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It turns out getting Comic-Con to stay in town for 2017 and 2018 is more about discounted hotel rooms than the size of San Diego’s Convention Center.
Comic-Con and the Convention Center Corp. both told Voice of San Diego that some hoteliers’ unwillingness to sign off on agreements to discount blocks of hotel rooms for attendees is what’s keeping the massive comic and entertainment convention from committing to San Diego.
Comic-Con’s learned to live without the promised Convention Center expansion for now, instead relying on event spaces at downtown hotels to address its needs outside the facility.
But it needs rooms at a reduced price for the tens of thousands of visitors the event brings to the region — even though San Diego’s already flush with tourists in the summer months.
“There are not enough rooms discounted and attendees are not able to get into the room block,” said Steven Johnson, spokesman for the Convention Center. “That’s why Comic-Con isn’t booked right now.”
Getting into a room block can be the difference between paying $299 per night and $499 per night for the same room, Johnson said, though specific discounts vary among hotels.
Those savings may not be a major issue for surgeons attending a medical conference, but Comic-Con attracts more than 130,000 attendees from a broad range of income levels who feel the pinch.
Last year, hotels committed 56,600 discounted hotel room nights, but Comic-Con could easily fill twice that.
When business is slow, offering large room blocks is a no-brainer for hotels. But when large events like Comic-Con send the county’s hotel occupancy rates sky-high, agreeing to a discount means turning away higher profits.
“They know they are going to sell out because there is such a demand,” Johnson said. “(Hotel managers are) not worried about 2020 right now … It’s just common sense for them, and I totally understand.”
But focusing on short-term profits could cost the city Comic-Con. Both the Convention Center and Comic-Con hope the foot-dragging hotels offer up at least what’s been provided in the past.
It’s that reluctance that’s kept Comic-Con from announcing it’ll stay here, Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer said in a statement.
“We’re negotiating with select hotels to keep room block and discounted rates and that seems to be holding things up,” Glanzer said.
Glanzer didn’t respond to questions about which hotels have been unwilling to meet Comic-Con’s demands.
Hotels nearest to the Convention Center insist they aren’t the ones jeopardizing talks.
“For the last five years, we have given them a block of almost 90 percent of our entire number of hotel rooms, along with all our meeting space and at rates less than $300,” said John Schafer, general manager of the 1,625-room Manchester Grand Hyatt. “We also remain committed to working with them in the future to keep them in San Diego.”
Tuni Kyi, general manager of the Marriott Marquis & Marina, and Donovan Henson, regional senior director of sales for Hilton Worldwide, also said they’re not to blame.
“To my knowledge there is no ‘headquarter hotel’ offering a higher percentage of its room inventory to Comic-Con’s official room block than Hilton San Diego Bayfront and we were the amongst the first hotels to agree to Comic-Con’s room block increase request in prior years’ contracts discussions,” Henson said.
Hotels further from downtown that don’t benefit as often from convention-goers may have less incentive to sacrifice short-term profits.
But three Mission Valley hotels also said they have tried to accommodate Comic-Con.
Managers at the Courtyard Marriott, Crowne Plaza and Handlery Hotel all said they’ve submitted contracts to Comic-Con that reflect the same prices and spaces they’re offering in 2016, which is what Comic-Con reportedly requested of them.
Elaine Shea, director of sales and marketing at Crowne Plaza, said her hotel is offering 335 of its 416 rooms for Comic-Con but that the convention hasn’t signed the agreement yet.
“We’re giving our maximum block that we give to any convention,” Shea said.
A spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office would only say that it was typical for the mayor to be involved in major tourism and economic development efforts.
San Diego Tourism Authority CEO Joe Terzi, who previously said Comic-Con was likely commit to San Diego by the end of January, has hinted in the past that hotels were the primary stalling point.
“Comic-Con has expressed concern over the last several years that it’s getting very expensive for their attendees to come to San Diego and while they recognize that they’re here at a premium time of year, they feel they’re being taken advantage of to a degree,” he told U-T San Diego in November.
Terzi did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
The 2012 City Council decision to have Terzi’s team take over long-term Convention Center event bookings put the future of Comic-Con and other large events in the hands of the Tourism Authority.
The move was instantly controversial because it occurred just before city officials sought hotelier approval for the now-defunct hotel tax that was supposed to fund the $520 million waterfront expansion project. The change also nearly cost the Convention Center some top leaders, including CEO Carol Wallace, who prepared to leave at the time
Now, the effectiveness of the current booking system may soon get an independent review at the urging of the County Grand Jury. The Convention Center board is seeking consultants for the job.
Though Wallace ultimately stayed at the Convention Center, she’s still not pleased with situation.
“I have not supported the transfer out of sales and marketing since the very beginning,” Wallace told the Convention Center board June 17. “I have concern about the performance of the SD Tourism Authority over the three years that they’ve had the contract. I think the board is looking at this.”
Update: This story has been updated to remove a quote from Convention Center spokesman Steven Johnson, who said after the story was published that he had been referring to a situation in 2010, not current Comic-Con negotiations.