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Article #20 – Conventioneering


In this article we’ll cover the “Whys” and the “How-tos” of conventioneering!

At first this may seem a touch off-topic, but if you’re working toward a Kickstarter conventions are a step toward success, and if you’ve already funded a Kickstarter conventions now become a must-do.  Beyond that, this help is something I’ve really wanted to share with my fellow gamers for a long time, and after GKG’s 2017 “Year of the Convention” it is time.

Why Conventioneer?

The board game world, like many other industries, thrives on convention after convention after convention.  In fact, the quantity of board game conventions in a given year might blow your mind.  This year alone there are over 460 booked conventions, ranging from traditional, to cosplay, to full-on cruises.  (Special thanks to Chris James of Casual Game Revolution for putting that list together.)

The perks of attending conventions as an Exhibitor:

  • Brand Awareness / Exposure – People get to see your work, your logo, your games, and get familiar with your brand.  This raises trust, and increases the circle of people that know about you and your product.
  • Face time – People get to see YOU.  This goes a long way in an industry built around gathering around a table with people you like.
  • Giving Back – With so many events you can run for players to play your games, or seminars you can offer to be part of to share the wisdom you’ve gained, cons are a great way to give back in person.
  • Sales / Income – Conventions are designed to be profitable for the Exhibitors, and you’ll likely break even if not make a little moolah.  That of course all rides largely on the quality of your product and courtesy of your sales force. Cons are a great way to move product.
  • A bird in the hand… – The frequency with which I hear “Oh I heard about this, but this actually looks really cool“, says being there is a good idea.

The drawbacks of attending conventions as an Exhibitor:

  • Financial Risk – Making money isn’t a guarantee, even as a decent sized publisher.  That depends on the con, the placement in the hall, and a lot of other factors like advertising.  Regardless, the buy-ins are all sunk-costs, so they can be scary sometimes; you’re not alone in feeling that way.
  • Time Loss – A convention takes about 5, sometimes 6, consecutive days out of your life, not including the planning time beforehand.  That’s less time with family, product development, and handling admin stuff.

These risks get mitigated the larger your company becomes, and when you have “a team” you can send to run a show for you.

How to Conventioneer?

You want to attend a con as an exhibitor but don’t know how.  Let’s tackle that.

Step 1 – Choose a con that you think is right for you.  I suggest you start with a smaller local con.  On the list linked above you can surely find a small local con.  I highly advise this, so you can learn what it’s like.  Some game stores even host super-mini cons, ask around.

Step 2 – Visit their website and contact them.  Ask for the full Exhibitor Guide including costs for the booth (with listed size), about power (electricity), advertising opportunities (online and in con guide), sponsorship opportunities, shipping and loading info (for shipping product), payment schedules, grid games, food programs (not uncommon at small cons), set up days and times, show open and close schedules, and tear down times.  Additionally, ask how many tables and chairs are included with the booth package, what are the full dimensions of any included tables.  Bear in mind larger cons may have an application process, and you may not get in.

Step 3 – Budget accordingly.  Your booth space, travel, shipping of product (if not-so-local), and potential hotel are your first expenses.  Beyond that is bonus.  If you can’t afford more, that’s ok.  Start small.

Step 4 – Recruit volunteers.  Call out to your friends individually, and your mailing list / kickstarter backers, to offer swag in return for volunteering at the con.  Once you get your team, build a day to day schedule and share with the team.  Be sure to honor any event plans they desire to make.  This all felt really weird to me at first, but the whole game-con-industry runs on volunteers, and it’s actually kinda cool.

Step 5 – Plan your time.  You’ll be out of communication for several days.  Make sure life is in order, and your vacation auto-responder is set up for your email account.

Step 6 – Make purchases.  Pay for the booth, your setup (tables, etc.).  Get stock ready for shipping.  All the little details.

Step 7 – Wait for the setup day and head on over!

Have a fun con!

Tips at during these stages:

  • Present yourself in your first email contact, and in your con-application, as an entity that will bring something special to the con, and to its guests.  Explain how you’re special, and how that will benefit them.
  • Make it personal. If there’s a lengthy application, like Gen Con has, be sure to include personal info about why you do what you do, your family, and yourself.  Pics!
  • Participate in their “Grid Game”, whatever they may call it.  If you’re A) new, or B) have a low price point item then the grid game can benefit you tremendously.  (A grid game is where participants need to fill in a bingo-style grid by visiting the participating exhibitor’s booths.  They might not always buy, but they do have to hear your pitch to get marked.  It’s a great way to get new eyes on your product.)
  • Plan for growth.  That means starting small, and planning/hoping to grow each new con.

Gate Keeper Games isn’t quite a giant company yet, but we kinda like it that way, “Mom and Pop”, cause we’re people-people.  That said, we’ve shown a decent amount of growth in the years we’ve been conventioneering.

