Tuesday, 7 February 2012

On January 28th 2012 I ran my own convention, Gamma Con.

It was a really good day and went a whole lot better than I expected. I expected about 40 people through the door and got near 70, and I had local games designers and a gaming store set up and sell and demo games. I even had a little support from Cubicle 7 and we helped raise money for Help for Heroes. Everyone seemed to have fun and the day went by pretty quickly for me..

I learned quite a lot from the experience. First and foremost, organising a convention is a difficult exercise but when things fall into place it can be very rewarding. There are all kinds of levels of stress, don’t get me wrong; when a GM calls you up to let you know that he’s not coming to run his sci-fi game five minutes after the doors have opened to the public, that’s stressful. When you get to the venue and realise that your table plan has been scuppered due to incorrect measurements, that’s stressful. But these moments are fleeting and you’ll be glad when supportive fellow gamers help out. People aren’t going to stand there and let you run around like a headless chicken whilst shaking their heads with disgust as you try and sort out the problem. They’re going to muck in and help shift tables, make suggestions. It all works out and, even though there was some last minute jumping around, the room was ready and the doors opened on time. Everyone was understanding and helpful. It was my first convention, there were bound to be some teething problems.

It was the build-up to the convention that was the hard work. My wife Lisa and I started in earnest last August and kicked the whole thing off by viewing the local venues and comparing costs. This was a bit of a tricky moment; the closer the venue was to the city centre and areas of public transport the more expensive it was, and the places we found further out were indeed cheaper but much more difficult to get to. As a first convention it’s a difficult choice to make as we could spend hundreds of pounds on a top-notch location and find that hardly anyone attends. We weren’t in this to make profit, but then I didn’t fancy paying for this out of my own pocket.
In the end we were very lucky. We found a church hall two minutes’ walk from the city centre and one minute’s walk from both the train station and the bus station, and there was ample car parks right on the doorstep. It was almost perfect. It was a great location and at a decent price, but a little smaller than I wanted.

There was also the problem with clashing with other conventions. I had made sure that I wasn’t clashing with any other small conventions or events in the area but, due to the fact that I could only get the hall on one particular weekend, I couldn’t help but clash with a big convention that was being held in the south of England. What was on my side was the fact that I was catering not only to RPGs but also to wargames, cardgames and boardgames. The convention in the south was primarily RPGs, so as far as I was concerned I was okay.

Then I began to send out the first notifications that I was putting on a convention. Local gaming groups, clubs and stores were informed and I invited gaming stores to come and show their wares. I never expected the stores to be too keen as it was a first convention and it may not have been worth their while. This initial notification was to start a buzz, send the word around the local gaming community. It was at this point that I realised that the gaming community was a hell of a lot larger than I realised! There were plenty of people interested and, even though some of them never turned up on the day, they were very keen and that no doubt helped put the word around.

The intention here was word of mouth, the news that there was a gaming convention on spreading from group to group, club to club. I posted on their message boards, sent messages to the webmasters, made sure they had links to the websites I needed them to look at, primarily the Gamma Con website that Lisa had built and the Facebook event page where they could get updates on the convention. After contacting Dave McAlister at UK Roleplayers I got my own message forum and entry onto the convention calendar. Then, I contacted Andy Hopwood and Kyle Daniel, two guys I had met in my shop days, and invited them to demo their games, which they accepted. Then I contacted the local gaming stores and, surprisingly, was turned down by one (after a long time of indecision), ignored by three others and had my invitation accepted by only one, Spirit Games of Burton-on-Trent. I was a little surprised at this as, with the economy as it is, the first thing I thought shops would need is exposure. For anyone demoing and selling their wares there was a small table hire fee.

Next, I needed to make sure that attendees would have something to play on the day. I managed to secure four GMs to run games (one of which cancelled before the event, the other cancelled on the day) and two local wargaming groups agreed to come on the day and set up tables. Anyone bringing these huge fold-out terrain tables was granted free admission on the proviso that they allowed other gamers and members of the public to game on their table. In this regard my thanks go out to Ed for his huge Warhammer 40K tables, Dragon Art Models for their table and Chase Wargamers for their Flames of War table. I also made sure there were a couple of smaller tables available for spur-of-the-moment games, and that was the hall pretty much set up.

Now that I had an idea of what was going to be there I then decided on a price of entry. I settled on £3.00 as it was low enough to be small change as any higher may have made the attendees feel that they weren’t getting their money’s worth. I just needed enough to cover the hall and event insurance costs, and with the trader’s table hire covering a third of that cost already I just needed a decent turnout to cover the rest. Regardless, I made sure I had enough personal money to cover the costs in the event that something went wrong or the day failed miserably. It would have pained me to pay out of my own pocket, but that’s the risk you take.

With three months to go I began the advertising. A4 posters, A5 flyers, all very cheaply done; I formatted it all on my home PC and printed them out at work and my local library, so paid virtually nothing for it. I posted the flyers and a couple of copies of the posters to local stores, schools, colleges and the library. Then I canvassed the local shops and my poster appeared in the windows of cafes, newsagents, supermarkets and even my local hairdressers. With permission I left small piles of flyers in pubs and coffee shops. I then got in touch with the local paper and, as the event was helping to raise money for the charity Help for Heroes, I got a free write-up. I hassled the primary RPG publishers in the country and got some support from Cubicle 7 in the form of a free adventure for me to run for Starblazer Adventures (which, sadly, the sci-fi GM was going to have a look at but never turned up), and I got a copy of Starblazer Adventures to raffle off for the charity. Jedi News were also on hand to rent a table and push their website and some RPG and collectible goodies and gave us some publicity, and Mark took care of the Help for Heroes requirements.

