Saturday, September 8, 2007

This week's column.

Here's the column for this week. You can see the online version here.

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Dragon*Con 2007 — Trying to separate fantasy from reality

Dragon*Con, the annual science fiction, fantasy and pop culture festival held in Atlanta, has seen its attendance numbers swell to 30,000 over the last two years.

But Dragon*Con 2007 wasn’t over before people attending it began to vent online: The crowds seemed bigger; there was a tedious wait for some events and elevators, and the food was ridiculously expensive.

There were some wild stories online about problems caused by what many thought was a larger-than-usual crowd. Some I found hard to believe. Some sounded ominously true. After reading a variety of accounts, I felt the need to separate fantasy from reality.

Chris Anderson, director of sales and marketing for the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, said Dragon*Con attendance grows 15 to 20 percent every year. Star Roberts, media relations director for Dragon*Con said Friday the official number for this year is 30,000, the same number the convention has reported for the past two years. Hotel staff I spoke with said they thought the convention was bigger this year. It could be a perception generated by construction issues at one of the host hotels.

The convention in 2007 was held in three hotels, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis and the Atlanta Hilton. Anderson and the Marriott staff felt Dragon*Con’s growing pains this year. The Marriott’s 25,000-square-foot ballroom is being renovated, causing corporate vendors and exhibitors to relocate to the Hilton. The Marriott was stuck in the middle of the three hotels but had less space to accommodate the throngs of visitors who passed through its doors. The Walk of Fame, where fans gather to meet celebrities from their favorite movies and shows, also moved to the Marriott this year.

“What that caused was us simply to be the superhighway and a bottleneck between the Hilton ... and the Hyatt,” Anderson said, adding later, “People just wanted to hang out and wait in that bottleneck, causing a lot of problems.”

Anderson said hotel staff encouraged people to walk around the Marriott to the Hyatt and, for the most part, traffic kept moving. The constant flow of fans moving to different floors did break an escalator, he said.

“We had enough weight on one of them that it actually bent an entire gearbox,” Anderson said.

Among the more well-publicized issues this year was the fire marshal blocking access to the Hyatt because of crowding. Brian Richardson, producer of convention’s Dragon*Con TV channel, said, “They blocked access coming back into the Hyatt, because the lobby at one point had so many people in it because they were stopping to take pictures. It became so full that the Atlanta Police Department and the fire marshal felt if they added more people it would be a fire hazard.”

Roberts said, “Due to the size of the crowds, the fire marshal did temporarily shut down entry to the Hyatt on several occasions throughout the convention — all during evening hours when the crowd was the thickest.”

Richardson said he knew of one person who had a heart attack.

“Statistically, if you get 30,000 people in (one place) you’re going to have a medical problem,” Richardson said. “We’ve had staffers (in the past) who have fallen down escalators. This is not unusual for a crowd this size.”

Roberts could not confirm the number or type of medical emergencies this year, but said no deaths were reported and emergency crews did not have a problem getting to patients.

I contacted the Atlanta Police Department and asked if there were any major security problems at the event this year. Judy Pal, the public information officer for APD, told me officers on the ground didn’t report anything unusual.

“It wasn’t a social event on our radar,” Pal told me. “These kinds of events happen in Atlanta all the time.”

I didn’t take this to mean there were no security problems at all. They simply weren’t a big deal for a city the size of Atlanta.

Richardson said Dragon*Con organizers have discussed both limiting the size of the convention and expanding the number of host hotels as the convention grows.

“The convention size was the reason the Hilton was added two years ago,” Richardson said.

Roberts said over the next year there will be “much discussion” about spreading out events more evenly among the three hotels.

“We definitely prefer expansion over capping badges, but no decisions have been made,” Roberts said. “We are still trying to process the events of this year and decide what is best for the convention and the fans.”

One host hotel is expanding to meet such needs..

“Next year we’re adding 45,000 square feet of convention space and Dragon*Con is taking all of it,” Anderson said about the Marriott renovations, adding later, “We want to grow with this show because we know if we don’t, this show will move.”

Richardson said some armchair quarterbacking (or in this case, dungeon mastering) is common after the convention, but he said getting 30,000 people in and out of a convention safely using mostly volunteers is a remarkable feat.

“For a convention of this size, the problems we’re having are not necessarily bad problems to have,” he said.

I think organizers should think about two things for next year: Encouraging guests to take alternate routes around hotels and setting up clearer rules for taking pictures. Guests who stay on the first 10 floors of the host hotels would fare better if they used the stairs instead of the elevator. I was on the 16th floor and found walking downstairs was often more efficient, and walking around the hotels is often a better option than cutting through them.

Because taking pictures is such a huge part of the event, I think the rules need to be clear up front. I know my media agreement barred picture-taking in the lobbies and other common areas, but this rule was inconsistently enforced for other guests. And, while I have nothing but respect for convention staffers, hearing people say “No picture-taking” over and over again gets a little old.

There should be more areas where people can sit down and rest. The hotels provide their own lobby furniture, but it wasn’t uncommon to see people sprawled out on the floors.

I have my own selfish gripes (there weren’t nearly enough events devoted to video games.) But I’m definitely going back next year, because few experiences compare to seeing a grown man dressed up as a Muppet.

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