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Comic-Con Convention Becoming too Large for San Diego?

Not Enough Downtown Hotels and Flawed Booking Process Leads to Disappointed Fans

By Lori Weisberg, The San Diego Union-TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 08, 2010--The annual mad dash for limited Comic-Con hotel rooms downtown inevitably leads to disappointed fans, but this year's reservation system proved so maddening that convention organizers have introduced expanded shuttles in outlying areas to mollify angry attendees unable to nab close-in lodging.

The blame for this year's mishaps lies largely with the hotel booking company Comic-Con uses to handle the heavy demand for lodging during the regularly sold-out convention to be held this month. While New York-based Travel Planners believed its new plan would be an improvement on last year's system, angry e-mails, phone calls and postings in the blogosphere showed otherwise.

Where last year the system was slow and plodding as people sought to log on via an "online waiting room," Travel Planners this year came up with a speedier scheme that required consumers to pick up to a dozen hotels from among the more than 45 that had discounted rates for conventioneers. The company said it processed 6,000 requests in the first hour and a total of 8,000 by the end of the day.

The trouble was, many people complained they didn't get a single one of their choices, despite signing on to the reservation site the instant it opened for business last March. Company officials, who say they have since tried to do their best to accommodate at least some attendees' preferences, point out that there are not enough hotels in the downtown area to satisfy the huge demand.

In a contrite message posted on Comic-Con International's website, Travel Planners noted that it will even be on hand ("with targets on our backs," noted one official) to offer assistance during the convention.

"We realize many of you were frustrated and angered by the changes we made to the hotel booking experience this year," the statement said. "They did not work as planned. We fully understand the impact of this and we are truly sorry."

Comic-Con organizers, who must orchestrate a mammoth convention that regularly draws more than 130,000 attendees, also acknowledged the many complaints it received. On its website, it highlights the "generous" contribution Travel Planners made to help defray the cost of a shuttle system that for the first time this year will serve Mission Valley and Shelter Island hotels.

From Comic-Con's perspective, hotel reservations within the convention block of rooms would have gone more smoothly had the organization been given enough time to review Travel Planners' new proposal. Spokesman David Glanzer said Comic-Con received the plan just a few weeks before reservations were supposed to open.

"In the past, if there were any changes, we were notified several months ahead and this didn't happen this year," Glanzer said. "We ended up getting a proposal for the reservation system that was significantly different from in the past, and we had serious reservations about it, but by the time it was presented there was not much we could do and as a result, there were a great number of unhappy attendees."

Illinois resident Molly Demink said she had no trouble accessing the hotel reservation site at the designated time and quickly assembled a list of 12 hotels within the downtown area that she thought would be suitable for her and her 25-year-old son. But she was dismayed to learn later in the day that she had been directed to a more distant Mission Valley hotel that was not even among her top 12 selections.

Instead of the nightly rate of $177 for the Mission Valley hotel she was offered, Demink opted to pay $335 a night for the Marriott in the Gaslamp Quarter, which she booked on her own.

"I was so disappointed because they gave me something not even close to my list, and it didn't even have a shuttle service," said Demink, who will be attending Comic-Con for the second time. "I saw the comments on Facebook and became even more disappointed when I saw these other people who logged in later and got what they wanted. I thought, where's the justice in this? It really stinks."

While recognizing there were problems with this year's booking scheme, Travel Planners said it has made every effort to address people's concerns and in some cases was able to offer them better hotel choices through a waiting list system. Marketing Director Brian Hendricks said the company, which plans on making improvements for next year, decided to contribute toward a shuttle operation because there were a lot more Mission Valley hotels serving the convention, yet attendees were unwilling to use rental cars because of the difficulty finding parking downtown.

The shuttles, which will transport conventioneers between the Convention Center and hotels in Mission Valley, Shelter Island and North Harbor Island, will run every 8 to 30 minutes, depending on the time of day, according to Seat Planners, which is overseeing the transportation. One-way trips from Mission Valley will vary from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on traffic.

"We feel for people. We're fans of the show as well and we're doing our best here, and it's tough to read what people are saying about Travel Planners," Hendricks said. "We've remedied the situation for a lot of people, but there is still a finite number of rooms for a huge demand."


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