For all their efforts, everyone trading or contributing had free exposure on our website, Facebook event page and were included on message board updates. This meant that their table hire fee also paid for roughly three months of free advertising across the internet. That was a pretty good deal for them.

Over the weeks and months leading up to the convention Lisa and I simply made sure that Gamma Con’s profile was kept up. Message board and Facebook updates, messages to potential attendees, answering queries and concerns quickly and efficiently. Throughout all of this I was still only expecting around 40 attendees.

It was great to see our Gamma Con posters up in shop windows, and see our name crop up on websites. There was some concern about us clashing with the convention in the South, and this was pointed out to me on our UK Roleplayers message board which, to be honest, I felt was a little unfair. The other convention was an established multi-day event that catered for roleplayers and our event was for all kinds of gamers and as a very small and very new convention there was no way we were going to compete or even affect a show on the other side of the country. I didn’t choose the date on purpose, it wasn’t a choice but a lack of options. Regardless, this is something for me to bear in mind in the future when I arrange the next one.
On top of all this we bought extras and supplies; an 8 foot by 2 foot GAMMA CON banner to go up outside the building, some sticky paper wristbands for attendees to get in and out, paper, pens and pencils, and bumbags for the money taken on the door.

The closer I got to the date the more I pushed the event, conscious of the fact that I only had a few weeks left to get the advertising in. In the last week I had a lot of messages from potential attendees and people wanting to bring their games and represent their clubs. During this last week I secured another gaming table from another local wargaming club and a GM offered his services to playtest his own game. I also received a couple of cancellations, which was a worry, and then a few messages of apology and regret for not being able to attend. It was at this point, the last week before the event, that I started to get worried. With a few days to go I made sure the traders were aware of arrival times, setting up and everything else they might need to get them through the day.

The day before Gamma Con I got the keys to the hall from the church, made sure I was fully aware of fire exits, light switches and alarms, and tried to get an early night.

We were up very early the next day. My mate Andy picked me up at 8:30 so that we could transport the gear and we got to the venue nice and early. The first traders turned up at 09:00 and we began to set up and it was then the first problem reared its head. I had measured the tables for the traders and decided on how the tables were to be set up in the hall. Unfortunately, the measurements supplied to me were incorrect so the venue wasn’t as long as it appeared on paper. With some quick changes, some help from the traders and some creative positioning we were set to go.

The doors opened at 10:00 and, five minutes later, the second problem manifested. I received a phone call from the GM who had agreed to run a sci-fi game telling me he couldn’t make it as something had come up. There was no other explanation other than that and there was nothing I could do so instead of dwelling on it I just let it go and declared the table I had earmarked for him as free to use. This turned out to be a good call and quite a few gamers used the table for a multitude of games.

The attendees arrived. In fact, a lot of attendees. It was a mixture of ages and as the day went on they would casually come and go. Going by takings at the door there were at least 65 people who attended on the day and one of the GMs said that he was sure there were more. In the end we made enough money to cover all our expenses and had some left over to sink into the next convention.

The games went well. The arranged RPGs were enjoyed and then any straggling players set up their own games. The demos were popular, the wargaming tables were always attended. There were a couple of people whose table was sometimes empty but I had to remember that I could point newly arriving attendees to certain tables – I spent most of my time on the door - but couldn’t make them take part in anything. I just had to realise that there were certain things that were out of my control.

Other than that the day went really well. The atmosphere was good, people had fun, the games flowed and the community came together just as I had wanted it to. I chatted with plenty of people and got to know new gamers, I met up with people I’d not seen in a long time, and helped introduce new blood to the hobby. The winner of the Starblazer Adventures book was very pleased with his prize, and on every table there were games, both organised and improvised, and people having fun. It was somewhat sad when the day ended at 17:00, but everyone went away happy and some went to the pub to carry on gaming. By 20:00 I was in the pub myself for an after-show celebratory drink.

What did I take away from all this? What did I learn?

- Organising a convention location and date is pretty easy but the hard work is convincing people that they want to be there.
- You can’t plan for everything and constant improvisation is the norm.
- Working on a convention for the better part of four months takes a lot of time and sometimes you may feel that your life is being dominated by it, but it is worth it.
- No matter what people tell you, organising this kind of thing is a lot of hard work.
- Only plan for what you can foresee.
- Checklists rule!
- There’s no such thing as too much advertising.
- Don’t do it all alone, have someone alongside you to help and advise. In my case I had my wonderful wife Lisa to help me through it all.
- That given enough attention and work, organising and hosting a successful convention can be the most rewarding and fulfilling thing you can do for the gaming community.

I’ve had plenty of messages thanking us, praising the day and hoping for another one, alongside messages from people regretting they couldn’t make it now that they’ve read the feedback, and hoping we’ll do another one.

And do you know what?

I think we will.

Thanks to: Lisa, Andy, Andy, Daniel, Ed, Mark, Jason, Phil, and everyone who took part and enjoyed the day.