SVCC 2018: Finding the Balance

by Transmute Jun

NASA booth on Exhibit Floor

This year’s Silicon Valley Comic Con (SVCC), held April 6th – 8th, was the third event for this newer convention. In its short life, SVCC has changed considerably, as it tries to find the perfect balance for its attendees. I had the privilege of discussing these issues with Trip Hunter, co-founder and Chairman of SVCC.

In its inaugural year of 2016, the con organizers were not anticipating the number of people who all descended on the convention at once. Every panel was over-capacity, the food vendors sold out early on, and the exhibit floor was extremely crowded. In its second year, SVCC expanded its footprint to the City National Civic Theatre (across the street) and an outdoor festival in the park, both to accommodate an anticipated growth in attendees, as well as an additional 10,000 people who were participating in a science march that was ending at the convention center’s doorstep. While the outdoor festival was fun for all involved, and City National Civic was a lovely venue for the biggest panels, the bigger numbers of attendees did not materialize, and the exhibit floor was uncrowded to the extent that the exhibitors were seeing lower sales. Additionally, many attendees were unhappy with having to leave the convention center to enjoy everything the con had to offer.

Moving to Mars panel

As a result, this year SVCC pulled back somewhat, doing their best to bring everyone back into the convention center while improving on the crowding issues that existed in their first year. For the most part, SVCC was successful in these efforts. Most panels were able to accommodate the attendees who wanted to get in (the biggest room and a couple of the smallest rooms being the occasional exceptions) and the exhibit floor, while full, was never too crowded to move around.

Sean Astin

Hunter says that the goal of the con organizers is to have SVCC grow organically. In other words, SVCC should not grow just because people want it to do so; it should be something that happens naturally, as the community supports and enjoys the con. Approximately 90% of SVCC attendees live within 200 miles of San Jose, making SVCC very much a local con. Steve Wozniak, founder and leader of SVCC, is from Silicon Valley and is very proud to have created an event in his hometown. There are no plans to move the con to another location or to sell to a larger company. SVCC has a character and attendee base all its own, and that’s the way it is going to stay. As such, SVCC listens very closely to its attendees, paying attention to comments and interactions during the show, as well as sending out a post-show survey to gauge what worked and what didn’t. The SVCC staff works on solutions to problems immediately, and while they can’t make things magically happen, they do their best to make things work as well as they can, as quickly as they can.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccadro discusses cities of the future

While SVCC has pop culture guests and panels, its wheelhouse is the significant science and technology presence, and the way the more traditional ‘comic con’ aspects are interwoven within. As Hunter explains, the two are interwoven. Pop culture shows and films, such as Star Trek, inspired people who later became scientists and inventors, and created many of the same things that audiences once saw as futuristic. In turn, those technological leaps inspired new stories in pop culture, creating new fans and opening those ideas up to new audiences. It is only natural (especially in a place like Silicon Valley) that these two aspects join together, and this is the true strength of SVCC. It’s a place where a lecture on the Physics of Star Trek, a discussion of the technological requirements for human beings to live on other planets, and an interview with Doctor Who’s David Tennant all fit together seamlessly, and attendees easily move from one to the other. It is this that makes SVCC unique in the proliferation of pop culture conventions that has occurred over the past decade: it’s a place where attendees can both think and be entertained at the same time. Judging from the smiles and excitement witnessed at this year’s event, it’s a heady mix that attendees love.

David Tennant and Krysten Ritter

The theme of this year’s convention was the future of humanity. The science and technology track included panels on the future of humans in space, the future of housing and urban areas, and human genetics. Pop culture guests included Stan Lee, the aforementioned David Tennant, Sean Astin, Mads Mikkelson, Nichelle Nichols, Katee Sackhoff, and Ian McDiarmid. Panels were lively and entertaining, with audience members asking thoughtful and relevant questions of both scientists and celebrities alike.

Adam Savage talks science

The downside to this year’s event was budgetary constraints, which led to some cutbacks. Many were handled so well that attendees barely noticed, but one of the bigger cuts was to video gaming. For its first two years, SVCC had a dedicated arcade and console gaming area, where attendees could play dozens of different games for as long as they liked, and all for free. This year, the video gaming area was small (and far below attendee expectations) in comparison, and the games required payment. Many attendees who had grown to love this aspect of the con were disappointed. In conversation, Bill Watters, SVCC’s Programming Director, stated that the reason for the change was that the games’ sponsor of the past two years had pulled out, and the electricity cost for running these games was prohibitive without assistance. However, he understood the hole that was left in the con for many, and promised that he would do his best to bring the games back next year.

Katee Sackhoff

On the good side, the wifi in the convention center was outstanding: fast and free. There was never a problem getting online, and it was easy to use the SVCC app to navigate around the convention. Other pop culture cons should definitely take note of SVCC’s prowess in this area.

While the biggest panels had significant lines, the longest lines of the weekend were for food. There were many food vendors (with high quality offerings), but there were not enough of them to meet the demand of SVCC’s 60,000 attendees. As a result, the wait for something to eat was often prohibitive. Watters agreed that it was important to bring back the food trucks that were present at last year’s outdoor festival, and promised to do his best to make that happen in 2019.

Ray Park, Mads Mikkelson, Temuera Morrison and Daniel Logan at the Star Wars panel

Speaking with Trip Hunter and Bill Watters, it is clear that the management of SVCC considers this convention a labor of love, and that they truly enjoy the results of all of their efforts. It is easy to see why this con is so successful, and why attendees come back each year. I know that I’m already looking forward to attending SVCC in 2019.

Did you attend SVCC 2018? Join the conversation on the FoCC forums!

Transmute Jun

Transmute Jun has an addiction to pop culture conventions, and attends as many as she can each year. When she's not traveling, she likes to stay at home reading a good book, playing a video game, or binge-watching a TV show. She can be bribed with pizza, Coke Zero and Belgian milk chocolate.