Last week we headed up to Milwaukee for the Midwinter Gaming Convention. We had a booth there, and had plans to get some gaming in. This is Midwinter’s fifteenth year, and our third, and it has grown larger and better every year we’ve been. This was the first year both Stephan and I had wares to peddle, and the first year I had so many booth helpers. It all added up to a lot of fun.
What made the biggest difference, I think, is that I had two booth helpers throughout the convention. Our friends Denis and Chrissy came along, and with them on hand, we had four adults to cover the booth the entire weekend. That meant Stephan wasn’t stuck on Ben patrol the entire time. It meant we both got to go to lunch together one day. It meant I got to spend time with my son outside of the vendor’s hall for the first time ever. I can’t thank the two of them enough for their help the entire weekend.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed gaming cons. Midwinter’s focus is on LARP, but it has programming dedicated to board and video games, as well as a strong reenactment presence thanks to the SCA. So while there is a costuming contingent, it isn’t a costume heavy convention. And the convention has a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere. I found myself joking and laughing, things I hadn’t done in a long time. I managed to deal with the little anxiety that cropped up throughout the weekend, which means that medication and therapy is working for my mental health issues.
The Milwaukee Hilton is a beautiful hotel, with lots of ornate staircases and decor, as well as hallways and seating areas for hangouts. I spent most of my time in the vendor hall, which was placed in a baroque fantasy of a ballroom with chandeliers and gold molding on the ceiling. The hotel staff was super friendly and helpful, a big plus when you are attending a convention where there can be tension between fans and non-fans.
That same weekend there was a girl’s volleyball conference in the hotel. This led to lots of interactions with non-gaming people. I witnessed an abundance of stares and whispered comments, but I was never the target of them. In fact I had several women approach me to ask about what was going on. I think the pink hair establishes me as part of the “weird people” but that my size and gender makes me non-threatening enough to be approachable. This isn’t the first time I’ve played ambassador for the geek community. Back in 2002 at ConJose in San Jose, I fielded questions from people on the street who saw me wearing a badge, but not a costume (no pink hair back in those days). And the fan side of things gave as good as they got on the passive aggressive front. I overheard one LARPer bragging about having invented “Trolling: the LARP” where he and his friends paraded past groups of volleyball players and parents in their costumes and played their characters to an exaggerated degree.
I only ran into one instance of bad customer behavior: a woman incredulously demanding to know if “that ruffle thing” truly was $75. When I confirmed that, yes, I do charge $75 for my bustles, she huffed off. I know that prior to her asking she had snapped a shot of the bustle (the flash is a dead giveaway) and suspect she’ll show the picture to a sewing friend and ask if said friend will make one for her. I wish her good luck with that.
I did overhear another customer ask the vendor next to me if they would get a discount on a $20 item if they carried it around the convention and told people where they would get it from. There seems to be this belief among a certain set of attendees that vendors are starving for marketing and will give away their wares for word of mouth advertising. I have never once met a vendor who has done such. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is one or two who have, I just have never encountered them.
The only other annoyance was the number of times people congregated in front of my booth and blocked access to it. That is easily dealt with. I whip out my phone and ask the people if they could move because I want to get a shot of my set up. Nine times out of ten the people realize they were blocking the way and move on apologetically. The tenth time, the people move, but with resentment at having been asked to move. Either way, it’s not skin off my nose, I got them to clear the way.
The final attendance count was just shy of 1100 members. Not a bad showing. I made just over 50 cents per attendee (which is about what I plan on making at any convention). It was less than I had hoped, but I didn’t have any big items with me this time around. There’s time before the next convention to get plenty of coats made up for off the rack purchases.
According to those we talked to, Midwinter has seen an average of 10 percent growth in attendance each year. It’s clear that they do a lot of work not only in planning great programming, but also in advertising their presence. They do a lot of social media work, have a strong Facebook page, and got the convention covered by local TV press. It is a lot of work, but it is paying off for them.
I mention this because over the course of the weekend I was approached by two different conventions about vending. Both are brand new, both are asking for $200 for booth space. One mentioned on its website that they expect anywhere between 350 to 2,400 attendees at their first con. Think about that for a moment. Presuming that they reach their minimum number, and that I make 50 cents per attendee, I will lose money attending that convention. The other is one could see slightly better numbers, but it is still the first year, still untested, and still not worth paying that much for a space. When conventions charge that much for a space, with such low numbers, it is clear they are looking to cover their costs on the backs of their vendors rather than through ticket sales.
We’ll be back to Midwinter next year for sure.