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L.A., Anaheim vie to steal Comic-Con from San Diego

The huge comic book and pop culture convention is outgrowing the San Diego Convention Center. All three cities want the crowds and their tourist dollars.

March 20, 2010|By Hugo Martín

Call it a clash of the titans.

San Diego has been home to the wildly successful comic book and pop culture convention Comic-Con International for nearly 40 years. But with the four-day festival surging in popularity and outgrowing the San Diego Convention Center, Los Angeles and Anaheim are vying to steal the lucrative show away.

"Wherever it goes, that would be a very significant convention to land," said Doug Ducate, president of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, a Dallas-based nonprofit group that tracks the convention and trade show industry.

The organizers are under contract to stay put until 2012 but are contemplating a future home with more meeting space and cheaper hotel rooms.

Convention organizers say they plan to stay in Southern California, narrowing their options to San Diego, Los Angeles and Anaheim. All three cities have offered proposals to host the celebration of graphic novels, sci-fi, fantasy and superheroes.

For good reason: They want the crowds.

Every summer, the convention draws about 125,000 attendees, who spend about $60 million on hotels, meals, transportation and other expenses during the gathering.

This year's event will be held July 22-25. Tickets for three of the four days are already sold out.

The efforts to entice Comic-Con to leave San Diego are the latest example of an ongoing rivalry between Los Angeles and Anaheim to snag the nation's biggest and most profitable conventions and trade shows.

Each of the cities has its own strengths.

Los Angeles can emphasize its proximity to the Hollywood studios behind the flood of movies about superheroes, aliens and space travel.

Anaheim's selling point is Disneyland, the popular, 85-acre theme park within walking distance of its convention center.

Meanwhile, San Diego may try to keep Comic-Con by pointing to its long history with the convention as well as the ocean views from the doorstep of its convention center.

With the resurgence of graphic novels and the booming popularity of superhero-themed movies, Comic-Con has grown to reach maximum capacity at the 615,700-square-foot San Diego Convention Center, said David Glanzer, a spokesman for Comic-Con International.

Because of the space limitation, the convention has had to limit the number of attendees to approximately 125,000. "Capping our attendance also caps our income," Glanzer said.

In the last few years, visitors have also complained about the high price of hotel rooms in San Diego, he said.

But relocating could have drawbacks. Many people may attend the convention partly because of its seaside location, next to San Diego's Gaslamp district, Ducate said.

"Any time you move, there is some risk," he said. "There is a comfort zone in where you are."

Comic-Con's plea for more space and better hotel rates has prompted San Diego to try to meet its needs.

In the last few weeks, the San Diego Convention Center has pressed local hotels to offer convention-goers better deals in the future.

"So far it has been a very positive response," said Steven Johnson, a spokesman for San Diego Convention Center Corp.

He added that the city is also thinking about expanding the convention center. It's considering proposals to buy adjacent property and increase the total exhibit space to about 840,000 square feet, he said.

Anaheim, meanwhile, can offer the largest exhibit hall space in the region -- 815,000 square feet -- plus close proximity to Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure Park.

A spokesman for the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau said Anaheim could offer Comic-Con not only more meeting space but also better hotel rates.

The Los Angeles Convention Center has less exhibit space than Anaheim's -- 720,000 square feet. But with the development of downtown's L.A. Live entertainment complex, Los Angeles can now point to a thriving night life near the convention center.

L.A. Live features the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre, the smaller Club Nokia, a 14-screen movie house and several trendy restaurants such as Katsuya and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill.

Hotels within walking distance of the downtown Los Angeles exhibit halls are in short supply, but that problem was partly addressed last month with the opening of the 1,001-room JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotel complex next to the convention center.

"We have submitted a bid for 2013," said Mark Liberman, president and chief executive of LA Inc., the Los Angeles convention and visitors bureau. "We believe our package to be very, very competitive."

Still, Johnson, the San Diego Convention Center spokesman, believes the biggest threat to lure Comic-Con away is Anaheim, which can offer thousands of low-rate hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center. Anaheim has approximately 4,500 hotel rooms within walking distance, and Los Angeles has nearly 2,000 rooms. San Diego has about 7,000.

In downtown Los Angeles, Johnson said, many Comic-Con visitors would have to take buses or taxis to far-flung areas of the city to find inexpensive lodging or beach hotels.

Glanzer, the Comic-Con spokesman, said convention organizers hope to make a decision on a possible move in the next few weeks.

"If we move, it's going to be a hard sell to our attendees," he said. "If we stay without addressing the issues that we have, it's going to be a hard sell. Our work is cut out for us."

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