April 20, 2020

Mike Armstrong - ReedPOP

Mike Armstrong - ReedPOP

Mike Armstrong, VP at ReedPOP, the company behind New York Comic Con, PAX, C2E2, Star Wars Celebration, etc. joins host Lawrence Peryer to share his thoughts and insight on the New Normal.

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Mike Armstrong, VP at ReedPOP, the company behind New York Comic Con, PAX, C2E2, Star Wars Celebration, etc. joins host Lawrence Peryer to share his thoughts and insight on the New Normal.

ReedPOP started up back in 2006, and has been on an epic ride ever since. From the very first New York Comic Con to launching and acquiring the coolest events all over the world, they’ve always stayed true to their core beliefs of always putting fans first, creating killer events and being as transparent and authentic as possible. 

Mike shares background around their process for postponements and how they're providing virtual events for fans in the short term. He talks about the new dates for Emerald City Comic Con and how they're keeping it worth it for the waiting fans. They also discuss how COVID-19 impacts an event like New York Comic Con.


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Lawrence Peryer:  How are you?


Mike Armstrong:  I’m good bud. How are you?


LP:                        I’m doing alright man. How are your family and loved ones?


MA:                      We’re good. everyone’s healthy. You know, obviously we’re all a little stir crazy, but things are going as well as they can be. My wife is also working. We’ve got a 5-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son and just passing them back and forth it feels like. Every day is a survive and advance kind of thing.


LP:                        Yeah. What line of business is your wife in?


MA:                      She’s a elementary school librarian. So she’s been doing all this distance learning stuff now and yeah she’s the elementary school teacher at the school I attended as a child. So it’s nice to go back and visit and see that really nothing’s changed.


LP:                        I take it she wasn’t working there when you were a child.


MA:                      No, that would be scandalous [laughter].


LP:                        I’ve seen those TV news shows where that happens though.


MA:                      Of course, of course [laughter]. How are you guys?


LP:                        We’re doing alright. Yeah, my family’s well. You know same thing, juggling kids. Everybody’s a little stir crazy. This week is the scheduled spring break out here so the only thing that means is different is that after about a week or so of finally getting online education up and running, the teachers took the week off [laughter]. We’re back to children running around with no sense of obligation or responsibility. But everybody’s good. The weather has been unseasonably beautiful which almost coincided to the day with the lockdown. And I think everybody out here there’s this sort of prevailing sentiment of like if this didn’t happen we’d all be somewhere on the spectrum of suicidal to homicidal.


But there’d definitely be killing going on [laughter]. But it’s good. The fact that it started so early out here there was so much angst initially, for lack of a better way to say it, it really hasn’t become real other than the inconveniences. All the folks I know that have been impacted personally are either in New York or London. I don’t know anybody out here. I know some folks that suspected they were sick, but I don’t really know anybody that was sick. So anyway, we’re OK.


MA:                      Yeah, we’ve had that in New York too. We’re based in Connecticut and so we’re not that far. We’re kind of a bedroom community for New York. So our particular area of Connecticut has been pretty hard hit actually. But, you know, in terms of working now or even parenting it kind of feels like, we talked about this a lot on our professional chats, but like we’re in a land of make believe right now. It doesn’t feel like anything’s getting done and we have the same calls every couple of days to talk about the same thing we talked about before. And the amount of ideas that are being generated it's massive. We have so many potential projects to be working on, but time doesn’t feel real.


So by not acting on something you don’t feel that sense of accomplishment that I think a lot of us are in the events industry because we love that sense of accomplishment. You know I’ve been doing this off and on for 15 years and I love the event because then you put a bow on it, and you put it away. And we don’t have that. We’re just working with a lot of ambiguity right now.


LP:                        Yeah those are all really good points. Has anything in your world moved to the virtual space yet in terms of events or [unintelligible 00:05:30] gatherings? Or have you been able to make that pivot yet?


