC, but you can also contact hotels directly and see what kind of deal you can make. Some might want you to place an internal catering order, others won't care if you order pizza or carry in your own alcohol.
Consider hotel rooms.
I've seen people pay ungodly sums to book a space for 2 hours, when they could have just rented a suite overnight with enough room for 50 people to mingle. Keep in mind lots of people would rather go to a hotel room party than a formal event, because it seems more "insider" and just more informal and fun, as opposed to one of those dreary promotional events where people stand around awkwardly and wonder who each other are.
Consider churches, libraries and businesses.
Churches are fantastic for loaning space for 12 step programs and charity groups, but some will also be open to other events. Ditto local businesses who might spot a marketing opportunity if you co-brand the promotion. The San Diego central library has plenty of space and has hosted events in the past. Start calling around and see what kind of deal you can strike.
See if you can rent someone's boat.
I've only known 1 person who did this but it worked. They paid a reasonable sum to host a party on someone's yacht at the marina and it wound up attracting a fair number of bystanders. Again, people love to feel they are going to a private Comic-Con party instead of something sponsored and promotional.
Get it in writing.
A friend of mine wrangled an agreement from a Gaslamp restaurant to give him their back room on Thursday night of the Con so he could host a private dinner for about 30 people. He is most definitely a name in the comics industry, with considerable clout. That didn't stop him from getting bumped a few weeks before the Con for a "real" celebrity (we never found out who) and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. The restaurant blamed it on a "mix up," a staff member who no longer worked there, etc. This isn't an unusual story, given how hard it can be to find space during SDCC and the ruthless hierarchy in play. So whatever someone agrees to - draft up a contract and make them sign it. An email doesn't count.
Find a fresh angle beyond cosplay contests.
A lot of bars will host cosplay contests during SDCC, then wonder why they're not a bigger hit. The answer: there are a few gazillion other cosplay contests happening and a lot of cosplayers spend their nights in something comfortable after a long itchy day posing in their costume. What can work if you're trying to lure attendees to your saloon: a nerd trivia contest, a speakeasy, a movie night, a board game competition, a fandom meetup, something Hollywood- or collectible-themed, or a special guest. On that note...
Look for a partner.
Maybe you can't afford a space on your own; maybe you're willing to do all the grunt work in exchange for someone's luminous brand. Or, as mentioned above, maybe you want to feature a special guest. That last is more attainable than you might think. There are numerous influencer marketing companies that will let you sign up as a venue or outlet, then connect you with artists, entertainers and brands that are looking to promote themselves. That sounds horribly obnoxious, I realize, but this can be as simple as a night of free pizza and beer with a certain writer or comedian. Not everyone is ducking their fans during SDCC; lower-profile personalities will often look for an opportunity to extend their fan base. Ditto retailers and pretty much anyone with something to sell.
Again, this doesn't mean you need a huge budget. Socialize it and publish it in all relevant digital communities. Even if you despise Reddit or a certain fan forum, just post it and move on. Ask SDCC bloggers to add it to their calendars and listings. If you're skilled at SEO, throw up a landing page with an Eventbrite registration.
Have a plan B.
Maybe 3 people show up. Or you have a line of people out the door who are cursing your terrible planning ability. Or someone forgot to bring the vodka and cupcakes. Hosting an event that goes wrong is an awful feeling, so think up your worst case scenario in advance and have a strategy on tap.
Don't worry about being fancy.
Comic-Con attendees aren't looking for oysters and champagne. They mostly want to have fun with people who share their interests. So if you think an event is worth organizing only if it's somewhere showy, stop that line of thought and focus on bringing people together. That's really what people want and what they remember later when they look back at the Con.