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8 lessons from Essen: A practical guide for exhibitors

Eight practical tips for first time exhbitiors at Spiel

As regular readers will know, I took Magnate to Essen last week. I am glad to say it was an absolute blast; even if it was also so tiring that I needed multiple early nights just to bring myself back to full human functioning.

Overall, I think we did a good job. We had a ton of email sign-ups, lots of reviewers visited the stand, and I handed out every flyer we had. But there were some things we could have done better. The following lessons come from my reflections on the most intense show of my life. If you are not already an “old hand” at this and intend to exhibit there someday, I hope you find them useful.

1) You CANNOT buy enough still water for your stand

You are going to need to buy more water than you ever thought possible. Constantly telling people about your game is thirsty work, especially in the dry atmosphere of a convention hall. You and your demo team (if you have one) will be getting through a bottle every 2-3 hours each easily to preserve your voice and keep yourselves sufficiently hydrated.

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While you could choose to buy bottles individually throughout the day, this will be a big time and money sink. What’s more, given the German people’s love for sparkling water, you are going to have search quite far to get the still variety, which I personally find goes to thirst more effectively.

It’s much better to stock-up on still water beforehand and plan how you will keep your stand’s water supplies topped-up throughout the show. Bear in mind that if you’re a first timer, it’s unlikely your stand will be big enough to store 4 days’ supply.

2) Flyers make a great engagement tool, and you will need A LOT of them

This could be my biggest regret of the show. After finding that 50 flyers was enough for 4 smaller shows combined, I figured that 500 had to be enough for Essen, even if it was a lot larger. How wrong I was.

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With potential language barriers, the number of stands on offer, and the speed people are moving around in the outer halls, it’s harder to casually engage people in conversation at this show than a smaller domestic affair. At Essen, flyers turned out to be a much more important tool than I had previously appreciated. We rapidly found that gently and silently handing a flyer to someone who looked vaguely interested was a very easy, non-confrontational way of engaging passers-by. As a result this became one of our main strategies on the stand. Consequently, before the end of the day 3, every single flyer was gone. We probably missed a fair few sign-ups on day 4 because of this.

Since they’re pretty cheap, it’s worth always making sure you have more than you need, accepting that the fate of all flyers is that some will never be given away.

3) Being prepared to communicate in German could really help

I can’t test this one for sure, but after the show I really regretted having no literature in German or demoers who spoke enough to demo the game, at least partly, in the language. The level of English in Germany is frankly amazing and it is a constant source of shame when compared with people’s engagement with other languages here in the UK (very much including me!). But fluency is far from universal and Spiel is not a pure industry tradeshow. It really is an egalitarian public event where the average punter is a board game enthusiast from Germany. These are not all internationally minded industry people where you could expect a high level of English to be very common.

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As a result of not being prepared for this, there were quite a few groups who simply couldn’t demo Magnate. There were others who couldn’t read our flyers or banners clearly. I am convinced the lack of German language materials was why I got quite a few  dirty looks at my banners. When triggered-looking, non-English speaking board game fans saw the M word, “Monopoly”, in the quote we had from Meeple Like Us they stared at it in revulsion. Not being able to read the full context, they didn’t see that the whole point of that quote (which gives a lot of people wry amusement, even if it is a risky word in anglophone board gaming) that the game is implicitly what you would want to play instead (assuming you have any interest in property or building as a theme).

Next time, I’ll be printing any flyers with German on one face and English on the other. Finding fluent German-speaking demoers is another matter, and a much bigger ask in general. If you’re a small anglophone publisher, I wouldn’t obsesses over this too much if you aren’t lucky enough to know someone.

4) Finding the right demoers and preparing them well is totally worth it

This is something we generally did really quite well. Based on previous experience playing demos, I have to say our team was way above average; at least as far as I’ve seen.  They were passionate, knowledgeable, engaging, and ‘infected’ players with their enthusiasm, leading to a very high conversion rate of sign-ups to our mailing list. Specific shout outs have to go to Tom, my good friend and earliest playtester of Magnate, Jaya, a huge board game fanatic who Tom introduced me to, and last but not least, David, who possessed an inhuman stamina to keep energy levels up even though he was also demoing for another company in his ‘breaks’ every single day! 

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We didn’t prepare everyone equally well though. If demoers don’t know a game, especially if it’s not a light game, it’s just harder for them to be good. This is true even when they’re otherwise experienced and demo other games very effectively. A lesson for me for next time is making sure that every demoer has played the game on multiple occasions, really understands the rules, and is taught exactly how to pitch it before they get to the table. This is one area that I think small companies have an implicit advantage. Because small companies are generally only promoting a very few titles (or even one, like me), it’s even more likely that your core team are passionate advocates for the specific game(s) already. With the right prep they can consistently perform at the highest level relative to much larger firms.

5)  Give yourself and your team a break

Spiel is an incredibly full-on experience. At its best it’s an electric atmosphere where the senses are overloaded but new delights are in every direction. There’s tons of interesting things around every corner, lots of brilliant people to chat to everywhere, and a sense of truly being among your kin. But these pleasures are themselves an incredibly tiring mix. It’s no surprise so many people come down with the dreaded “con crud” after the show;  the sheer intensity of the event and volume of people you meet is the perfect environment to get ill.

Personally, I am pretty sure I stayed on my stand a little too much. I was there pretty much the whole day, everyday. Constantly pitching and discussing your game for 9 hours a day is tiring. If it’s all you do throughout the event, you can feel a bit cheated – like you’ve missed out. Given I only got to demo one game other than my own, that’s how I felt this year, even if I did avoid getting ill.

