There’s nothing quite like the electricity that fills the room when a beloved group of actors and creators take the stage for a major panel at New York Comic Con. It’s hard to replicate the thrill that comes from walking around the show floor, greeting so many fellow fans who love pop culture just as much as you do, and snapping photos of amazing cosplay. Yet, those moments were suddenly gone in 2020, due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following a year with virtually zero in-person fan conventions, 2021 became a time of uncertainty for ReedPop, the company that produces fan events including New York Comic Con (NYCC), Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC), and C2E2. ReedPop was ultimately able to host all three of those shows in the latter part of the year, but not without overcoming a variety of challenges and finding a new normal that would keep attendees safe and healthy. We chatted with ReedPop’s Event Director Kristina Rogers and Vice President Mike Armstrong about working in the convention business over the past two years, bringing back in-person cons, and more.
The Pop Insider: It’s been a really intense two years for fan conventions. How would you describe the experience in five words?
Kristina Rogers: I love this industry. I was going to insert a swear here to make it five, but my dad reads my interviews (Hi, Dad!). “Really intense” is a good phrase for it. It was heartbreaking to cancel our shows, to have our livelihoods taken away overnight. Getting to work on bringing them back, even with how difficult it was from every possible angle, was an absolute blessing. The alternative was — and still is — unthinkable to me. It got to a depressing low during the summer of 2020 when I eyed a grocery store’s queue and seriously contemplated fixing it for them just to have something “eventsy” to do again.
PI: Were there any points in time when you worried that NYCC, ECCC, or C2E2 wouldn’t be able to happen in 2021?
KR: For sure. We immediately moved all our events to the last half of 2021 to do our best to avoid it, but the whole year I was glued to case trends, and every variant that popped up immediately headlined my stress dreams. I was never 100% confident, but I was 100% confident we were doing everything we possibly could to have [an event] safely. At some point, you’ve just got to let go and know you can’t actually control what you can’t control.
PI: You were able to have a few in-person conventions during the latter half of 2021. Can you describe how it felt to be back in person?
KR: Really intense. I’m not typically emotionally expressive, but last year I cried during every show open and a few times when we closed. Our con community is so passionate and supportive, just being together again was invigorating and exciting and every other nice word you can think of, I’m so grateful we could do it.
PI: What have been some of the biggest challenges in starting to return to in-person fan conventions, both in terms of safety and general operations?
KR: The biggest challenge has been centered around our health and safety policies. Creating them took a village and implementing them took a city. We made the decision to go above and beyond local guidelines, because we wanted to be as safe as possible, and that took a lot from every part of the team.
But honestly, everything has been a challenge. We executed six shows in 12 weeks. That is next-level madness. Our content team had to completely redesign how we build shows, since so many companies that typically bring content weren’t allowing their teams to travel and guests were unavailable. Our marketing team had the hard job of educating tens of thousands of people on our new health and safety procedures on top of their normal work, we had last-minute floorplan changes and tech issues and just … literally everything you could think of that goes into a show was exceptionally harder.
It’s a fantastic thing, on the one hand, because everyone on the team became that much better at what they do and I already considered them the best in the business, but as I write this after our last show of the year, we are a pretty exhausted group of folks, not gonna lie. Please send naps.
PI: Speaking of safety, widening aisles and leaving more space between booths for social distancing is one thing, but how did you strategize ways to make panels and meet-and-greets work in person again? How were these changes received by fans?
KR: Panels we handled similarly to the floor. We held less per day, spaced them out, had less seating, and increased cleaning measures between each. For autographing and our photo ops, we utilized plexiglass dividers. Not ideal, honestly, and not our fan’s favorite addition at all. By and large, folks who attended our shows last year took the new changes well and were supportive of us. Wider aisles at NYCC received a ton of praise, which is understandable if you’ve ever gone. There was frustration, particularly around plexiglass or required mask usage, but that’s to be expected, too. The complaints may have been loud, but they were still the minority of our fans.
PI: In your opinion, what has been the biggest change in fan conventions now compared to prepandemic days, and do you think that change will continue in perpetuity?
KR: The most obvious change was lack of publisher and brand participation [in 2021], but for most of the companies we work with, that isn’t one they want to continue. They were bummed last year, and we kept getting FOMO texts and emails while we were onsite. They miss connecting with their fans as much as everyone else missed seeing them.
What I do think will continue is the appreciation of community and togetherness, which was incredibly strong last year. Everyone was supportive of each other, a bit more grateful to share the experience than in previous years, because we’d all experienced what it would be like to not celebrate all things geeky. The year has made me really sappy, I’m sorry.
