Brant Guillory, 1 May 2022
Convention season is back! With returning conventions, we’re seeing an increase in “first-timers” who have spent 2 years in quarantine, honing & refining products that they’re now unleashing on the world. It seemed like a good time to revisit this column from the archives.
Conventions can be a great way to get your game in front of your audience. The high concentration of gamers and the foot traffic in the exhibit hall make for a target-rich environment for a new company. If you’re looking to spread the word about yourself, setting up shop at a convention is a great way to do it.
The first question you really need to ask is “Why are we going to the convention?” Are you focusing on selling product? Building some buzz around your company? Trying to meet people and show off your game for another company to pick you up? If you don’t go into the show with a solid definition of success, you won’t have much of a measuring stick to gauge your overall investment in time and effort.
This article originally appeared in the now-defunct Scrye Magazine back in 2006. But as we roll into convention season again, we wanted to bring it back for you.
One of your next decisions needs to be “which convention?” Staying close to home, or with a friend, can cut down the overall cost. If a local convention is not an option, then try to shoot for a convention whose major events are closest to your core products. GenCon is a heavy RPG show; Origins is a role-playing and board-gaming mix, with some card events for good measure. There are many smaller, local cons as well, and they are often willing to offer booth space to a company at a low rate.
Get your deposits in as soon as possible. The difference in cost can be dramatic. As an example, at Origins 2006, a booth cost $555 if paid by January 10, but went up to $671 if paid at the end of March. For a new company, the $120 difference might make or break your first show.
Finally, you need to decide on your booth crew. Drafting a friend is a cheap way to man your booth. But you need to make sure that folks working your booth are as well-versed in your product as you are. Remember, the customer doesn’t know that your buddy is just here for the free convention; the customer sees a representative of your company behind the table.
When you register, you’ll have to choose where you’d like to be located. Try to locate near some big company whose products aren’t too different from yours, especially if they’re compatible (such as d20 roleplaying products1). Some small exhibitors are reluctant to do this, fearing they’ll get overlooked. On the contrary, attendees stop at anything that looks interesting; that’s why they’re there.
How you decorate your booth is another consideration. If your budget is constrained, as most startups are, you should focus on a BIG sign with your company name and an eye-catching graphic that ties in nicely with one of your products. But focus on your product. Attendees don’t expect much flash from a new exhibitor, and flash won’t bring customers back for more product if your first one is no good.
You will need to organize the interior of your booth as well. Some companies open up the space and invite the customer to come into the booth to see their wares. Others push their product toward the front of the booth. You will need a small administrative area where you keep your cashbox, credit card machine, notepads, business cards, and personal loot. Similarly, you’ll need somewhere to store inventory, usually underneath the tables.
How do you plan to promote your product? Will demo games be a full game, or just one turn, to give people a flavor for the game? What do you really want to highlight about your product?
First, have at least one copy out and available for customers to examine. Second, (especially boargames and card games) have a copy set up on a table so customers can see what it looks like when it’s laid out on their table. Post a schedule of when you’ll be in the open gaming room with an invitation for people to come play with the designer.
Don’t just promote to customers, either. Find every single media outlet you can and talk to them. You may not get a feature article from all of them, but web-based media will do day-by-day coverage at a con, and mention many companies in their coverage. Just because our site is focused on military games doesn’t mean we don’t include RPGs or game accessories in their coverage.
A Quick Digression – this is related to the original article, but adapted from a discussion on social media, where a new exhibitor was asking about potential sales numbers for a new product with a new company. This is not part of the original article from 2006, but still very relevant. The text is a little disjointed because it’s pulled straight from a social media post where you’re not writing formal long-form content.
OK, so this is going to sound dumb, but bear with me. I was a nobody-heard-of-me exhibitor in 2005, and came back in 06 and 07, so I have some experience (though it is dated)
The exhibit hall is open for 30 hours from THU-SUN.
How many copies/hour are you realistically going to sell? 1? 2?
How long does it take you to explain your game/product, and once you do, how many copies are each person going to buy?
5 minutes to explain, and sell 1? Not a bad ratio. But you’re also not going to have a line of people waiting for their 5 minute “turn”. Plus, not everyone you pitch to will buy a copy.
So maybe the starting math is every 10 minutes you get someone to listen to your full song-&-dance, and that’s 5 minutes of conversation with that customer.
15 minutes each = 4/hour.
50% conversion rate (might be a little high) = 2 sales/hour.
Over the entire show, you sell 60 copies.
Use that as your benchmark, and then see how far over/under you come during the show, and treat this Origins as both (1) data collection for you to understand and refine your approach, and (2) get your name out there.
Back to the original article!
The Little Things
So you’ve paid your deposit, made a sign, scheduled a table every night, and emailed all the media outlets with a press release announcing your presence at the show. Now for all the little stuff.
- Do you have dice at your booth? Sure you can buy some at the show, but do you really want to be running around at the last minute worrying about dice?
- How much change is in your cash box? How are your going to secure your cash box and credit card receipts2?
- What are you going to wear? Is your booth crew going to be in uniform? Are you going to get custom t-shirts for everyone? Most importantly, what shoes are you wearing? Standing for 8 hours in flip-flops is not fun.
- Bring a bag of hard candy, like peppermints or Jolly Ranchers. You’ll be talking for 8 hours each day. Your throat will hurt. Candy helps. I promise.
Don’t forget to take time to enjoy the show yourself. Conventions are fun, even if you’re working. Sit in on a demo game. Buy, sell, and trade. Take a lot of pictures.
Last bits of advice
At our first convention, we did some bad math going in, and it really depressed us when our sales didn’t keep up with expectations. We should’ve calibrated our sales expectations this way: the exhibit hall was open for 30 hours over 4 days. If we sell one game each hour, that’s 30 games. We actually sold 38 that first show. That was well short of the original goal of 150, but better than one per hour, which was more realistic since no one had ever heard of us and we had to literally ‘sell’ it to each customer. (see above for a more detailed version of this math)
Toward the end of day 2, when we were pretty down about sales not meeting our own (inflated) projections, we got the perfect pep talk from another exhibitor. “Look, you’re here,” he said. “Think of all the other people who aren’t here, and aren’t getting the exposure you are. Everyone starts somewhere. WizKids was in a booth your size once. But they were here. And you know what? Your biggest fan is at this convention. He’s going to go home and tell all his buddies about the coolest new game he found and show it off to everyone, all because you took 10 minutes to give him a demo. You couldn’t do that if you weren’t here.”
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