Thoughts from UK Games Expo 2019

I’m a bit of a grizzled veteran when it comes to game conventions. For the past five years or so, I’ve been visiting events in my capacity as a journalist, checking out big new releases, pestering game designers for interviews and spending entire weekends subsisting on coffee and snack foods.

This past weekend was different. The 2019 UK Games Expo was my first experience of being on “the other side of the booth.” I went down to Birmingham with my wife, Andrea, to sell copies of The Board Game Book, a hardback annual for the hobby which I Kickstarter last year and produced along with my co-authors Matt Thrower, Teri Litorco and Richard Jansen-Parkes.

To cut a long story short, we did incredibly well. We sold our entire stock of books mid-way through the weekend. We met many of our Kickstarter backers face-to-face. We made some great new contacts and caught up with folks we already know in the industry. And with our entire stock gone by Saturday afternoon, we even found time to wander around and play some games!

Reflecting on the event, I’m really pleased with how things went. I think we did some things very well, and there are other aspects I’d like to improve next year.

What we got right

  • Keeping it small

For our first attempt at exhibiting at a convention, we decided to go for the smallest possible booth size. Obviously this helped to keep our costs down, but it turned out to also have some benefits we hadn’t considered. It made it very easy to keep an eye on exactly what was happening on our stall, even when things got busy. The result was that we had zero thefts over the course of the weekend. Obviously the people who would steal from exhibitors are a tiny minority of attendees, but people do have cash or stock stolen at cons.

  • Actively drawing people to our stand

We decided before the show that we were going to try hard to engage people as they passed our position — making eye contact, greeting folks as they walked by, holding out copies of the book and inviting them to take a look at it. It worked very well for us, and we made a sizeable number of sales to folks who wouldn’t otherwise have stopped to check us out.

  • Having a prepared pitch

Before the expo, we worked on a standard pitch for customers, explaining the concept behind the book and why folks might want to buy it. We made it as succinct as possible, about 20 or 30 seconds, with some points to move on to if people were still listening. Being able to clearly explain the product was a great help, and the brevity meant that if folks weren’t interested, we weren’t wasting time trying to persuade them.

  • Taking card payments

50% of our sales were paid by card. It’s trivially easy to accept card payments with a smartphone app and wireless card reader. There’s no reason at all that everyone shouldn’t be doing it.

  • Hitting the press preview

The Thursday night press event was a great chance to talk to some bloggers before things got hectic at the show proper. We were able to have some more detailed conversations about the book, which wouldn’t have been possible while we were actually making sales.

  • Bringing someone with retail experience

My wife previously worked in retail selling expensive lingerie. That might seem a million miles removed from books about gaming, but if you’re able to have IRL conversations with people about their underpants, everything after that is easy. She’s also naturally outgoing and great at striking up a rapport with whoever she speaks to, and we wouldn’t have done half as well without her on the stand.

  • Letting people collect after paying

A lot of people expressed an interest in the book, but said that they didn’t want to carry it around and would come back to buy one at the end of the day. Some did, some didn’t. Eventually we decided that if folks wanted, we would take their payment and set aside a book with their name on it to collect later on. It removed the risk of them changing their mind or forgetting about us, and I think it really boosted our sales. We’ll definitely be doing it next year.

What we got wrong

  • Not promoting our stand ahead of time

In the weeks running up to the expo, we were working flat out on print production and Kickstarter fulfilment. This meant we didn’t speak to many bloggers ahead of the event. It didn’t hurt us too badly, as we still sold all of our stock, but it’s something I’m keen to improve on for 2020.

  • Not bringing enough books

It was very hard to judge how many boxes of books we should bring to the event. No one has ever published a product like this before, and there was no way to tell what kind of demand there would be. We were actually worried that we might be left with a lot of stock to transport back to the warehouse in Scotland. But we sold it all by Saturday afternoon, and I think we could easily have shifted at least 50% more. We’ll definitely arrange for extra stock next year.

  • Not having a proper media pack

We ended up chatting to a few international distributors at the stall. It would have been nice to have had a little folder with some material about the book and our future plans for the series for them to take away with them.

Random thoughts

  • The UK Games Expo is a seriously huge event, and the organisers and staff clearly put a huge amount of work into ensuring it runs smoothly. From the load-in to the breakdown, we didn’t encounter any significant problems.
  • As many people know, there was an incident in an RPG game where a GM sprung some completely inappropriate content involving sexual violence on an unsuspecting group of players. It seems like the organisers responded quickly and appropriately, cancelling his future games and kicking him out of the venue. I just hope that this one person doesn’t cast a shadow on the event.
  • And finally, while I’m obviously delighted that the event was a commercial success for us, I’m even more pleased at the reaction we had to the book. I’ve put a year of my life into this project and worked harder on it than on anything I’ve ever done before. As many folks know, I had a bit of a turbulent time while working on it. When you put so much of yourself into a project, it’s massively nerve-wracking waiting to see how it’s received. But the enthusiasm and support people have shown for the book has been absolutely incredible. From the Kickstarter backers who supported it in the earliest days to the sponsors who got behind the project, the designers who generously gave their time for interviews and the UKGE attendees who said so many wonderful things about the finished product, it’s really lifted me up to know that people like what we’ve done.

Anyway, I’d better stop rambling at this point. Volume 2 isn’t going to write itself!