cosmic comic chaos

ImageFurther to my St. Albert Gazette column of May 2, 2012, I wanted to share more of my viewpoint of the CalgaryExpo Comicon this last weekend.

The Comicon event, presented by CalgaryExpo, April 27-29 was beyond monumental as it was the first time in 25 years that the entire nine member cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation came together for a convention. Other conventions have tried but for some reason the stars aligned and it happened in Calgary.

My husband and I purchased weekend passes for the event a few months ago as did, apparently, tens of thousands of other fans. Upon arrival to the Expo on Saturday around 1:00 pm, we were, unfortunately, unable to get in. Crowds of thousands were waiting outside, loosely formed into three lines before the packed entrance of Hall D at the BMO Centre on Stampede grounds. The event had been ordered suspended by the fire marshal, with no further entries allowed, until some of the people inside decided to leave the building. This created mass confusion as unsuspecting individuals who chose to leave the building for a smoke or some fresh air were denied re-entry, sometimes being separated from family members and unable to communicate with them due to cellular circuits being over-loaded. So for almost three hours we stood with thousands of ticket holders waiting to simply enter the event we had paid for.

And while people tried to make sense of what was happening, those who managed the event tried to avoid responsibility for their poor planning and decision to continue selling tickets for an event that was clearly over-sold. Their messages on Twitter blamed the over-crowding on fans all arriving at the same time and a follow-up message on their website said, “We understand the frustration that some of you felt when the Fire Marshall temporarily denied entry into the show for the sake of everyone’s safety.”

Refunds were offered for those who had paid additional fees to have their photograph taken with a celebrity but who were now going to miss it because they were not allowed entry. But for those who unwittingly left the building and were denied re-entry, there would be no refunds. Their tickets had been exchanged for a convention badge, so in the view of the promoter, they had received what they had paid for. To say it was a Gong Show would be a disservice to Chuck Barris.

To further the chaos, event promoters offered Saturday tickets holders who had not gained entry, the option to attend on Sunday instead, meanwhile continuing to sell Sunday-only tickets, thereby furthering the problem for those who would come the next day. Ticket sales finally stopped around 11:00 am on Sunday as crowds wrapped around both sides of the parking lot and building outside creating, once again, an hour long wait just to get into the event. Thankfully this line moved along quite quickly.

In addition, children under 12 were allowed entry for free, further inflating attendance, except for those who went home in tears on Saturday.

So let’s do the math. Between Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the show was open 21 hours in total. An event planning website I googled indicates that the average trade show attendee will spend 7-8 hours over a weekend at a show. Take the 45,000 tickets sold (estimates surged well over 50,000, not including children, staff, volunteers and guests), divide that by three, that’s 15,000 people at a time. I’m not an event planner, but the BMO Centre advertises absolute capacity, with everyone sitting in neat rows in every room, theatre style, at 23,000. Take half that space away for vendor space, eating areas, and half empty halls housing seating where people aren’t interested in the topic and you’ve got actual space availability of 11,000 people. Sorry, but a few minutes on Google and reading a chapter in Event Planning 101 could have easily told event organizers to cap sales way before the surge of the masses. Last year’s event, with attendance around the 32,000 mark, faced similar capacity issues, yet organizers did not have the self-discipline nor wherewithal to consider the implications and consequences of allowing ticket sales to continue beyond the facility’s ability to handle it.

Furthermore, this is not a typical convention. Fans are there for the long haul. They’re staying to mingle. They want autographs. They want to take pictures of each other in their costumes and they want to hang out together and attend sessions with their favorite stars. Between the photo-ops and autograph seeking, fans don’t drop in and then take off – they stay.

We were having dinner at one of the restaurants nearby and were told by one of the waitresses that a group had driven from Vancouver who finally gave up. They were in full costume. Stories like this are everywhere, scattered through media, news reports, Facebook and Twitter.

And in typical Canadian fashion, everyone played painfully “nice”. Sure fans were upset, but as soon as they gained entry, all was forgiven. They may have participated in a third of the events they thought they would when they purchased their tickets, but they rolled over with hardly a whimper.

I’m not advocating that they should start breaking windows and torching vehicles like the hooligans in Montreal protesting an increase in the country’s lowest university tuition rates, but come on! I know the whole Star Trek ethos is all about peace but isn’t there ever a time or place to say, “We’re not gonna take it”? Because right now it’s looking like being defrauded by event organizers gets the thumbs up as long as you eventually get your foot in the door. It doesn’t matter that you were sold entry to an event that you couldn’t actually enter for good portions of the weekend.

