CONVENTION HOW-TO: Risky Business – Surviving “Client Dinners” At San Diego Comic-Con

This is the third in an Ultra Mega Super series on attending conventions (part one, part two). As a nine-year veteran of San Diego Comic-Con, I hope to share some insight. Especially if you’re heading out to the Con next week for business.

For a lot of people in geeky industries, SDCC is simultaneously exhausting work and glorious boondoggle. In my case, I spent almost a decade working the two booths of a major toy company, which I will refer to as Shmasbro to protect its anonymity. The Shmasbro booths take up a huge amount of space in the San Diego Convention Center and require a lot of people to operate, so many that they would invite people from their advertising and production partners to help out. A few coworkers (who were required to go) dreaded the idea of mingling with nerds, while fun coworkers volunteered every year. (You all know who you are!)
For me, it was 5 special days out of the year to spend amongst my own kind.
Work was split between two things: First, greeting con-goers at the main Shmasbro booth, passing out goodies like little Shtransformers figures and Shmy Little Pony posters. Second, handling stock in Shmasbro Shtoy Shshop, cutting open boxes, unpacking stock then breaking down boxes. While working stock may seem like a cakewalk, keep in mind that once your shift started, you did not stop. For four hours. I actually counted one year to pass the time, opening, unpacking and breaking down 267 boxes over the shift. (In retrospect, I just realized that’s over 2400 boxes opened with boxcutters at high speed without cutting myself.) I always elected for the early morning shifts, which ended around noon and gave me the rest of the day to take in the Con. Plus, you got a chance to “booth barter” with like-minded folks from other companies, like trading Shmautobot and Shdecepticon logo magnets for a Patapon Bearbrick and a Parappa The Rapper hat with a guy at the Sony PlayStation booth.
I’ll skip talking about the Con itself because that’s not what this article is about. Let’s go straight to SDCC client dinners, which start out as perfectly proper business-oriented occasions and devolve into sheer madness before the night is through. Case in point: one night in 2007.
The Shtransformers team was feeling great, riding the rush of the movie’s incredible success. It was time to celebrate a damn good year of teamwork. The host of the evening was our company’s super-charming and ever-so-witty account service guy, Mike. (No anonymity for him!) He began the evening by setting up dinner at a favorite eatery of both us and our clients: The Gaslamp Strip Club, which is not a place for lapdances but a fancy-pants barbecue place. You order a really nice cut of meat and you grill it yourself over a fire. Whoever thought this is a good idea to mix with alcohol must have a hell of an insurance policy. By the end of dinner most everyone was… Let’s just say onesheet to the wind.
We and our two client cohorts left to go to a popular club on the recommendation of a San Diego local. We strolled along, slightly wobbly. Mike had already purposefully stepped into several photographs of complete strangers with an uncanny skill to make friends with all of them. He was about to do this again when we ran into the Shmarvel Comics team. We invited the two of them to come along. After all, we were one big, happy Shmasbro family!
We got to the club and found three more clients there, waiting for us. (They were called by the comics folks.) The place inside was nuts. The DJ mixed old school, on actual vinyl. Some of the patrons were dressed for nightlife, men in shiny rayon shirts and women in really short, really tight cocktail dresses. Some were still in cosplay, like Wonder Woman and Black Mesa Scientist guy. You can always spot people there for work because we’re all dressed like we went to a business dinner. As the night went on, more clients showed up (a grand total of 17) as word spread through the Shmasbro Blackberry network. Rounds of drinks were consumed. Dancing occurred. More drinks. Around 3am, I was really wanting to get back to the hotel and get some sleep for the morning shift, but I was the designated driver. More drinks. A round of Jagermeister shots from the Shtar Wars team. One person, whom I will only refer to as “Chompers”, was still raving about a zombie movie booth from earlier in the day and started biting everybody.
Mike, who was somehow still standing, physically picked up, carried and set Chompers on a pedicab outside. “Yeah… It’s time to go,” Mike said. He went back in to round everyone up and settle the tab. Meanwhile, I was responsible for keeping Chompers from shambling back into the club, zombie-style.
Around 4:30, I drove us all back to the hotel in our Plymouth Voyager rental. Chompers had passed out in the back seat, feet propped up so they were right next to my face. Mike, who was beginning to gain clarity, reflected in sheer horror at the bar tab. “I AM SO FIRED. HOW AM I GOING TO EXPENSE THIS? DID ANY OF THE CLIENTS GET BITTEN?”
I got up the next morning, somehow trucking on 2½ hours of sleep, probably energized for Saturday, undoubtedly the biggest day of SDCC. I went to the Con on the bus. By myself.
Everyone, both Shmasbro people and my company brethren, managed to make it in on time. Lots of groans, accompanied by hungover smiles. Everything was going to be alright. That night became the stuff of legend with the clients. And as for Mike? He did not get fired. In fact, he actually left our company to work at Schmasbro. I was sad to see him go.
In a tragic twist of fate, the brand they put him on, Shtonka, doesn’t go to Comic-Con.
I think they did that on purpose.

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