The final show of the year is behind us and as with every year we need to be thinking about the year ahead. At PAX Unplugged this year I had about 10 conversations with near-peer companies and start-ups about convention planning. There are so many shows now you could attend one nearly every week if you wanted and show planning is a big deal.
A company convention plan will fall somewhere in between attend no shows and attend as many as you possibly can. Attending no shows likely means that you have other marketing plans for your games because even a one man, low sales company can attend a local convention. Attend as many shows as possible likely means that this is your primary plan to acquire new customers and build brand awareness.
There is no 100% correct path. Many companies do however fall into the habit of attending shows because they think they have to attend. You start with regional shows and maybe a 10 by 10 booth at a major show like Gen Con (if you can get one) and then over time add shows that you and your company attend.
Some companies look at shows as a breakeven marketing expense. You sell enough product at the show to pay for the travel, volunteers, and hotels. The true cost of convention attendance is almost never factored into the equation. If you sell inventory at a show you do not have it to sell at a profit later. So almost every copy sold at a break even show is essentially a marketing expense. Then there is the lost time. Shows are exhausting and take a toll. Most companies send marketing and sales people first, but then you also send creatives for other reasons. We calculate the lost time for a 3-day show as 10 working days. You prepare for the show, early travel, time at the show, travel home, and finally recovery. People may go right back to work after a show; I am writing this blog Tuesday after PAX Unplugged but I am struggling a bit and it is likely the only thing I will do today.
So how do you decide how to approach a convention?
First, if you are a consumer of games and love people I HIGHLY recommend that you go to game shows. They are awesome!!!! If it is in your budget and you have vacation time I cannot think of a better way to enjoy this hobby.
If, however, you are a game company and want to attend shows for business here are some rules we follow.
- As noted above, there is NO such thing as a break-even show.
- When considering show expenses, always ask yourself how many more games will I sell if I spend this money. A penny saved is a penny earned in this business.
- Sponsorships are NOT Super Bowl Ads. They will not make you an overnight name. Leave the sponsorships to the big companies. If you think by spending $$ on sponsorships and extra signage at shows will sell more product in my opinion it does not.
- Parties are fun but they do not sell product. Don’t get caught up in sponsoring and throwing parties at bars and convention halls. It feels good to have a bunch of people show up and celebrate with you but if you are going to do it know that it is just that a celebration not marketing.
- Don’t try to keep up with what other companies are doing. Often times they are overspending and in the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar “It’s a trap.”
- Compensate volunteers. Try not to over work them. Give them time to enjoy the show. Think about sleeping arrangements in a way that all volunteers are comfortable with whom they must spend this time with.
- No show is a must attend. Autopsy your show results every year and adjust your schedule accordingly.
- Staff who are behind on deadlines should never be allowed to attend a show. It only makes things worse. We break this rule too often and always regret it.
My Thoughts on Current Show Options
The Top Tier Gen Con and Essen
Gen Con – Gen Con has been the keystone to our marketing since day 1 when we handed out those 10,000 Shadis magazines and it continues to be the most important show on our schedule. It’s huge but that does not mean it is easy. I think even the smaller booths are beneficial at this show and it is still the one show I would make every effort to attend and build a launch plan around.
Essen – The other top tier show. AEG has been attending for 10 or so years now. We started in a small back room booth and worked our way up. It took a number of years to get to a place where the show actually made sense for us but now customers are looking for us and it has been both a marketing boon and profitable sales show for us. I am surprised more US companies do not have booths. 90% of attendees are still looking for German games so having a German Edition of something hot is the best way to do this show but English edition titles do sell. We do most of our international partnership meetings here and we also see a ton of international designers.
The Second Tier (By Attendance and Engagement) Origins, PAX Unplugged, UKGE
Each of these three shows is likely a show where you need to decide how it fits into your needs. We make all decisions each year about these shows based on what marketing advantage we think we will get by attending. We do know that for new companies and small footprint publishers these shows are often profit centers and sales equal what they get at a major event. So we do recommend them especially if you feel like you are getting lost in the back at Gen Con or Essen.
The Influencer Shows
BGG, DiceTower, Shux, etc. These are our favorite shows to attend and our hardest shows to justify in terms of setting up a booth and sending a staff to run the booth. For us booths at these shows are a bonus and a way for us to say thank you to the people who spread the word about our games and who have now become our friends. Buying a booth at these shows is not a way to curry favor with someone you want to talk about your games. You do that by making great games. If you have the budget I suggest you spread the love from year to year. For game playing and fun these shows are the best and you should put one on your schedule a year to just have fun and play other peoples’ games.
Toy Fair, Nurenberg, GAMA, Distributor Open Houses
With these shows you get out as much as you put in and if you don’t have a way to stand out and follow-up your time with potential buyers will be lost. I suggest attending Toy Fair once or twice before deciding to get a booth. It is a hard show to monetize. I feel that most companies should be able to get all the international work they want done at Essen but if you are serious about partnerships, companies have more time to talk at Nuremberg. GAMA is a great networking event and GAMA along with the Distributor Open Houses are great ways to meet retailers. The game nights at these events are fun and you do see a few retailers but for the most part if 400 retailers attend you might see 20 at your game table. Use these shows to build a retailer mailing list and then use it.
Comic Conventions and Computer Gaming Shows
Yes, these are huge but they are not set up for board gaming companies. At best, it feels like an “Oh by the way we have board games.” I have yet to find year over year value in these shows and I think PAX Unplugged sort of proves this point. It is a board gaming show and may grow into a major show in the next 5 years.
Shows of Special Note
I would be remiss if I did not mention Game Market in Japan and Lucca in Italy. The game boom in Japan is something everyone knows about. We discovered this show years ago when it was 1000 people and a bunch of tiny booths. It has grown in attendance to something like 20K people for a weekend but has kept some of it’s charm since self-published games are big in Japan and so many 5 by 5 booths are a thing. We love this show and try to attend as often as possible but signing new games is much harder since it is no longer a secret. Lucca is something that every geek should see once. I do not recommend getting a booth. If you are in Europe or at Essen and the dates are close enough, spend some time in Italy for vacation and then check out this show. The ancient walled city becomes a tent city showing off fandom of all kinds. Epic cosplay, Star Wars marching bands, great food, and strange weather from year to year. When it rains the city becomes a sloppy mess but it is still packed.
Remember these are my opinions and I am sure other publishers have different views. My advice is don’t just go to shows because you think you have to. You don’t. Go because it makes sense, because it is connected to your game marketing and branding plan. Go because it is fun, because you get to see friends, and meet people who have inspired you. Go because it’s good for your business or good for your soul, not because you think you have to.
I hope this helps. We built AEG by attending as many shows as possible in the early years. I often fantasize when building the plan for the year of going back to hard core grass roots marketing. Hitting the road, sleeping on couches, driving from local show to show and stopping at retailers on the way. It does work and is very satisfying but I also think that it is built for young people with few attachments and the freedom to travel without worrying about what is back home. I also think that it would be even more powerful now especially with the ability to update folks with social media and how connected people are. I’d love to see more companies do this.