Sunday, 21 September 2014

Building a great convention - Part one

We’ve been running Expo for some years now, and every year we get the same questions.

“What’s going on next year/How are you going to make it better?”

The problem here is that a lot of people think that building a better convention is very much like Kevin Costner sitting there in Field of Dreams, with the forever misquoted line of “If you build it they will come”.

The actual line is “If you build it, he will come”.

He, singular...

And that’s why building it isn’t enough, you need to know what worked, what didn’t, what people said they wanted, and what they actually wanted when they said that.  I get people all the way through the year asking me for more of one game, less of another, why didn’t I do this, why did I do that, why can’t I just put on more GM’s and give everyone the game they wanted...

There are times when it gets a little much, times when you sit down and you think to yourself (because no one else is listening), “Is it worth all this hassle...?”

I spoke to Simon Powell, organiser of DragonDaze, a new convention down in Newport, England, a short while ago.  He hadn’t managed to see a single thing of his convention, he’d been too busy dealing with things on the day to try and enjoy any of it himself.  The thanks he’d got were from people who were leaving, having had a great time.

And you know what?

That was enough for him, as it is for me every year...

For a first year convention they did very well, best part of 750 attendee’s and everyone from traders to the public were happy with the event, so there’ll be a second year and he’ll be doing some things the same and some things differently.  The problem with forward planning anything is making sure that you don’t put too much in and end up bankrupting yourself, so you’ve got to know your audience and you’ve got to know what they’re going to go for and what they’re not.

So how to do this?

Data...

It would be nice to say that you could just look at it and get the feel for what’s going on and what’s not, to think that your gut instinct has the idea of what your convention needs, but it’s simply not the case.  You need Data, pure and simple, to make things better.

In the various conventions I organise, I’m responsible for the organised play.  In a few of them I’m responsible for more than that, but for the most part it’s figuring out what people want to play and then making sure that someone is going to run it for them.  Between the RPG’s, the boardgames, and the other games too numerous to mention, from the card games (who always want to stage tournaments because that’s how they sell more cards), to the more abstract games  that everyone plays once, loves to bits, and then never plays again, that’s what I do.

In a lot of ways, the first year of a convention is easier, you don’t really know the audience you’re going to get or the numbers that will be coming along, so you put a little of everything on and then plan for the year following. 

At Expo though, we’ve had a number of years, and because we run it like a business, I need to justify what we’re doing for the following years, so to give everyone some idea of what we do to get that data, here it is.

We have a front desk that gets split into two sections, the games section and the sales section.  If you’re looking to get in or buy an entrance ticket to the event, it’s the first desk, if you’re looking for a game to play or something else, it’s the desk I run.  That desk has a number of people who man it constantly through the entire event, there’s never a time when there aren’t at least two or three people there to make sure questions can’t be answered, but the desk has a secondary purpose, and that’s to collect the tickets from the GM’s and with those tickets, prove how many games ran, how many players were in each game, and how popular each event was. 

Then we have to get all that data, collate it all, put it in a spreadsheet, analyse the trends, and see where things went.  It’s not as easy as you might think it is, for every event we’ve got to get the tickets in and you’d be amazed how many GM’s can’t be bothered filling in a slip and handing in the form at the desk, or when they haven’t collected the tickets, getting a slip in and putting “Sorry” on the front.

When you’ve got all the data, you need to then go through all the GM’s and make sure that the front desk team didn’t have any feedback from anyone else, because it’s all well and good for GM’s to put in a form saying they had six players for a game, but if that game was no good, then what’s the difference....?

And here’s where there’s an unexpected bonus that comes from the customer service that we provide.  When people come to us to ask for game recommendations, we tell them to come back to us with feedback, we want them to tell us their honest opinions of what’s going on and if they liked or didn’t like the game.  When players come to us asking where they’re supposed to be, we always ask them to come back to us and let us know how things went. 

And most of them do...

Some of the feedback is amusing (Best GM in heels and Lipstick), some of it from the GM’s themselves (One handed their forms in all at once, the first one had “Exhilarated” on it, the second, “Tired”, the third, “Exhausted”, the fourth “Hoarse” and the fifth “Zombied” on it.), but the key thing here is that we’re very serious about wanting people to have a good time, so when the GM doesn’t turn up or runs a bad game, they know to come back to us and tell us because we will refund them every time and we’ll task other GM’s to provide them with something to do in that slot.

And that makes for interesting data, because this year, I found out that one GM at Expo this year offered five games, got two with no players, one with two players, one with five players, and one game where we’d sold five tickets to, he didn’t turn up for the game...

So we spoke to that GM separately, and found that they were delayed somewhere else so couldn’t get to their game on time...

Really...?

Every GM at Expo has my personal number, it’s there for that very reason, if you have a problem, I understand, just tell me so I know that it’s coming and I can do something with it.

But apparently as well as not being able to get to the game in time, they also didn’t manage to send me a text to let me know that they couldn’t make it.

Well, he was upset that he’d not managed to make his game and we’d had to give out refunds, but not so upset that he didn’t immediately run to another game to make sure he could do what he wanted to.  Except interestingly enough, the GM’s for the game he was in let us know that the absentee GM had asked them to save him a place...

So he’ll not be back this year, or indeed any year after that...

But every year, the data we have grows, we learn that beginners love shorter games, and that there’s very little interest in events that are chained together across the course of the day unless it’s by special arrangement with whole massive groups of players in advance. 

I’m at another set of meetings tomorrow regarding Expo, at which I’ll be presenting the data that we’ve gathered from this year and my recommendations for next year.  When Expo began, there were less than ten tables of RPG’s across the convention, this last year there were more than three hundred and fifty. 

The last thing you need for building a convention is the dream of where you want to be in five years time and ten years time. 

Me?

I want the whole NEC...

I want every hotel in Birmingham sold out with Gamers, just like Gencon...  

I want not to sleep the whole time, and I want others to be standing that watch with me because they don’t want to miss a thing...

And it’s a dream to be sure, but it’s a dream worth working towards, so count those years with me and see where we get to...


T Minus Ten...

2 comments:

  1. You and the whole team do an amazing job. That can't be said enough.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Running a Con is hard work, and you have to be able to come up with solutions for problems straight away in your head, you will never make everyone happy with everything, but as long as most people are happy, you are on to a winner.

    ReplyDelete