There were a lot of excuses. Out of town guests, the poor timing of people arriving at the same time, and simply not expecting the sheer volume of interest because of the Star Trek reunion. All of this was simply a smokescreen for the real problem – overselling tickets. Enormous amounts of chaos would have been averted with a few pieces of paper and a sharpie writing out the words, “Sold Out”.

The lackadaisical response of the fans really does astonish me. Waiting politely and patiently for hours is somewhat understandable, because honestly there is nothing else they could do. But once they passed over the threshold of the trade show, they seemed oblivious to the hours they spent waiting in line on the other side of those doors. Even though thousands of fans did not receive the services they paid for; even though they missed shows, photo opportunities, signatures, even though they were separated from families for hours, or even though some of them finally had to turn around and go home, the typical tweet rings nothing but praise for the event. The overwhelming response to the event is that it was fantastic. But at what point do customers stand their ground and hold the organizers responsible for their error? It’s as if they are unable to be honest about the negative aspect of their experience, as if they don’t have the valour or integrity to truly, authentically complain about being short-changed.

And those who are complaining are being criticized, mocked and ignored. For some reason, there are a myriad of excuses as to why the Calgary Expo isn’t to blame, yet those who paid for their pass, were refused entry, and missed out on the service they purchased are being told, “You should have lined up earlier.” “It’s nobody’s fault.” Or “May-be next year plan ahead.” It’s a warped view of the customer/service provider relationship, and it seems to depict a resistance to any credible acknowledgement that someone simply goofed up.

Canadians around the world are viewed as “nice.” Patient, pleasant, unassuming … nice. And we take pride in this. It reminds me of the scene in the 1995 comedy, “Canadian Bacon” in which the American president, in order to increase ratings, wishes to start a cold war with Canada. In one scene, a US sheriff and his cronies push their way forcefully through an unassuming crowd of Canadians on a hillside. As they shove and jostle through the crowd, all you can hear are Canadians’ falling over, exclaiming, “Sorry! Oh, sorry! Sorry!”

The whole scene mirrors this experience beautifully. Here are thousands of people, travelling great distance, some from outside North America, going through great amounts of effort and enthusiasm to participate in the event, dressing up,  paying for their parking. Then upon arrival their support of the sale transaction is pushed aside in the interest of event organizer greed. Fans are forced to wait in line, lose their photo opportunity, be separated from family and friends, and then they’re blamed for it. And people nod and smile ridiculously and nod like zombies.

Let me be clear. This isn’t about the theme of the event. It’s not about a #geeksunite hashtag.  Take out Star Trek, put in hockey fans or U2 tickets, and it’s still the same issue: poor organizing. It’s not about the volunteers. In fact, I think the organizers used the volunteers to protect themselves from the issues. There was no one to actually complain to … anyone with any connection to the event was there as a volunteer. Comments on Social media continue to excuse the organizers from responsibility, saying that events always overbook, that this was simply a popular event, that the lines weren’t as bad as some described, that things were resolved in the end, or that sci fi fans are simply meant to be ignored or mocked or dismissed anyways. I read one person tell someone who had driven for six hours and was unable to get in that it wasn’t the Expo’s fault, and that he should have lined up at 6 AM to get in.

It is this bizarre insistence to squelch complainers that infuriates me. I was there. I saw it, and although I missed out, I was angry for the sake of the people who gave far more effort than I did to be there. I am frustrated with the lack of responsibility that the event organizers take, ashamed that fans aren’t making a bigger issue out of it, and amazed at others who are defending CalgaryExpo’s incompetence. One facebook comment actually says, “The Expos is a victim of its own success.” Might I suggest it’s a product of its own mismanagement?

And the Canadian pattern of roll-over-and-let-incompetence just happen just further perpetuates poor service, and a wimpy national image. Being nice fell short this weekend. The Canadian personality at times can simply be passive, insufficient and weak. And I’m not particularly proud of it. This is a time when people who were shafted should be stepping up to the plate, stop being push-overs, and demand that they receive refunds, at the very least. The Calgary Expo, successful event notwithstanding, owes an apology to thousands of its customers for its incompetence and for short-changing them.

But if sweetly over-accommodating Canadians dismiss the issue, while others pass the blame, it doesn’t make us nice. It makes us gutless and heartless.

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