Now in its 20th year, Wizard World Chicago Comic Con took over the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont the weekend of Aug. 24-27, 2017, with an event that’s still as popular as ever. The four-day show is often a respite from a world where people may not feel like they always fi t in. Rather, it allows attendees a chance to dress up and be whoever they want to be for a few days, while providing a feeling of belonging knowing they are with like-minded people.
“People can come to our show and be anyone,” says Jerry Milani, public relations manager for Wizard World, who is also one of a team of 50 helping to plan and run the massive event. “It’s great that folks can have that opportunity to be whoever they are, and [know] that it’s okay and it’s cool.”
A Little Bit of Everything
Tens of thousands of fans filled the hallways and conference rooms at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center to attend 120 hours of programming, including Q&A panels with more than 40 movie and TV stars such as David Tennant of “Doctor Who,” Alex Kingston and John Barrowman of “Arrow,” and KISS rocker Gene Simmons. The weekend also offered activities such as sci-fi speed dating, Second City’s improv showdown, a costume contest and more.
As well, more than 200 exhibitors—many of which attend a number of Wizard World shows across the country every year—filled the expo room floor. Another 100 vendors were placed in a separate area that the show calls the “Artist’s Alley,” where artists can display their works.
“There’s a little taste of everything in the world of pop culture,” says Milani, noting that Chicago is the largest and longest running of all of Wizard World’s 2 0 annual shows across the country—which means a lot of advance legwork to get things like schedules in order. The assortment of celebrities at Wizard World Chicago Comic Con is arguably one of its biggest draws, but with the crazy schedules most of them have, pinning down a firm time allotment can be difficult work. Many might not know their entire schedule that far in advance, and some are so active that their availability is constantly changing. To accommodate, the planning team keeps a few slots open to book last-minute guests. For example, this year, actress Cobie Smulders was announced closer to the date of the show.
Even after the scheduling puzzle is put together and celebrities are confirmed and booked, cancellations can happen—sometimes days before the event. The task is so daunting, that even though next year’s dates aren’t confirmed, the scheduling team is already plotting out schedules for highprofile guests.
Since its inaugural year, Wizard World Chicago Comic Con has taken place at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Milani credits the long-standing, 20-year working relationship to the benefits it provides both parties. For Wizard World, hosting the event in the same venue year over year means attendees know what they’re going to get. And for the convention center, having such a huge event that gets better every year (and continues to grow) is a boon for their business.
An added bonus of hosting the event at the convention center every year is the opportunity to take advantage of an approved vendor list, and having access to reliable partners. The convention center also provides catering.
For ticketing purposes, Wizard World works with Front Gate Tickets—a vendor that covers presale and on-site ticketing sales as well as RFID-powered access control, cashless POS systems, sponsorship activation and concession sales technology.
Another important part of a huge event like Comic Con is security. Milani notes that offduty cops and security are on the premises at all times to prevent and control any issues that might arise. There are also cosplay regulations that need to adhered to as nearly half of all attendees have some sort of costume, with some that include weaponry.
To ensure safety, there are thorough checks at the entrances of the convention center. Attendees go through both a metal detector and weapons check. Anyone who has an item that needs further inspection receives a weapons tag and is shuttled to another line to abide by the producers’ strict policy of no costuming construed as real weapons. In all of Milani’s time helping to run the shows, he’s seen very few incidents: “I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve had to take something away,” he says. “A very small percentage of anything brought in is true replica weaponry.”
But even a well-oiled, successful machine like Wizard World Chicago Comic Con needs to make changes and improvements every year to stay relevant and appease audiences. This year, the team made a significant change to the entertainment stage, which hosts magicians, improv groups, music and a number of other acts. Typically, the stage is just past the entrance, ensuring that when attendees walk in, they’ll all have ample opportunity to view the acts. But, because there are a number of places to enter the venue, the team decided to move the entertainment to the main foyer area, before registration, in a larger public area for all passersby.
“The stage always attracts a crowd,” says Milani. “And we want to [make sure everyone sees it].”
The most important mission of Wizard World Chicago Comic Con, at the end of the day, is to bring people together. “You can be of any demographic, any age group or any fandom, and you’re going to run into people who like the exact same things as you,” Milani says. “This show is really about getting people together who like similar things, no matter who you are.”