Anyone who has attended cons lately know that crowd management has become a huge factor. The way a convention sets up the lines and trains their staff can have a huge impact on how everyone’s con experience can go. When you think of a crowd at a con, you can have anywhere from a small con with a few hundred people to a large con with over a hundred thousand people. Each person in that crowd, no matter the size, is focused on having the best experience possible. It is up to those planning the event to anticipate how a crowd is going to react. This means that convention organizers need to plan well in advance and have clear procedures prepared. Normally, these procedures can be found on the website of the convention you are attending.
I’ve attended several events and I have noticed that common theme among all of them is that changes are made on the fly to the original plan, leading to more confusion among staff and attendees. This can be for several reasons: the crowd is larger than planned, systemic failure of the original plan, the staff isn’t adequately trained, and/or a crowd doesn’t respect or follow the staff/rules.
A large crowd (especially at cons) can adapt quickly. For example, on the first day of Denver Comic Con the speed pass holders were initially lined up and allowed to go through one door. This meant they were all trying to get to the front of the line to get in first to claim the seats they wanted. On the second day, the policy was changed to opening three doors at once. It took the crowd only one panel to quickly learn the best place to line up was along the outside of the line, instead of the front of the line. This also meant the people at the back along the blue line now had a better chance if they could move fast to getting a seat. This encouraged a lot of running. This is true of almost every con: if there is an advantage to be had, the crowd will be quick to find it and use as best they can.
At Star Wars Celebration, we found ourselves dealing with an untrained staff. We lined up as instructed on the website for The Last Jedi Panel. We were instructed to line up in the queue hall. When we were finally allowed up to the room where the panel was being held, we found that people had already lined up. Of course, we were upset that we had lined up early and did everything according to the posted rules. The people already in line stated that line position didn’t matter as long as you were getting in. We raised our concerns to security, and the argument was made that the people who lined up as per the official guidelines should be first and those who were allowed to line up in the wrong spot should be behind them. Security didn’t know how to handle the situation and asked the crowd if they would move back. Of course, they would not, now their place in line did matter. This was causing fights between the two crowds. Luckily, an experienced member of the security team came down and listened to both sides. She then took charge and made firm rules that did not invite any disagreement. Those who got to go first were told to walk, not run, because if they ran so would the entire crowd. Sure enough, everyone walked in calmly to their seats.
Security guards are sometimes overwhelmed and don’t always know what to do. At New York Comic Con, people line up to get wristbands for main panels and are then ushered to the line for the exhibit hall. This creates an issue for people who want to get wristbands and then head off-site for events. Last year when I attended, I got wrist banded and proceeded to find an exit so I could go to Hammerstein Ballroom for a panel. I was following a few other people when a security guard grabbed my backpack and almost threw me to the ground. I must admit that at that point I was not very lady-like and I yelled at him. I was scared that someone had almost thrown me to the ground! Once I had recovered, he yelled at me that I wasn’t allowed to leave. I told him that people have to be allowed to leave – otherwise they’d be holding people hostage. Eventually, I found a manager who allowed me to me leave.
At San Diego Comic Con (SDCC), lines have become a way of life and, I imagine, are a large part of Comic Con International’s (CCI) discussions throughout the year. The attendees work hard to be able to attend SDCC; by the time they get there, they have gone through a badge lottery and a hotel lottery. Many of the vendors have items that are only exclusive to that convention and are sold in very limited quantities. The studios have planned panels that surpass all other conventions and live up to their promises. This means that attendees are dedicated and emotions are high. The person who gets what they want is happy and the person that doesn’t can be very verbally expressive about how the situation isn’t fair. It is almost impossible to fully prepare for the experience.
While SDCC is always trying ways to improve, CCI and the security staff are constantly battling a crowd that is determined to get their way. This has led to two day lines for many events. While this was discouraged at first, they eventually had to allow it for safety reasons. Before they allowed it to occur, I came to line up the night before a panel only to find hundreds of people circling. When they gave the go ahead to line up, it was a mad rush! I honestly thought I was going to get trampled to death. I was crushed between bodies and security guards were yelling for people to slow down and stop pushing, but they did not do so.
For Hall H, SDCC is combating this with procedures like the NDL (Next Day Lines) and guidelines around holding spots in line. This year, I went down to experience what it is like when the NDL forms. They cleared out the area where they intended to start the line several times but the crowd was getting worse and worse. Eventually, CCI told the security staff to allow the line. This resulted in a mad rush of people to line up and people jumping from the other Hall H line grab their group a spot in two lines. Over the course of the next few hours, I watched the crowd grow into a swarm. People were screaming at each other and at the security guards. The people in the line were calling all of their friends to come help secure spots and those that thought they were in the first ten people were suddenly thirty back.
As the time got closer to when the line would move into its semi-permanent spot, I watched a woman scream in the face of the security guard about all the people in front of her. They were both turning red and I thought I was about to see the woman get banned from attending SDCC. In this particular case, the security guard was very well-trained and professional, and calmed her down. The woman said that she had twenty friends, and we agreed to let them go ahead of us in order to keep the peace. When Security started moving the line into position though, everyone took it as a chance to try and get a better place. People starting pushing each other to try and move up in the line. My friends and I had to lock arms with each other to prevent ourselves being trampled.
Once settled, the start of the line was crushed in the front with no space, begging people to move back. We luckily had some space, since we had locked arms and purposely slowed our pace. The people behind us were mad at first, but once they caught on what we had done and they had space too, they were thankful, and they even shared their cherries with me.
Sadly, the lady whom we had let go in front of us had lied about her group size and we ended up further back than we originally would have been. We agreed that it was for the best. When we visited those further up whom we had met earlier, they said there was a lot of fighting among the groups in the very front. The ratios set in place only work if people are honest, because they are not enforced. Our people had a plan in action to keep our ratio. The people around us did not keep their ratios, fake wristbands were made, and line spots with groups were sold for a pretty penny.
So why have I brought this up? It is not to tell you that everything at a convention is bad. It is to make you aware that how you behave, and others behave, has a large impact on how things can turn out, both for you, and for others. It is important for convention organizers to anticipate how a crowd is going to behave and it is important for each attendee to prepare, as well. While large crowds are not full of malicious people, they are full of people determined to get what they want. I wish I had solutions as to how make crowd management go more smoothly, however, I don’t know any more than the professionals do.
New York Comic Con (owned by Reedpop) has in recent years decided to utilize lotteries for highly anticipated vendors and autographs. This year they now decided to allocated half of the seats in their main stage room of Javits for the lottery. Only time will tell if that turns out to be a better solution. I am excited and a little nervous to see how the lotteries change things at this year’s conventions.
Until then, be safe at conventions and remember that you are there to have fun! While you may not get everything you want, there is always another opportunity. I call them nerd choices! Don’t let any line be the thing that makes or breaks your convention. If things are getting out of hand, be prepared to step back or leave and try something else. Nothing is worth risking your safety or sanity.
May the lines go well for you at your next con!