Salt Lake Comic Con delivers fans, but does it deliver dollars?
By Michael McFall
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Aug 31 2014 01:01AM
How much impact does Salt Lake Comic Con have on downtown’s economy?
That’s what co-founder Dan Farr would like to find out. During the second annual Comic Con, scheduled for Sept. 4-6, the convention will conduct a survey with Visit Salt Lake to measure how much money con-goers spend outside of the Salt Palace Convention Center.
Before now, no one was tracking it. Technically, the Salt Lake Chamber doesn’t consider Comic Con a convention trade show. In its eyes, it’s a consumer show, and the impact of such shows generally isn’t monitored.
That’s because consumer shows, broadly speaking, don’t leave as big a mark on the surrounding hotels and restaurants as "destination" trade conventions, which draw more out-of-towners.
Illustrating the point, Visit Salt Lake CEO and President Scott Beck pointed out how his organization helped Comic Con reserve 800 hotel nights over the course of its first three-day event. Comparatively, Visit Salt Lake books about 38,500 hotel nights for the Outdoor Retailer shows.
But Comic Con’s presence, including its out-of-towner attendance, is growing. While only 15 percent of the registered guests at last year’s Comic Con were from outside of Salt Lake County, Farr says that number is showing a steady uptick. By this convention, Farr expects to have booked about 2,000 hotel nights.
And each "head on a bed," as Farr puts it, equates to dollars pouring into other businesses.
"If they’re staying in a hotel room," he says, "they’re definitely eating at the restaurants downtown and spending money downtown."
Based on credit-card transactions, attendees at FanX came into Salt Lake City from all but two U.S. states. At the first Salt Lake Comic Con, 33 states were represented, Farr and co-founder Bryan Brandenburg told the Utah Policy blog in April.
Overall attendance is surging, too. The first event garnered a turnout of about 72,000. FanX, its spring counterpart, then set the bar higher with an estimated 100,000 attendees. Convention organizers are reporting that even more folks are buying tickets to the second annual Comic Con, saying they expect 120,000 attendees this September.
However, if the planned study’s results reflect the spending habits of San Diego Comic-Con’s fans, then the Salt Lake attendees may not be spending all that much compared to other large events.
San Diego Comic-Con, the flagship of the industry, boasts the San Diego Convention Center’s largest annual attendance at 130,000 — yet fans of the five-day event spent only about $600 each, according to The New York Times. That’s "a little more than a third of the per-capita spending by those who showed up for the American Association for Cancer Research gathering in April, and similarly lower than per-person spending at the next three largest conventions in San Diego," the Times reported.
Some local businesses, though, are enjoying the Salt Lake Comic Con turnout. During FanX, the Blue Lemon restaurant at City Creek Center saw an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent bump in business, says manager Rick Weems. The Hotel and Club Elevate, which hosted FanX’s red carpet party across the street from the Salt Palace, attracted business from customers who had never been to the downtown club before, says Dylan McDonnell, the location’s corporate sales and marketing director.
And if vendors on the convention floor are any indication, the study’s results could prove encouraging. Several artists reported a general satisfaction with their sales during FanX, including Zenescope colorist Jeff Balke, who said shortly after the event that he had been selling out. He’s coming back for more this Comic Con.
"We loosely estimate that people are spending between $75 to $100 each onaverage during the convention," Farr says, adding that organizers also know of many people who are plopping down "thousands of dollars."
As for the state level, the inaugural Comic Con and FanX events have each collected more than $100,000 in taxes on ticket sales alone, Farr says.
While Comic Con’s growing presence is impressive, it should not be overstated.
"When Comic Con says it’s the largest convention in Utah, it’s not accurate," Beck says. Its attendance numbers are somewhat fuzzy and difficult to compare with other conventions. Children 10 and younger get in for free, and Comic Con does not count attendance the same way Outdoor Retailer does. By Beck’s measure, Outdoor Retailer is still the larger event.
Comic Con isn’t even the largest consumer show — that’s the Festival of Trees at South Towne Expo Center, Beck adds.
It is, however, "without a doubt the most successful consumer show launched in the Salt Lake market in a decade," Beck says. In fact, Comic Con’s inaugural event made waves as reportedly the largest first-year comic book convention in U.S. history.