This was our third year in a row attending Rhode Island Comic Con, which is easily the largest comic and media convention in New England, and likely second in the northeast U.S. behind New York Comic Con. Two years ago they outgrew their venue at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence after scoring most of the surviving cast of the original Star Trek to headline the event. So they immediately planned to expand to to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center arena located next door and last year, but a new venue presented new challenges in how to organize all the dozens of celebrities, the hundreds of vendors and the thousands of fans, resulting in other issues with finding where some celebrities were and not enough space for the lines.
Now this year’s guest list – Stan Lee?!? You could probably fill a convention on just that. But add other hot guests like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who had just proven himself as one of the meanest, craziest bat-wielding psychos on The Walking Dead, Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things, Gal Gadot who plays Wonder Woman…that’s filling up fast. And that’s just a few. How about Billy Dee Williams, Alice Cooper, Christian Slater, Summer Glau, Arthur Darvill, John Ratzenberger, Ric Flair…and I’m still only a fraction of the way through the list.
The convention opened on Friday, but due to other commitments we weren’t able to arrive until early Saturday. From all accounts, Friday went quite well. I was able to enter early and see the new setup, and the changes I saw made a lot of sense…more line space and corrals for guests in line for celebrity meets, better layout for vendors on the main floor, etc. The one gotcha – there is only one indoor path between the arena and convention center, via a narrow sky bridge, and due to crowd control and regulations they needed to make that a one-way corridor from the arena to the center. To get back to the arena for some of the headline guests and photo ops, you actually had to exit (and scan out your badge, so they had a better idea on the number of people inside) and walk back to the arena and enter via a special “re-entry” entrance.
I would never see the place that empty again. 🙂
VIPs were let in at 9:00am, and then a while before the main doors opened at 10:00am, they started allowing people into the arena entrance and lined them up in pretty well organized lines in front of metal detectors to get checked in. When the doors opened to the general guests, it went much faster and smoother than last year.
It wasn’t long though before the convention center started to feel like wall-to-wall people, especially in the outside corridor of the convention center after you came in from the arena. Saturday tickets sold out the Wednesday prior, so this was expected, but it did make it difficult to get around. Around the celebrity areas however things seemed to be pretty good with little need for having to put up more corrals. I was able to meet Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation), who was super friendly.
The big problem I ran into on Saturday myself was with getting some professional photo ops. We did not pre-purchase any as we weren’t certain of our schedule, but this wasn’t a problem last year. However, before the doors even opened on Saturday to the general guests, they said they had capped sales for all the celebrities and didn’t know if they’d be selling any more. Pro photo ops were handled by an outside group and not by the convention staff, and this became an increasing problem as communication between the two was poor. Announcements were being made over the arena and center PA systems to purchase photo ops, but they weren’t selling any. It wasn’t until about noon that they opened up any sales, but many headliners like Stan Lee, Morgan, Billy Dee Williams, Darvill, etc. were “sold out”, and they wouldn’t sell them for Sunday either. This seemed to be exacerbated by a few guests arriving late, and needing to accommodate those who pre-purchased. Out of 4 photo ops we wanted to get (and that weren’t doing candid photos), only Christian Slater was available. My kids REALLY wanted a photo with Millie Bobby Brown and were dressed as Eleven and Dustin, but that wasn’t possible. As an alternative, I stood in a very long line with a long wait just to purchase a ticket to get her autograph, as that was the only way they’d get to see her up close, which they did if only briefly.
Skipping ahead a bit to Sunday morning, however, I went straight to the photo ops table as soon as I got in and asked what was sold out, and it was only Gal Gadot…so I immediately purchased photo ops for Millie Bobby and Arthur Darvill.
All of this seemed to be caused the pre-purchased photo ops and autographs in general. It seems so many were sold, it became a problem in accommodating them all and not having any left over for guests purchasing on site – or at least not knowing if they did. I don’t know if the huge popularity for Jeffrey Dean Morgan was expected either – I admit being surprised at the length of his lines, rivaling that of Stan Lee himself. And there were a lot of complaints about waiting a long time in the autograph lines without them apparently moving. Many took it in stride though – some of the funniest comments I overheard was that “I’m the third generation born in this line!” and “I’m common law married to the people next to me!”
The only other issue, also related to the photo ops, was in being able to accommodate the lines. There wasn’t any area to pre-stage guests for the next celebrity. Any time the schedule ran a little late, people would gather around waiting to get in line, blocking the corridor, which had to be cleared…but then people didn’t know when they could get in line.
Sunday was by far much better. Less of the crowd, and when more space was available on the arena floor due to some of the celebrities having left for the day or didn’t need as much line space, those corrals were then used to pre-stage the remaining photo opportunities or to handle overflow from the remaining celebrities. This made things go much smoother, so it seems overall the solution is to have more line space – but where could it all go? There isn’t much space remaining in either facility.
I do have to credit the many volunteers who worked at the convention, as in every case I saw they remained calm and cheerful, despite the complaints about the lines and communication.
OK, I need to turn off my operations analyst mode…I need to talk about the great stuff!
Due to the running back and forth between the two areas and standing in lines on Saturday, I only made it to the Millie Bobby Brown panel…she is a doll. She was so excited to be there. I don’t know if this was her first large convention, but she did very well, even asking everyone in the hall to join her in a mannequin challenge.
All the celebrities seems to very genuinely be happy to meet the guests and talk with them. I really don’t like to take people’s time, especially when there is a line – I am a horrible at interviewing people unless I know them – but unlike with meeting some people where they seem to be bored with being there everyone we met was so friendly and really seemed to want to talk and interact more than they were sometimes allowed – a few managers seemed chagrined when a celebrity would stop and converse with a guest when there was a line waiting. A number of guests even were at their tables early to accommodate guests waiting. I think that was the best part of this weekend – every guest seemed honest in their desire to meet with the fans. I would have liked to meet with more of them and talk with them longer, but trying to fit everything in was challenging.
We did make it to the Christian Slater panel on Sunday, which was very enjoyable. He talked a bit about getting to be in Star Trek VI, and just being in awe to be talking with George Takei in a scene. Mentions of Heathers often elicited applause from the crowd. My daughter even got to ask the last question of the panel, about Heathers: The Musical, which he said he enjoyed but it was weird watching someone else as J.D. on stage…
Again, its own size is Rhode Island Comic Con’s weakness. They need to expand, but how to do that where they are is going to be a challenge. Communications is easily fixable. Adding additional venues is not, and creates other challenges. I think a perfect convention is still achievable and within sight, and I hope they get there soon. The same group, Altered Reality Entertainment, also has Terror Con, February 25th and 26th, 2017 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, and a new event, Hartford ComiCONN, “A show for the fans by the fans!” on at Foxwoods Resort and Casino in June 2017. They also produce Colorado Springs Comic Con, which is August 25th-27th, 2017.
Check out some of the cosplayers from this weekend!