Running Cons 2: Money Matters and Specific UK Cons
Updated: Jan 21
In my last blog on conventioneering I mentioned the idea of generating profit from cons fairly casually and I’d like to be a bit more specific here. Also, I thought it might be generally helpful to review some cons and suggest their usefulness for designers promoting their own game.
I’ve seen it suggested that people should only consider a con successful if they made £x from it. Right off, that can’t be true, whatever x is. If you’re a trader that number is one thing, a designer its another, if you’re selling £10 party games from a tiny booth its different from if you’re presenting a £100 game on a massive stall. So, here’s what I think you should do to judge your success at a con, it’s a two step process and assumes you’re a designer or self-promotor of some kind rather than a trader or working for a larger business.
Step One – Decide what level you’re at ...
And so what the con is worth to you. There are three levels where you should be considering exhibiting as a designer, before these levels when you’re still designing attend the hell out of conventions anyway to see people who attend and network, but don’t consider exhibiting.
You’ve got a playable version of the game either handmade or from a print on demand service, a fistful of leaflets and you want to show off your game so people have heard of it or maybe get some playtests run of it.
How much is it worth – Well, kind of nothing. Not because its worthless because its certainly not, but its available free. There is almost certainly a convention within a reasonable travel distance of where you live that will give you a free table to do this (If you’re in the UK I know for a fact there’s one within about an hour and a half drive of where you live). Even at UK Games Expo there is a fantastic playtesting zone run by the guys from Playtest UK that you can get a table at. If you’re at this stage don’t hand over money for a booth, get out and attend conventions but only free ones. Make sure you do go to conventions at this stage to get some practice in presenting yourself and your game on a small crowd.
During the Kickstarter –
Conventional wisdom has been that no-one backs during conventions. I think that used to be true maybe just a couple of years ago, but my experience now is that they do. I’ve personally had people stand at my booth and back live in front of me. The reason I think in the shift is that people used to come to cons with the money they had set aside to spend and only spent that money, so they wouldn’t back because they couldn’t do it with cash. These days most independent exhibitors takes Pay Pal, so a certain amount of convention goers put aside a certain amount of money to spend from their phone and it could be Pay Pal or it could be on Kickstarter. It still doesn’t happen a huge amount, at UK Games Expo (The biggest 3-day event in the UK) while on a stand with Gaslands which was winning double awards at that event I got maybe three or four people to back SSO live. Clearly more people would have seen it and backed later so we can probably say about ten to twenty backers.
How much is it worth – Depends on your pledge level. You should already be known from free conventions by this point and getting face time is easier to do at free conventions anyway. Also, if you make £100 in pledges that’s not £100 profit if the stall was £50. I’d suggest that during a Kickstarter campaign if ten times your pledge level is double the outlay for exhibiting you could consider paying for a stall.
Product in hand –
Post Kickstarter or being published, you’ve got some stock to sell.
How much is it worth – Again, depends on what your game costs but at a convention where you’re paying for a stall you should expect to sell one or two copies of a game each day at mid conventions and four or five at large (you should do better, but you can fairly reliably expect at least that). If doing that will mean you break even on your costs over the convention then you should consider paying for a stall. Bigger stall and more advertising and volunteers will increase those sales, but have to pay for themselves in return.
Step Two – Figure out if you got it right.
The logic here is that the exposure, face time with the public and rest of the industry and advertising that a convention provides is worth something, but can be gotten free from many conventions, especially if you agree to run games or help on other stalls. So, if you lose money on your ticket, you just paid for all of that exposure and you can count the convention as neutral, if you break even then its good because you got all of that free, if you make money then you had a great convention. But breaking even just puts you in the same essential position at a paid convention as you would have been at a free one, losing money puts you in a worse position and you have to figure out how much the exposure at a paid convention is worth to you, because if your cost is greater than that worth you had a bad convention. It feels good to be at a paid convention, you talk to lots of people and feel like you’re making it, and you’ll take a lot of money which also feels good, but don’t let that good feeling blind you to the fact that as someone trying to run a business its possible to have a bad convention. Personally, I have never lost money on a convention, I have always (up to this point) broken even or better. I assume I’ll lose money at some point because everyone has bad days however, if you are consistently losing a lot of money at conventions, I would strongly suggest you modulate your presence accordingly. The exposure is great, but it’s not actually priceless, it has an upper limit of what it will bring in and it is possible to overpay for it. Look at your stall size and consider attending more small conventions instead of fewer big ones.
The short lesson I’m trying to impart here is that free conventions exist, they’re run by passionate people who need attendants to support them and mean its practically impossible to have a bad convention. You might feel more important with a big stall at a big convention but that ego trip might be both bad for you and bad for the hobby as a whole because small cons die every year. That said, here’s a list of some conventions, all UK based so you can stop reading here if that’s no use to you.
