Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Essen - A look behind the scene

Far from me the thought of lecturing anyone, Essen 2011 was an experience so overwhelming that I feel the need to share it with anyone and everyone.

Essen 2011 was the first time NSKN Legendary Games was present at a gaming convention, and I am not only talking about Spiel. We were coming as an absolute surprise, the first Romanian publisher ever to attend the biggest gaming convention in the world. This was also the moment we chose to release our 'first-born', Warriors & Traders.

Signing-up and preparing

Having little to no experience in preparing my company's attendance to fairs, I signed up for Spiel '11 Essen in the very last day possible! It was one of the big lessons learned in the publishing industry, never leave things for the last moment. Thanks to LudoFact, the company that produced Warriors & Traders, I realized that Essen would be the perfect place to launch the game. So, on the 15th of May, at 16:00 I send the application papers and this is how the adventure began.

With a plan in mind, the actual preparation for Essen started for NSKN at the end of September, when the games were shipped from LudoFact's production plant in Germany to our warehouses in Romania and Belgium.

The most important thing I did not account for was the amount of people. It's common to hear that 150,000 people have something in common, but this number of people usually represents the attendance at a great sport event or the populations of a medium sized town or a small country (4 times the population of Liechtenstein). So, it is hard to imagine how this many people would look like and fit in the exhibition center and it is even harder to prepare for such an audience.

The original assumption was that as a completely unknown company, we would not attract much attention. So, having a small booth, 6 people at the stand and about 50 game boxes should be enough for the whole fair. Oh, and we'd also have some time to go and advertise the game with distribution companies and retailers.

Day -2: the first contact

On Monday of the Spiel '11 week, 3 days before it all started, we - the NSKN team - went to see the exhibition halls and to figure out what to bring and when.

On some level, I always knew that the booth would only contain the white walls and nothing more, but that does not mean we were prepared for it. It was too late to ask the organizers for tables and shelves for rent.

We unloaded everything prepared for that day and we started planning. We had 3 days left to fix the situation and make our booth look exceptional. Or, at least, decent! 

To avoid the feeling that we're leaving everything for the last day, we put our first poster on the wall and we headed to the place that held the answers to all our problems, IKEA. While driving, we made a whole list of things to buy. Four hours later, we came back, unloaded again and headed back to Brussels, our temporary headquarters, too tired even to take pictures.

Day -1: last minute preparations

I forgot to mention this before, but besides the standard booth we also signed up for the inventor's table. This is where designers bring their unreleased creations to get a first hand feedback from the public. Of course, we had to prepare a prototype worthy of the showing to the outside world. 

Day 0: setting up the stand

That's when I started counting down the hours. One last trip from Brussels to Essen, loaded once again with game boxes, we drove early in the morning allowing plenty of time to set up the stand and have everything ready for the grand opening.

We started paying the price to our lack of experience. NSKN was not present at the press conference on Wednesday, missing a lot of exposure with reviewers or distributors; we did not use the exhibitor's parking and so on. We did not even have a power plug in our stand!

The main task of the day was building the IKEA furniture, with the aid of an electric screwdriver. Learning from our mistakes, we enjoyed a full day of physical labor, while 90% of all other stands stood ready, full of games. By 7 PM, everything looked ready, the shelves were up, the carpets 'glued' to the floor, the gaming table ready for demo sessions and the games waiting for the customers.

In the evening we made the final 'battle' plan. Having 6 people at the stand for Thursday and Friday and 8 for the weekend, I assumed that at least one of us can do some advertising and sales all the time. Again, time will have proved me wrong.

Day 1 (Thursday) - the initial shock

8:00 AM: The whole team arrived at the stand, bringing the rest of the game boxes to a grand total of 48. This is what we expected to sell over the 4 days of the fair. From 8 to 8:30 we made last moment arrangements inside the booth and had a chance to walk around halls 4 and 6 and decide what to buy later on.

8:55 AM: We met the first potential customers. In spite our lack of German language skills, people were listening to our explanations and were amazingly interested... "Really, a pure strategy game with battle?"

9:20 AM: We sold the first copy of Warriors & Traders. We could not believe what was going on around us, it was pouring down with people, all interested to hear all the details and some of them actually buying the game. 

10:40 AMMy first corporate meeting as a board game designer and publisher was also the most unusual one, a company from Ukraine was interested in translating and publishing the game in the local language. It was hard to believe my eyes and ears, but I spent more than 45 minutes talking about this opportunity.

11:45 AM: The first meeting with a distribution company ended up very promising and two week later we were shipping a full pallet with 120 games towards the United Kingdom. The interest in Warriors & Traders was far higher that I expected and the flow of people to our stand exceeded our most optimistic expectations.

12:00 PM: 7 games sold.

12:30 PM: None of us had a chance to have lunch or even visit the toilets.

1:00 PM: A group of 5 friends came back to our booth for the first session of Warriors & Traders. They spent two and a half hours playing a full game. In the mean time, everyone else was talking, laughing, explaining, busy but enjoying every minute of every hour. And it was still Thursday at noon.

