Planners and local governments both know that convention center capacity is a critical determinant of site selection. Cities that devote funds and square footage to building, maintaining and expanding state-of-the-art meeting facilities reap rewards in the form of increased meetings and conventions bookings, room night sales and visitor spending.
But what happens when a premier meeting city enters contract negotiations with its largest event client as its long-awaited convention center expansion faces an uncertain future? That scenario is playing out now as San Diego and Comic-Con International work toward an agreement to keep the reigning king of all comic book conventions in its longtime home after the current deal expires in 2018.
Comic-Con has been held in San Diego since it debuted in 1970 to an audience of some 300. Now, more than 130,000 fans flock to the annual gathering—celebrating comic books, video games, science fiction and fantasy films and literature—that attracts worldwide attention and scores of celebrity panelists.
Despite the presence of the 2.6 million-square-foot San Diego Convention Center, facilities in the booming meetings and conventions destination have struggled to keep up with demand. The convention center, which opened in 1989, welcomed nearly 825,000 guests to 158 events in fiscal year 2016.
“During that period,] events in our facility generated $1.1 billion in regional impact and $23.9 million in hotel and sales tax revenue into the city of San Diego’s General Fund,” said Clifford Rippetoe, president and CEO of San Diego Convention Center Corporation, in a statement released Jan. 13, in partnership with San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA).
But the behemoth venue no longer feels so spacious. “Our clients have told us for years that an expanded convention center is needed to meet the demand for hosting conventions in San Diego and stay competitive in the marketplace,” said Joe Terzi, president and CEO of SDTA, in the same statement.
As the largest annual convention held in San Diego, Comic-Con is acutely aware of the space strain. To alleviate the issue, events have spilled over into nearby hotels in recent years. While workable, the campus-like approach is viewed as a stopgap measure on the way to the ideal solution—a contiguous addition to the existing convention center.
Convention center expansion plans have languished since 2014, when the appellate division of the San Diego County Superior Court declared that plans to fund the project with hotel tax revenue were unconstitutional. The expansion effort scored one legal victory by way of a Jan. 25, Superior Court ruling that the proposed development does not violate existing state environmental legislation. The funding matter stands unresolved.
It remains to be seen if San Diego and Comic-Con will emerge from this period of uncertainty with their premier pairing intact. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the two parties have agreed in principle to negotiate a new three-year deal. In addition to meeting space, accessible hotel room rates figure to play a significant role in the talks.