Convention Season: What Works

This is the final instalment in my series of game convention retrospectives, in an attempt to draw general conclusions about improving attendees’ and organizers’ convention experience.  In the time it took to write this last segment, I signed up to help organize an entirely online convention, ConTessa, which will take place March 8-15, 2013.

It’s a long post and it took me a while to write, so let me give you the TL;DR of advice to convention organizers:

  1. fight inertia in order to keep up with change and avoid obsolescence;
  2. get the best people, have their back, but also check how they’re doing;
  3. communicate with your staff, volunteers, sponsors and attendees, don’t leave them in the dark; and
  4. put some policies and practical means in place to reach more people: families, young people, women, people with disabilities, etc.

Here are some of the best aspects I observed in recent tabletop gaming conventions and, I think, the most commonly needed improvements.  I’ve tried to group them into logically related units for sanity’s sake but you’ll notice some crossover themes.

Keeping Up With Change

Change is a fact of life, and many things have changed since the inception of some the best-known game conventions: technological capabilities, social attitudes, competition, economic conditions, for example.  When game conventions became popular in North America, fans kept in touch with each other through fanzines and mail, not Twitter and Google+, and programs were mimeographed or photocopied, not displayed on iPads and Android devices; competition from video games meant Pong or Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo.

Unfortunately, many conventions have been slow to adapt to change.  It’s hardly surprising: you set up something new, you develop a way to make it work, then you repeat what has been shown to work.  When change creeps up on you, it can be very hard to recognize, and even harder to mobilize the will and energy among volunteer organizers to react to it.

Game Sign-ups.  I’ve said it elsewhere, I’ll say it again: knowing in advance what games you successfully signed up for is a tremendous incentive for attendees, especially for people coming from far enough that they need to rent a hotel room and perhaps incur significant travel expenses.  It’s quite easy nowadays to manage, thanks to all the web access, database technology, etc. we have at our disposal; and it certainly is not any more difficult than managing a shuffle or lottery system.

Admittedly, one could argue that the very easiest approach is first-come, first-serve administered entirely through physical sign-up sheets at the convention.  In truth, it’s actually a good deal of work right at the convention when staff and volunteers have a lot of other things to do, but it’s low-tech and it may take care of your need to find tasks for volunteers.  But it does nothing to help your attendees plan ahead for their weekend.

The potential downside of events being so filled up in advance that last-minute attendees have little to do, can be taken care of by planning a solid Games on Demand section and a lot of drop-in events.  Besides, who should you prioritize for “client care”, the last minute drop-ins or the people who are willing to register months in advance if they have assurances of being in the games of their choice?

Buzz and Social Media.  Too many convention organizations are having a difficult time reaching potential attendees, getting out the word, and generally attracting attention.  Relying on your staff talking to their buddies in the regular weekly game just isn’t sufficient.  And you might think that means paying for expensive ads on buses, in trade magazines, or on tech websites, but that’s only a last resort.

Let’s face it, are you more likely to get interested in a convention because because you saw an ad, or because someone you know is going?  Social media let you plug into gamers’ own networks of contacts.  For my part, I’m far more interested in what my contacts say on Google+, Facebook, and game forums than in paid publicity.  Twitter updates reach a lot of people quickly and can be used during the convention itself to recruit gamers for specific events that are short a few players, etc.

But using social media does not mean setting up an account and posting three times a year; it means that your convention reps (the people who post under these accounts) have a continuous, frequent, constructive, visible presence pretty much throughout the year.  Naturally things will step up as the date of your event approach, but only if your “game face” is friendly, familiar and respected will it matter that you used social media.  In other words, you have to reach into the network of friends and become part of it, not just be some carnival barker shilling for an event.

Another frequent approach is to exchange publicity with other conventions.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but it addresses an already limited pool: the people who not only have the time, money and interest for one convention this year, but for two or more.  This may be a better way to recruit GMs than players.  It’s also fairly expensive if you’re sponsoring one person to attend the other convention, though it should remain a target of opportunity if you have a volunteer who was going to attend anyway.

Finally, don’t underestimate the usefulness of placing posters at all the game and comic book stores in your target area, and particularly in cities that are far enough that attendees will need to rent a room at the hotel.  In addition, some conventions have a program by which they supply discount coupons or even a few free passes to those store owners to distribute in their gamer community.

Web Presence.  Every convention nowadays has at least some kind of website, but many use it poorly.  If it looks like it belongs to the 1990s, if it’s difficult to find information, if links are frequently broken, and if doesn’t offer anything more that a paper ad would, you’re not using it to its potential.