3:30 PM: The first gaming session ended, the second one was about to begin. People were convinced and wanted to have their own copy of the game signed by the designer. Our total sold for the day increased to 19.

4:30 PM: No customers at the stand for 5 consecutive minutes. We had time to take a breath, grab something to eat very quickly and rest our feet, except for Vlad who was in the middle of the second session of the day. All my colleagues were complaining that their throats are hurting from so much talking. 

5:00 PM: A new 'wave' of people came by. We assumed that those who got out of work or school later did not want to miss the first day of Spiel '11. We welcomed them.

6:00 PM: The gates of Messe Essen were officially closed for day 1, however all 6 of us were still talking to customers. Our total number of sold games raised to an amazing 32 pieces. Truly unbelievable!

7:15 PM: Our last customer of day 1 left. We went for a quick clean up of the booth, than we sat down amazed trying to seize the moment. We counted the total amount sold and this was 35 game boxes. This left us with a big smile and a giant problem - almost no games left for Friday.

Did I mention that our only vehicle was a normal 5-seater car, with limited amount of space, especially when it came to carrying game boxes? This was a big puzzle - how do you get more games at the fair, using only that car and be rested for the next day, assuming that the games are stored 250km away?

8:00 PM: Driving to Brussels, sometimes breaking the speed limit, wishing to have had rented a van. Essen -> Brussels = 250 km + a few less hours of sleep. Having games for the next day - priceless!

2:10 AM: It was technically the next day. I was back with 55 more games. Friday was covered, being tired did not matter anymore.

Day 2 (Friday) - the easy day

You may wonder what was so easy about Friday...

7:50 AM: Arriving in front of the exhibitions hall, we had 60 games to unload and set up in the stand. The biggest challenge wasn't the cold, but the fact that the dedicated parking space was full and we had to carry the games from quite far away.

8:50 AM: There are 8 people in front of our booth, asking all kinds of questions about Warriors & Traders. Our second day started earlier.

10:00 AM: The first gaming session of the day starts earlier than planned. A few very passionate gamers insisted to 'squeeze' a one hour play test before the one at 11:00, already planned since the day before. But we always put the needs of the customer first, so Vlad had to give up his brunch and start explaining all over again. He did not mind. 

11:30 AM: Sales were going great, almost twice as good as Thursday. Half of us already lost their voice and we are seriously thinking about getting pills for our throats.

12:00 PM: We gave a copy of Warriors & Traders to the BGG guys to put us on the hot list from Spiel '11 and to play it at BGG.Con.

12:45 PM: Getting in and out of business meetings, it looked like I have a few seconds to catch my breath. I was, of course, wrong. There was a guy from Alliance already waiting for me for a while. I knew of Alliance, it was just hard to believe they were interested in us. Half way between confusion and happiness, I went through the first of the three meetings with the largest game distributor in the United States (and possibly in the world). All went well!

2:30 PM: Feeling like a star! I had never had this image of myself being important, but for 5 consecutive minutes I actually did. Customers were asking to have their games signed by the designer and there were 6 (six) of them - I am not kidding - just waiting in a sort of queue for me to sign their copy of Warriors & Traders. I have to say that all the corporate meetings felt good, but that was astonishing, seeing all these guys and girls really interested and wanting their game signed made me feel like all the effort and craziness was really worth it. I thanked them then, I want to thank them again - they made me and all my team feel wonderful.

3:45 PM: A moment to rest, there were only a few guys in our stand, so we quickly took advantage of that and, one by one, managed to grab something to eat. We called that lunch.

5:00 PM: The people who played in the second session of the day came back to buy the game. We had to refuse any discount for the press, we were once again running low on stock.

6:07 PM: I gave an interview. My first interview related to Warriors & Traders

7:15 PM: The last customers were passing by out stand while we made a new plan to bring in more games for Saturday and Sunday. 

8:30 PM: I just left on another trip to Brussels to bring back another 60 games. I put the idea of rest in a closed box and decided that sleep is for the weak. I drove again for almost 6 hours, completing my task without incidents. I thought the day was over...

2:25 AM: We had a review of the day and decided what we could improve for Saturday. I cannot even remember that discussion, I just know that it was very effective.

You might be wondering by now what was so easy about Friday... it was just that great feeling that what you do matters and that it was worth all the effort in the world just to be able to experience such a unique environment.

Day 3 (Saturday) - new definition for crowded

7:50 AM: We arrived at the exhibition center and unloaded all the games we brought before. Our booth looked once again fully supplied with game boxes waiting for people to look at, buy or just admire.

8:20 AM: The game table was ready to go for the 9 AM session. we had to pile up the games to have some space left to move around our booth.

9:30 AM: I could count more than 25 people in front of our stand. Some were just looking around and moving on, most of them were listening to my colleagues and I describing Warriors & Traders. The first session of the day had already started, people seems very enthusiastic. The day was looking good.

10:45 AM: Someone had just come to buy the game, without any explanations or questions asked. We asked why and we got the answer - we were on the first place in the BGG top of new releases. It was as cool as it was unexpected. From that moment on, we put a hand written placard asking people to keep voting for us.

