Don't be that guy: How Not To Do Gen Con
We’ve all seen it, a booth at a convention that is clearly out of place. Maybe it is the copyright enforcement booth like the one I saw in a recent convention in China with a guy literally sleeping in the booth, or maybe it is a guy selling BBQ Rub at a game convention. Sometimes people just show up at a convention for the sake of it and have no idea what they are doing there or what TO do there. It happens. Don’t be that guy.
Mayday Games has had a booth at GenCon every year since 2009 and we have been at Essen, Germany for the Spiel event there every year since 2010. But why do we do it and what can you do if you are a first time exhibitor, long time exhibitor or even first time attendee with nothing more than a prototype and a dream to become the next Settlers of Catan™. See Asmodee, we put at “TM” there for you!
No matter who you are, it doesn’t hurt to think about why a company would attend a show like GenCon or what you might accomplish there, and how to accomplish it. So here we go….
1. Ambiguous goal (AKA a “presence”). Sometimes you don’t have any good reason to go to a convention but feel like you “should” just to have a presence there. That can be reason enough and certainly there are a lot of great companies who do just that, but don’t use that as an excuse for being lazy either. If you can’t define a discrete, achievable financial goal, then define your goal as “I want to throw away $10,000 in the hope that somehow, somewhere I’ll get that money back because lots of customers saw my booth and think I’m cool.
I remember the first time I saw Lego making a splash at Essen with their new game line and they had a huge booth that must have cost them about $100 k in rental fees and display. They weren’t even selling copies of the games they were displaying and when I asked one of the management team there why not she replied with, “Oh, I didn’t know that was an option.” Incredible but true. Chances are the bigger your bank account the bigger the risk you could mess up and over-spend at a convention on marketing or “presence” at the show. Don’t do that to start off, err on the side of being conservative and be sure you don’t go throwing money at things that just don’t help your cause. If you just want a presence at the show then by all means do it, but don’t expect to make any money there, and be painfully aware that too many of these sorts of marketing efforts without a big payoff could force you to close up shop forever. This is a business, run it like one!
For GenCon 2016 we had a 20 X 20 foot booth that is really just 4 booths put together. We had a peninsula which means we had neighbors on one side of our booth with foot traffic for attendees on three sides. We paid $7,000 USD just for the booths space, 4 tables, 8 chairs and 4 cardboard trash baskets for 4 days. They also gave us 8 show passes to get in, which cost $120 each otherwise. That cost is not insignificant and we don’t put up that kind of cash lightly. If you are going to GenCon and want to test the waters, start with a 10 X 10 foot booth for about $1,500. And by all means, have a plan.
Advertising? Before spending a bunch of cash on any advertising, consider it carefully. Those costs are really hard to justify in most cases, though I would recommend the Cheese Weasel. It costs $300 to get into it and it provides you with steady traffic all through the convention as participants come to your booth to sit through a demo of your product/game for 5-10 minutes in exchange for punching the Cheese Weasel cardboard 3 X 5 Card or use the Cheese Weasel App by scanning the QR / Bar code provided at your booth. Check them out at http://www.cheeseweasel.net/conquest/conquest.htm That is the best $300 we spend at GenCon each year. Yes I know their website is out of date, but they are still running and you’ll get traffic even during those slow times, trust us!
2. Meetings! One of the biggest reasons for us to go to GenCon each year is MEETINGS. So who do we meet with and who should you meet with? Everyone and anyone who may be worth meeting with of course. But what sorts of meetings?
