The big business of Comic Con (and Boston’s other nerdy conventions)
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It's that time of year, when cosplayers — decked out as characters from across the nerdverse — converge at Boston Comic Con. For three days starting Friday, legions of Captain Kirks, Wonder Women, Kylo Rens, and more than a few Ghostbusters will bring their faux phasers, Lassos of Truth, lightsabers, and proton packs to the Seaport World Trade Center.
And when they arrive the costumed faithful will be packing another crucial accessory: their wallets.
Fandom is big business. Boston Comic Con, one of the region's largest gatherings of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and comic book fans, is no exception.
The event has mushroomed from just 900 attendees in 2007, when it was held at the Bayside Expo Center, to 40,000 in 2015.
Founder and organizer Nick Kanieff expects this weekend's edition to draw 45,000. "I'm always aiming higher," he said.
This year, devotees will shell out some $30 to $45 per day just to get in, attend panels, enter cosplay contests, shop, and meet up with fellow fans. Posing for a photo with a favorite actor, such as Gillian Anderson ("The X-Files") or William Shatner ("Star Trek"), or a comic book artist such as Frank Miller, costs another $50 to $75. A VIP pass with special perks is $165, and for $350, fans can have the "William Shatner Experience," which includes a photo, an autograph, and a "private fan Q&A panel" with the star himself.
But how does the three-day conference stack up against a growing number of similar cons in Boston?
Kanieff claims his convention is one of the largest ticketed events in Boston. He compares it to other niche-interest gatherings such as the New England Boat Show, which draws an estimated 41,500 to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, according to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, and the Boston Tattoo Convention, which attracts 18,000.
As far as nerdy conventions go, PAX East, the annual gaming conference held at the BCEC each spring, tops the list: An estimated 35,000-plus visitors attend per day — or more than 100,000 for the weekend.
PAX East is the largest consumer-facing video game show in the United States, according to Ryan Hartman, director of events for Seattle-based Penny Arcade, which runs PAX East and other PAX events in Seattle, San Antonio, and Melbourne.
Boston being "a vibrant, passionate town with a thriving gaming culture" has made PAX a success here, he said. "I can't imagine having done this show in another city, but if we had, I can almost guarantee it wouldn't be as large."
Anime Boston is the area's other big fandom event. Held at the Hynes Convention Center, its attendance has grown from roughly 19,000 in 2011 to 27,000 in 2016, according to Victor Lee, the event's chairman, who said Anime Boston is now the fifth-largest anime convention in the United States, and the second largest on the East Coast.
"Our key demographic is within the 18-to-24 age range, and the city's high population of college students contributes to our growth," he said.
The number of Anime Boston attendees is just a fraction of the number who gather in July for San Diego Comic Con, which pulls in around 130,000 attendees, by some calculations, and ranks as the second-largest "geek culture convention" in North America, according to nerd culture site Overmental.com. Beating it? New York Comic Con, at 150,000-plus.
And those tens of thousands of fans have a real impact on the local economy, one that goes far beyond corn dog consumption and action-figure sales. Patrons eat at area restaurants, drink at local bars, pay for parking, and stay at hotels. Kanieff said he's been told anecdotally by "all the restaurants in the Seaport" that Boston Comic Con is "hands down the busiest weekend of the year."
Numbers specific to fan events are hard to track. But the MCCA projects that, for the next fiscal year, visitors in town for events at the BCEC and the Hynes will book approximately 610,000 room nights (at $240/night, on average) and spend $106 a day. Admittedly, that includes a long list of conventions that have nothing to do with comic book or anime culture. But there's no doubt that fan conventions contribute substantially.
Of course, you can't judge a show's economic impact, or "knock-on effects," by attendance alone, said Nate Little, director of communications and external relations for the MCCA, which owns and operates the BCEC and the Hynes.
A "gate show" like PAX or a boat expo typically attracts day visitors to the city, whereas an "association show" of dentists, surgeons, or software salespeople draws those with disposable income who fly into Logan Airport, stay several nights at a hotel, eat at lavish restaurants, and "spend money all over town," he said.
PAX, Boston Comic Con, and Anime Boston are "great for us but they generate different economic impact," Little said. "The knock-on effects across town are a little more muted."
One reason is that nerdy convention patrons are generally more budget-conscious. Boston Comic Con attendees "often travel with friends — double and triple occupancies are the norm — and they prefer casual dining, craft beers, and smaller plates," said Jim Carmody, vice president and general manager of the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center, in an e-mail.
Still, that adds up. According to a 2013 MCCA report, Anime Boston brought in $14.77 million dollars for Boston. Using that rough formula, a show like Boston Comic Con could bring in as much as $32 million in 2016.
But there's another multiplier that can't be overlooked: repeat customers. Next year, Kanieff says, an ophthalmology or accounting convention might hopscotch to Chicago or Las Vegas — and not return to Boston for several years.
The nerdy events stay put.
"Here's a news flash: The Boston Comic Con, and PAX East, and Anime Boston are annual events," Kanieff said. When you add up all the revenue from Boston Comic Con over a 10-year period, he said, "I guarantee you it exponentially exceeds that dentists' convention. It's an annuity."