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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Trade Shows: Dagobah Caves for Retailers

The Desert Sky Games and Comics executive group is in attendance this week in Las Vegas at the 2016 Game Manufacturers Association Trade Show.  Of course, I am writing the article in advance from home, so my observations on the show will follow my return in next week's article.  This week I am writing on the GAMA Trade Show and the industry open house and trade show circuit overall.
The GAMA Trade Show is the largest professional (non-consumer) annual show for the hobby game industry.  It occurs in mid-March every year in Nevada; until 2017 in Las Vegas, and in 2018 and 2019 in Reno.  The show is often abbreviated "GTS," for "GAMA Trade Show," but I don't use that abbreviation because "GTS" for me means GTS Distribution, a much larger factor in my business.  For this article I'll call it the Show.  Colloquially I just call the show "GAMA," which is of course not accurate but I'm out of ideas.

The March frame is supposed to be perfect for our trade shows because so little is happening in our industry at that time.  Last year turned that expectation sideways when the MTG Dragons of Tarkir prerelease tournament had us fleeting Sin City on Thursday, missing the entire final day of festivities, to pick up prerelease product and prepare the store.  And this year the wrinkle is the biggest X-Wing release day of the quarter, and perhaps the first half of 2016, taking place Thursday the 17th.  But those instances aside, February and March are traditional slow months for brick-and-mortar retail, so the planning is appropriate.  In 2015, over three hundred retailers and a near-complete roster of industry publishers and distributors attended.

In the title I refer to trade shows as "Dagobah Caves."  Recall the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker learns the lesson of the Cave.  For those of you who can use the reference, here is the script excerpt of that scene:

Luke turns to see a huge, dead, black tree, with a dark and sinister cave on one side.
LUKE: There's something not right here.  I feel cold, death.
YODA: That place... is strong with the dark side of the Force.  A domain of evil it is.  In you must go.
LUKE: What's in there?
YODA: Only what you take with you.

Luke takes his weapons belt anyway, and in the cave comes face to face with a dark Jedi manifestation that is all too familiar and plausible.
What Luke took with him into the cave, violence and conflict, is what he found there.  With trade shows, too, what you bring with you to the show is what you get out of it.

I mean more than simply whether you pay attention to the presentations and pitches, though that makes a difference too and your frame of mind can easily add or subtract value from those things.  I mean the entire approach you take to a trade show.

The GAMA Trade Show is the only professional trade show in our industry that's in the western half of the continent.  For consumers, there is the San Diego Comic Con and PAX (the Penny Arcade eXpo) in Seattle, as well as one Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour and a smattering of Grand Prix tournaments.  But for professionals, the rest of the action is farther east.  The Origins Game Fair and Gen Con are both in Indianapolis now.  ACD Game Day is in Madison, Wisconsin.  Alliance's Open House is in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Diamond's Retailer Summit is in Baltimore.  GTS Distribution's Come and Play Day is in Atlanta again this year, though they did host it in Anaheim a couple years back.  Southern Hobby runs an open house in Nashville.  Guess where the New York Toy Fair is held?

Travel can be fatiguing, so it was easy for me to treat last fall's Atlanta trip for GTS Distribution as business and keep focused.  This week, with a rare opportunity to attend a trade show on light travel, it's tempting to treat the Vegas trip as an excuse to party.  And while my delegation from DSG will take some time for recreation, this is a work week at least as intense as any other, and in many respects more so.  Approaching it like work is an important ingredient in getting the most out of it.

The GAMA retailer seminars start the show on Monday and fill several more day sections before wrapping up Friday.  This year, my group will be attending some new ones and some that Patrick and I attended last year.  For example, "Megastore vs Multi-store" is on our ownership's mind, with our own future occupancy very much in the air with a lease ending in 2017.  That's new.  I am planning to attend "Store Layout" and "Selling Singles" even though logistics is my strength.  Why attend them then?  Because part of how I keep logistics as my strength is to continue to learn about it every chance I get. The worst-case scenario has me brushing up on the fundamentals, while the best-case scenario has me learning workflows and practices that I never knew or long since forgot.  Patrick's strengths are in personnel interfacing and off-site events, but he is still going to attend "Interviewing" and "Convention Sales" because the more expert he becomes, the better business we do and the better he can train his staff.

Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning are the publisher pitches, dubbed Premier Presentations.  Retailers have to attend a bunch of these in order to earn their GAMA product box.  Naturally we're going to go, and this is what the publishers pay for, the chance to show off their upcoming product roster and hopefully get us interested.  I saw a lot of retailers last year going through the motions, and I suppose there's no avoiding that.  I tried to pick publishers where I thought that knowing more about their product might make me money.  This could be something that I was already carrying and wanted to understand better (last year, Steve Jackson Games and WizKids), or something I did not carry but had heard of and was considering whether to bring in (last year, Games Workshop, Wyrd Miniatures, and Reaper Miniatures).  Most of the publisher pitches I attended provided me with some insight, even if it was as simple as learning the line's configuration, or in the case of a couple of overwrought board game products, learning it wasn't likely to be a good fit for my store.

The dark aspect of the Dagobah Cave also figures into these presentations.  Last year I listened while WizKids, Reaper, and several other publishers faced torches-and-pitchforks crowds.  WizKids was ready to handle it.  They had been hit hard by the longshoremen's strike, product was scarce, they knew it, and they wanted us to know they knew.  The problem largely abated over time.  Reaper didn't really have answers to "where's the product" other than "it's out there."  Which it largely wasn't, at the time.  A couple of board game publishers sidestepped the questioning about what they are going to do about online dumping and devaluation.  It can make a retailer mob feel good to raise a ruckus like this, and it's probably fair for publishers to feel the heat a bit, but I question how much good it did to take up their pitch time in this manner.  Retailers are under no obligation to be cheerleaders, but I suggest the approach, "My concerns are X and Y, because Z is untenable in my market," rather than, "Why do you guys always gotta screw over brick and mortar stores!!!"  Publishers want to make money the same as we do.  Their needs and ours overlap but are not exactly the same.  Work in the overlap rather than raging against the differential.

Sponsored meals are where one of your delegation listens to a publisher pitch and usually gets a complimentary sample product for your time.  It's worth doing if you don't have any networking or business already on deck for those time periods.

The Exhibition Hall is our chance to spend money.  Some vendors were ready to take it.  Others, not so much.  Last year was so overweighed by our buy-in for Games Workshop that we didn't do much else on the sales floor, while this year we have some show specials earmarked to buy and the rest of it will be targets of opportunity.  It can be a great chance to schmooze with your distributor reps, if they are in attendance.  I would caution you against getting hung up on a pitch for something that isn't a good fit for your store.  If board games are marginal for you, just say that.  A lot of the small-ball Kickstarter vendors will be in attendance and they assume every store is a potential partner, when in reality many are not.  You'll save time for both parties.  Some of the things I want to see most aren't even games, but ancillary products.

Notice nowhere in the above did I talk about going gambling, drinking, or what have you, despite that the show takes place in the middle of the Las Vegas strip.  You can certainly do those things while you're there, but take care of business first.  When my mind started hitting the wall each day, that was when it felt just right to join up with a fellow retailer and hit a local eatery for a nice, relaxing dinner.   After that it's either game time, with multiple options on the official schedule, or a chance to go off campus, or possibly even turn in if you're thrashed.  I'm an old man, I know.  I took the opportunity to visit a few local game stores, as well as the Pinball Hall of Fame, a worthier visit than its title suggests.

At the end of a week at a trade show, if your mind isn't buzzing about what you are going to do next at your store, you wasted some amount of that trip.  I loathe travel, but I am planning to attend some four or five trade shows in 2016 alone because of the immense value I get out of them... and I get that value because I put my time, attention, and focus into them, and I look for opportunities to work with the other stakeholders in the industry, rather than focusing on faults, however applicable those might be.

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