Banner: Comic-Con International

If you’re trying to get a message out, or provide a service, analytics are great. They tell you what’s working and what’s not, so you can focus on what does work. Unfortunately, when it comes to email, a lot of organizations use a third-party click-tracking service, which registers which mailing the user clicked on, then redirects them to the real website.

Why do I say unfortunately?

Because it’s what phishing does: Sets up a link that looks like it goes one place, but sends you somewhere else instead. In the case of a legitimate email with a click tracker, you end up at the real site eventually. In the case of a phishing message, you end up at a fake login page that wants to capture your username & password, or a site with drive-by malware downloads. Using this technique in legit mail trains people to ignore warning signs, making them more vulnerable to the bad guys. And it makes it harder for security software to detect phishing automatically.

Now add another reason: You don’t control that click-tracking service, so it had better be reliable.

That’s what happened with Comic-Con registration today.

Getting tickets to San Diego Comic-Con used to be a breeze, but last year the system broke down repeatedly. It took them three tries, with multiple handlers, to open a registration system that didn’t melt in the first few minutes.

A few days ago, Comic-Con International sent out a message with the date and time registration would open, and a link to where the page would be when it went live. They went to a lot of trouble to make sure their servers could handle the load, as did the company handling registration. They built a “waiting room” to make sure that people trying to buy tickets would get feedback, and get into a queue, when they arrived, but could still be filtered into the registration system slowly enough not to overwhelm it.

The weak link: The click tracker.

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Today is the last day for people to cancel their hotel reservations at Comic-Con International for a full refund. Starting Saturday, they’ll keep a $75 cancellation fee.

So what’s the good news?

If you couldn’t get a room in March, and haven’t found alternative housing for the convention, this may be your second chance!

Even if there were fewer “just in case” reservations this year, there are always at least some people whose plans just fall through. Someone gets sick, their financial status changes, they were counting on a raise that didn’t happen, a cousin schedules a wedding for that weekend, etc. Rooms should be opening up over the next few days as people take their last chance to cancel without penalty.

The question is: what happens to them?

The old reservation process worked like a crowded store, where everyone kept trying to pick a room until they ran out. So when rooms freed up, they were made available to whoever happened to be checking up on the system.

This year, though, was like a massive take-a-number system, with Travel Planners assigning rooms to people in order (even though it’s not clear exactly what order it was). They did cap the line, but there were an awful lot of people who got requests in but no rooms, and ended up on a waiting list. A representative confirmed by email that they will contact people as rooms free up.*

So, what we should see in the next few days is Travel Planners offering rooms to the early part of the waiting list. Edit: Maybe not – see the comments.

It’s a safe bet that some people on the list have already secured a room through other channels, and no doubt some of them will want to stick with their alternate lodging (especially if their alternate hotel is across the street, and Travel Planners hands them something ten miles away). That will probably trigger a second round of free rooms next week.

No doubt the process will repeat itself on June 18, when the rest of the deposit becomes non-refundable.

Of course, it all depends on just how many people cancel their reservations to start with. I doubt anyone outside of the travel agency (and maybe CCI) has solid numbers of just how many con-goers are stuck in limbo.

*The way they put it was that they were trying “to identify any rooms already committed that might not be ultimately utilized.” Gotta love corporate-speak.

Planning to go to Comic-Con International, but couldn’t get a hotel room during the reservation lottery? There’s no magic bullet or secret code, but here are some things you can do to find a place to stay during the con:

ADDED: Call customer service if you placed a request but haven’t heard back from them. There may have been a problem with the email (at their end, at your ISP, or anywhere in between), or there may have been an issue with the reservation that prevented them from processing it or sending the confirmation. But do it soon, so you don’t miss the deadline to secure it with a deposit.

Some rooms may open up when the deposit deadline passes. Maybe. This is probably only an option if you submitted a reservation request but didn’t get a room, and it assumes that (a) not everyone will manage to make a deposit in time and (b) Travel Planners will move on to the wait list with the rooms that free up. I wouldn’t rely on this one.

Book directly, but be prepared to spend more. And be prepared to try a lot of hotels before you find one with available rooms, or else go through a travel site like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline or Hotwire.

Look into short-term condo rentals. Hotels aren’t the only way to rent a room. You could make your trip into a week-long vacation!

Find roommates to share the cost of that directly-booked room. Or find roommates who already have a room. A lot of the downtown hotels actually have suites, so you might even have some privacy. (One thing to watch out for, though: hotels will often charge more for extra people.) If you don’t personally know anyone to share a room with, try asking in your online communities.

Stay with friends or relatives in the area. Obviously not an option for everyone, but again, you can check with online friends.

