Fan Expo HQ is betting on a big comeback for pop culture conventions

Pandemics are bad for many businesses, but businesses that make their money by gathering large crowds of people in enclosed spaces for days at a time have definitely felt the pain in recent years. While many people in the space have pared down their wallets and staff during the COVID years, Fan Expo HQ, a division of trade show giant Informa Connect, has pulled out all the stops. The Canada-based con organizer added to its existing lineup of comic book and fan conventions by acquiring Denver Pop Culture Con — one of North America’s largest remaining indie shows — in March 2021, then a won the top-performing events at longtime fan-con mainstay Wizard World in August.

This weekend, Fan Expo HQ will relaunch its flagship event, Fan Expo Canada, in its home market of Toronto, where more than 120,000 attendees are expected for the first full show since the pandemic began. This follows a triumphant return to Orlando in the spring, where the 2022 edition of MegaCon drew a record crowd of 140,000, and successful events over the summer in Chicago and Boston.

In total, Fan Expo welcomes nearly one million fans a year and added eight new shows to its lineup in 2022, including one in the notoriously expensive and hard-to-serve San Francisco market. According to the company, that’s enough to rank itself as “the largest comic book producer in the world.” As conventions return from their COVID-induced slumber, Fan Expo’s strategy of zig-zagging when others zig-zag looks pretty good.

“I wouldn’t say we had a strategy,” says Fan Expo’s colorful and usually media-shy founder and president, Aman Gupta. “I was looking for an opportunity to improve Fan Expo. We made a deal with Pop Culture Classroom to take over the Denver show. At the same time, we were trying to get into Moscone Center [in San Francisco] for a while, and Informa helped us get a five-year contract. It generated some press, and that’s when I heard about Wizard World.

Gupta started in the company young. At age 15, he hosted his first show, a sports card convention in Toronto, and invited legendary Maple Leafs goaltender Johnny Bower as a guest. Bower introduced Gupta to some of his NHL friends, which gave his shows a head start when the sports card market was very hot in the early 1990s. drawn.

“Canada didn’t have a national comic convention, so we started Fan Expo as a way to represent fans here,” Gupta said. In the late 90s, it began branching out into comic book-adjacent genres like anime, sci-fi, and horror, reflecting the growing whirlwind of fan culture.

Gupta says Fan Expo’s goal is to give every genre fan a complete experience, with guests, dealers, and programming catering to their specific interests. “If you are a fan of comics, we have comic creators, dedications, panels and workshops. If you like anime, we have screenings and special guests. Any of our verticals could be its own standalone show. In fact, we used to market just those niches and put it all together in one brochure in the mid-2000s.”

Although Fan Expo’s approach drew mixed reviews from purists who prefer more focused events, it certainly proved popular with mainstream audiences drawn to geek culture from the avalanche of movies and of media.

In 2013, as San Diego Comic-Con reached its climax and Reed Exhibitions struck gold with its fan convention brand ReedPOP, Fan Expo was caught in the updraft. “At that time, we had a crazy expansion,” Gupta recalls. “I had grown a bit, but it was getting difficult. The Toronto show had 75-80,000 attendees, which gave us a lot of exposure and responsibility. I didn’t have the stomach to handle the stress.

Gupta says talks with ReedPOP ended up falling through, but then Informa came calling. “They made the deal and it worked out really well,” he said. “I saw their vision and wanted to be part of it.”

With new organizational weight and new capital, Fan Expo has transformed some of its shows into international destination events. “Our show in Orlando, MegaCon, surprised us this year with a huge attendance, over 140,000,” he said. The scale nearly overwhelmed the infrastructure of Disney World’s Florida home. They expect big crowds in Toronto this weekend, although Gupta says there’s still room to grow in the city and venue.

A problem for Fan Expo as an international company is managing customs and border issues for events that feature lots of exhibitors selling big-ticket items and celebrities holding photo and autograph sales for cash at trade shows. . Gupta says Fan Expo helps exhibitors navigate Canada-US regulations. “We expect everyone to obey the law: our fans, our talent, everyone,” Gupta said.

As the industry recovers from the pandemic, Gupta is looking to the future, particularly innovations that could affect the fan experience and help evolve fan events from the standard format they’ve been using for three years. or four decades. “We learned a lot from the digital/virtual shows we did in 2020 and 2021,” Gupta said. “We were already looking at ways to integrate digital technology more closely into our shows, and this was a big step forward.”

Gupta highlighted an upcoming collaboration with live-selling platform Whatnot and the evolution of legacy shows from Denver and Wizard World as they transition to the Fan Expo brand. The company is also looking overseas, with a “twin show” planned in Dubai.

But the short-term objective is to restore the financial health of the entire sector. “We are now the biggest in the world and we have to act that way,” he said. “We invite everyone to participate. We may be competitive, but we have a common goal. We all love this space, we love the fans and we want the events to thrive.

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