This pictorial guide of our first 4 years attending Gen Con as Gate Keeper Games might help you.  I share these pics to show you that starting small is o.k., and that people understand and respond well to it, thus promoting your growth…

In 2017 we also attended Gamex, Orccon, Essen Spiel (Germany), and the first ever PAX Unplugged!  We dubbed 2017 he “Year of the Convention”.

Tips from our experience by con:

Local Cons (small ones near you) :

  • A must!
  • The place you should attempt to exhibit first.  Learn what it takes.
  • Make your mistakes on the small stage.  Take your experience to the big stage.
  • People get familiar with you, as you can usually make it every year.  It’s great to see your hometown group.
  • You can make good friends for local regular gaming.
  • Attend it every chance you get, sponsor it, and become a big fish in a little pond, maybe even a local celebrity.
  • Resume material for cons with applications.

Gen Con (Indianapolis, IN, USA) :

  • Apply!  –  It’s hard to get in, but if you make it personal and put LOTS of info on your application you increase your chances.  Don’t forget to mention the local cons you’ve done, and show pics of your booth setup, and customers interacting with you personally.
  • Gen Con is looking for new things and people that bring a positive family atmosphere to their space.
  • The grid game is called “Cheese Weasel” and is worth it according to what I mentioned above.
  • Fair warning, it’s not cheap.
  • Do not pay for any social media ads.  They’re as overpriced as they seem, and few watch their facebook feed as it’s only adverts.  The mailing list ads are better, but still rarely worth the footprint.  These should only be accepted as “add ons” when buying larger sponsorship packages.
  • Their coupon book is their best deal.  Even at $800 or so.  Put a map to your booth on your coupon, and offer a great deal that you can sustain 30% of buyers taking you up on.
  • If you get accepted, make sure you’re on the exhibitor mailing list, and that you’re opted in to all mailings through your Gen Con web portal.
  • Hotel registration for Gen Con can ONLY be done through their housing portal in FEBRUARY.  Be there the MINUTE it opens or you might be stuck in the boonies.  Paying the $200+ a night to be “downtown” is SO worth it.
  • The super high security on setup days feels annoying at first, but consider the alternative (see Essen issues below).  The “can only enter from this one set of doors” thing is a good good thing.
  • Make friends with the convention staff visiting your booth.  They’re great people.
  • Tell Megan I sent you. ; )

Essen Spiel (Essen, Germany) :

  • Avoid!  –  It’s super easy to get in, even past the deadline, but there are reasons for that.
  • There are too many halls that are not always well connected (ie: go outside to get to next hall). That prevents many from ever leaving the first 3 halls to find you in Hall 7, 8, or 9 (which is where you’re going to be).  It’s not a good experience for small or mid-small publishers unless you’re a local.
  • Do not advertise in their con guide.  It’s not free to participants (10 euro each!) and nobody reads it cause its not in color.  There were literally NINE total ads in the whole book, half were B&W.  With no color ads, nobody looks in it.  We made the mistake of being the back cover ($4000!), and it netted us a huge loss.
  • There is literally zero security on setup days; you can walk in any entrance at any time with no identification needed.  And theft is outright rampant at this whole show.  Games, personal items, backpacks, cash boxes…  everything.  I wish I were exaggerating.  Keep your stuff close and well supervised at all times.  Theft is also a huge issue on German public transit in general; keep your stuff in hand, deep within your pockets, don’t wear a fanny pack (it’ll get sliced off), and wear your backpack over both shoulders.
  • There is literally zero staff walking the floor.  If you need help with something, you need to walk half a mile to get to the show services, and they aren’t very helpful like at Gen Con.
  • The loading docks are very poorly organized. We, and several other big name companies, did not get our stock until more than halfway through the first open day of the con.  That’s 2 and half whole days of delay in the loading docks,a staff in Germany that has nothing to do, and an entire day of lost sales.
  • The event owners are impolite and sometimes even rude. I’ll abstain from sharing my one-on-one personal anecdote as a professional courtesy.
  • Flight prices are decent into Dusseldorf airport.  Fly into there, and buy your ticket early.
  • Don’t take a taxi to your hotel, take the train.  You’ll save 80+ euro.
  • Stay at a hotel near a train station.  This is a must for getting to the show effectively.
  • If you do go, definitely participate in the “New Release Showcase”.  It’s free, and it’s decent media exposure.  Don’t freak out when nobody shows up in the first hour or two.  They’re in a press conference (German speaking only) and will be down shortly.  The hall will flood with media people for about 2-3 hours then die out entirely for the next 2 days.  You truly don’t need to staff that hall after that first 3 hours, but if you do you’ll be the only one which might work out for you.  Also, don’t put anything in there you don’t need at your booth.  They don’t let you take ANYTHING out of the hall until it closes on Friday, and they don’t tell you that until you try to take something out.  The only “security” in the whole con exists to keep exhibitors from taking their own stuff out of that room.  (Sarcastic, but true.)
  • Overall: unless you’re from Germany (or close), and this is a local con for you, I can’t suggest strongly enough that you avoid Spiel and invest in another convention elsewhere in the world.

