Con SuiteFrom the ConNewThe Plan

How Pop Culture Cons Can Adapt in the COVID-19 Era

by Transmute Jun

It’s been a depressing past few months for pop culture convention fans. With cons being canceled (some cancellations now extending to the end of the year), it may feel like there could never be a mass gathering again until there is a cure. Yet it is possible for people to enjoy events, even while protecting themselves from the spread of COVID-19. This came to mind as I traveled to Orlando, Florida at the beginning of June to experience the re-opening of the Universal Orlando Resort.

While theme parks and pop culture cons are not the same, there are many aspects in common between them, which could be adapted to cons, should they be held again while strict prevention measures are still in place. Currently, there are still travel restrictions in place between countries (and even between certain states). However, once these measures are lifted, events that are held may look something like what I experienced during my trip.

Although there are no current plans to reinstate mass gatherings in most places in the country, once cities are permitted again to host pop culture conventions, it is likely that attendees will see many of the changes discussed below. If you’d like to know what to expect when this occurs, read on!

Flights – Many attendees fly to reach pop culture conventions. My flights to and from Orlando were on Southwest. Currently, Southwest requires masks to be worn by all passengers, except when they are eating and drinking. They will not let passengers on the plane without a mask. Additionally, to promote social distancing, Southwest is not allowing middle seats to be occupied (unless by members of the same family unit). This means that there are one third fewer passengers on their planes, even when they are flying ‘full’. The good news is that means that everyone gets a window or aisle seat, and overhead bin space for their carry-ons. While not an ideal solution (passengers still have others sitting in the row in front of and the row behind them), it does mean that flyers are unlikely to get strangers breathing into their faces.

For boarding, Southwest still has the A, B, and C groups, but they changed their procedure to now call boarding groups in batches of 10 passengers, to allow for spacing and less crowding at the boarding gate. These measures are likely to continue until the COVID-19 crisis has passed. I can easily imagine con attendees having a similar experience as they travel to conventions.

Hotels –  I stayed in 3 different hotels during my trip, including on-site at the Universal Orlando resort. All of these hotels required masks in public areas.

None of these hotels were providing room cleaning during the visit, to keep both employees and guests safe. However, fresh towels, sheets, and any other necessities were dropped off outside of the room daily. Trash was also placed outside of the room and removed. The Universal resorts had set up a text messaging system, where issues for the front desk or hotel concierge could be texted, rather than coming to the desk to converse in person.

Universal went another step further with its resort hotels, keeping rooms empty for 24 hours after guests departed before cleaning, and then not allowing another guest to occupy the room for 24 hours after that. Additionally, they took the temperature of anyone entering the hotel, giving them a wristband if they did not show a fever. The wristband was good for the rest of the day, and allowed the wearer to bypass temperature checks at other stations around the resort.

Every hotel had pools open to guests, however, lounge chairs (usually grouped in twos) were spaced at least 6 feet apart from others, to promote social distancing. Masks were not allowed in the pools themselves, as they do not work when they are wet.

It is easy to imagine these measures being set in place at convention hotels. The temperature checks could easily be instituted for certain ‘zones’ around the convention center (such as the pedestrian zone set up around the convention center in recent years for San Diego Comic Con/SDCC).

Restaurants – Conventiongoers have to eat. While many restaurants are currently providing delivery and pickup meals, some places in the country (including Florida) are allowing restaurants to open up with indoor and outdoor seating. Capacities are limited, as all tables must be more than 6 feet apart. In the restaurants I visited, this meant that sometimes tables were spaced apart, and other times (such as with booths that are built into the walls/floors) tables were roped off, to prevent anyone from sitting there. Diners were permitted to remove masks when seated at their own table, so that they could eat and drink, however all restaurant employees wore masks at all times.

Flatware was never on the table, but was provided (usually rolled up in a napkin, sometimes in a plastic bag) individually to diners. Condiments (such as ketchup, salt and pepper) were not on the table, and diners had to request them. Menus were available on mobile devices, on one-time-use paper printouts, and were sometimes laminated/washable.

