Someone asked for a few pointers on running games conventions...
I have a few...
But the first thing you need to ask if you're planning a convention is Why people go to conventions…?
There's only one reason, to do things they can’t do at home…
People will say they come for the games, the company, the ambience, take your pick, but at the end of the day, it’s always down to things they can’t do at home.
If you can do it at home, why would you travel all that way and spend all that money to go do it somewhere else?
We, as convention organisers, therefore have only one remit…
Make it Awesome, make it something that they can’t do at home...
This is not as easy as it seems, after all, at home, you can do everything, the food, the game, the entertainment, and you can do it yourself, because you’re only catering for your friends around the table. At a convention, you’ve got to cover everyone and make sure that they all get something of what they want.
So there are a few things you’re going to need to watch out for…
and by extension, Travel…
You’ll get more people in a major city than you will in a small town, but if you’re starting small (and that’s often the best way to do it), as long as people have travel lines to get to you, then you’ll be fine. If you have the convention in a village hall that has a train station and regular bus lines running past it, you’ll get a lot more people than having it in a huge hall where only those with cars can get to it.
There are already a good number of conventions on the calendar, check carefully to make sure that what you’re doing doesn’t clash with something that’s already established and running around the same time. Doesn’t have to be the same days, usually within a fortnight of a similar convention will constitute a clash of interests.
A single day convention is travel down, attend convention, travel back. All the variables on that are enclosed within that single day. When you put a second day (and possibly a third or fourth), you’re asking those attending to find a place to stay for the night to come back in the next day. This increases their costs significantly, as well as adding a second day to your own expenses. For traders this has a knock on effect in the amount of stock they bring (far more) because they’ll need to restock overnight to make sure they still have product on the shelves. They'll also have to consider if two days increases their sales very much when a lot of people turn up to buy on a single day rather than two, those coming for the whole convention tend to buy on the last day, everyone else buys on the main day for the convention.
Of course, gamers are inventive, ask about the shut-in that occurred at Gencon Olympia when thirty odd gamers couldn’t be bothered going home and so commandeered a cleaning room upstairs with two on watch at all times in case the security guards wandered past. It’s not likely that you’re going to get a bunch of gamers hiding in the top of the town hall, but you need to consider costs for the area when you move the convention to more than a single day.
Volunteers come on a broad spectrum, ranging from “Will do everything and anything, will keep working long after their shift is done and will call for more every time”, down to “Give me my free ticket, I’m going to the show, you don’t expect me to work do you?”
The grim thing?
There’s more on the “Give me my free ticket” end of the scale than there are on the other end, and many people won’t think twice about offering to help at the show if it’ll get them a free ticket, but they start bitching when you want them to carry out their part of the bargain. There isn’t any way around this, I wish there were, when it happens you’ll have to do the job with whatever good people you’ve got around you and if there are no good people around you…
You’ll be doing it yourself…
Never underestimate this as an Organiser of Conventions, keep two lists, one for the people who do well for you and one for the people who let you down. The good list will be shorter than the bad one, but as time goes on, both lists will increase, and after a few years, they’ll be about the same length.
Am I overstating this?
I wish I was…
The other thing about volunteers is that you need to be clear in what you’re offering people to help at the convention and once that offer is made, you need to honour it, no matter what, because you only get one chance at that. The usual offer is free entrance in return for running a few hours of games (Four hours is the accepted amount at most conventions), although you can offer more if you have provision to do so. Word of advice on that score would be not to offer too much too early, because when you’ve offered it one year, trying to take it back the next year is really, really difficult.
Everyone comes to conventions for a different reason, so be clear when you advertise the convention, if it’s RPG’s, make it about RPG’s, if it’s about Board games, make it about Board games. If you want it to be a little of everything and you’re just starting out, be aware that you can either do a quarter con for all the attendees and try to gauge the interest levels for the year following, or you can specialise to begin with and then branch out in following years. My recommendation would be to specialise for the first year and then branch out when the people who came the first year come back to you (which they will) with ideas for next year.
When you’re putting out the word for the convention on the first year, get it in place six months before you’re going to run the convention as a bare minimum, and at least two months before you open to take interest from GM’s and umpires for events. Make the lines of communication clear, get the website in place and start promoting on social media as soon as it’s up. In the second year and onwards, word of mouth will do a lot of this for you, but in the first year, make sure your profile is up and clear.
One of the most difficult things to organise in any convention is the events that you’re running, it’s not hard to get people run games, but getting them to run the right games…
That’s another matter.
You’ll always get someone offering to run their latest homebrew system for four hours in return for getting in free. Unless they’re offering something that people have heard of as well as whatever they want to run, turn it down. Published games make up more than 95% of the games that will be taken up at a convention, we’ve monitored the ticket sales at a number of conventions for several years, and it’s apparent that while there is mild interest in homebrew systems, that interest only comes when they can’t find anything else to play.
Not really, if you’ve travelled all this way to get a game in, you want it to be a known quantity rather than taking a risk on something that could be the most awesome game in the world. Games in the playtesting phase are a different matter, particularly if they’re from one of the larger publishing houses, people do have a lot of interest in emergent systems if they have a chance to influence them.
