Rationing hits the San Diego Comic Convention
The San Diego Comic-Con is about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Long-time members have been complaining for several years about the shift in focus away from comics, but unless con management can cut a Gordian riddle, long-time members aren’t going to matter. The people who attend are going to be those willing to either spend 4+ hours in line at the previous con, or who are willing to time their lives around the five to ten minutes that online registration is available and do all the tricks that make it more likely you’ll get a session through that works. Which may be what they want—the con celebrated fandom this year in several panels, and it takes a special kind of fanatic to put up with this kind of registration rush.
The problem is that those fanatics are probably not comics fanatics, nor are they the long-term members who have watched the con grow up along with them.
Yes, Comic-Con has been selling out for years, but the system has worked well enough that there’s been no mad rush. The people who know they’re going to be going next year get their ticket at the con or a few weeks after resting from the con. Other people trickle in as they firm up their plans. The World Fantasy Convention sold out in 2011 without any mad rush pretty much the same way.
Last year, to sign up for Comic-Con 2011, all I did was walk up to the pre-reg booth and fill out a form. If there was a line, it wasn’t worth remembering. This year on Thursday, I walked to the registration area a few minutes after they opened—and three hours before they were supposed to close—and they were already sold out. So, Friday, I arrived a little over an hour before they opened, and barely got in—there were only about 25 people behind me in line. It took over four hours to get tickets for 2012—I walked out at 10:55 with my two sets of tickets in hand. Sets of tickets: they are individual tickets instead of a four-day pass, because the four-day passes were gone before I got to the cashiers.1 Preview night? Forget it. No more Wednesday at the Field for me.2
What happened between 2010 and 2011 to increase demand, and during a recession year at that? In the past several years, Comic-Con has always sold out, but only after several months. If you didn’t buy at the con, you could still go home, talk to your family, and have time to decide if you could make it next year. But following the 2010 convention, someone screwed up the online registration, bottling up all 2011 registrations into a single day in February. There was a mad rush, and a lot of people who would have had no trouble getting in during previous years did not get in this year because of it.
The powers that be at Comic-Con realized that this meant there was going to be a higher demand for 2012 pre-registration at the 2011 convention. They panicked, and doubled down on their mistake. The problem was that their computer problems had created an artificially-heightened scarcity online. Their solution was to create an even more drastic artificial scarcity for at-con sales.
When things are scarce, more people buy them, even if they wouldn’t have bought them had they not been scarce. So Thursday was swamped, and this made Friday worse than Thursday. It will make 2012 worse than 2011. This kind of rationing quickly spirals out of control. It may already be unsolvable. People are buying tickets whether they know they need them or not. Increasing scarcity will only make that worse. The more scarce they are, the more people are compelled to buy them. Getting in to Comic-Con is now a job in itself, and it’s going to quickly become self-selecting: only the people who enjoy that “job” will go to the con.
The only solution (assuming the convention organizers don’t want the con filled with people like me who are willing to forego showers and buying stuff in order to get tickets3) is to create enough abundance to make people unafraid that waiting will mean missing out on a valuable experience. But they are already at capacity in San Diego, so that’s going to be difficult. The con did always sell out, it’s just that you used to be able to wait.
- The first step is to open online registration ASAP. It should have opened the day after the convention closed. The sooner registration opens, the more abundant tickets are compared to the number of people who know they’re going to be able to make it. This is especially necessary when people think tickets will run out in seconds, because when people think there’s scarcity they will buy even if they don’t know they’re going to be able to make it. Going into the reservation room, they asked each person how many tickets they were going to buy. Nobody within earshot said “one”. Everybody was buying two tickets. I saw families, all of them in line, and each person buying two tickets. Scarcity begets scarcity. Opening earlier has worked in the past. Comic-Con parking used to be a mad rush to get beneath the convention center. People used to fill the streets early trying to get in well before the con opened. But adding several weeks to the potential “line” by selling online parking tickets ended that; there is no mad rush to buy the online parking tickets. They took several weeks to sell out this year, even as the con tickets themselves sold out in minutes. Increasing the time available reduces the mad rush.
- Sell more than a year ahead. Add abundance by doubling the number of seats, by doubling the number of years. Or tripling them or more. The sooner registration opens, the more abundant tickets are, so opening multiple years helps. As long as tickets are perceived as “scarce”, next year’s tickets will sell out immediately. But tickets for the year after that, and the year after that? Probably not. It depends on how well they’ve trained their attendees to just grab for whatever they can buy because they don’t know what is left. The best case would be if they could sell for an infinite number of years ahead of time, because no one can buy an infinite number of tickets.4
- Consider moving from yearly registration to using a waiting list. You can sign with your friends at the same time and in groups, so that you are all guaranteed to get in to the same year. Pay what is currently the restocking fee to get on the list. Any person can only be on the list once. You can put yourself back onto the end of the list as soon as you’re taken off the front. This means it’s no longer a yearly meeting of the tribe, but it also means people won’t have to rush. If the con does it right, this could give them time to expand and reduce the waiting list to under a year again.
I’ve seen other ideas, such as Tom Galloway’s lottery. The problem with lotteries is that they further cause a self-selection; it privileges people who don’t care whether their friends get in, for example (or who don’t have any friends). It selects out people who need to make their plans before the lottery is held. It will also privilege people who can manage to acquire more lottery tickets through tricking the system. Which, because this is a form of rationing, people will do.
The real solution is simple, but conceptually difficult: stop trying to ration tickets. Rationing creates scarcity where it doesn’t exist, and it exacerbates scarcity that does exist. It’s like trying to force more and more water through a smaller and smaller funnel. Open up unlimited registration at the con, open up online registration immediately after the con. Make signups unlimited while there are still a limited number of people ready to buy. Expand when they can to make room for more people. Rationing, however, never works, unless your goal is to create a mess as pressure builds up around tighter and tighter access.
There are always weak points. In this case, the pressure is going to force itself into the other avenues of getting into the con: professionals, exhibitors, employees, and volunteers. “Knowing somebody” will be the way to get into the con. So they’ll have to start clamping down on that access too, which will open up a black market in backdoor access. That’s what rationing does.
What is the difference between four one-day passes and one four-day pass? Four one-day passes were a little cheaper than a four-day pass (and I’m not talking about the four-day passes with preview night), and they’ll require more work on my part as I’ll need to refill my badge holder each morning.
What is the difference for the convention? They need to give me a new badge each morning. Not sure what the point is of charging less for more work.↑
Which isn’t that big of a deal because they started doing a special comic-con menu this year, and it doesn’t include the Irish breakfast.↑
The critique applies even to online-only selling. It’s going to be a certain kind of person who can focus only on buying tickets at a specific time rather than job, family, friends, or well, a life.↑
The World Fantasy Convention sells two to three years ahead of time. 2011 is sold out, but you can buy tickets for 2012 and 2013 if you know you’re going to be in either Toronto or Brighton, respectively.↑