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Economics: Comic-Con's Impact More Cultural Than Financial

As published in San Diego News Network

by Erik Bruvold

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Like many, I enjoy the fact that San Diego plays host every year to ComicCon. My wife and I keep talking about going to it since we love pop culture. We know we would get some new inside news about LOST and Fringe, our favorite shows.

However, it is important to be realistic about its economic impact, especially in light of the fact that this event is presently the most notable convention that seems to be bumping up against the space limitations of the San Diego Convention Center and ComicCon’s prominence in some of the statements from policy makers about why we need invest many hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding the Center.

Four items in the recent SDNN stories struck me as deserving comment.

Seasonal business

A) We need to understand that seasonality has an important impact on San Diego tourism market. Summer is our region’s busiest season.

It could well be that ComiCon room nights are simply “substituting” for room nights that would be otherwise filled. Even without the show it could be the region would achieve the reported “98 percent occupancy rate” without the show, filling rooms with tourists from Arizona rather than comic book aficionados.

Smaller spending

B) Indeed, given the figures provided by the Convention Center spokesperson (see below) if Comic-Con attendees are crowding out tourists this could actually be a problem. The reported figure of 126,000 attendees and $16 million in direct spending works out to a relatively paltry $127 of average spending for each admission day.

In contrast, the convention center reported that, in 2007, convention attendees spend an average of $1,462 during their average 2.6 day stay. That suggests that the average Comic-Con guest has no more than 20 percent to 25 percent of the economic impact of a “usual” convention goers and less than half of the $352 spending the convention center consultant estimated was spent each dat by overnight leisure travelers.

Local attendees

C) We also know anecdotally that a significant number of attendees at ComicCon are local. Their spending needs to be thought of as context. Such spending substitutes for other sorts of similar spending. No ComicCon and some (though not all) of the “lost” economic impact is made up as local attendees have more money to spend at local comic shops and gaming stores. Overall, the economic impact from this local spending is a wash.

The key question, unaddressed in the article, is how many people coming to ComicCon are actually from outside San Diego and injecting “new” money into our economy. While that still leaves unaddressed whether they are crowding out other tourists who might have a greater economic impact, it would put in better context the shows actual economic impact.

Cultural influence

D) The influence of the convention on San Diego’s image is almost impossible to tell. ComicCon has gone from a small comic book and gaming convention to something much more significant as a pop culture event.

However, since 1999 the number of overnight visitors to our region have stayed in a relative narrow band along with inflation adjusted average room rates. Without survey data, it is just hard to conclude that the shows significant growth and prominence has, since the middle of the decade, translated into greater brand awareness about San Diego and, consequently, “heads in beds.”

Contrast this with fairly compelling evidence that when San Diego hosts the Superbowl in January it peaks interest among would be vacationers throughout the nation.

Is ComicCon a good thing? Absolutely! It makes our community a more interesting place to live. But so too does the Over The Line Tournament that on Saturday will be entering its second weekend.

Tens of thousands of people flock to San Diego in the summer to play in the world’s largest beach softball tournament. However, it isn’t clear there would be such regional heavy lifting to expand Fiesta Island if some teams couldn’t participate because OTL had gotten too big.

Maybe it is something about superheros or twenty-sided die (used in Dungeons and Dragons), but we shouldn’t overestimate the economic impact of ComicCon and, consequently, use these estimates as reasons to support hundreds of millions of dollars in public investments.