First there are aspiring or established game designers. These are inventors of board games and lots of them want to meet with publishers like Mayday Games to pitch us their idea and show us their game(s). We love James Mathe’s Speed Dating event that basically puts publishers and designers in front of one another for 5 minutes at a time, back to back for perhaps 2 hours, rotating every 5 minutes. Publishers know enough after just 5 minutes to know if they want to know more or not, so this is the most effective sort of meeting for us when it comes to looking for new games to publish. We usually meet with other designers for 15-30 minutes and have begun asking the designers to supply a “Sell Sheet” in advance of booking the meeting that summarizes the game being pitched to us. This saves the designer and us time as sometimes a design is just not something we are looking for. We love all types of games but if you have a new CCG or Euro brain buster, chances are they aren’t for us and we aren’t the publisher for you. So save yourself and the would-be designers some time and vet one another ahead of time. We normally only offer a licensing contract to perhaps 1 in 50 games and it is usually for 5% of our revenues on every copy of the game we produce and sell. Check out these do’s and don’ts of game design pitching by James, it is an excellent list:
Next there are distributors/stores. We have relationships with more than 100 distributors/stores worldwide in 34 countries and many of them make the trek to GenCon. We reach out to each of them to schedule quick update meetings to show them our latest products and talk about business. We talk about payment terms, the market in their region, possible co-marketing opportunies and just ways we can grow our business together. It is a nice gesture to provide them free samples of anything they would like and we often give them a little gift just to say “thanks” for their business. For GenCon this year we gave many of our distributors some nice sets of Chopsticks that we brought back from China. Don’t have any distributors or not sure where to start? I’d recommend you go to any large game company’s website and look at their list of “distributors” and contact those people If Catan™ is being carried in South Africa by Next Step Trading Company then chances are your product might be right for them too. A great place to start to look is at: http://www.mayfairgames.com/distributors Distributors typically get our products for 60% off MSRP so they can sell it to stores for 50% off MSRP and still make some profit for themselves.
Finally there are other Publishers. This one can be tricky as obviously you are also an existing or aspiring publisher and of course you don’t want to tip your hand about your business. We don’t often have meetings with FFG or AEG other US publishers, but there are a myriad of international game publishers that come from far and wide to GenCon to meet with US publishers. Why? To license your games of course. If you have worldwide rights to a game and are only distributing in the USA then chances are there could be a game publisher in Japan or Germany or Brazil that might just want to localize your game. That means they would publish the game for their market and pay you a commission on each copy sold. This also means that if you are established in the USA that there could be companies outside the USA willing to license games directly to you in the USA for a commission too. We have a lot of these sorts of meetings. Not sure where to start? Consider looking at a game you know on BoardGameGeek and checking out the publishers of that game. For example for one of my favorites, Caverna, you can see the companies licensing that game include: Lookout Games, 999 Games, Devir, Filosofia Éditions, Hobby Japan, HomoLudicus, Korea Boardgames co., Ltd., Lacerta, Mayfair Games, MINDOK, Swan Panasia Co., Ltd. And uplay.it Edizioni. Not sure who is the original rights holder? Email any of those companies and ask (hint: it is Lookout Games for Caverna). https://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/102794/caverna-cave-farmers/credits
We met with more than a dozen publishers at GenCon and saw more than 20 games that are basically ready to be published. We showed off most of our games to all of these partners and more. We typically offer any game for a 7% royalty and let the company that is localizing the game decide if they want to produce together in our factory with our version or do their own version. They are even free to adjust the art or mechanics too, we don’t really mind as long as we get our 7%. Many of our partners are more stringent in their licensing fees, preferring to require us to produce the game at their factory and quote us a price per copy that already includes the game production and the royalty together. In our experience those that want to imbed the royalty into the game are often putting a 10-20% royalty in there and we much prefer to just charge 7% and let the licensor decide for themselves how it is best to produce their version of the game.
But how do you manage this huge list of appointments? Consider the free “YouCanBook.me” that sets up a google calendar based on your availability and auto-syncs directly to your smart phone’s calendar. It works wonders and allows for very professional booking and rebooking without conflicts or confusion. Only one active calendar is allowed per user for the free version though, so be aware of that. You can see how that looks for my GenCon calendar at https://seth_hiattgencon2016.youcanbook.me/ and my Essen calendar will be active soon.
3. SALES. Cash is king people. If you go to a convention and lose $10,000 there, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist’s brain to know you can quickly put yourself out of business. If you are bootstrapping this business by yourself (like Mayday Games is), then you can’t afford to lose a bunch of money at a convention. So how can you pull off decent sales in this very competitive setting? Here are a few tips:
Plan to succeed: You have to give people a reason to find and stop at your booth. That needs to be through your display signage, a “carrot” like the Cheese Weasel as mentioned above, or perhaps blow-out pricing (Rio Grande’s booth) or exclusive items (Paizo or FFG often do this). Consider special promo cards that are only available through your kickstarter campaign and subsequent convention booths, consider offering people something free for stopping by or signing up for your newsletter, or offer only X copies per day of your game. If this is your first rodeo don’t plan on selling more than 100 copies of your game unless there is overwhelming demand for some reason. Most new games at GenCon will sell 40-75 copies over the whole four days. Don’t bring 400 copies expecting to sell them all.