While capacity in restaurants is lower under these measures, they could easily be implemented for restaurants that service conventiongoers.

Theme Parks Attractions – Okay, a pop culture convention is not a theme park. But they do both have rooms/attractions where there are long lines, and seating at shows/panels. From my experience at the parks, Universal Orlando has created a safe environment for fans to enjoy their resort. As mentioned under hotels, everyone entering any part of the resort is required to undergo a temperature check. Once inside, masks are mandatory for all visitors aged 2 and up. There are some rest areas inside the resorts where people can take off their masks for a break, and distance from others doing the same. Otherwise, the only exceptions to the mask policy were when eating or drinking, or when on a water ride (or at the water park).

While Universal already has queues built for their attractions, these queues were designed to hold the maximum number of people in the least amount of space. The parks now have social distancing markers placed upon the ground, indicating where guests should stand. When the next social distancing marker in front has been cleared, the guests may proceed forward in the line. Yet this means that the queues now hold far fewer people. To accommodate all guests, Universal has set up an app with virtual lines. Guess can login to the app on their mobile device and join a virtual line. When their time comes up, they can approach the attraction and join the physical queue, which is now much ‘shorter’ due to the distancing within. Cons such as SDCC have already begun implementing such virtual lineups both on the exhibit floor and at offsites, and it is easy to imagine such practices extending to most large booths and offsite attractions.

Once in the physical queue, lines generally moved quickly. Each family unit was given their own ride vehicle, which meant that single riders had one all to themselves. Guests also had hand sanitizer squirted into their hands and were monitored rubbing it in before they were allowed to board ride vehicles. This is ingenious, because in this way, riders are assured that everyone who has ridden the vehicle before them had clean hands. Hand sanitizer was also available (voluntary) at the exit of every ride. Again, this is something that could easily be implemented at a convention booth or offsite attraction at a con.

Shows – Some theme parks are currently hosting show performances. When guests arrive, they are directed to specific rows and sections of seating, with places marked off for social distancing. Only alternative rows are seated, and guests are seated at least 6 feet apart from other groups within rows. At SeaWorld Orlando, a staggered exit routine is used when the show has finished, requiring guests to remain in their seats until their section is called and they can exit without crowding. This reminded me of the staggered exits to the Conan performances in the Spreckles Theatre at SDCC. While obviously such methods limit capacity, they could be instituted at convention panels, allowing attendees to see their favorite guests in person, with appropriate social distancing.

Retail – Retail stores in Florida, including at the Universal Orlando Resort, were all limited in capacity. Guests were not permitted to touch merchandise unless they were purchasing it. Store capacities were limited, and popular stores had socially-distanced lines outside to enter. Cash payments were strongly discouraged, and instead, credit card or mobile payment options (such as Apple Pay) were preferred, to minimize contact.

While exhibit floors at cons are normally very crowded, many of these techniques could be used to minimize risk. Attendees could book virtual line times to enter the exhibit floor, be encouraged to use apps or websites to pre-order and pre-pay for merchandise, and be required to make reservations for large ‘attraction’-style booths. Obviously, pathways through the exhibit floor would also need to be widened, to allow for more distancing. While this is generally not a problem at theme parks, which have more space available and were designed for large crowds, at a con, this would unfortunately mean fewer vendors on the floor. However, the ability to have a vendor floor at all would depend on such measures being implemented.

It is clear that it will be some time before pop culture conventions are held again in the US, as well as in other countries, however it could be possible to hold such gatherings in a safe manner, even if a vaccine for COVID-19 has not yet not developed.

FoCC Blog understands that people who are deemed higher risk or are immunocompromised may have to take extra precautions or may ultimately decide to stay home until there is a viable cure or treatment. Virtual cons would be a suitable alternative in such situations. Given the lowered capacity that will exist when cons resume, it is likely that virtual components will become a standard part of future events.

What do you think of these measures? Would they make you feel safe attending a con again or do you have other ideas which could help ensure safety? 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.