PI: Some larger collectibles manufacturers and studios have started hosting their own online events during the pandemic. Do you think those events will continue and/or impact the future of in-person fan conventions? If so, how?
Mike Armstrong: Brands put on some amazing online events during the pandemic and I personally love to participate in them. I think those events are a good thing for the industry in general because it reinforces the connection that fans have with those properties.
It makes the studios recognize and realize the importance of that direct relationship. And I firmly believe in the “rising tides lift all ships” nature of this industry. If a studio does a great job promoting an upcoming release, it means that fans are excited for it and that they’ll be excited to attend our events and show off that fandom.
PI: ReedPop shifted a lot of its content online via the Metaverse platform when it wasn’t safe to have in-person events. Do you plan to continue to utilize that platform, even as we return to in-person events? Why or why not?
MA: Yes, definitely. We’ve certainly proven that there is an audience of fans who either can’t or won’t attend live events, but still want behind-the-scenes access to the content that we generate. Metaverse will continue to evolve and I’m really excited for the future of it because as opposed to just presenting content, we’re adding resources to editorialize it, present it in a more digestible form, and ultimately, deliver more great content to fans and readers.
PI: Do you have a favorite moment or memory from the return to in-person conventions, or anything a fan has said that really stuck out?
KR: I met this lovely woman at NYCC, a huge fan of just one fandom who I’d been emailing with to help out with our panel lottery. She felt silly for being upset because she was “too old” to get worked up about “silly stuff.” It struck me because us geeks, we’ve always been told we were “too” something our whole lives, right? I’m too awkward! That thinking is the antithesis of everything we create. We build this nerd city to celebrate and be exactly who we want, to get away from the everyday stresses, and to focus on the things that bring us joy with people we love.
Sunday at NYCC rolls around, and she and I finally get to meet in person. I’m not going to lie, I was exhausted and stressed, but determined to say hi. I’m trying to explain to her how grateful I was that she came and was enjoying herself, and then she’s crying because she almost didn’t let herself come and she’s so glad she did. Her year was so hard and stressful and she’s telling me all about her struggles, and it was this beautiful human moment together, just sharing our pandemic experiences.
That’s a conversation I had with literally hundreds of fans last year. “My year was so hard, I’m just so glad to be here.” Over and over again, a lot of incredible stories from wonderful people just like her. It’s humbling and motivating. I’m not curing cancer or anything over here, but what we do matters to people. I get to make people happy. That’s an honor.
PI: How much of your success would you attribute directly to the fans?
KR: All of it. If the fans didn’t trust us, didn’t examine what we were doing last year, and take the leap with us to get back into events, none of this would’ve been possible. The same goes for our exhibitors, creators, and partners. If we’d implemented our health and safety procedures, but the community didn’t show up for it, it wouldn’t have been possible.
We asked tens of thousands of people to wear masks all day and they did! We asked them to get vaccinated or tested and they did. We asked a lot more than we usually do and they were happy to support us. That’s not my success, it’s ours.
PI: What are you most looking forward to for ReedPop in 2022?
KR: We’ve done a very good job of executing events under these new guidelines, and now it’s time to grow that and build on top of it, and that’s exciting to me. I have a seven-month break now and all I want to do is dive right back in.
MA: I’m really excited to continue to build and grow these digital initiatives. We’ve got a really strong team handling the events business and I’m grateful that I’ve been given the freedom and flexibility to go explore some new potential business models.
PI: Is there anything else you would like to add about the return to in-person conventions or changes caused by the pandemic?
MA: Maybe I’m too much of an “incredibly online person,” but it doesn’t seem like people are having much fun these days. What I love about what we do is that we create an escape for people to leave work and real-life baggage at the door and just come enjoy themselves for a few days. It felt really good to be back at shows this past year and to watch people truly having a good time.
Our new products, like the Haul and Metaverse, are not intended to replace the feeling of being at an in-person event. But what I hope that we’ll be able to do is give people a bridge between events so that they can find great merch or find a new fandom on Metaverse. I can’t wait to see all parts of our business humming at the same time because I think we are creating a really special ecosystem for fans.
KR: Really, I want to thank everyone that’s done our shows. Whether fan, professional, creator, or exhibitor, you helped make last year possible. Thank you for joining us, for helping make it happen, and I promise that 2022 is going to be that much better for it.
This article was originally published in Issue No. 12 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!