Try thinking of all the reasons an attendee, GM or sponsor would go to your site and look for info.  Ask around for feedback.  Think of useful functionalities — not gadgets! — which could enhance the site, like online convention registration and game signups, a room- or ride-sharing billboard, apps to allow direct reposting to social media, the ability to sort through the list of games to find those you’re looking for, etc.

Competition.  New conventions are created, existing conventions change calendar dates from one year to the next, new hobbies become popular, and new types of games within your own hobby become hot items.  If you don’t keep up with this, you can find yourself being pushed to the margins; for example:

Game conventions who underestimated the nascent interest for collectible card games in the early-to-mid-1990s were hit hard when they allotted too little space for CCGs and too much space to other games, creating conflict among attendees.

Seattle conventions which did not pay attention to PAX on its first couple of years because they underestimated the overlap in attendees’ interest lost a golden opportunity to join forces and be the ones to organize tabletop games for the new behemoth.

Four-day weekends, especially Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, and Labour Day in the U.S., usually mean competing not only with other gaming conventions but with other geek-loved events like cosplay, science fiction & fantasy, or comic book conventions.

Conventions who became saturated with games like AD&D (in the 1990s)/d20 (in the 2000s) lost attendees to conventions which promoted more variety and newer RPGs; some conventions which suffered from this went under, aided by other factors of decline of course, and others have shrunk to a pale reflection of their earlier glory.

Aggressive, head-on competition means at best splitting the pool of potential attendees, and at worst alienating your fandom.  If you discover that your convention has new competition, consider whether you can join them rather than trying to beat them, by combining events for example, by adding new events that would address the new hobby or fad, by revamping existing events to reflect a new popular theme, etc.  If this is not applicable, consider whether you can sidestep the competition by changing weekend or venue.

Economic Conditions.  A number of convention organizers failed to recognize the impact of the 2008 collapse for long enough to suffer serious reversals.  Naturally, many were locked into multi-year contracts with hotels, but in my experience hotel managers were much more realistic and willing to renegotiate in order to save an event.  Several conventions which tried to do business as usual, to plan like in previous years as if this was some unpleasant but short-lived annoyance, were devastated by the lack of attendees and loss of income.

We don’t get a recession like that every year, but for your own sake, pay attentionDon’t discount bad news because you don’t like them.  Be business-savvy enough to understand what makes-or-breaks your convention financially.

Your People

Yes, it’s a cliché, but your organization is only as good as your people.There are three main kinds of people a convention depends on (besides the obvious, attendees): staff, volunteers, and game masters.

nicubunu_PeopleKey Staff. By “staff”, I mean the core of top-level organizers who are in for the duration, the ones who don’t merely have a certain number of hours to put in, but specific and usually comprehensive tasks to accomplish: convention director, board game coordination, vendor liaison, Website maintenance, operations manager, volunteer recruitment, etc.  The tasks and titles will vary depending on activities planned, of course.  It can be  very hard to get the right people in the right job.

One way to plan for good staffing is to make a list of the duties expected of each position and the resources available to support them.  This list should be re-examined before your next convention to see it still holds up.  Check whether some duties should be reassigned to a different position to make more sense.  Then see about matching persons with positions, thinking of the skills and characteristics required, for example:

  • Ability to communicate
  • Sense of organization
  • Love for a particular task or type of event (e.g., miniatures games, database management)
  • Availability to commit the time necessary
  • Contacts in the community
  • Willingness to work with team members
  • Ability to show initiative
  • Conflict resolution
  • Sense of responsibility

Keep Up with Assignments Delegated.  A parenthesis here to discuss follow-through.  Sometimes you get the right person for the right job, they take on an assignments, and then all hell breaks loose and they have to drop the convention tasks to concentrate on some real-life emergency.  Or the person misunderstands the assignment, is not as qualified as hoped, procrastinates, or a dozen different mishaps.

It’s not enough to delegate; there needs to be some progress updates to make sure everything is unfolding as expected or other actions are taken to adjust for change.  Most of the time, this happens at regularly schedule meetings conducted face-to-face or online, but sometimes a staffer is not available and has to provide progress reports via phone, email, etc.  Everyone has a busy life so things are going to be skipped or delayed every once in a while.

WarningBut if your staffer is consistently hard to reach and the rest of the staff has no idea what progress is being made on the task, your convention is in trouble.  You have to get some feedback; if the staffer is actively avoiding contact, that always means trouble.  Find somebody else to do the job if necessary, and give the new person as complete a picture as possible of what is needed and what has been done to date; or cancel an event if you have to rather than have it be a spectacular failure at the convention.