MA:                      Yeah we have an event in the UK call Rezzed which is an Indie videogaming show mostly focused on PC gaming from the EGX brand that we own and operate. And the show got postponed so on the weekend that the show was supposed to be we ran something called EGZ Rezzed digital which went well, and the tech team put it together in like two days. It was a huge undertaking, and it was three days of [unintelligible 00:06:00] content that was live streamed and it went well. You know like I said this pulled together in two days. There’s a lot that we can draw on that. And then some of the teams did a few more organic things.


 When Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle was postponed the Emerald City marketing team put together three days’ worth of content and exciting stuff and interaction with creators. And highlighting small businesses that had been affected by all of this which has been our primary focus in the last month. And then MCM which is another Comic Con brand in the UK did a similar social based and YouTube video based virtual event. I don’t know that we can call it a virtual event, but just keeping the fans engaged and letting them know that, you know, while the show might not be happening that we’re not going anywhere.


LP:                        Yeah, before all this happened had you guys experimented with anything virtual or were you just still closely associated with in person gatherings of tribes that the virtual space was not really something that you looked at?


MA:                      ReedPop is a division of Reed Exhibitions which is the largest tradeshow company in the world. And we’ve been hearing about virtual tradeshows forever and the threat that that was going to be the thing that got us away from live gatherings. And I’ve never put that much credence in them. The ability to do business if you’re thinking about a conventional tradeshow or the ability to be a fan and make purchases or really engage with somebody is really difficult. But, you know, this situation has accelerated a number of things that we’ve been working on for a couple of years. Our first foray into the digital space was the acquisition of a company called Gamer Network based out of the UK.


Gamer Network runs Eurogamer.net, gamesindustry.biz, USgamer.net, 15 videogame websites with a really innovative tech team and 80 to 100 journalists based in Brighton in the UK. So we’ve been able to draw on those resources to work to develop what a virtual Comic Con or videogame convention looks like. But this had been on the side of our desks for five years like. It was always something that we wanted to do and now we’re forced to do it, not forced but heavily incented to do it. We’re doing what we can with the resources that we have and we’re lucky that we have a bit of a diversified business where we’re not solely reliant on sponsorships, ticket sales, booth space sales.


We’ve got a really robust digital business in the UK which right now is the only thing making any money. And doing well because everybody’s online and traffic is up. But yeah, we’re thinking about things in a way that we have been but just a little bit more focused and concentrated.


LP:                        Yeah, it seems like in a lot of ways and just from the outside looking into your business, you could be really well suited to do some interesting things. Not least of which is just around your relationship with content. You know, the fact that you already book talent, you already are so much a part of the promotional circuit on the one hand for things like films and game releases. But also just the way just the way your events highlight the true creators behind this stuff the developers and creative people, the onscreen talent. I could imagine a scenario where you could still do a really cool panel discussion or a behind the scenes demo. Or a lot of things you already do seem like they could be adapted if either this were to drag out for a while or just to maybe create new product in a post pandemic world. You guys look from far away really well to do it.


MA:                      Thank you, and I hope so. You know it’s taking a lot for us to not be viewed as a convention company. And people primarily think of ReedPop, and they think of New York Comic Con, PAX Star Wars celebration. But with this digital business, with our audience that we have that’s engaged with us 365 days a year, you know, I agree with you that we’re really well positioned to do it. We just need to do a better job of not positioning ourselves as the answer when it comes to large scale gatherings. We need to position ourself more so like a media company which in a large way we are.


LP:                        Yeah. You sit in such an interesting sort of nexus point between the fan community and the creative community. Those conference calls where you guys are talking about what to do next must be interesting and fun.


MA:                      Yeah, they are fun, and I miss being in a meeting room and having those. But Microsoft Teams or Zoom calls will do for a while.


LP:                        How geographically disparate was your team or the various working groups for any individual conference anyway? You weren’t all in Connecticut were you?


MA:                      Not all of us. The majority of us are in Connecticut. We have some contractors who are LA, Texas, where else are we? Obviously, we have offices around the world. We have a few people in Austria. We’ve got some people in Germany. We have a big office of about 130 people in the UK. South Africa, actually we still have some folks in Australia who work on our PAX Australia business. So, you know, globally we’re spread out. Most of the work for the US does happen in Connecticut with maybe a half dozen people spread throughout the country.


