Comic-Con 2015 attendees stand outside the Convention Center. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Before Comic-Con organizers agreed to cancel this year’s event due to COVID-19, they worked with local tourism leaders to pass some of their financial liabilities onto local hotels.

The landmark event was set to welcome upward of 130,000 people in July before it was officially canceled April 17 – more than a month after the coronavirus was declared an international pandemic and public health officials urged people to avoid groups and keep distance from those outside the home. By then, the San Diego Padres season had been postponed indefinitely, the San Diego County Fair had been canceled and so had other major gatherings across town.

Emails obtained by Voice of San Diego from the San Diego Convention Center under the California Public Records Act show talks about permits and insurance for San Diego Comic-Con were ongoing through the end of March and early April. In the weeks before canceling, emails also reveal a coordinated effort was underway to secure waivers from cancellation fees Comic-Con would owe local hotels for room blocks and event spaces it no longer needed.

The foot-dragging also partially stemmed from a request from the San Diego Tourism Authority to put off a cancellation announcement, Comic-Con organizers told VOSD without providing details.

The discussions offer a behind-the-scenes look at the wrangling over logistics and financial concessions tourism authorities sought from hotels as they juggled public health concerns and appeasing the leaders of one of San Diego’s biggest tourism draws.

At least 14,000 hotel rooms were previously secured for peak Comic-Con nights under contracts that would charge visitors no more than $187 to $456 per room per night, depending on the hotel, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Such hotel deals with capped rates have previously been sticking points for Comic-Con in deciding whether to keep the event in San Diego.

Joe Terzi, CEO of the nonprofit San Diego Tourism Authority, together with Rip Rippetoe, CEO of the San Diego Convention Center, and others drafted an email request April 3 with help from Comic-Con officials.

The plea asked for “any cancellation fees or penalties for this year’s event be waived,” and came with an April 8 deadline to respond to Terzi.

The request went out to more than 60 hotels and “of those contacted, two hotels did not commit one way or the other,” said Jennifer Davies of the San Diego Tourism Authority. Davies said, “it was a highly fluid situation that Comic-Con was trying to navigate and it wanted (to) fully understand all the financial impacts of cancelling.”

Comic-Con’s chief communications officer, David Glanzer, said in an email he’s not sure they calculated how much all the cancellation fees would cost, and the hotel waivers played “no role in the timing of the cancellation announcement.”

Still, “we discussed needing to know what our obligations were going to look like should we have to pay fees. How much revenue would have to be allocated to that, as well as refunds of exhibit space, and refunds of badges, and money spent on work already having been completed etc. I think we wanted to see what kind of an impact we were facing. Given the cooperation by the hotels, the hotel related concerns never came to fruition and did not impact the timing of the cancellation announcement,” Glanzer wrote.

The Convention Center also gave Comic-Con a friendly cancellation deal, opting to mutually terminate the 2020 event contract and skip a $173,000 termination fee, email records show.

Some flexibility is being granted to other events too, at least those scheduled to take place soon, said Maren Dougherty, spokeswoman for the Convention Center.

“Because of the current ban on gatherings, which was extended until further notice, we mutually agreed to cancel any events that were scheduled through July 2020. Those clients can apply those funds to a future booked event or receive a refund,” Dougherty wrote in an email

The hotel cancellation request ultimately got a friendly reception, but a few days after the request went out, Terzi emailed Comic-Con officials indicating some large hotels wanted a one-year contract extension.

It is unclear from the Convention Center emails provided whether any hotels received the extension. Glanzer confirmed only that the extension request was entertained and some of the area’s largest hotels did not answer VOSD’s inquiries.

Keeping Comic-Con and all its economic benefits in San Diego has been a major coup for local tourism officials, and email communications between Comic-Con and convention officials remained positive amid the chaos of canceling this year’s event.

“Thank you Comic‐Con family for your consistent leadership and commitment to SD,” Rippetoe, CEO of the San Diego Convention Center, wrote in an email April 3. “We stand with you during this turbulent journey we are on. We will support what ever (sic) decision you choose to make. We are proud to call you friends and peers.”

That friendship has translated into hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings annually for Comic-Con, which was set to pay a discounted event license fee totaling $173,000 instead of at least $524,400 that would normally be owed this year, records show.

“The rental reductions provided to Comic-Con are based upon the significant ancillary revenues the event generates for the building, as well as the economic benefit it brings for the entire destination. These factors are always considered as part of our venue’s approach to booking and discounting,” wrote Dougherty, with the Convention Center.

Any efforts to restart normal convention activities will face multiple barriers. First, there are the gathering bans still in effect. Then there’s the fact the Convention Center is currently serving as a homeless shelter for more than 1,000 people during the pandemic. It is still unclear when the sheltering will end, Dougherty said in an email, though space continues to be reserved for events later this year.

“The exact timeline for reopening depends on state and local revisions to restrictions on public gatherings, internal decisions our clients make as they assess the viability of their events, and the transition period between closing shelter operations and reopening for event activity,” she wrote.

Comic-Con is planning a virtual event to replace this year’s gathering. Those who purchased a Comic-Con badge for 2020 have the option of a refund or rolling admission over to next year’s event.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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