PAX Unplugged (Philadelphia, PA, USA) :

  • Apply!  –  Granted there was only one of these ever, but I suggest you go if you can get in.  We had a stellar experience and it wasn’t an accident, it was by design.
  • The staff is AMAZING, and you even have an “Enforcer” (a dramatic and confusing name for “really nice volunteer staff”) assigned to your booth and a few others.  Their job is to do anything you need them to other than actually sell from inside your booth.  Put them to work, they enjoy it.  Our Enforcer got us lunch 3 different days after we lost a staff member to an injury.
  • Mid-sized hall + tons of attendees = great sales potential.
  • I didn’t advertise at this show at all, but it was still my single most profitable show yet.  Makes me curious as to “what if I did advertise!!?!” … and simultaneously … “hrmmm… is advertising even worth it for a con this size?”
  • Heads up: The booth package does not include ANY tables or chairs for your booth.  Many assumed they would be, and were unpleasantly surprised.  Be sure to arrange to rent, or buy and ship, them.
  • Be patient.  They’re just getting their act together as they’ve only had 1 “unplugged” show to date, so they suffer from communication issues.  I strongly expect this to be tackled with gusto in the future.  I don’t suspect you’ll have an issue with it.
  • Security on setup day is lacking, but not nearly as bad as Essen.  I think they’ll improve this too.

GAMA (Reno, NV, USA) :

  • Apply.  –  Not easy to get in though.  Partner with your distributor or other entity if you can.  I get grandfathered in by my consolidator Impressions, so I’m not sure what the application process is like.
  • More of an industry insider Trade Show, than a convention.   This event is only for publishers, distributors, and retailers.  The general public are not allowed entry.
  • If you ARE in distribution already, your goal is to get retailers to fall in love with your product.  You’re not selling to them so much as you’re teaching them why they want to sell your product to their store’s customers.  Goal: Retailers.
  • If you’re NOT in distribution, yes you need to talk to retailers so they start asking their distributors about your stuff (to get picked up by a distributor), but you also need to make friends and appointments with distributors.  Goal: Distributors.
  • Worth it in year 2 or 3 when you have several products to offer to distribution and retailers.
  • If you have a major breakthrough product, you can work it here too, but also therefore probably don’t need to go.
  • Requires annual membership fees.  They’re a hard pill to swallow, but ultimately worth it if you have product in distribution.
  • Not a show for sales, it’s a show for investment in retailers.  Nobody buys anything on site, but each person you talk to might represent hundreds of retail customers from their retail store.
  • It’s so relaxed.  There’s not 50,000 people, there’s like 3000.
  • Go to every networking event you can.  It’s worth the entry fee.

UK Games Expo (Birmingham, United Kingdom) :

  • Haven’t been yet, but applied, got in, and got a finalized booth assignment all within 4 days.  I haven’t seen this level of organization and customer satisfaction at any other con.  I couldn’t be more excited to try it out in June 2018.
  • Cheapest booth furniture rentals of any con I’ve ever heard of. …by far!  (Like… $10 per table!  See General Tips below to put that in perspective.)
  • More details coming in 2018 post-experience.

General Tips:

  • If you can buy your own tables on Amazon, and have them shipped to a volunteer or fulfillment center near any given con, you’ll save over “renting” a table for $120+ each.  Yes, Gen Con, Essen, PAX, and many others charge about $120 per table for the weekend.  …or you can buy one for $40-65 and keep it.
  • Tables provided “standard” at cons are super thin convention type tables.  They’re not a full 32-36″ across like your dining room table is.  If you need more than 2 ft in width to display your game, you’ll need to special order tables (or buy).  No, you can’t get a refund from your booth package.
  • Set up a Square Reader account.  The service, usability, and data analytics is a million times better than PayPal Here’s and worth it in every way.
  • USA – 70% +/- of sales will be credit card, the rest will be cash in USD.
  • German – 100% of your sales will be cash in Euros.  We had only two people offer us a credit card all weekend, and we couldn’t accept it cause setting up a German mobile reader account is impossible from out of country.  Get lots of Euros from your bank before you go (#1), or at a bank when you get there (#2) for the best rates.  Don’t use currency exchange places in the airports.
  • Bring at least 1 case of water to every show, keep it under your table for you and your team.  Drink a lot of it!
  • Get company T-Shirts.  The expense adds up fast, but is worth it for uniformity and branding.  Have volunteers all wear same type of pants if possible.  I ask everyone to wear non-ripped blue jeans.  Maybe for your brand it’s light khakis, or bow-ties.
  • Get your volunteer team together and committed as early as possible.  Saves you trouble later after everyone already promised somebody else their time, and you can get sized for their T-shirts.
  • Plane tickets rarely if ever get cheaper, so buy them early.

Anything tips you think should be listed here?  We could all benefit from your experience as well.  Tell us in the comments.