LP:                        Do you have any sense yet for how fans are experiencing this gift? Specifically are fans interested in virtual opportunities, virtual meeting spaces, you know the virtualization of what you guys do. Have you talked to fans, or have you seen other folks experimenting with things where there’s been fan reaction?


MA:                      Yeah, we have. And we’ve seen some other shows in the industry start to do some things. And the reaction has been strong. We’ve bought tickets to a couple of virtual events and our teams have sat through it and looked at the user experience and they’ve looked at the price points and they’ve looked at the tech. And so we’re gathering all the information that we can so that whatever solution we come up with is best in class. But I think there is a need for it. If you look at any of these things we’ve participated in, there is attendance. You know, they might not be done as well as we think they can be done but people want to talk to the cast of Supernatural. They want to talk to the cast of The Magicians.


There is that need for fandom. A lot of it is being done directly creator to fan with no middleman. We see a lot of comic creators getting on and doing live sketching and then doing something with those sketches. So you see a lot of that happening on one and one. It’d be nice for there to be a clearinghouse. One of the things that I love about our physical events is that it’s a really great opportunity for discovery. And you can walk up and down the aisles of the show floor. You can walk up and down the aisles of artist alley looking for something in particular but finding something else. And that’s really hard to replicate online so we’ve been looking for ways.


I’ll give you an example, like we have been talking a lot about individual creators and a lot about people in artist alley or exhibitors through our social channels so that we can keep these small businesses afloat. We take that really personally. And we end up linking out to four different
Big Cartel sites, emerge now sites or Etsy stores or whatever and that really hinders the fans ability to find something new. So we’re working on solutions where we can have all of that living in one digital platform so that you can make one purchase from four different people, and you’ve been able to kind of navigate things in a way where you’re finding stuff you didn’t know existed before. Because that’s why people go to shows and that’s the hard thing to replicate online.


LP:                        That’s a really interesting point you make. And I think we’ve seen that over the years, or we’ve seen the discussion about it over the years in the music space. Which is this idea of social discovery, social media discovery versus duration. And it is often couched as a versus discussion. You know, and I’m sure on the Venn diagram there’s a significant overlap between the two. But I think you’re exactly right. The discovery seems to take the form of maybe you follow a hashtag or maybe there’s an influencer in your network and you check out what they’re up to. But by and large I’m going to go sit in on a creative doing a [unintelligible 00:15:06] painting or doing a drawing because I know about that creator.


Probably not because somebody else told me, whereas you like I said before have that relationship with so many hundreds of thousands or millions of fans as well as that creative community. And that does seem like the next point where you’ll be able to create the opportunities around hey we know you came to this event. Therefore you might like this thing. Or we know you attended this panel when you were at that event, you might want to check out this thing. That seems like a really interesting opportunity to serve fans well.


MA:                      Yeah and from a data perspective that’s been our goal for a number of years. And the nature of our show is as, I’m sure the nature of a lot of live events is you are selling four tickets to one person. So you know the one person who bought the tickets, but you don’t necessarily know the other three. So for New York Comic Con, I guess it was four or five years ago now, we launched something called fan verification and that gave us the ability to know and to limit the amount of tickets that individuals could have. One individual could only have one ticket per day. You know, while it started out as an anti-scalping method, it turned into an amazing trove of data.


So we now know that this person went to the Dr. Who panel, bought the Dr. Who shirt from our show store and got to the show at 8:00 and left at 11 p.m. What we can do with that data is really interesting and it’s a compelling sales opportunity for us as we try to leverage that data into working with some of our content partners. And letting BBC know these are the other things that your fans of Dr. Who are doing. And it’s an undertaking and we really bootstrapped it till now. But I’m thinking that this downtime is giving us the opportunity to work on a lot of things that we’ve had on our plates for a while but have never really completed. And going back to your point about discovery, like you’re a music guy.


