Shoestring Cons in detail
Updated: Jun 15
I’ve written before about having a convention presence for a low entry price, and I’ve been asked once or twice for more details and specifics, so here are a few.
First of all, there are two ways of having a convention presence, you can spend money or you can spend time. There is no option for doing it with both a low input of time and cash. I recently outlined to another creator how to have a convention presence by the input of time rather than money and was met with the response that they could just go to work, earn money and spend that money on advertising for the same effect. There are a few issues with this, one is that the sort of organic marketing that comes out of conventions is much more effective than low level advertising for a starting independent. Generally, advertising is much more effective when it has a high recognition level and attracts viewers to a wide range of options. An advert that attracts a user to the Fantasy Flight website then has a hundred game options to sell them, one that attracts a user to small independent website usually has all of one. Additionally, it is highly unlikely that the form of advertising that most people could afford with their spare income from a single day of work would achieve the level of conversion that a convention attendance is capable of. The face to face environment of a convention tends to have a huge conversion percentage, online adverts a tiny one.
It is worth having a convention presence, the smaller you are the more worthwhile it is vs advertising. To do so on a shoestring will require an investment of time, but there are few things that will pay that investment back to the same degree.
That’s for One Man Gang rather than Oh My God by the way. The first thing you’ll need to accept if you’re trying to do conventions cheaply is that it means you will at some point be doing them alone. That means making your peace with two things, namely that you might be nervous and you will be bored. Extra people generally means extra cost, most conventions will give you two tickets with an exhibitor stand, but not all, and at the very least you should offer to cover the food, travel and accommodation for any assistants. For two or three people this can be done in such a way that it doesn’t raise your prices, but to justify the effort you need the booth space to run your game two or three at a time, and that will cost more.
To turn up one handed to a convention will take confidence, and at some point you will be staring into the distance with nothing to do and no-one to talk to. There are ways you can make that experience easier, but accept that it will happen at some point.
Travel and Accommodation
By far the biggest price for most conventions is accommodation, so start finding ways to cut down on that early. I’m lucky in that I live in England and my wife’s family lives a few hours from us, between two homes then I cover a lot of the country with a 90-minute drive. Find the locations of friends and relations that will let you crash on their floor for a couple of nights, plot out reasonable driving distances around them and base your convention attendance on that. Don’t book a convention that will require a weekend long stay in a hotel, even if it’s a big convention, be strict with yourself, there’s no point having a massive convention presence if its causing you to lose money every time.
For travel, we all want to attend Gen-Con and Essen, because that’s what the big boys do, but doing so doesn’t make you a big boy and almost certainly doesn’t make it a good idea. If you get on a plane to attend a convention you’re making a huge commitment and you need to know exactly what you’re getting from that convention down to the letter, penny and cent. If its something you do vaguely to raise awareness for a cost you write-off, its probably a bad idea. A 6 AM start for an 8 AM set-up gives you 2 hours of travel time, for me that’s about £40 in fuel round-trip, if you consider yourself to be anywhere up to a small publisher or under that's about the upper limit of what you should be happy to spend on just travel and accommodation.
The smaller and more local a convention is, the cheaper it will be. There is a minor split here between boardgame conventions and tabletop miniatures conventions. Tabletop miniature conventions have a tradition of clubs turning up to run participation or demo games and will generally give you a table without sales for free. Smaller boardgame conventions will generally offer a space for around ticket price, as footfall climbs so does price and if you want to officially make sales the price will climb also. This is a tricky point since most cons that charge you for sales do so because traders are charged at a certain rate and they (quite reasonably) don’t want to be undercut by people demoing and selling. I know at least one con where unscrupulous traders took advantage of the selling from demo tables principle by simply setting up trading stalls on demo tables. Traders expect to take a relatively large amount of money at conventions and their tickets are priced accordingly, but they will have a wide range of the most popular games; if you find yourself paying the same ticket price with only one game that you're having to inform people about while trying to sell it to them you are almost certain to lose significant amounts of money.
So, spend some time researching your local conventions, find ones put on by local clubs and enthusiasts in school halls and community centres. In the UK miniature wargames and tabletop games magazines carry a page listing the coming two months or so of events, this is usually too late to book to attend, but is a useful resource for next year. Facebook, Boardgame Geek and being involved in your local gaming scene will usually allow you to track down these events. When you’re at local conventions talk to convention goers about what other cons they enjoy, a large percentage of attendees and a larger percentage of exhibitors will be attending all cons in a given area and can be invaluable for finding them.
Hitching a Ride
Most big game companies are looking for people to demo their games at conventions for them and plenty of smaller ones are too. Being at a convention will help you to make contacts and will help you feel more comfortable and confident when its time to go it alone no matter what. The bigger the company that you attend under the umbrella of the stricter they’ll be about self-promotion, but however serious they are they’ll generally let you wander around handing out your card and getting people on your mailing list during your breaks (at least if you take off their T-shirt). A smaller company will probably let you pile up leaflets on the stall and talk to people about your game so long as you’re fairly reasonable about it. This is the lowest costs, lowest risk and highest time investment way of having a convention presence. While doing it as your only manner of attending conventions is unlikely to be a permanent solution, maintaining a solid relationship with a larger company can provide you with the means to attend a convention you might not be able to justify the price of otherwise. In the end, if there is a weekend when a company offers you a chance to attend a major convention on their dime when you would otherwise be doing nothing to advance your project it can remain an excellent option, however successful you become.
Size isn’t everything
Most conventions come with a minimum stand size and some of the larger cons offer a range of prices depending on the location of your stand. It is easy to assume that the larger the stand and the better the position the more likely you are to cover your costs, but that assumption genuinely doesn’t follow. The larger your stand, the more likely it is to look empty and the more likely it is to be partially empty. If you have a stand that is larger than the minimum and it regularly spends large periods of time partially empty, consider reducing it. Now, almost every stand will spend some time empty at most conventions, which is fine if you’re paying the absolute minimum price for the privilege, but not if you aren’t.
Count the pennies
There are a number of little things you can do to reduce your budget, consider bringing your own food and drink, check out your parking options (a bad parking choice at a convention in a large city can easily double your spending) and look after the pennies so the pounds look after themselves.
Hopefully that more detailed examination has answered any questions about saving money at cons, but if there’s anything you’re wondering, please ask. Have you found any tricks for cutting costs at conventions?