Get Help: Volunteers.  Volunteers are the people who agree to work a certain number of hours, usually at the convention proper, in order to get their registration fees comp’d or reimbursed. If you offer this opportunity as part of your convention policies, then it behoves you to actually provide tasks and hours for a reasonable number of volunteers.  But hours are not enough; you need to have staff to manage this: assigning tasks, checking that they are completed, explaining the assignments to volunteers, and serving as a point of contact.

jeronimo_dice_11GMs.  Game masters are the lifeblood of your convention.  You need enough games, early enough, and attractive enough that the rest of your attendees will register.  A common incentive for GMs is to reimburse or comp badge fees for people who run a certain number of hours of games.  Make your policies on that matter very clear and easily found on your Website.  For example: are costs comp’d up front or reimbursed after the fact?  If a GM shows up but does not get the players needed for the game, is this GM still eligible for the benefits?

Pay attention to GMs whose players are particularly pleased with the games; identify your “star” GMs.  Consider creating a special program or events to showcase GMs who consistently run very successful games.  At the very least, make sure to invite those GMs personally, not just through a form email, for your next convention.  Tell them why and what people loved about their game; everyone likes to know they’re doing something right.

Communicating

We gamers should be fantastic at communicating; after all, our hobby requires interaction with other people, clearly articulating and understanding rules, and sharing information with a certain level of verbal ability.  Unfortunately, we seem to be no better at it than anyone else!  We need to communicate, both in preparing the event and at the convention:

  • Among staff
  • With sponsors and dealers
  • With GMs
  • With prospective and registered attendees

When preparing the convention, you’re depending on other people to do something with the information you’re providing, and you need to do something with what they provide you.  It’s a piece of the greater puzzle.  Whether it’s about hotel negotiations, sponsor support, or who does what, the clarity, timeliness and accuracy of the information will impact its usefulness.  Bad or missing information can discourage people from attending, sponsors from contributing, and GMs from organizing events — all things you need to make the convention a success.

Thing of whether you’re sending one-way message or need back-and-forth exchange; and whether the information is simple and relatively unchanging, or complex and subject to many iterations.  Some of your tools include:

  • Phone
  • VoIP
  • Online chat
  • Meetings
  • Meeting minutes
  • E-mail
  • Website
  • Social media
  • Online forums
  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • Posters and fliers at speciality stores and at other conventions
  • Presence at in-store game events
  • Mailings
  • Press releases
  • Articles or interviews with local papers or community television
  • Paid ads

At the convention, communications consist primarily of you providing information on what events take place where and when, and of attendees asking questions about these or about particular issues like event registration, parking, facilities, fees, etc..  Try to think of the questions attendees would have if this is their very first convention. You also need coordination among staff and with volunteers, sponsors, dealers, and GMs.  Finally, you may want to collect feedback on the event, what people liked and what needs work.  Your tools include:

  • Convention program (printed or ebook)
  • Signs and posters
  • Billboard
  • Information counter
  • Social media, especially Twitter to direct people to events and last-minute changes
  • Cell phones or walkie-talkie to communicate among staff (check in advance what the reception is like on site)
  • Staff meetings
  • Feedback sessions
  • Survey forms
  • Suggestion box

Attendees-Friendly

Tabletop gaming is a hobby with a limited audience and role-playing even more so.  If the hobby is to survive, let alone expand, we need to open it to as many people as possible.  In this effort, I see game conventions as part of the ambassadorial team.  We need not only to reach potential attendees but also to make sure they will feel welcome and safe.

Children crossingAttracting Families and Younger Players.  Let’s face it, our hobby is ageing and young people are far more likely to turn to electronic games of all sorts than tabletop.  And yet, I believe there is amazing learning in tabletop games and particularly role-playing; interpersonal skills, verbal abilities, problem-solving, public speaking, creativity, map-reading, even history or geography.  And long-lasting friendships, interaction with a group of peers, entertainment, escape, challenges…

So not only do we need young gamers, we have something valuable to offer them.  In addition, offering something for kids to do at the convention increases the chances that families of gamers will show up together, which will also help raise attendance overall and women’s in particular.  Though I wish it was otherwise, I’ve had many opportunities to verify that among gamer couples who have children, women are more likely to stay at home or have only sporadic attendance at the con in order to take care of the kids.

But I’ve told recently of my experience with poor parent choices on child care at a convention; imagine all the things that could have gone wrong in this case: (A) tired and frazzled, I yell at the kids, or they decide to leave the game, and the parents sue the convention (and me) later; (B) I actually access to the mothers’ request and drop the boys off unsupervised in the lobby to wait; (C) one of them has an allergic reaction or other medical emergency and I don’t know how to react; and that’s without even bringing in nightmare scenarios of predators actually checking out conventions, as in an alleged case a friend later mentioned to me.