I’m a music guy. You know, you used to find bands by going early and listening to the openers. And you know I think that’s what a lot of comic conventions are. You go to a panel room early because you really want to see the HBO Watchmen panel, but in order to get a good seat for that you need to sit through something else and maybe you really love that other thing. So finding those opportunities for fans to discover something new is paramount for our business. Because we’re in the business of cultivating fandom, but also creating new fans. And, you know, once the fans go away then these shows go away.


LP:                        Yeah. So in so much as you’re sitting around a crystal ball [laughter], what are some prognostications? I’d love to know what you think in terms of not only timing, when we might start to see events again. But what those events might look like. You know is there an express entry if you flash your card thing? You’ve had the serology test and you’re clean. Or our event’s half the capacity and then inside there’s other ways that keep people socially distant. Are you having sort of logistics operational discussions yet? And what do you see coming out of it?


MA:                      We’re having a lot of theoretical conversations. The situation is so fluid, and we were one of the first dominos to fall with Emerald City in early March. That was the first show or large gathering that ended up getting postponed. At the time it felt like it was a cancellation because it hurt us all so much, but it ended up being postponed to August. So because we work around the country and around the world we don’t really have a standard procedure. You know we operate in Javits Center in New York which as we know has turned into a field hospital as has McCormick Place in Chicago as has Miami Beach Convention Center in Florida. We’re hoping to be able to run a show July 4th weekend in Miami.


Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen. We’re operating as if it will happen and then we’ll pivot when we need to. But my guess is that for a show like New York Comic Con October Javits Center, 60,000 people a day it’s going to look different. And is it going to look different because there are federal and local mandates that make it look different? Is it going to look different because the appetite for fans to gather in the way that they normally have gathered will change? We don’t know yet. We all have our own predications. In talking to a lot of customers and exhibitors they all have their own predictions too. So we’re kind of figuring this out day by day.


What does the entry process to New York Comic Con look like? Is there an appetite for people to sit in the queue hall, which is one hall of the Javits Center that we fill with people in the morning, so they don’t have to wait outside? It’s 10,000 people in five shoots kind of jammed together for lack of a better word. Are people going to want to do that anymore? I don’t think so. So is it taking temperatures at the door? Is it asking for some sort of documentation at the door? I don’t know what it looks like right now. And, you know, I don’t know that we’re going to know by July because the situation is Florida is going to be different than the situation in Seattle when we’re back there in August or when we’re in Philadelphia in August or New York in October. It’s totally different. We’re all figuring it out as we go.


LP:                        It’s so surreal to think back that it wasn’t even that long ago that Emerald City Comic Con was the sort of first domino to go. It feels so long ago.


MA:                      Yeah.


LP:                        But it was really what? Maybe eight weeks ago, eight weeks ago?


MA:                      Six weeks ago and we ran a show seven weeks ago. You know we were in Chicago at C2E2 which we had; I think 97 was our final number. 97,000 people and it was in the back of peoples’ minds. You know, we got slammed at security on Sunday myself, our event director Christina Rogers, and a few of other staff members ended up jumping on the security lines and checking bags. And in, you know, talking to people and being very close to people and touching their phones and touching their jackets. And in retrospect there’s no way we would’ve done that now without a hazmat suit knowing what we know now [laughter]. So the world has dramatically changed over seven weeks and we’re lucky that we’ve been able to get three really great shows in this year.


PAX South, PAX East, and C2E2 all fantastic shows, not all but C2E2 and PAX East running around the time that this started to come into the public consciousness. We took really drastic measures during both of those shows and, you know, we couldn’t get away with doing that now. We couldn’t get away with using the measures that we did then when we restart. So everything’s going to be totally different.


