Well, today is Gen Con exhibitor setup day so normally I would be covered in sweat in the Indianapolis summer heat pulling muscles I didn’t know I had while setting up my booth for the big show, but I didn’t go at all this year so instead, I’m in an air conditioned apartment writing this to you. We have had an Overworld Games booth at Gen Con for the previous 3 years, and for a couple years before that, I went to the show to demo our games and learn more about the industry.
Will I miss not going? From a nostalgia perspective, heck yeah. I don’t get to hang out with my convention friends or immerse myself in the gaming culture that gathers there — plus, I missed that moment where I get to see the beautiful Indianapolis Convention Center carpet for the first time.
But from a business perspective, I won’t really miss it. I won’t get the face-to-face networking time with industry colleagues and potential localization, manufacturing, or game design partners, but I can accomplish 90% of that through email. We don’t have a game coming out this month so we won’t be missing out on many sales or a lot of buzz because of it. I’ll admit that we are missing out on that incredibly hard to calculate brand awareness improvement we would get out there, but I don’t worry too much about things I can’t calculate. So overall, I figure it just didn’t make sense to go this year and I’m glad I’m skipping it. Here’s why.
The costs of having a booth at a convention are immense if it’s not local to you. For each 10ft x 10ft square in the exhibition hall at Gen Con (~70,000 attendees), it will be about $1600. You can get a deal if it’s your first year and you get into the Entrepreneurs’ Avenue, but it will still be at least $1000, even for that. If you go to a smaller convention, it will be much cheaper. Our booth at a local convention with 2300 attendees earlier this year was $200 for 4 days, so then it becomes more of a time investment than a financial investment.
Freight shipping games to the convention will cost hundreds of dollars and will likely eat up any profit you would make from sales. If you have games you didn’t sell, don’t forget you’ll have to ship them back too. If you live close enough to get yourself a truck and drive them there yourself, you’ll save some money on both ends and estimating correctly won’t be as critical.
And man, it’s surprisingly hard to estimate how many games you’re going to sell! It depends on so many factors. Over the last 3 years at Gen Con, we have sold between 50-200 games each year, depending on how hot the games are, how much attention our releases get in pre-con media, and the types of games we’re selling there. At a con like the 2300 attendee one I mentioned, I’ll sell more like 20-30 games over a weekend.
I usually ship too many games when I exhibit at a con, so that’s something I need to improve. I gotta remember that it’s not that bad to be short because people can find your game somewhere if they can’t get it at the show and having a sold out game is exciting news that helps promote your game. Shipping is so expensive so you need to spend some serious time estimating how many you’ll sell to reduce those costs as much as possible.
If you get a 10ft x 10ft booth and you’re a small company, you’ll probably want 2 people there at all times. One person can demo and the other person can sell. Having 3 allows for easier bathroom breaks, meals, handling rushes, and general stress reduction. Doing ~4 hour shifts seems to work pretty well so people don’t get burned out and they can go enjoy the convention for part of each day. My first year, I made the rookie mistake of running the booth all by myself. That was a disaster (ha!), but luckily Noah from GameTrayz bailed me out and pitched in to help for most of the con. You will have to decide if your time is best spent at the booth or at other convention activities.
We have paid for help at cons by giving a couple free games, free exhibitor badges, a meal each day, and sometimes lodging. Lately the debate over whether booth helpers are volunteers or contractors/employees has been heating up, but the line of delineation is very blurry. Whatever you do for compensation, it will add to your expenses in some way unless you have some very generous friends.
Flights and Hotel
If you’re flying to the convention, you’ll spend a few hundred dollars on a plane ticket and then hotel rooms add up too. In the Gen Con hotel block, you’ll probably pay about $800 per room for the full 5 days. Whichever convention you go to, you can usually find a far cheaper room further away, but the last thing you want to do on the long, exhausting exhibiting days is get up early to travel to the convention center.
You’ll likely be buying some things like signs, tablecloths, flyers, and you may have to pay for vendor liability insurance (you’ll pay about $90 for that at Gen Con). I’ll usually buy my signs from buildasign.com for about $75 each and I’ll get tablecloths and other supplies from Amazon. You might pay for extra tables, chairs, or other furniture as well. A smaller convention might give you that for free but a convention like Gen Con will charge you ridiculous amounts of money for tables and chairs, so much that it would be cheaper for you to buy what you need from Walmart or Ikea and then give it away after the convention.
