San Diego hotel rooms for Comic-Con International go on sale tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM Pacific Time. Because they’ve sold out in a matter of hours the last few years — or, more precisely, because they’ve overwhelmed the reservation system while doing so — Travel Planners is instituting some new policies and a new procedure.

Last December they announced that they would require a deposit at reservation time, and a cut-off point in May after which it would no longer be refundable. This should help cut down on some of the “just in case” speculating that always happens. (Previously you had to provide a credit card when making the reservation, but they didn’t charge it.)

As for the procedure, here’s what used to happen: You would search for hotels, get a list of those that have rooms available, enter your name and contact info, then enter your credit card and get immediate confirmation. At every step, the server would be slow, and there was a good chance that you would have to start over. Yes, it would even fail at the last step.

The new scheme is wildly different: Instead of searching for a hotel, you’ll be asked to enter a list of up to 12 choices, in order of preference, and submit it. A few hours later, they’ll send you an email to confirm what you’ve gotten.

My first thought: this is exactly how it worked for me last year, when I got through on the phone instead of online. It’s also how reservations by fax used to work.

It’s annoying not to have instant feedback of course, but I suspect one of the main reasons the system breaks down is that it’s trying to handle so many complete transactions simultaneously. This way, the only part running “live” is collecting requests. Once those are all in, they can process them at whatever speed the reservation system can actually handle.

Plus, if they really want to minimize the load on their website, they can put everything on one page and minimize the number of graphics and scripts. Every image you have to load slows the page down. Every new page you have to load is another chance for the process to break down completely. When designing a web application, there are times to emphasize looks, there are times to emphasize convenience for the user, and there are times to emphasize simplicity in the actual process. This is one of the latter.

I guess we’ll see how it goes tomorrow morning.

Update: The request process, at least, went surprisingly smoothly. ← I’ve got some thoughts here on the reservation form and how the process worked.

I’m pleasantly surprised that Comic-Con International and/or Travel Planners has gotten their act together for next year’s convention. Before attendance (and hotel rush) went completely insane, they used to send out hotel info with their fall newsletter or in a postcard around December (or maybe January), but over the last two years it’s been pushed later and later. For 2009, they didn’t even announce a date for hotel reservations until February…a month before they opened. The list of hotels went up even later — the day before, IIRC.

The fall newsletter, now an online magazine, went up today, and along with it not just the date for reservations, but a list of hotels…including distance, prices, and shuttle stops. Hotel reservations go online March 18, 2010.

Additionally, they’ve made some interesting changes that may help combat the craziness:

  • Reservations will now require an immediate deposit of one night’s stay
  • Deposits are fully refundable until May 14.
  • From May 15 to June 17, there’s a $75 cancellation fee.
  • From June 18 onward, deposits are nonrefundable.

With luck that’ll cut down on some of the “just in case…” extra reservations, now that there’s an actual financial commitment to it.

Well, I jumped into the fray of the Comic-Con International hotel reservation system and made it across to the other side, getting through by phone after 1 hour and 20 minutes. I never did make it past the “waiting room” page online.

The weird thing about the phone reservation system is that I don’t actually know which hotel we’ve gotten yet. They took my name, contact info and top 3+ choices (I gave them 5), then handed the info to their processing center. They’ll call back (later, I assume, after the rush is over) to let me know which hotel I got. I do have a backup that I reserved directly, but the convention discount is significant, especially when you add up four days.

It was interesting watching commentary streaming by on Twitter (search for “comiccon,” “comic-con” or “comicon”) as people started out commenting, then complaining, and eventually celebrating (after about an hour) when they finally got through. Or really letting loose when the system dropped them.

Update: A reporter interviewed me about the Comic-Con hotel reservation experience. Update (3/20): Here’s the article at the Union-Tribune. I’m not quoted.

Update: I got an email confirming our reservation. It’s farther out than the backup, but it’s ~$100 cheaper (over the course of 4 days – possibly more, depending on how much the other hotel charges for internet access) and there’s a shuttle. Now to weigh ~$100 vs. walking distance and figure out which room to keep and which to free up for someone else who needs one.

Comic-Con International finally announced the opening of this year’s convention block in San Diego hotels: March 19.

This time last year, they’d already gone on sale and sold out.

As recently as three (or maybe four) years ago, they’d have sent a postcard by January. They used to include a full list of hotels in the winter newsletter with distance and prices. I could swear I remember them going on sale in January.

Of course, five years ago you could still book the Little Italy Super 8 only less than a month in advance. Now the discounted rooms are in such demand that they sell out in a matter of hours.

Like last year, they are only selling tickets in advance, so if you plan on attending, you should order them online.

Tomorrow morning at 9:00 PST, rooms in the convention block go on sale for this year’s Comic-Con International. I was going to write up a bunch of tips last week, but CCI beat me to it by launching their own blog, Staying In San Diego. Visit it today, because it’ll probably be swamped tomorrow. (Though if it’s actually hosted by TypePad, direct visits may not take it down.)

Update Wednesday Morning: Well, I made it through. Oddly enough, in exactly the same amount of time as last year. I had the confirmation number at 10:04. Weird.

Once again, I was completely unable to get through by phone. The website was hit and miss, and actually crashed at one point, serving up only a “500 Server Busy” error. Right after I entered my name and address for a reservation. Nice. The current blog entry is filling up with complaints from people having similar or worse experiences.

Update 2: The Beat has a growing comment thread as well, and notes that the con hotel blog is making noises about trying to get Travel Planners to fix the problems. I think having an official place where they can read exactly what people are going through is helping convey the fact that the reservation system is broken, and that it’s not just the imbalanced supply and demand for rooms. (end of update 2)

I’m going to repeat some of my criticisms about the actual website, which seems designed expressly to make it bog down under this load: Continue reading