LP:                        Yeah. I have a couple questions about sort of the anatomy of a postponement. You know when I think about a music festival, even a multiday music festival where there’s a couple of score or a few dozen artists, really at the end of the day yes each artist has it’s own deal but there’s only really a handful of corporate stakeholders. You know the artists are probably concentrated across four to six, maybe eight agencies, maybe a couple of outliers. And again it could all have different representative agents within those groups, but you could wrangle a corporate discussion I would think with some ease in terms of getting to some policy harmonization and stuff like that.


In your world, and not using any particular event as an example if you’re not comfortable, but you announce a postponement, and it seems like your schedule over the course of a weekend is much more sprawling because you have multiple crafts and you have even multiple disciplines. So it’s not just oh we have to get some Hollywood talent and rebook them. You’ve got developers. You’ve got artists. You’ve got creative people on screen. You’ve got directors. You’ve got so many different types of talent across so many different types of events. Is my assumption right in that there’s many more representatives involved, many more stakeholders and if so how do you go about listing and shifting that?


How much of the content will actually be different from something that was scheduled in March and April versus when it actually gets staged later this year?


MA:                      Yeah, I’ll give you a couple of examples. So you’re right in that we deal with a lot of individuals. Individual talent who are doing paid autograph signings, paid photo ops. We deal with anybody from an artist alley perspective that we’ve paid to bring in. So that’s your Chris Claremonts, Jonathan Hickmans, Jim Lees of the world. And then you’re dealing with between 400 and a thousand exhibitors who have, you know, booth space on the show floor who were looking forward to generating some income or promoting an upcoming project. So when we had to postpone Emerald City we postponed it from early March to mid-August. So as soon as we start to get the sense that that’s happening we reach out to our top talent, the people who sell us our tickets, you know.


We had Mark Ruffalo confirmed to attend Emerald City Comic Con. We had a number of other entertainment guests, so we start reaching out to their agents and saying hey these are the new dates. Let us know if they’re available. In a lot of instances they are not willing to think that far out, or they are not willing to think about this at all because the kind of situation has dictated that there’s no action from Hollywood agents right now. Or they’re already committed to something else. We postponed Florida Supercon from Mother’s Day weekend in May to 4th of July weekend in July. By doing that we moved on top of a big show in Denver, Denver Comic Con or Denver Pop Culture Con.


So some of the talent we had confirmed for the Supercon was already committed to Denver. Denver, they’ve postponed themselves to November so some of that talent has now become available to us again. But not an ideal situation by any means, so with exhibitors our sales team is on the phone trying to get people to recommit to new dates. Our comic and celebrity talent teams are trying to get people to recommit to new dates, and you know our attrition if you look across Supercon and Emerald City of content has been about 60%. We’ve been able to keep a good portion of it. We’ve not been able to maintain the big stuff. We’re not getting indications that there’s a lot of big Hollywood talent who’s ready to commit to something right now.


So who knows what the show is going to look like in August. But, you know, in a lot of ways that’s the easy thing is just trying to get people interested in coming to the show again as a professional. The navigating, finding new dates with a convention center, finding hotel contracts has been the thing that has probably been the most challenging for us.


LP:                        That’s incredible. And I take in your normal course of business there’s a group within ReedPop that just handles booking?


MA:                      Yeah. We have two to three people who are in charge with booking all of our entertainment guests. They interact with either smaller booking agents or they interact with the big Hollywood agents like WME, CAA. And then there’s two people who work on comic guest booking. So they’re focused on finding, you know, comic talent that is going to sell tickets to our shows. They sit in artist alley which is anywhere between 300 and 450 individual tables of artists sitting, signing, sketching, selling their stuff over the course of the show. So our biggest challenge with those guys is just maintaining the relationships with individual talent. And it’s not like they’re all with one agent or agency.


You have a lot of different relationships and schedules are so difficult because in a lot of ways the most compelling celebrity talent are working actors. And working actors their main goal is to work as actors, not to sign at Comic Con, so you’re navigating shooting schedules. And then you’re navigating other shows and navigating their own person need for money. So yeah, it’s incredibly challenging game of chess.


