Conventions. Millions of attendees flock to gaming and geek culture cons each and every year. The typical con attendee will meet up with friends, play games, and of course acquire mass quantities of the latest products and swag. While by nature, I would include myself (albeit to a lesser extent) in this group, I also belong to another demographic of attendees: those who are there for business.
It’s a common feeling among industry folk, that if you want to succeed, you need to attend the cons. While I agree with that statement, I have kind of a love/hate relationship with conventions. Many people would call me an extrovert, but when I’m surrounded by thousands of people for an extended period of time, it’s not long before I go looking for solitude.
I attended my first gaming convention just two years ago in 2017, when I was still only moonlighting in the industry. The convention I chose was Gen Con, the largest tabletop show in North America. Leading up to the con, I could hardly contain my excitement. I scoured the event database to fill my days with seminars, talks and workshops.
Finally, the day came, and I set foot in the Indianapolis Convention Centre. I had registered for the trade day workshops which took place the day before the con opened up to the public. This was mostly for educators with a wide variety of seminars on how to do things like integrate gamification into the classroom, etc. At the end of day 1 (technically day 0), I was feeling pretty great. It was an awesome day, filled with interesting sessions. If the rest of the con shaped up like this, it’d be great.
Friday Morning. Day 1 (for the public) of Gen Con. I was lucky enough to land a room in one of the hotels adjacent to the Convention Centre, so I walk across the skybridge into the convention hall. Immediately my pulse rises several beats. It’s pretty much wall-to-wall people. Right away, I liken it to attending concerts in the 80s back when they had general admission. Luckily my adrenaline is pumping pretty well at this point and it sees me through any trepidation I have. Onward and forward. I’ll spare you the play-by-play of the whole experience over the 4 days, suffice it to say, as time went on, I got used to the crowds and was able to escape away for some alone time when I felt the need.
After the initial shock of day 1 wore off a bit, I was able to get my bearings and make my way from event to event without much issue. There were still seas of people to wade through, but nothing unexpected. A large part of these conventions is the dealer hall. The place where you go to see the latest and greatest offerings from publishers and other vendors, and hopefully there’s even a copy left for you! Not feeling incredibly social most of the time, I did a great deal of window shopping in the dealer hall. I don’t go to these events as a consumer. I did create a list, but this wasn’t a list of games I needed to add to my collection, my list was a carefully curated list of publishers whom I’d love to work with.
Armed with my hit list, new business cards, and some fancy self-promo swag, I made my way up and down the aisles, stopping in at the appropriate stalls. After the first or second booth, it became very clear to me that perhaps this wasn’t the best venue to make first contact. If you’ve never been to a large convention’s dealer hall, it’s pretty much non-stop all day long. These folks have very little time and what time they do have it’s usually spent selling their wares. That’s not to say that it stopped me. I did persevere! I did my rounds, some ended in successful introductions, some did not. Looking back, cold meetups at vendor booths wasn’t the greatest idea. If you contact the vendor ahead of time and ask what the best way to get face time with them is. Who knows, they may even suggest a meeting outside of the dealer hall hours! This past year at Gen Con, I reached out to many vendors who were more than happy to schedule me in. It’s amazing what a little planning can do!
I consider myself a ‘people person’. If you want to make it in this business, no matter if you’re a graphic designer like me, or an aspiring game designer, or a marketing professional, or anything else, the contacts you make in the dealer hall, at evening events, or even just gaming in the free play hall are invaluable. Even with video conferencing technology these days like Skype, there really is no substitute for the connections you make with someone in person.
The more events I attend, the more I become aware of other events out there. As a Canadian, making it to these conventions isn’t cheap. Most of the larger ones are in the United States. They often involve a long drive (or expensive flights), the costs of feeding, entertaining, and housing yourself, and let’s not forget the lost wages of taking the time off. Mind you, as you get to know people in the industry, you may be able to offset some of these costs by volunteering for the event, or working at a booth in the vendor hall. It’s becoming increasingly important to put some thought into picking and choosing the events I attend. It really just comes down to which event is the best fit for me at that time. Am I able to work a booth? Can I possibly car pool with friends who are also going? Will going to the event jeopardize any deadlines? I ask myself these questions and a bunch more when weighing the options.
FUN EXPERIENCE: The energy and excitement at and surrounding these events is great. You’re pretty hard pressed not to find something that you’ll enjoy.
RECONNECT WITH FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES: This is one of the main reasons I attend these events. The industry is filled with such kind-hearted and fun-loving people that I’ll take every chance I can get to see them.
EXPANDING YOUR NETWORK: Conventions are great for meeting new people. Who’s to say that these new connections need all be personal and not professional?! Keep a stack of business cards in your back pocket and explore. Take a chance, you won’t regret it. Fortune favours the bold!
FOOD: I didn’t mention this above, but you’re in a new city with new (to you) restaurants. If you’re a foodie like me, you’ll seize this opportunity to locate some culinary gems.
ALWAYS BEING ‘ON’ IS TAXING: If you’re there for business, you’re pretty much stuck in the “ON” position, meaning that you’ve got your business face on and with that comes an expected level of behaviour. Continuously operating like this is tiring, much more tiring than sitting around a game table with your best mates playing a game. You don’t have to worry about what you say or how you act (within reason of course), you can just be you. So when you get back to your hotel room, more often than not, your head hits the pillow pretty hard. Because of this, you need to seek out situations where you can recharge, whether it’s heading back to the room for some rack time, or just sitting by yourself for a few minutes. Whatever you need to do to recharge, do it often. This is a marathon, not a sprint :)
SENSORY OVERLOAD: Being surrounded by hordes of people and the constant din of the event is often too much and can really take it out of you. This is just another reason to dial in on those moments you can steal to recharge your batteries. Personally, I like to escape to a local restaurant and sit at the bar for a glass of red wine.
COST OF GOING: There’s a lot to consider when summing up the costs of going to an event like this. There’s the direct costs of travel (car or plane), food & entertainment, and, of course, the room. There’s also the indirect costs of the lost wages incurred from taking the time off. And lastly, we can’t forget those impulse buys in the dealer hall :)
Are you a budding professional in the industry? Are you wondering if the effort and costs of attending these events are worth it? Hard to say, I suppose that’s different for each person. In my case though, I feel that they are a good investment and worthwhile venture. The contacts I make are an integral part of how I operate and network. That said, while attending every con is impractical at best, I’ll do my best to pick and choose based on geography and timing.