Displays. We have a nice display theme for the first time this year. Don’t wait 6-8 years to do this like we did. Get some well-designed banners/displays and consider the layout of your booth carefully. We spend about $2,500 on our display this year but it should mostly last us for years to come. Don’t go spending an arm and a leg on it though, our huge overhead hanging display cost us under $200 and our custom display tables cost us under $50 each. If you are interested to know where we got these little beauties drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll gladly put you in touch with our factory. They are about 30 minutes from my house in Suzhou China and are cheap but produce high-quality stuff.
Have a broad product line. If you only have one product to offer and can only sell around 100 of them at $50, that is $5 k. Your hotel, food, booth and other expenses will easily be that much, so how can you make a profit? One of the keys is to have lots to offer and bundle or upsell your customers. Offer a discount on a second copy of a game or buy two get one free, or other such marketing strategy to get people to buy more. But the secret to all of this is to have a breadth of product. If you don’t have five skus or more then your 1-4 products had better be spectacular, or you are going to lose your shirt.
Booth layout: Consider carefully what sort of booth you want to be. For the first three days of GenCon 2016 we were primarily a demoing booth. We had 3 large tables with seating for 18 and 4 standing tables that could accommodate 12-16 more people in a pinch. That is 30 people in 400 square feet, mostly demoing games. Sure we had some good sales but we were focused on demoing and explaining our product. The final day is typically our busiest as our games are more “casual/family friendly” and we are in the heart of the Family Fun Pavilion each year. Sunday there is a family deal so that a family of 4 can get into the hall for $45 for the day and kids 8 and under are free. That means lots of kids and lots of people looking to buy that day. We changed the layout of our booth completely for the final day, putting two of those 3 demo tables into our sales area to form a large C-shapes sales area with games piled high and discounts galore. We had just one table for demoing and the four small table with nobody there to demo most of the time. We had more than double our next best day’s sales on Sunday due to this strategy. People could come into the booth and quickly see how a game is played and buy or move on, but we didn’t want people in there playing, we wanted them moving through quickly. It paid off big-time and helped us make the cost of the convention palatable.
Events: Don’t forget at GenCon that gaming is going on. You can create events in advance with GenCon that you can run day and night to get people playing your game and perhaps driving sales to your booth. This is a FREE opportunity to host events and provide potential customers with your game’s experience. With a little creativity you can create tournaments and even have them run by volunteers. Don’t be afraid to get volunteers to help run your booth. We have a cute little girl named Alex who is 10 or 11 that demoed games all four days of GenCon at our booth this year again. My daughter and I met her at lunch early on at GenCon 2015 and she said she wanted to help out. She does a great job demoing our games to other kids and she is learning valuable work experience. This year she got a free exhibitor badge and some games in exchange for her help and we hope she will be back next year. Our events are run by volunteers who keep coming back year after year just for the joy of spreading the word about this amazing hobby.
4. Shop and be a part of the industry. We always leave ourselves time to walk around and see other exhibitors’ products, not just to shop but also to check out the competition and see what is hot and what is not. We take it in, get ideas for new display/marketing and generally just soak it all up. Huge pokemon floating over your booth? Great idea! I’ve already emailed a couple of factories about a giant inflatable for next year. We also take time to play games by other publishers, keep an eye on what is hot and try to understand why that game is hot. If you’re a publisher and don’t know why Dominion, Catan, Agricola or Pandemic Legacy were successes or how to play them, well, you really can’t say why your next game may or may not be a hit. You have to have the pulse of the market. Just like aspiring writers are encourage to read great books, aspiring publishers should be playing great games, and not just those that interest you.
5. Have fun. This is a game convention, you should be enjoying it. If you don’t take the time to watch the Man vs. Food episode of that city or at least look at the TripAdvisor’s top restaurants and try a few of them out, you’re missing out. Some of my best memories of GenCon 2016 will be of hunting for MagiCarp down by the river northwest of the convention center on Pokemon Go at 2 AM, or hitting Steak n’ Shake between 2-4 AM for 50% off shakes (hint: the Carmel Cashew shake is the best). Laughing and playing after hours at events and watching our Crokinole tournament were just great times, and always are. Sure this is a business first, but you have to live your life too. Don’t be afraid to kick back and enjoy it, and for goodness sake, put a smile on that face, no one likes a sour puss. None of us want to talk to Eeyore or hear you complain about how badly you were treated here or there or why your back hurts. Get on with enjoying your life, this is one of the good parts!