The other thing about events is the special events, the one’s where rather than just costing you an entrance ticket to get the game running, it’s actually costing you cold hard cash. These have the potential to bring in a lot of people if pitched at the right level, but you have to balance the draw against the cost. When you’re doing this, you must think not only about the cost of the event but for the number of people who’ll be attracted to the con by this event. If you’re running something that might only seat fifty players, but you’ll get a hundred just to come and take a look, then you’re on to a winner, but when you’ve done it once and people have liked it, you may find that you have to do it again.
There are those who think that this doesn’t apply to smaller cons, and when you’re dealing with less than a roomful of people, then it’s less the case, but you still need to look at it for several reasons.
Noise – Putting a loud dungeon crawl next to an atmospheric Cthulhu game isn’t going to endear you to the Cthulhu players, the dungeon crawlers won’t care as they’ll be the ones making the noise but you should consider quieter games near quieter games if possible.
Board vs RPG – You’d think that in this enlightened age, we’d be able to co-exist with each other, but every year I see people arguing “These are BOARD tables, these are RPG tables” when in actual fact…
They’re just tables.
When you get to a certain size and you’re not just moving things around one room (says the man who just came from the NEC), you need to consider layout. If you have something that’s going to be really popular (Bring and Buy for example), then you need to put it away from everything else if you possibly can, there’ll be crowds around it all day and they’ll filter around so that they impact on everything else going on in the con. If you’re selling space to the trade hall, consider your entrances, exits, and thoroughfares when you’re offering the stands out, it may be mercenary, but the understanding has to be that all the traders are there to make money, so should you be.
Let me save you the time on this one…
Attendee’s – We want more games, more variety in the games being offered, less players per game, more players per game, bigger tournaments from bigger companies, smaller tournaments from bigger companies (how are we supposed to win when the field is 500 people), more prizes, bigger prizes, free dice on the front desk, in fact, shouldn’t you be paying us to come next year?
Traders – We didn’t make any money this year, we’ll have to look carefully at if we’re coming next year, can’t you lower your prices, can I have that space for free, it’s your fault that my stock went missing, get rid of all the open gaming space and give it to me for demo tables, can you put all my old stock in the bring and buy so I don’t have to buy trade space to get rid of it....
You can’t please everyone all the time, it’s a melancholy truth, but it’s the truth. When people ask for things, they’re asking for themselves, not for the convention. When you gather the feedback, if 1% said they wanted more space around tables and 20% said get more games in, don’t leap in on the 20%, look at the space you have, the space you’re going to have next year, make the decision based on what you can do, not what they want you to do. Many times the things requested will clash with each other and there won’t be anything you can do to please all types, so do the right thing, do what you want to do as the convention organiser. If you forget why you’re putting all this hard work in, then you’ll put less hard work in and before you know it, you’ll be putting no hard work in, and that’s how good conventions collapse.
Have something in place in case someone behaves badly, stupidly, or in some way contrary to how you want your convention to run. Most people believe that everyone is like them, and as an organiser of conventions, you’re doing this because you want people to have fun.
Not everyone is like you…
Bitter lesson to learn the first time some irate know it all comes pontificating over the front desk at you, but one that you’re better being prepared for. Most conventions have an Anti-Harassment policy, every convention that got past year one has a code of conduct, even if it’s just notes on their website to say that they can and will throw out people who are ruining it for everyone else. I could fill the rest of this issue with instances where people weren’t as nice as I’d hoped they would have been, but in every case, it’s been dealt with because there’s been words to back me up when I needed to make those difficult calls.
Finally, and perhaps most important, even though I’m listing it last
Some conventions are commercial ventures, some are just gamers getting together to have fun together, but whatever the reason, at the end of the day, there’s the bill to settle. If you’re looking to have fun, just want it to remain the same size and you can afford the hall every year, no problem, you need read no further.
For everyone else…
The first year of a convention may break even, if you’re done the research and PR ahead of time, been all over social media and built a solid presence with keeping people up on what awesome things are going on at your convention, then it may break even.
But don’t count on it.
The number of conventions I’ve seen that have failed in year one because the organisers presumed that it’d make money and had nothing left over to make a second year is beyond count.
Many people don’t come to the first year of a convention, the usual attitude is that they’re already doing several conventions and don’t want to extend to another one just yet. Better to wait till the reports have come in from the first year and see where it goes from there. In the first year, be prepared to make a loss on the convention, it’s almost universal that this happens. A break even on year one should be considered a significant victory, so don’t be downhearted if this is all you get.
Year two is a different matter, if you’ve continued to build the profile and keep people informed, then year two will almost surely be a breakeven point as all the people that missed it last year will come in for it this year. Year three and onwards should be (if carefully managed) growth years.
There’s a million things more I could tell you all about, but every convention is different, and every convention makes mistakes, no matter how long they’ve been going, no matter how well planned they are, every convention makes mistakes. When you make yours, learn from them, there’s few mistakes that will kill a convention stone dead in one hit.
Except not opening the doors…
Always open the doors…