11:30 AM: Our stand was around 80 meters (250 feet) away from the bathrooms. I assumed this will be a five minutes round trip and, boy, I was wrong! It took me 15 minutes and a great deal of pushing and pulling to get there only to acknowledge a 100+ men and women queue for the ... men's toilet. I gave up and decided to return later. I spent another 15 minutes on the way back, reconsidering my definition of crowded.

12:00 PM: I had just completed my fifth business meeting of the day. We had more and more interested people coming over and we were also stirring up the interested of retailers who wanted to buy our game by the case. Unfortunately, we had to turn most of them down, fearing that we'd be sold out too soon and end up disappointing our customers.

2:07 PM: From our team of 8 people, only 7 were still able to speak. The first 'casualty' went to find some quick remedy to help him get back fast in the game. 

4:00 PM: I threw away the original schedule put together before the fair. It was written in there how many companies we had to approach each day o the fair and it was not realistic. We did not approach anyone and yet we had already had more than 50 business meetings, most of the successful, about two and a half times more than what we had planned. And Spiel '11 was not over.

5:15 PM: Spending most of the time standing and talking, focused 110% on board games fans, we learned to take advantage of any little free moment and take a picture or two to have then some memories to share. One of these photos shows some very dedicated players continuing one game even after one of them technically won. 

5:15 PM: More than 60 games sold in one day, a new record!

6:00 PM: We honored some promises made to retailers in the previous days and delivered their games. One box of 6 pieces was weighting more than 13 kilos (29 pounds), nevertheless everyone seemed happy.

6:25 PM: Taking into account the significant decrease in people coming to our stand, we decided that was the right moment to ... have lunch. We took turns, whoever did not have anyone to talk to, explain the game or make a sell had 5 to 10 minuted to grab a bite. I was the seventh one to go out of 8 people. By that time I did not even feel hungry anymore, actually I was feeling nothing but adrenaline. It had been another amazing day. I had met all kinds of people, from a 14 year old kid impressed by the graphic design but without enough money to buy his own copy to the CEO of one of big names in the industry. They all had two things in common, the passion for board games and the modesty. 

7:00 PM: There were still people around. I did not really understand why, realizing a lot later that the exhibition hall were open until later. I had reached another milestone, more that 25 games signed in one day!

8:35 PM: Spiel '11 was closing down for another day, but this one was special for me, I did not have to go back to Brussels to bring more games. At the particular moment, there was nothing that could have made me happier.

9:00 PM: It was time to celebrate. The fair was not over, but since Sunday evening was planned for cleaning up and driving back home, we needed our moment of joy, feeling happy of what we accomplished. We did not manage to have a coherent discussion over dinner, but we had fun.

Day 4 (Sunday) - what's going on outside our booth?

9:00 AM: People are playing! That's not a joke, there were people who came in early and wanted to play the game because their friends said it was worth it.

11:00 AM: The last day of the fair is also the most prolific for small retailers who are coming to buy the latest and hottest in the gaming world. Warriors & Traders drew some attention, maybe not even half as much as the grand releases, but enough to pose a dilemma: should we sell to the retailers or should we wait until the end of the day a dn focus on regular customers? We made a compromise, selling to those retailers who came from a country where we had no contact for distribution or retail, ensuring the a wider coverage. 

12:30 PM: Sunday seems to be less crowded than all the other days. It is the first moment when I find half an hour free to go look around and possibly buy some game for myself.

1:45 PM: A phone call from a few meters away...a colleague of mine is asking if I am available, some guy wants to buy all the rest of our games! Sadly, we had to turn him down, there were only so many games we could sell to retailers.

4:30 PM: We have five games left and three of them are promised to some gentlemen from the press who are late to pick them up. Do we sell them or not?

6:00 PM: We had three games left, excluding the two exposed ones. The last hours were rather slow compared to the rest of the exhibition and we did not have enough energy to make the best presentation to potential customers. Plus, there wasn't much to sell. All of us got at least 45 minutes of walking around and crossing items off their shopping lists.

6:45 PM: Our shelves were dismantled, having no more games to support. Our last gaming session ended and I was ready to run to the officials' desk to ask for a 15 minutes parking permit to load all that was left from our stand. We had one game left - someone did not honored the promise to come at 6:30 PM and make the final purchase.

7:03 PM: Our last customer, Guido, bought the very last game. And I gave that to him in writing!
7:30 PM: I was the proud owner of two 15 minutes Parkschein, rushing back to exhibition hall number 4 to load and make Spiel '11 just a memory.

11:25 PM: Having had no more unforeseen events, we arrived back in Brussels and took a fist look at our Essen loot. You can see some of it in the picture below, the rest of it being still in the car.

I do not want to end this post without writing down some conclusions, although so many things happened that it is hard to choose... so I will just stick to one of them. It is a special experience for a small publisher to be in Essen... as a publisher. Even with low expectations the hopes are high and it can be overwhelming. The one thing that makes this whole experience so special is the feeling of belonging. You are all the time surrounded by friendly faces and whatever you don't know and do wrong is understood and forgiven. 

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