These are just some I’ve attended, the nature of life for small cons is generally glorious but short, so every one of these might be cancelled by the time you read this, but much of the advice carries for all of them. They are almost uniformly run by passionate friendly people and leave you with quite literally nothing to lose, support your local small conventions!
Bones Con – Three day event miniatures convention in Guildford. This one has been bouncing about between locations, styles and sizes. For the last few years it was growing but last year it shrunk so we’ll see what the future brings for it. Originally known as Smog Con it holds a lot of good sized tournaments, not a lot of trading last year so people weren’t turning up with money to spend but if you have a miniatures game to exhibit you’ll get lots of testing and interest.
Campaign – Two day event miniatures convention. Held in the MK Centre in Milton Keynes this event always has a huge amount of foot fall and generally good hobby attendance. Since the Centre is (as I understand it) a community space exhibiting is free here if you’re running participation games, its run by a friendly and professional group. For a large open space I’ve not been aware of any security issues of any kind (I know saying that only here looks odd, but it is a two day event where you will be leaving your stock in the middle of a public area, so its worth saying). Tournaments are run throughout the weekend, making certain of a good number of hobby attendants and a solid trader showing is always in force along with a good number of participation and demonstration games.
ColCon – Four day event boardgames convention run in Colchester, although at the time of writing the person who runs it is moving so it might not be there in the near future. Small hotel convention with very friendly feel to it that I’ve personally recommended to starting designers, ticket price for a table to exhibit on, convention includes a bring and buy stall, playtest zone, competitions and games library.
HandyCon – Two day event boardgames convention run bi-annually by the guys from Playtest UK in Maidenhead. Again, a small hotel convention with friendly and very professional crew running it. Ticket price should buy you a table to exhibit on the convention includes some trading, a bring and buy room, games library and contests. If you’re starting out its worth getting in touch with these guys (www.playtest.co.uk) because they run events at a whole bunch of conventions, best of all if you’re not a great self-promoter the playtest UK guys will herd (in the nicest way possible) people to your table because they are great and outgoing promoters (its essentially what they do). Its possible to sit at smaller events with no one looking at you twice, in a Playtest UK event you can be certain that at least that won’t happen.
UnCon – Two day event mixed convention in Broadstairs. Currently on pause until something can be worked out UnCon is the biggest small convention around, held in a school hall (a big one) it has a games library, bring and buy stall, a reasonably large amount of trading and a huge number and range of events. Always has quite a few designers but this small con really brings together the whole range of the hobby in one place more than any other con of its size, it has cos-play, VR rooms, escape rooms, TCGs, miniature gaming, board gaming, live events, pretty much the whole bag. You can get a table to exhibit for a ticket price or if you attend regularly enough and give something back even for free.
These are the ones that will ask for a trader price ticket but aren’t up with the big boys. A good interim solution, or something to keep your face out there while between projects.
Broadside – One day event mixed but leaning heavily towards miniatures in Sittingbourne. Lots of traders so exhibiting does make you stand out. Run in a sports hall the high quality of traders here pulls in a pretty high footfall for the size of the event so you should make back your ticket price for a table with trade if you have anything miniatures related.
Tabletop Gaming Live – Two day event mixed but leaning a bit towards boardgaming in London’s Alexandra Palace. Wants to be a much bigger event than it actually is at the moment which has put off quite a few traders and exhibitors so although the event is booked up for a few years ahead its future is not certain long term but is going to be around short to medium term.
The big boys, unless you can get in on someone else’s ticket best avoided until you physically have something to sell or you can end up running up significant costs. Also they have significantly more administration and organization and will require earlier communication and booking.
Salute – One day miniatures event in London. Salute has a massive attendance of people looking to spend a significant amount of money on their hobby. If you have enough stock of miniatures related products its almost inconceivable that you won’t make a serious chunk of cash here. It also has demonstration and participation tables which you can make sales from. You’ll need to book up almost a year ahead of time and when parking and unloading although things are well organized if you don’t have your paperwork with you at all points you will end up in an Orwellian nightmare.
Dragonmeet – One day RPG event in London. Many designers and playtesters attend to both show and sell their games and a handful of sales is well within the reach of anyone with products to sell. Not as well organized as Salute or UKGE but it has a large traders area and halls for boardgames.
UK Games Expo – Three day event in Birmingham (with fourth half day of pre-events). The industry big boy, more leaning towards boardgames but everything is present. Tickets are the most expensive around but the event is extremely well organized and put together and while sales are not as certain as at Salute the chance to gain contacts and exposure are second to none. Of course, the ticket covering the whole three and a bit days makes it good value even at its higher cost. A decent product should still sell well enough to cover the stand cost, which is lower for first time exhibitors. They’re willing to arrange reduced price stalls if you’re willing to take what you’re given and you contact them early.