Last week, I travelled to Reno for GAMA Expo 2020, the premier trade show for the board game industry. The show is for retailers, publishers, distributors, and the media, as opposed to somewhere like Gen Con which is geared towards fans of board games.
It was a very intense few days, with almost no down time. Sessions started early in the morning and didn’t finish up until 5. All the game nights and parties were a chance to network and learn about more games, so my introverted self still had to be “on”.
There was plenty of time to meet with and talk to many different members of the industry. I spent most of my time talking with other retailers and learning from their experiences. Even though we were all technically competitors, it felt like much more of a community. Since each store is primarily focused on their local area, the attendees were free to share notes and learn from each other without being concerned about giving their competition a leg up.
Most of the people I talked to were more than happy to talk about the things they struggled with and the lessons they learned. They offered plenty of advice and encouragement to our fledgling company! GAMA also featured an award ceremony focused on celebrating stores who had been particularly successful with respect to innovation and shining a spotlight on what had worked.
Advice and Observations
During my time there, I filled up an entire notebook full of notes about games, observations about the industry as a whole, contact info, and lessons from the many, many people I talked to.
Creating a Local Gathering Place
Some folks see people who aren’t already knee-deep in the hobby coming to their store as a sign of success. It means they’ve moved beyond a small, interested niche and built a store that’s more welcoming. This attitude really resonates with our vision, but actually achieving that will be difficult.
Several store owners I spoke with have had positive experiences with enforcing codes of conduct. The consensus seems to be that this lets your customers know you expect more from them. It may drive some people off, but those people tend to be toxic and can alienate other parts of your customer base.
Building a Retail Space
Most stores have at least 2500 sq ft of space, and that provides enough room for both inventory and tournaments. But cost per square foot could vary dramatically. We’ve been looking in the ~$25 per sq ft per year range, but some of the stores were closer to the $10 range after negotiating it down. Even then the cost of rent was a major expense for them. Speaking to several different stores made it clear that getting a good deal on real estate is not just doable, but a key component to making sure our business succeeds.
On that note, the actual location seems to be less important. It seemed as if foot traffic was a less vital piece of the puzzle, though having an “anchor store” nearby can be a major benefit.
Determining Hours of Operation
Before GAMA, we had been theorizing that most of the business for a store like this would take place after normal working hours. We assumed our primary audience would be people who work full time and want to unwind. One of the stores I asked said that they get very little traffic before 6pm and are typically full by 7.
Another store mentioned that the perception that we’re successful can be a major contributor to our success. They mentioned that aiming for about 80% capacity is a good target. There’s still room, and it makes you look like the place people want to be.
Laying Out Inventory
Additionally, be careful considering how much inventory to display on your shelves. If you have too much of a particular item, it could make your customers think that it’s something no one wants to buy.
Price is less important. It’s virtually impossible to compete with online retailers with respect to price. Instead we need to focus on providing a personal connection and providing what online retailers can’t. Our store is like an amusement park, the products we sell are just souvenirs.
Diversity - or Lack Thereof
There was some talk about diversity, but what I observed in practice didn’t always match up. There were a few people talking about inclusivity towards women and making sure they weren’t being driven off by creeps, a talk on inclusivity towards LGBT folks and how to make them feel welcomed at your stores, and another talk on how to use games as a way to help people who were struggling with mental health. Those talks were incredibly insightful and extremely helpful, especially since we’ve made inclusivity one of our core goals.
But those talks weren’t nearly as well attended as some of the others I saw that were more focused specifically on the business side. And while the number of women there was much higher than I would have expected (maybe 30% from my unscientific observations), the attendees were almost entirely white. Shockingly so, to the point that I began counting any non-white people I spotted as attendees. I didn’t get into double digits during the entire expo.
It seems the community is aware of the need for different types of diversity and is attempting to satisfy that need, but doesn’t know how. I’ve talked with Aisha in the past about how, as a Black woman, she has felt unwelcome in game stores. But I’ll leave that to her to talk about in a future post. Creating a more inclusive and welcoming store is part of our core motivation in forming Splendiferous Games and it’s a topic we definitely need to think about as we open our store in Detroit.
It could also be a very stark visualization of the racial wealth gap in the US. The folks there were members of the industry and owners of businesses large and small. It’s possible that the customer base is much more diverse, but that diversity isn’t reflected in the ownership of stores and companies.
While I was there, I made an effort to live tweet some of the events I attended and talk about some of the games I got a chance to play.
Platforms to Focus On
It seems most of this industry lives on Facebook, rather than Twitter.
Facebook is better for longer term discussions, but I suspect that most of our audience is more likely on Twitter and Instagram so, going forward, we’ll need to balance the different social media sites based on different needs: Facebook primarily for industry discussion and likely event planning, and Twitter and Instagram mostly for talking with our customers.
I’m still trying to be better about being active on Twitter, so it was great to have Aisha offer some advice to help me along. She recommended that I make sure to take lots of pictures and tag anyone I was tweeting about. Also making sure to include alt text for my pictures whenever possible helps make our engagement more accessible to everyone. And I made sure to include quotes from the talks that I found particularly interesting or insightful.
It was a bit difficult to keep up the pace of live tweeting speakers during talks. If you have any tricks to help live tweet more quickly and accurately, I would love to hear them.
Lessons for Next Year
As I mentioned, it was nonstop. Next year, I’m definitely not going alone. Especially since it’ll likely be even more jam-packed with full attendance.
Planning our schedule ahead of time was extremely helpful. I did have to improvise a bit due to some talks getting cancelled or me needing a break. In addition to being able to cover more ground, with Aisha there, we’ll be able to pace ourselves a little better and help avoid burnout.
Also it was a great deal of work to try to live tweet. Next year, I think I’m going to bring a small laptop and a portable battery for my phone. Being able to easily type on a keyboard would have been a huge help.
Business cards. I didn’t think I would need them, but they would have been extremely helpful. I spoke with a lot of people and being able to just hand them a card would have saved me a good deal of effort. Especially because “Splendiferous Games” is a bit of a mouthful and several folks didn’t know how to spell it without a bit of help.
Finally, next year I’m booking at least an extra day at the resort. After the entire week working, I really wished I had stayed an extra day to relax and enjoy myself.