There were times this past Saturday when the weekend-long Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo more resembled a mosh pit than a gathering of fans seeking interaction with their favourite celebrities, which included the entire main cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
SpaceRef saw corridors choked to a standstill with attendees leaving star discussion panels, or trying to get in. Rows of fans waiting for autographs from movie stars and comic illustrators spilled into the aisles, leaving confusion as lineups blended into one another.
Outside Calgary's BMO Centre on Saturday, thousands of people trying to get in were denied entry on orders from the fire marshall, as the venue was at capacity. As they took to social media to vent their anger, mobile calls, texts and Internet access at the conference was spotty or impossible for several hours.
"It was pretty much like rush hour: everyone trying to get home at the same time. In this case, "home" was the Star Trek cast table for autographs," said Steven Hodges, a Calgary Expo spokesperson, in an interview with SpaceRef.
Organizers were expecting 45,000 people this year over three days. Exact figures are not yet available, but given the crowds, Mr. Hodges said that estimate was likely shattered.
"There were gridlocks happening and we wanted to control that situation. To manage that, we needed to have people prevented from entering the show."
Although the panels were well-run and the stars gracious with the fans seeking autographs and photo opportunities, organizers had a crisis on their hands. Twitter updates showed people with pre-purchased photo ops driving up to 12 hours to reach the event, only to be turned away at the door. They demanded refunds, explanations and changes. So overnight, the organizers (who comprise 3.5 full-time positions) met with Calgary Stampede officials to get more tips on crowd control.
By late Sunday, as SpaceRef followed thousands of updates remotely on Twitter, the surge of negative feedback from fans had turned almost 180 degrees to positive as new procedures were implemented for the expo's 600 volunteers. But the overcrowding was a large growing pain for the expo. It's something organizers know they need to overcome if they want to keep building on their fan base from the past seven years.
Star Trek: The Next Frontier
Comic cons are trade shows for science fiction, fantasy, horror and comic fans. The main product is autographs and photo opportunities from stars of these genres, but these events also include booths to purchase board games, T-shirts, figurines and original comic books. Attendees can take part in costume contests, attend panels featuring their favourite actors or creators, or even do speed dating.
Dozens of these events are held across North America every year, as well as some in Europe and Australia. The Middle East just held its first comic convention in Dubai this past week. In Canada, Fan Expo draws tens of thousands to Toronto every August. Prominent annual events in the United States include Dragon*Con and Chicago Comic Con.
The Star Trek:TNG cast was willing to make one, unprecedented group appearance at a convention to commemorate their 25th anniversary on the air, but the location was up for grabs. Calgary Expo, at just seven years old, appeared to be an underdog against the larger and more-established events in the United States, but it won the prize after months of negotiations.
Factors behind the coup include a highly publicized visit by Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy (Spock) to the Expo and nearby Vulcan, Alberta in 2010, as well as co-star William Shatner's (Captain James T. Kirk's) appearance in 2011, Mr. Hodges said. But there was another element as well: "Traditional Western spirit in hospitality."
This includes a limo company focused on speedy service from the convention to wherever stars need to go, a chef who cooks exclusively for the guests, and a willingness from local restaurants to accommodate stars when needed, he said.
"I've heard nothing but positive, glowing reviews about how welcoming our city has been to the guests," Mr. Hodges said.
The cast appeared together at a special evening event at the Calgary Saddledome. The arena holds 19,289 people and every available seat for the event (some were blocked off due to stage setup) was sold. Fans cheered and laughed as the cast humbly shared behind-the-scenes stories of filming, and thanked everyone for their support.
Although the Calgary Expo does not track its economic impact on the city, officials note 30 per cent of attendees come from out of town. This implies thousands of people spending money on hotels and restaurants, not to mention buying items from local vendors at the show. Seven "official hotels" with the Expo were sold out, Mr. Hodges added.
Phasers on crowd control
Organizers knew Trek fans would make the convention hectic in 2012, but the amount of interest clearly overwhelmed them. Crowding conditions were bordering on dangerous on Saturday, and volunteers were poorly briefed on how to help attendees find panels or even the box office. Panels ran on time, but some autograph sessions SpaceRef saw started up to 45 minutes late, aggravating the lineups.
There were positives. The panels were educational, the stars SpaceRef observed (including heavyweights such as Star Trek:TNG's Patrick Stewart and Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee) were friendly with the fans, and business appeared brisk in the vendors' area. If attendees in the building were willing to avoid lineups and be selective in what they wanted to see, the convention was a very enjoyable experience. But the overcrowding was clearly the defining issue of Saturday.
Initial attempts to fix the problem came up short. The first official Twitter update regarding the overcrowding didn't come until after 2:30 p.m. Saturday. It took until early the next morning for an official statement to appear on the Calgary Expo website and Facebook page. Admittedly, the core staff is very small and they had a rapidly evolving situation on their hands, but it was a large blow.
To their credit, the staff realized they had to do something quickly, and instead of waiting until 2013 to make changes, they implemented new procedures by the next morning. Volunteers were pulled to busy spots. More signage was printed overnight and put up in the centre to direct people. Pass holders were segregated from those trying to buy tickets at the door. Twitter updates became more frequent.
A lineup was reportedly stretched around the block around 11 a.m. Sunday, but it was dispersed shortly afterwards when the now more organized volunteers spread the word that ticket sales for the day were closed.
"It's been emotionally exhausting and physically exhausting, but the gratification I feel right now for what we did is so reassuring, and I'm looking forward to getting the word out on what we are doing next year," Mr. Hodges said.
He is asking fans to give their ideas on Twitter, Facebook and by e-mail on how to improve. A refund procedure is in the works and some information is on the website already. Meanwhile, another space coup may be in the works for 2013: Mr. Hodges is speculating in the media that he would like to bring several members of the Star Wars cast to Calgary. (David Prowse, who played Darth Vader, was there this year.)
While it's important to have events open to as many people as possible, there comes a point where major structural changes are needed to keep the experience enjoyable. Calgary Expo is at such a point. Next year they should strongly consider measures such as advance ticket sales only to keep the crowds in check.
Editor's note: Below is part one of the Star Trek TNG cast reunion. The following link will take you to parts 2-5. These video clips are independent of SpaceRef.