And with that, we jumped into my little red Toyota and rocketed down the QE2 in a crimson streak of rattling metal and fiberglass. I had never been to a comic convention before, as least not to this scale, and I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Calgary Expo. Would I get a chance to meet pop-culture icons I grew up watching? Would the thick stench of basement nerd overwhelm my senses? Would Hayden Panettiere cry when I told her Heroes sucked?
What I, and many other nerds, didn’t expect was to be standing outside the BMO Centre staring at a near endless line-up of people, scratching my head trying to understand how the organizers could get it so wrong. At the risk of being redundant, because there are many articles out there on the subject, I thought I would collect my thoughts and give you an honest account of my experience as the Calgary Expo.
The weekend started out great. Erin, Mark and I rolled into Calgary around 4:30pm and were wearing our weekend passes and walking the convention floor by five. Some of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast had already sat down to sign autographs and talk to nervous dweebs. In retrospect I should have stood in line right then and there. The lines were barely 20 bodies deep and Brent Spiner was giving fans fist bumps. A fist bump! From Data!!
After a quick survey of the hall, I suggested we head to my good friend George’s, who was putting us up for the weekend (thanks again, buddy!). “We’ll spend all our money tomorrow,” I said.
It turns out that spending “all our money tomorrow” would be the terrific amount of booze needed to drown our Calgary Expo frustrations in.
The next day, we arrived back at the convention about noon . We were not interested in being one of those go-getters first on the con floor. We were go-getters of the sleeping-in variety. Well, Erin was, anyway. I was, for some reason, awake at 4am trying to persuade my brain it was still tired and required more rest. Eventually I fell back asleep, but only after getting up and coloring the latest comic for an hour.
The prevailing wisdom was that the expo would be bananas in the morning anyway and there was no need to get to the expo early. By the afternoon, we figured, crowds would be much thinner. Oh, how young and naive we were.
As we approached the BMO Centre I spotted an incredible line up of people stretching across the entire LRT catwalk. “That’s peculiar,” I thought. “Must be the line for the TNG signings” I convinced myself despite it making very little sense (the autograph booths were on the other side of the building).
Trying to park at the Stampede grounds was a waste of time, traffic nearly circled the entire area, so we found a lot a few blocks away and hiked it to the convention.
We arrive to find the concourse of the BMO Centre jammed with people. It was difficult to understand what was happening. The line seemed endless, people were confused, running up and down the halls trying to figure which way to go in order to get into the show. There were no event volunteers directing traffic, the ones I did see appeared to be as baffled as the rest of us. Some appeared to just want to go home.
I didn’t blame them.
Erin and Mark stood in line while I walked ahead. I wanted to find out what was happening, if there was some other line weekend pass holders should be in. It seemed inconceivable that we had our passes but couldn’t access the show. At the other end of the BMO Centre I ran into my buddy Tim. Tim had arrived early enough to get into the expo, but had unwisely left in favour of some fresh air. He was now trapped like the rest of us, his friends happily enjoying the convention inside while he stood amongst the throngs of cos-players lined-up at the gates.
“I’m ready to start punching people,” he told me.
Punching seemed like a satisfying yet ultimately fruitless solution. Instead we decided we should get some lunch, perhaps the crowds will have died down later in the afternoon. Nope. We returned almost three hours later to what appeared to be the exact same line. Saturday at the con was a bust, it was time to go home.
Sunday. Sunday will be better.
We arrived back at the BMO Centre at 9:30am the next morning and again the line appeared endless. This time it formed outdoors, twisting around the entire building then circling its way around the parking lot. Volunteers were attempting to direct traffic, explaining the massive line was for Saturday, Sunday and full weekend pass holders. People hoping to purchase tickets were directed to some unclear destination which caused much confusion.
A pool of human bodies formed near the LRT station where the line had simply run out of places to go. Volunteers attempted to zigzag the line, but without ropes for guidance, no one could understand where in the line they actually stood. It looked like a giant complicated game of snake. Predictably, the complicated network collapsed and formed a polite but frustrated mob funneling themselves slowly into the main line-up.
The line, in need of its own postal code, eventually started to move. Slowly it picked up speed as we approached the doors. After about an hour of walking in line we had finally made it, back to where we started nearly two days ago.
The Calgary Expo received a lot of criticism for what was clearly an over-sold show, and rightly so. Twitter exploded with angry, upset comic geeks and Star Trek fans missing out on their chance to meet their heroes. Those who purchased autographs ahead of time but turned away at the door were receiving refunds, which I doubt was much consolation, particularly if they had drove in from far off lands.
Word came down late Saturday from event organizers Calgary Expo was not over-sold, which was both factually inaccurate and insulting to those who had been on the outside looking in. Though I can’t find a source to confirm it, I understand that the pre-sales for Calgary Expo exceeded the attendance of the last year’s convention. If that’s true, I find it difficult to believe the organizers were simply “overwhelmed” by the response. With the entire cast of TNG present, one could fairly call the astronomical attendance predictable.
I’ve seen some folks praise event organizers for how much smoother Sunday was, but I’m not ready to give out any credit. As we made our final approach to the doors we could see the massive line was dwindling, by noon there was no line at all. Attendance Sunday was significantly lower, as best as I can assess it, which is why the expo appeared to be run so much smoother.
Sunday felt like a salvage project. The three of us spent money on a weekend pass that was really only valid for two days. I was honestly just relieved we could get into the show on the last day to spend some money on nerd shit. Erin and Mark had their Hark a Vagrant books signed by Kate Beaton and I got to meet Joel Watson from Hijinks Ensue who doodled on my Wacom tablet.
While the weekend wasn’t spoiled, I definitely feel like I missed out on a lot. That’s disappointing. I truly hope organizers are better prepared for next year. Despite it’s problems, Calgary Expo established itself as a premiere event capable of drawing high profile personalities. So long as organizers can learn from their mistakes, the future looks bright.