Monday, June 13, 2016

GenCon, Summer Beer

Hello! For a change of pace, I’ll talk about a bit of the game biz that starts to loom large in my mind every year around this: GenCon. If you’re a gamer, you know about GenCon. If you’re not, let me just say that GenCon is the biggest pure gaming show in the US, the flagship convention experience if you’re a D&D fan or a boardgame aficionado. There are bigger gaming-focused shows (PAX, for example) but they lean toward digital games these days—if you’re a tabletop enthusiast, GenCon is a must-do at some point in your gaming career.

Now, here’s the strange thing: I have never really attended GenCon as a fan. During my 20-year career with TSR and WotC I served as part of the company contingent presenting seminars, running demos and games, and generally making ourselves available to the fans. Since parting ways with WotC, I’ve attended 3 GenCons as Rich Baker of Sasquatch Game Studio. So I’m going to talk about what it takes to go to GenCon if you’re a tiny company.

First, GenCon is expensive. A small booth (10 by 10) costs $1800. If you want a premium corner location, that shoots up to more like $2700. You can get in quite a bit cheaper by choosing the “entrepreneur’s avenue” for $1000, but you’re going to be in a pretty remote part of the exhibit hall. Is the corner space or end space worth it? I think it is. There are *so many, many, many* exhibitors at GenCon these days that most attendees only ever see a fraction of the dealer’s hall. Your booth is one tiny little shining star in a big night sky full of stars just like yours. Seriously, you cannot imagine how lost in the crowd you’ll feel with your 10 by 10 booth. So anything you can do to get a good location is probably worth doing, and paying for the end space or a bigger booth is one of the few things that’s in your power (see below).

You can save money by sharing a booth with someone else. GenCon adds a stiff booth-sharing fee ($350) so you don’t get it at exactly half cost, but it will save you many hundreds of dollars if you can tolerate being in the same space with a friendly competitor for 4 days. We shared space with Wolf Baur of Kobold Press the first year we got a booth. You also get a nice price break if you can commit to next year’s GenCon on Sunday of this year’s GenCon and pay 50% up front.

You don’t get much control over where in the hall your booth will be. Don’t count on landing a spot right by the busiest door so that everybody walking in and out will see your booth. The primo spots go to companies buying gigantic booth acreage, followed by companies that have been coming to GenCon forever—there is a “priority point” system that means the smaller booths in good territory go to folks who have been coming to the show for many years. As a first-time exhibitor your booth is going to be in the “nosebleed” section. You can still do okay there if you have a name, a great product, or eye-catching booth d├ęcor, of course. But it might take you a couple-three years of steady exhibiting (or paying extra for an end spot) to climb the priority ladder and secure better booth locales.

The booth cost includes two exhibitor badges, a table, and a couple of chairs. You can get extra badges if you want them. It also puts you on the list for exhibitor housing, so you have a better shot at securing close-in accommodations for the show. But downtown hotels in Indianapolis get really expensive around GenCon, so with two plane tickets and a double-occupancy room and your booth rental you’re talking about $3500 to $4500 to get to the show and have a place to sell your product. If you can drive to Indy or if you have a place to stay in town, that helps quite a bit. We’re fortunate: Dave Noonan’s brother lives in an Indianapolis suburb, so we stay in the Sasquatch Game Studio Indianapolis Regional Headquarters each year. (Thanks, Doug!)

The convention hall in Indianapolis is run by an outfit called George Fern Exhibitor Services. George Fern makes available to you a number of booth upgrades like carpeting, extra tables, better network access, and so on. If you’re a small outfit with a 10 by 10 booth, you don’t need that stuff. I think it’s quite overpriced compared to what you can bring in yourself. (You are absolutely allowed to schlep in any reasonable furnishings you care to bring.) We fly in on Tuesday night so that we can use part of Wednesday for some CostCo trips or other booth-decorating expeditions, and we find that we can handle things pretty well ourselves.

A note about friends and visitors. This is hard to say, but I’ll say it anyway: If I’m in my booth and the Exhibit Hall is open, I’m there to interact with my customers and make sales. I love seeing folks I haven’t seen in a long time and I will happily make plans to go grab a bite of lunch when I take a break or spend the evening visiting. What I really can’t do is allow knots of friends to “form ranks” between me and my customers and then stay there all afternoon. So if you’re buying booth space at GenCon, remember that you’re paying $100 an hour or more to be there and be available to customers. It’s reasonable to take a few minutes to say hi or make plans to meet up after the hall closes if things are quiet, but then you can in good conscience shoo your visitors along.

Overall, my personal goal at GenCon is simple: See and be seen. I want to be at the show so that I can see what’s going on in the game business—what’s hot, what’s not, who are the interesting new publishers, what the industry leaders are up to. I also want to be at the show because it’s a powerful bit of marketing and brand-building for our little company, and an opportunity for fans to come and meet us if they want to. I’m not looking to make GenCon a profit center for Sasquatch (although I certainly want to do my best). I just want sales at the show to subsidize the cost of being there to see and be seen.

Summer Beer: Now that the weather’s warm, I find that my beer tastes change a bit. For most of the year I’m a big fan of smooth darker beers with nice roasty malt flavors. But in summer, nice refreshing crisp lagers and pilsners just can’t be beat. This year, I’ve stumbled across a couple that are very much worth your while. The first is Sierra Nevada’s Summerfest—reminiscent of a macrobeer but just better all around, which makes it very drinkable by my standards. The second is Hellas Bellas, by Ninkasi.  Ninkasi is known for their IPAs, but this excellent helles lager is just about my favorite beer on the planet right now. It’s smooth, crisp, refreshing, and complex, just what I’m looking for in an upscale lager.

When I can’t find the Ninkasi or the Sierra Nevada, or if I’m looking to save a couple of bucks on a six-pack, I sometimes turn to Red Stripe Jamaican Lager. Many years ago I drank quite a few Red Stripes at the Officer’s Club in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Definitely a step up from a canned macrobeer and usually quite affordable. Or sometimes I’ll pick up a six-pack of Peroni. You don’t think of Italy as a place to get a decent lager, but Peroni is very crisp and carbonated and goes down nice in hot weather.