It's a scenario that happened over and over again early Wednesday morning. People came back from their lunch breaks early on the east coast, or simply took some time out of work on the west coast to book their hotel rooms for Comic-Con International (CCI) in San Diego this July 14th through 17th. Online reservation was scheduled to open at 10:00 AM Pacific time, so people lined up, logged on to the convention's Web site, clicked through to online reservations only to discover that all of the closest hotels are already sold out, leaving hotels that are a bit further away as your only choice. Frustrated con goers began asking, "How can this be? Some of these hotels are huge!" Yes, that is true, but the answer isn't quite as simple as you might think and there were a number of other factors that affected room availability in Downtown San Diego. CBR News spoke with the Executive Director of CCI Fae Desmond and Director of Marketing and Promotions David Glanzer about the hotel situation in San Diego for 2005.
"One of the things people may not realize is because we have a hotel, it doesn't mean we have an entire hotel," Glanzer told CBR News by phone Wednesday afternoon. "We have room blocks at these hotels. A lot of times a hotel does not necessarily want to give up 100% of their rooms to any one entity because it just doesn't make sense for them to be sold out for other clients who may come in or sometimes there are small functions that are going on at the same time. We utilize several hotels in the downtown area as well as Mission Valley and places where we can get room blocks. That doesn't mean those hotels are exclusively ours."
So, just because the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego just down the street from the convention center boasts the "largest waterfront property" on the West Coast with 1625 rooms, that doesn't mean that CCI and Travel Planners, the official travel agency for the convention, have access to each and every one of those rooms.
"The way the hotels work is you have to guess how many people are going to come on which day and you block an appropriate number of rooms on each day for each hotel," Fae Desmond explained to CBR News by phone. "We don't just say we want 500 rooms and then we have 500 rooms for all days of the convention. 500 may be a peak night on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday you're only selling 30. If we booked 500 for each day, we'd end up having to pay for the unsold rooms. It's called an attrition clause."
Each year when CCI looks to reserve their room blocks they take a look at attendance numbers from the previous year, then adds to that projected increases and reserves blocks based on those numbers.
"I think that with many of the hotels we may not have gotten enough rooms on Wednesday," continued Desmond. "So, when you go to book online and say you're coming in from Wednesday through Sunday, they'll say it's full. The travel agent is now trying to fix the parts that aren't quite right. Hopefully this will all shake out and there will be new rooms made available at the Hyatt and some of the other hotels."
In other words, you could try to book a room online for a Wednesday through Sunday stay and discover your hotel of choice is sold out, yet if you were to change it to a Thursday through Sunday stay, you might find some additional hotels with availability. As Desmond mentioned, CCI and Travel Planners are trying to increase their block size for those "shoulder dates" to accommodate con goers.
It should be noted once again that while the choice hotels near the convention center appear to be full at press time, there are others that, while a bit further up the road, do have availability and are on the convention shuttle route. More hotel rooms near the convention center may become available in the coming weeks, though.
"A lot of people when they book hotel reservations they do so at several different hotels," added Glanzer. "The reason being they may have more people coming to the show as time goes on, they want to make sure they're not stuck without a hotel room, etc. As the show gets closer, these people will let the other hotel reservations go. What we're saying to people is keep checking back. It's not uncommon for a hotel to be 'sold out' today and then find in a week or in a couple of weeks there are rooms available."
There were other events that conspired to make reserving a hotel room all the more difficult. As we noted earlier, online reservations were scheduled to open at 10:00 AM Pacific Standard Time/1:00 PM Eastern. This was clearly noted on the Comic-Con Web site as of last nite and the link for online registrations went live at 10:00 AM Pacific. Early Wednesday morning Travel Planners sent out an e-mail to users who used their service last year announcing that online hotel registration was open at 10:00 AM Eastern, a full three hours earlier than scheduled. Glanzer and Desmond both made it clear that Comic-Con International did not request this e-mail be sent by Travel Planners. Once news of this issue came to light, CCI was made to understand by Travel Planners that only phone registration was available prior to 10:00 AM Pacific, yet the e-mail sent by Travel Planners indicates that online registration was available as early as 7:24 AM Pacific Time, the time the e-mail was sent according to a copy of the e-mail CBR News received Wednesday afternoon. Online registration can handle a far higher volume of reservation requests compared to phone reservations. " It's not something that we asked them to do," added Desmond. "It's something they did on their own, using their list from previous years, nothing from us." Comic-Con International is investigating the situation. CBR News contacted Travel Planners for comment, but they were unavailable at press time.
Other factors also came in to play. Con goers booking hotel rooms today may have noticed that one of the biggest hotels near the convention center was not an available choice. The San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina, located directly to the north of the convention center, was not listed with the online registration system. Fae Desmond explained that this came down to something that happened a couple of years ago. Seven years ago Comic-Con International had projected growth of adding one exhibit hall every two years to the San Diego Convention Center. Matter of fact, CCI ended up growing by two exhibit halls every year. Comic-Con International now takes up the entire San Diego Convention Center, which includes 525,000+ square feet of contiguous exhibit space. So, a couple of years back CCI realized that what they had blocked out for the 2005 convention season wasn't going to be big enough and were forced to swap dates with another convention. "The Convention Center, the City and the other convention worked with us, but when we did that the Marriott already had a group booked [for our new dates] and they had no rooms available," explained Desmond. "Who would have thought we'd grow that fast in that building? It was quite surprising."
You may have also noticed that Major League Baseball's San Diego Padres will have home games July 14th through the 17th. This will definitely make the downtown San Diego area a bigger zoo than normal during the convention, but Desmond does not believe that it had much, if any, effect on their ability to block hotel rooms. She explained that the date for CCI 2005 was set far in advance of when Major League Baseball set their season schedule. So, fans traveling to San Diego looking to take in a Padres vs. Arizona Diamondbacks game might find hotel availability a little scarce.
The fact of the matter is that Comic-Con International is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, annual convention to hit San Diego. Glanzer noted it's impossible to say exactly who's the biggest because each convention counts attendance different.
"We've always been extremely conservative in our number counts," said Glanzer. "As an example, last year we had 87,000 attendees and I believe 9,700 exhibitors. Those numbers are counted as individuals, not how many times they came to the show. So, somebody who bought a pass for all four days and came through the door four times was counted as just one person. Not everyone counts numbers that way. If you look at other events within this industry there are times that you'll see numbers that reflect where we were say just four years ago, held in a much smaller venue with no programming. So, it all depends on how you count numbers.
"This is a huge event. It's one of the events that the entire comics industry seems to come to. It's great, we're very happy and lucky and feel privilidged about that, but the situation we have with the hotel rooms the fact of the matter is when you have 100,000 individuals, hotel rooms are going to be tough. San Diego has always had a difficult hotel situation in downtown."