Stay farther out and commute. If all you need is a place to sleep and shower, you don’t have to stay downtown. Mission Valley and Old Town have trolley service straight to the con, and you can get a 4-day trolley pass for $15.

Try again after cancellation deadlines hit. Some rooms will open up after the last day for a full refund, and more open up after the last day for a partial refund. Check the convention website for this year’s dates and how to get in for the resale.

Good luck!

Once you’ve got your lodging situation settled, check out the rest of my Tips for Comic-Con.

It took more than 8 hours, but I finally got my hotel confirmation for Comic-Con. It wasn’t one of the 12 I’d requested this morning, but it’s in my price range, relatively close, and was actually #14 on the list we put together last night.

All this despite the fact that I put the request in within 5 minutes of the system going online. That part was smooth, and judging by the comments on Twitter and at The Beat, it went smoothly for most people.

Then came the waiting.

On one hand, it was better because I could actually do things — like, y’know, work — instead of sitting there hitting refresh on the browser and redial on the phone for two hours. On the other hand, instead of two hours of active frustration, it was eight hours of wondering whether they had lost my info, or whether I had mistyped my email address, or whether they had actually run out of rooms in the first five minutes and hadn’t gotten around to telling me. A confirmation number for the request itself would have gone a long way toward making me confident that I was in the system.

Later posts on Twitter, and later comments at The Beat, reflected the growing sense of frustration among congoers — and anger as they were assigned hotels that weren’t even on their list.


It seems that not everyone’s requests were handled in the order received. I saw people who had received confirmation hours before I did, but who had submitted their requests a few minutes later. My guess is that Travel Planners was taking two passes through the queue: one pass to handle the requests that they could fill based on people’s actual choices, then one pass to handle the requests where all the preferred hotels were full. Even that doesn’t quite track, though, so I’m not sure what was really going on.

Edit: Katie suggested that they might also be prioritizing based on how many nights you tried to reserve. I was only reserving three nights, so it sort of makes sense that they might give more weight to someone trying to reserve four or five.

Lessons to be Learned

As with the convention’s struggle with crowding, every year they solve one problem only to discover another lurking behind it. A lot of people have compared this year’s process to a lottery, but really, it actually shifted the advantage from luck to typing speed.

Think about it: For the last few years, everyone has had to try to get through, repeatedly, over a period of several hours. Those lucky enough to make a solid connection would then make a reservation and leave. You could start at 9:00 and get through at 9:05 or 11:00, but there really wasn’t any sort of strategy you could apply other than trying multiple avenues at the same time.

Now? Everyone logs in at 9:00, fills out a form immediately, and submits it. Whether you submit your request at 9:05, 9:10 or 9:15 has nothing to do with luck. Instead, it has to do with whether you made up a list beforehand, how long it takes to enter your information, and how much time you spend verifying it before clicking that button.

In that way, it’s actually less of a lottery than it used to be!

Update: I’ve posted some ideas on what to do if you couldn’t get a room.

It was fast. Anticlimactic, really. It took a few reloads to get the Comic-Con International home page up, but once I could click on the reservation link, everything went smoothly. I was done by 9:05.

The reservation page was actually optimized!

  • Just one image: a banner across the top.
  • Everything was on one page, including the list of hotels, the personal info, and the hotel choices.
  • Hotel selection was done by client-side scripting, so there was no wait for processing between selections (and no risk of typos confusing their processing system later today).

This is a huge deal, especially compared to Travel Planners’ horribly overdesigned 2008 forms — yes, forms, plural — that kept bogging down. (I never even saw last year’s, though I tried for an hour and a half to get in.)

On the downside, that one page does load a half-dozen script files, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed it down much.

In case none of your 12 choices were available, they asked for a maximum price you’d be willing to pay for another hotel that’s not on your list. I vaguely recall this being a feature of the old fax forms, but I don’t remember being asked this on the phone last year.

I was surprised to find that they didn’t want credit card info immediately, but that’s good from a streamlining perspective as well. The hotel choices, room type, and contact info are critical in order to make the reservation in the first place. Payment can be done later, so in a rushed situation like this, it’s better to handle it later. Plus, not asking for credit card information means that they could run the site without encryption, speeding things up a bit more.

I would have liked to have gotten a confirmation number for the request, or an email, just so that I could be sure that I was in their queue. And to be sure that I entered the right email address. And the right start and end dates. And…well, you get the idea. I’m a little paranoid about the process at the moment.

Here’s hoping that the back end of the process, and sending out confirmations, goes as smoothly as the front end did.

Update: Short answer: it didn’t. Long answer: I’ve written up what went wrong, at least from the guests’ point of view.