LP:                        Yeah, one thing that strikes me I guess as a potential positive, I don’t know, is at least everybody is starting from the same sort of starting block right now in terms of, you know, films aren’t being filmed. Other Comic Cons aren’t being staged. It’s not like somebody else has an edge or is out in front right now. Everybody’s sort of in wait and see mode. It also struck me that as some of the tentpole films moved their release date, you know, at least maybe some of this can become list and shift. Oh we were going to do, you know, 45 days of promotion starting April 1st. Now we have to do 45 days of promotion starting August 15th or what have you. Not to minimize the sort of terror that [laughter] it brings to your enterprise, but it does seem like there’s some aspect that some of it can be [unintelligible 00:28:42].


MA:                      I hope so. I mean I’m very much a proponent of rising tides lift all ships. And good small to medium size Comic Cons benefit big Comic Cons which is what we run. And, you know, for a lot of people that’s an easier point of entry going to a local show and then realizing that they love it. And then saying OK, what’s next is a really good thing for us. So when smaller shows don’t happen, I think that hurts the pipeline of people becoming really invested in the fandom and wanting to attend the next big show. I personally don’t like seeing all these shows cancelled because I know what kind of an impact it has on the organizers. I have personal relationships with a lot of them and I understand what they’re going through.


And then the small businesses that are affected. If you look at the dealer community as we call them, it’s guys, women who travel the country in a van selling old comics, old toys, homemade creations. They don’t have a physical storefront. They mostly don’t have an online business, maybe eBay, maybe Etsy. But knowing that they’ve lost which will probably amount to four to five months of revenue and knowing that a lot of them are going out to get real jobs if there are real jobs left, that was the thing that was most frustrating and disappointing about Emerald City. At the end it was the right choice obviously. A day before we were supposed to open the governor put a lockdown and said no mass gatherings.


So we cancelled six days ahead of that, which postponed it [unintelligible 00:30:20]. We’re glad that we made the right decision, but we knew it was going to have a ripple effect on those people and those comic creators who depend on our shows for a significant portion of their money. So yeah, you know I hope that the industry is kind of building all of this stuff up in reserve so that when New York Comic Con runs in October that we’ve got a trove of content to show at the show. But I don’t know what that’s going to look like to be honest with you.


LP:                        Yeah, how long before Emerald City or New York will you guys ideally be able to announce your new programming?


MA:                      We hope to be able to announce new programming for Emerald City, we were just talking about this today. We’re going to start making announcements of guests that have resigned and content that is coming back probably within the next week actually. So, you know, one of the other difficult things for a show like Emerald City or a show like New York is that our tickets sell out mostly before the bulk of the content is announced. So people are buying on spec, or they’re buying on a belief that the show is going to be worth their time and money. So it’s nice for us in a way to be able to announce content before we have to put these tickets back on sale. So that’s our goal.


We’re going to get as much out for Emerald City as we have confirmed, and like I said we had about 50 to 60% attrition, and then put tickets back on sale in May. New York we plan on going on sale early summer. So we will be able to have some content announced before then. We already have a bunch of entertainment guests lined up and comic creators lined up and ready for that show. So I’m hopeful that this might help us get content out before people have to make the commitment to buy tickets.


LP:                        Well as someone who lives in Seattle and likes to spend time in New York, I’m going to look forward to both of those getting back up and running. Then also as someone who values you as a friend and business partner I’m wishing you guys the best. And as someone who really wanted to see the Back to the Future panel I’m hoping that that falls in the right side of the attrition column [laughter].


MA:                      I hope so. Maybe yeah. I think you’ll be happy [laughter].


LP:                        OK. Mike thank you for making time. I know it’s funny, you refer to in air quotes the downtime and I have to say this is the busiest downtime I could’ve ever imagined in my professional life. So thank you for making time to do this. It means a lot and so I appreciate it, thanks.


MA:                      Yeah. It’s my pleasure. Good to talk to you.

Mike ArmstrongProfile Photo

Mike Armstrong

Vice President, New Initiatives at ReedPOP - Popverse, TheHaul.com, Star Wars Celebration, Star Trek Missons & more