San Diego has signed a new 3-year deal with Comic-Con International, but organizers say a public vote next year on financing an expanded convention center will play a role in determining the convention’s long-term future here
With just two weeks to go before the start of Comic-Con, organizers of the annual pop culture extravaganza have agreed to a new three-year contract that ensures the annual convention will stay in San Diego through 2024.
While Comic-Con International’s existing agreement with the San Diego Convention Center Corp. is not due to expire until 2021, negotiations to book space for conventions the size of Comic-Con usually get underway years in advance. The agreement, which includes, as it has in the past, a significant discount for renting the center, was struck despite continuing concerns by organizers that the center is too small to accommodate all of the attendees and exhibitors who would like to participate in the always sold-out gathering.
Voters will be asked in March to approve an increase in San Diego’s hotel tax to finance an expanded convention center, as well as services for the homeless and road repairs.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the ballot initiative. After that, there will be a true indicator of what we can do and how we plan for the future,” said David Glanzer, spokesman for Comic-Con International, which is celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary this year. The convention starts with preview night on July 17 and runs through July 21.
“The bottom line is our attendance has been capped at 135 000 for the last few years, and the cost to put on the show hasn’t been capped. Certainly, nobody expects to pay the same price today for a loaf of bread that they paid 10, 20 years ago, but hopefully we can be here for a long time.”
The contract signing arrives with little of the fanfare typically reserved for the new pacts, which are usually for two- and three-year terms. The last couple of consummated contracts were announced during special news conferences in advance of the July convention during which city officials trumpeted Comic-Con’s long history in the city and the immense economic return the gathering delivers to the region.
No such news conference is planned this time, nor will there be a press release announcing the new contract, tourism officials said.
“It’s the 50th show for Comic-Con and they want the attention to be on that, so we didn’t plan any fanfare (for the signing),” said Clifford “Rip” Rippetoe, CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corp. “The contract is a big deal because the great thing about Comic-Con is not only does it create a huge amount of economic impact but they also put San Diego on the map internationally, and being able to identify that with a destination like ours, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office is equally pleased with the contract signing but mayoral aide Matt Awbrey stressed that city leaders won’t be fully satisfied until the convention center is expanded.
“It’s cause for celebration but a reminder that our work is not done,” said Awbrey, chief of civic and external affairs. “We want the public to know that the lack of exhibition space remains a fundamental problem for Comic-Con and other big conventions that want to bring business and jobs to San Diego, and we can’t say ‘mission accomplished’ until voters approve the citizens’ initiative in March to modernize and expand the convention center.”
Comic-Con’s willingness to stay in San Diego through 2024 hinged in part — as it often does — on executing agreements with individual hotels in central San Diego to cap increases on room rates. While not all hotels in the convention room block have finished executing their agreements with Comic-Con, there will be about 60 properties accounting for 14,000 rooms on peak nights participating, said Joe Terzi, CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, which negotiates the contracts for San Diego’s larger conventions.
The hotel agreements with Comic-Con generally allow for no more than a 2 percent annual increase in discounted room block rates for each of the three years, said Terzi. Without the contractual agreements, hotels would be free to significantly raise their rates given the high demand for rooms during the convention.
Nightly rates for this year’s Comic-Con hotels range from a low of $187 at the Days Inn Hotel Circle in Mission Valley to a high of $456 for a “grand king” room at the Pendry hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter.
“The hotels have worked very well with us, so have the center and the city, which has enabled us to stay here as long as we have,” said Glanzer, who acknowledged that convention and visitor bureaus in other cities periodically contact organizers about the possibility of relocating. “But it is challenging and there is a lot of negotiating.”
As part of its contractual agreements going back many years, Comic-Con International is given a significant discount for the rental of the convention facility. For 2022, for example, organizers will pay the center $174,216, a rate reduction of $316,834 from the normal pricing. By 2024, the required payment will increase to $177,027, which is the equivalent of a $370,673 discount.
Glanzer has explained in the past that the cost of putting on the convention increases exponentially over the years and that the discounts help defray those rising expenses. Comic-Con’s revenues, though, have risen as well over time. It is not uncommon for the operators of convention facilities to extend rental discounts in hopes of luring larger, more lucrative meetings and trade shows.