Conventions – A Little Love, A Little Hate

I have a love / hate relationship with conventions.  They can be decent marketing opportunities and decent sales, but they disrupt our regular work and are extremely draining.  Some conventions are better than others (in both terms of sales and physical drain); but I thought it might be interesting to discuss a convention from the perspective of a dealer.

Long Days

When you think of a convention, you think of it starting on a Friday or Saturday and ending that Sunday.  It’s a 2 to 3 day event, mostly with a ‘decent’ 8 to 10 hours.  However, that’s not what it is for dealers.  It starts the day before, when we pack up for the convention.  That can take 3 to 4 hours easily.  Then, we start 3 to 4 hours before the event doors open, setting up the booth.  There’s the games, the shelves, the pricing all to be completed.

Once the event starts, we’re standing up talking and dealing with customers and browsers all day long.  Once the doors close, we’ve got another 20 – 30 minutes of clean up (and waiting for the last stragglers to leave) before we have to input that days orders in.  At best, most days are 9 hours long, at worst we can be doing up to 16 hours in a day (GottaCon!)

Through all that though, we have to be happy and chirpy and on the ball.  We get asked questions, recommend options and search through our memories for stock while smiling.  It’s physically and emotionally draining and in 3 days we can do 30+ hours.

Then of course, once it’s all done we’re back at work on Monday (at least, some of us!)

Building a Mini-Store

At a convention, we’re basically building a mini-store.  It’s great training for owning a retail store I’d think – you have to think about traffic flow, the potential customers, merchandising and the checkout process.  If you can’t run a convention booth well, perhaps you shouldn’t run a retail store it seems to me.

What’s Going on Where?

Working a convention is just that – work.  Many conventions do not have after show events, so once the vendor hall closes it’s hard to go do anything.  Breaks during the day are often only an hour to two hours long – not really enough time to watch a panel especially when you consider those breaks include lunch / dinner.  In most cases, after talking to people for 4 hours straight, we just want to find a corner and hide!

So for us, most conventions revolve around the vendor hall.  We get to see customers, maybe watch them play a few games and talk to them; but actual events at the convention are often missed.

Networking

One amusing part of being a vendor is that you often see the same vendors at other events.  After a while, you start making friends, shaking hands and commiserating over bad sales days or your aching feet.  You network, and it’s kind of fun because often you aren’t in direct competition (except for that event); which means you can be somewhat more open.  I can tell a clothing retailer much more about my business than another game store owner, even if we both don’t really understand each others markets that well.

Aftereffects

After doing 2 conventions in a row, I wanted to talk about the aftereffects too.  Conventions throw things off by a large amount, more than you’d think – we have a significant number of staff ‘disappear’ for days on end.  To ensure we don’t go into too much over-time, we have to cut their hours during the normal work week which leaves us short-staffed.  Projects that have a more flexible work date are pushed aside while we get ready and then do receiving, and of course; there’s always a little damage to the product through all the moving.  Conventions are hard on the business and the staff, and it’s no surprise that so many businesses who do conventions just do conventions.

Getting My Hands Dirty

With summer in full swing, the employees have been taking off while things are relatively quiet. That means I’ve had to get my hands dirty once again pulling, packing & receiving.  Over the last year and a half I’ve slowly transitioned to a more cerebral role in the business – spending more time doing marketing, accounting, planning and IT.  As such, for the first time in  while I’ve actually gone to the warehouse on a regular basis and did the grunt work.

It’s actually been a very good experience in many ways.  Firstly, I get to see firsthand how some of the policies I’ve dictated have been put into place – or not.  That means I get to offer a more direct interface rather than the numerous statistics we keep (which still have their place).  Secondly; as the primary purchaser in the company and with games ‘disappearing’ from inventory for no reason (IT bug which puts Settlers of Catan to -3 for example for no reason) it’s good to actually know how many games we actually have (for some at least).  Lastly; and rather importantly – I get to see what my employees are doing and fix things.

By fixing I mean creating new processes or removing old processes to increase efficiency.  It can also mean looking at hours spent and considering if we need more help during specific times in the week.  While it’s always nice when the employees come with their own ideas, one of the reasons you’re the boss is theoretically; you have more experience than they do.  You certainly have a better understanding of all parts of the company and thus can make the calls they can’t.

Sometimes, getting your hands dirty is the only way to know.

Developing the site

We’ve been going through a major upgrade of the site recently.  There’s been a few reasons for this:

  1. Time on my part to deal with coding
  2. Time on our developers part to work with us complex code
  3. Funds for purchasing modules / development work

At the same time, we’ve got to balance both the cost of an upgrade to the site with its potential benefits.  Most changes fall into one of three major categories:

  1. Front-End Design Changes
  2. Back-End Administrative Changes
  3. Bug Fixes

Front-End Design Changes generally focus on making the website more user friendly and interactive.  So the addition of the Social Share buttons to the site, the new Checkout are all front-end design changes.

Back-End Administrative changes help us work more efficiently.  Example would be integrations with Canada Post, a stock updater and edits to our PDF invoices.

Bug Fixes are more complex.  When we can, especially if it’s a bad bug; we fix the problem as quickly as possible.  However, to fix a bug we need to replicate it.  Unfortunately, with some of our more persistent bugs in the system; they are extremely difficult to replicate.  Without going through a tens-of-thousand dollar bug-hunt; they’re just not feasible.

What to Fix & When?

The obvious constraint is funds.  All these changes require funds – whether its purchasing pre-made modules that should work out-of-the-box or having our developers write the code for us specifically.

The Benefit of the change is another major factor – if it’s fixing a major bug or adding a new, must-have feature to the site; we’ll attempt to get on it immediately.  However, some projects are multi-week projects and those then require both the funds and the free time to complete.

Lastly, there’s the Complexity of the project.  It’s why you see a lot of small, simple projects done before the major changes.  Since I can hack my way around basic code; I tackle all the small projects when I have time; leaving the complex code problems to the real developers.