How do we make game conventions more family- and children-friendly in a safe, planned way?

Convention organizers should consider offering a safe space for age-appropriate games for kids, and spell out clearly what ages this means.  Have a supervisor or host for this room.  Articulate your policy on whether kids can be left there alone or whether a parent or guardian needs to be present at all times.  Have an emergency procedure in place for staff so they know how to deal with lost children or react when children are reported missing.  And if your policy is “no one under 18,” that’s fine too — just make it clear.

Consider also offering a family rate for convention badges.  Let’s face it, the bulk of most game conventions’ income comes from hotel room rental more than attendance fees.  If you lose twenty or thirty bucks on a family’s badge fees but encourage them to all attend together, you increase your chances that they will rent a room.

Encourage GMs to run kid- or family-oriented events by making it an official, visible game area or category on your game registration website.  Actively recruit and vet GMs who are known to accept young players or run kids’ events and have shown themselves to be reliable.

Adapted Access.  Although being disability-friendly is not limited to mobility issues, it’s a darn good place to start.  Did I just mention that our hobby is ageing?  It’s not infrequent for tabletop gamers to start having age-related mobility challenges — needing a cane, a wheelchair, etc.  We also have a lot of military veterans who may have suffered combat injuries.  Moreover, this is truly a hobby where reduced mobility should not at all affect how well you do at the game table and who can participate.

But if you are still untouched by the problem in your own person, have you ever tried to navigate a big hotel hosting a convention and tried to think like you need to count your steps or move your wheels?  Making it out of the parking garage and into the hotel, finding the ramps and elevators, then finding the game areas, moving through the busy corridors and cluttered game rooms, and so forth?

Try it.  You’ll be surprised to discover how even big modern hotels make it ridiculously difficult to get from point A to point B in a wheelchair or on crutches.  So I beg all convention organizers to consider, when they select a hotel and specific rooms, to have a thought for “How are we going to make sure everyone can move around safely and without disproportionate effort?”

But that’s only part of the challenge.  You also need to make sure your signage to direct to the game events is visible even from the corner elevator or ramp used by the disabled.  When I talked about better signage around the convention?  Pretend you’re in a wheelchair and think about your path and field of vision to get to registration and all game rooms — and then back.  Assume the hotel will have done a crappy job of indicating where adapted access is; it’s a pretty good bet anyway.

Spell out in writing your policy for adapted access and you’ll help not only the next edition of your convention but also all future editions have guidelines on what needs to be done and how.  Don’t leave it to the afterthought of some overworked, distracted, and probably able-bodied staffer of the future.

(I realize that other types of disabilities need consideration too, but I’m less familiar with them and I’d love for knowledgeable people to make suggestions of reasonable things convention organizers can do to improve their events in this respect.)

Written Policies.  Too many conventions have no written policies on important topics, or these policies are hard to find, incomplete, confusing (no pun intended), or obsolete.  Some people fear that establishing policies is trouble, and means inviting excessive policing, contrary behaviour, or having too many decisions to make.  This is not true; a well-written, easily-located policy protects and helps you (as staffers and organizers) in case of problems.  You tell your people how to react in a consistent, calm and reasoned way; you make it easier to follow safe protocols; you show due diligence and forethought, which is helpful in case of lawsuit; you let your attendees, volunteers and staff know that you have their back.

Here are some topics you should at least consider including in your policies:

  • volunteering and GMing requirements
  • children’s attendance and supervision
  • sexual and other harassment
  • adapted access for disabled persons
  • discrimination and hate speech
  • costumes involving real or simulated weapons, masks, or uniforms
  • medical and other emergencies
  • unruly or violent behaviour
  • alcohol

You may also have two sets of instructions resulting from your policies, one for staff and volunteers and one for attendees.  It’s not about turning your staff and volunteers into police officers and EMTs; for example, the policy for medical emergencies will probably look like:

Should a medical emergency arise, the closest staffer will designate a person, preferably another convention staffer or volunteer, to notify hotel security personnel immediately, then remain with the person suffering the emergency while waiting for assistance.  If the emergency appears life-threatening, the staffer will call 911 first.

A word about policies on harassment: this has been a hot topic in geekdom this year because an unfortunate number of conventions have no policies, weak policies, or simply don’t follow their own policies on harassment.  As a result, women’s attendance at such conventions is affected, as can be attendance of visible minorities, LGBT persons, etc.  This is not the way to make our tabletop hobbies more popular!  There are some resources and models available, and I will be happy to talk more about the matter.  In short, however: establish your policies, make them available, and apply them.

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