It’s hard to resist because it is sadly true that someone you’d really like to meet (media person, friend from twitter, or a key supplier for instance) could drop by your stand at any moment, and if you aren’t there, you’ll miss them. But I think it’s still better to accept whatever will be will be and make sure you get at least a few hours away from the stand to enjoy yourself. After all, you will have likely spent a fair amount of money on the whole thing – so why not enjoy it? It’s also a good argument for making sure you have a big enough team that you have proper coverage when you walk away from the stand.

Taking breaks also goes for your team. I stuck with a system of having demoers only on half-days and I have to say that this worked very well. Everyone who wasn’t also volunteering for someone else got plenty of time to enjoy the con and kept their energy levels up throughout the demo; communicating the maximum passion to potential backers. To my mind this approach is simply the fair one on them. If these folk aren’t paid, then it’s really important they get their quid pro quo for their time: an opportunity to really enjoy the whole experience.

6) Get your logistics in order – work out where you will be and when

Once it’s more than just you and the game under your arm visiting a convention, you have actual logistics to contend with. How will you transport everyone to Essen? How will your team get to the venue? When will they arrive each day? How will you keep everyone fed and watered? What’s your plan for dismantling? All of these are questions you must have answers to.

This is something else we did pretty well, but there was room for improvement. To save costs we teamed up with the excellent East Street Games to hire a van and drive there – setting off early in the morning on the Tuesday before and driving through the night on the Sunday. That trip was tough but it saved an extra day of accommodation for (across both companies) a team of 8, adding up to a large savings. On convention days themselves we could also use the van to ferry people around. While not necessarily always quicker than the metro, it made morning transport relatively simple and ensured no one got lost or ended-up in the wrong place by taking the wrong U-bahn line. This is especially useful when you have people staying all over the city because you didn’t book your accommodations early enough (something else to do better).

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While the van was also very handy for shifting stuff on set-up and dismantling days, we probably could have gotten even more use out of it. Our approach to restocking food and water supplies was a bit haphazard, as was our original plan for driving around. Luckily a member of the East Street team, Trevor, was very happy to act as driver to sort us out most of the time, as opposed to doing much sightseeing or demoing. We lucked out here, but it’s wise not to rely on such luck. Really, we should have planned this out fully beforehand.

7) Have a slick sign-up process

Unless you already have product, your only KPI at the fair is going to be the number of email signups to your mailing list you get; either from people who just love the concept of your game(s) / are intrigued by its/their components, or the people you actually get to play a a demo. For a Kickstarter creator, this list is crucial. People who have given you consent to email them when your project launches will convert at a better rate than any other following you have. At the risk of teaching every single one of my readers to suck eggs, that means you really, really want as many people as possible to sign-up (always willingly!).

The best way to do this is just make it really, really easy. We used a tablet with good battery life and a really simple sign-up form from SignupAnyWhere to capture the addresses with the minimum friction: a clear place to type your email with a single button press to submit and local back-up on the device itself if the internet connection drops. For a stand with only two people pitching and two demoers at any one time, this one device was enough. Though with a team even a bit bigger, I’d be tempted to bring two.

Using paper sign-up sheets is a perfectly acceptable alternate method but suffers from two problems: someone has to type it up afterwards (yawn at the thought of it!) and you will lose some % of addresses due to mistypes of your potential backers’ emails.

I am in two minds if we should have collected other data too to provide more valuable, objective market data (gender, age range, etc.). But this gets complex quickly and is likely to make some people – quite reasonably – shy away from signing-up. My digital product instincts make me a bit wary of how much friction such data collection creates (especially in Germany, which has always been more privacy sensitive) so I will stick with the minimum data collection approach for now.

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One other way increase sign-ups is to incentivise them with something. We gave a free resin house to people who demoed the game; one for every unique email we received. People loved the little houses and they proved quite effective in encouraging the unsure to sign-up.

8) Don’t stress if you don’t end up meeting everyone you planned to

One of the best things about the last year has been the number of people in the board game space I’ve met through social media; especially twitter. My experience of the board game community so far has been amazing. I am so impressed at just how nice and supportive the vast majority of people are even to the point of significant self sacrifice. There are plenty of people I have fun chatting to quite regardless of anything to do with my game, or even games in general!

What this also means is that there were a ton of people I was really keen to meet in person at the fair. Social media can be a great way to meet people, but nothing replaces a face-to-face interaction. I am glad to say I succeeded in meeting many of those people, but there were just as many I did not get a chance to meet. So often they’re also busy on stands, demoing, and the like. And with the cavernous scale of the convention centre, the chance of randomly bumping into people is low.

The best solution is to schedule meetings, of course. But for all the same reasons as above, this isn’t always too practical either. Everyone wants to stay flexible, especially if you need to be glued to your own stand for most of the day.

Ultimately, you can only try to say hello to whoever you can and promote your stand number clearly and sufficiently so people can find you. Personally, I could have done better in this regard. There were a few faces I didn’t go up to even though I had the chance because I was worried about bothering them while they were trying to enjoy the show. That’s a legitimate concern. Even the biggest names want some space to just enjoy it without constantly chatting to random people like me. But on reflection, sometimes I think I played that a bit too cautiously. Again, people in this space are very friendly!

The best thing to do in the end is accept you won’t meet everyone you planned to and remember that if you plan to make a habit of this, there will be lots of other chances to say hello.

On the upside though, you might also make many connections you didn’t expect. I made way more new and interesting contacts on the supplier side and in German language media than I thought I would going into the fair. Some of those people might turn out to be critical people to get to know.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for another in-depth post. I like your recommendations. It’s good to know these things. By the way, if you ever need anything translating into German, please let me know. I’m a native German speaker, so should be able to help you.

    Liked by 1 person

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