All in all, you can easily spend $5000 to exhibit at a major convention. How many games will you have to sell to make up for that? If you make $10 profit on a game, you need to sell 500 of them to break even and only the biggest hits will do that — most games will be lucky to sell 50 copies. So don’t worry too much about making money because conventions are mainly just a marketing expense. These are expenses that you can deduct from your taxes too, so make sure you keep track of exactly how much you’re spending.
Overall, despite all these costs, going to conventions provides a lot of value too. You get to have face-to-face interaction with folks in all parts of the industry, which builds a stronger connection than communicating online. You create greater brand awareness from people seeing that you’re exhibiting or attending and that allows people to learn more about you, your products, and your company. You can also build up buzz for upcoming games or feed the buzz for existing ones.
But is it worth all the time you’ll spend preparing for it, going to it, and all the costs above? In my opinion… sometimes. There’s no question that going to a convention will move your company forward in some ways, it’s just whether the costs make it worth it for you at the time the convention hits. What I mainly wanted to get across here is: Even though you’ll feel peer pressure to go to a big con, you never need to go. You can redirect all that time and money you would be spending on a convention into development or just avoid those expenses entirely.
So what do you think? Is it worth it?
9 thoughts on “Do I Need to Go to Conventions as a Publisher?”
I’d have to mostly agree with you here… while it’s preached over and over that you must be at the major conventions to get your game/brand known – once you’ve done that for 2-3 years, the returns of going to a convention are much less and more intangible. I did all sorts of conventions for 5 years with Minion Games, but for the last 2.5 years, I have not done a single one. My sales last year were the best ever and my sales this year should top it. Kickstarter and other exposure vehicles make it so that it’s not as necessary for an existing company/brand to be out there pounding the street every day.
Thanks for commenting, James. Yeah, I keep running into publishers who feel like they “have to” go to the big cons and it’s just not the case. I would encourage every exhibitor to do the math on how much they really spent and compare it to what they feel they got out of it and I think it will be enlightening.
I do agree that the intangible brand building is a key reason to attend, particularly for new brands. After that, I think real profit will require more than the booth to stand out on sales; a compelling event, celebrity, Hotness, etc. Booths are marketing, and the bazaar is full of magic items!
I totally agree with the article and James’ comment.
Explaining a game to visitors and allowing them to play the game might make them buy the game. However, guess what: thousands of people are doing that when they explain games from their collection to friends on a game night and you do not even have to pay them. Also, I’d rather pay s.o. to do a professional video tutorial which is a scalable solution.
I personally only go to 2 conventions with Karma Games: Essen Spiel’ because it is so big and not that far away that the ROI is clearly positive and worth my time. And BerlinCon which is financially less attractive but I can bike there.
I also agree that most of the networking part can be done as well if not even better via email/skype.
You’re right on Juma and thanks for sharing your strategy. I agree that conventions you can get to easily are MUCH easier to get a return on your time/money investment.
Completely different beast for me. I’m media and have nothing really to sell. I just go so I can say to industry friends, make new ones and get an occasional fist bump from a fan.
I bet! It makes more sense when your costs are primarily travel, room, and board so you don’t have to worry about paying for a booth or the costs and logistics of getting your games to the show. The time and money you’d spend is not insignificant, but at least it’s more manageable than exhibitors.
Thanks for the article! I have some thoughts and questions:
1. I’d imagine you’d want to be a lot more aggressive going to conventions if you ran your business as a full-time gig. I’m sure you could go into detail about the other “opportunity costs / expenses” that you must invest, such as days off work, less family time, less sleep, etc. But if you ran Overworld Games as a full-time venture, would going to the “big” cons like GenCon, Origins, etc. still be in question for you?
2. Marketing expenses vs investments — this one is something you touched on in the article, but if it cost you $2,000 (in the red) at the end of the day to do everything related to GenCon and get back home, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to consider that a marketing investment? If we’re comparing that to $2,000 in FB ads spent, or 2-3 paid promotion videos from popular review sites, would you advocate for either of the latter options over the former? I appreciate the late James Mathe’s comment and your response on this matter.
1. Good question. Yes, it would most definitely be worth it to go to more cons if this was a full-time gig. Right now, any time outside of my full-time job is extremely valuable to me because there isn’t much of it and there is a lot of competition for it, and tough competition, like time with friends and family. Good luck winning against that, conventions.
2. If it were strictly money, heck yeah, $2000 in the red would be worth it as a marketing expense and more valuable than either of the other two options. The real expense, from a hobby business perspective, is in the time it requires. 6 full days away plus all the preparation and catch-up time is an eternity.