The end of last week saw the yearly Spiel trade show in Essen, Germany. Over 4 days 150,000 people descend on the Ruhr valley to see the latest releases from the world's game companies. Held in an enormous convention centre, the show fills 9 of the 12 halls with booths ranging from the glitzy, spacious efforts of the largest German publishers at the front down to small, unbranded stalls of guys trying to flog copies of their hand-made game at the back.
Wandering the halls you can buy (for cash only usually) the latest games, hot off the presses as well as play the games and often meet the designers, artists and gaming luminaries who wander the halls between meetings.
The show is very busy, especially on the weekend - the front halls can be literally elbow-to-elbow at times - but it's still a great way to try out a bunch of new games before all your friends get them (or they go out of print briefly!).
I have no intention of visiting the show as a punter - I don't buy enough games to make the trip to Germany worth it, especially as I can buy the games in the UK shortly afterwards at a similar price, however I did enjoy attending twice as a publisher while I ran Reiver Games.
I thought it might be interesting to share what I learnt about attending Essen as a publisher.
Both years I had the same booth in Hall 4 where the smaller publishers hang out. I had 10 square metres (5 metres wide by 2 metres deep) with 9 metres of plain white walls on three of the sides. I paid for a carpet and the hire of tables and chairs (which are all pretty expensive from the venue - I saw some guys opposite from me in the second year nip to Ikea, buy cheap tables and chairs and they even sold them on at the end of the show to another exhibitor!).
In 2008, I shared half my stand with Peter and Melchior of Geode Games, in the second year they had moved next door to a stand of their own. Both years I had three tables at the front of the stand with a wall of games in shipping cartons along the back - I got several games out of the shipping cartons and faced them out along the top so that people walking past could see what it was I was selling and I had games easily accessible in case of a sale. It sounds obvious, but you need somewhere to be able to play your games: get (or bring) some tables and chairs.
Both times I took three friends to help out, in 2008 Duncan, his wife Lucy and Mal joined me (and in fact Dunk drove) on the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam and in 2009 Dunk, Lucy, Andrew and I flew to Dortmund or Düsseldorf and then got the train to Essen. Seeing as they were friends attending purely out of good will, I paid for the ferry/flights and their accommodation (both times in Apparthaus Arosa self-catering apartments). Four people sounds like a lot, but if you've got three tables of gaming it means you can have one person explaining on each table and someone selling games/taking cash. Although what we mostly did was let people have some time off. I did the majority of every shift and it's really hard work - if you're getting paid overtime it's not too bad, if you're doing it as a favour for a mate it's a bit much without a break. It also meant that we could have someone leave early and go and cook us some dinner - if you've been flat out from 8:30am to 7pm talking almost non-stop and with very little for lunch, that is worth its weight in gold! I tried to give the others one morning/afternoon in three off, though they didn't always take it!
In the first year I took one pallet's worth (800 games) of It's Alive!, the only game I had at the time. A friend (Dean of Ludorum Games, now sadly also closed) drove my games to Essen in the van he was taking his games in for the bargain price of £50 in petrol money. I sold about 150-200 copies to punters and the remainder to Fred distribution in the US (though I think they sold them on to ACD or Alliance a while later). I came home with 4 copies! The second year I paid £200 to get a couple of pallets shipped there by a local distribution company (500 Sumeria, 500 It's Alive! and 200ish of Carpe Astra) and from what I remember, I sold about 150 Sumeria, 100 It's Alive! and 50ish Carpe Astra. I then had to pay DB Schenker (the distribution company who have a concession at the venue) £400-500 to ship one pallet back. Ouch!
In hindsight, I'd have been better to man-up, hire (or buy cheap) a van and drive it there. Then I'd have been able to take cheaper furniture that I could reuse the next year too, and no crippling return shipping fees.
In my second year I also invested in some plastic banner signs. Two 3 feet wide and 2 feet high with my company logo on for the end panels on the sides so that people walking down the aisle would see them, and one each for my three games (3 feet wide and 4 feet high) with pricing information on for the back wall. Three feet wide banners fit nicely in the one metre wide panels and a couple of S-shaped metal hooks from Ikea over the top of the panels and through the holes in the banners held them securely in place. The banners would have been nicely re-usable had my company not run out of steam by 2010.
So, I think in summary, attending Spiel is expensive for a small publisher, so try to amortize costs as best you can across multiple visits, rather than paying again and again for the same thing each year. I'd also recommend that if you're trying to sell to shops and distributors rather than just directly, that you try to arrange meetings with as many distributors as you can beforehand to tout your wares. Oh, and have a price in mind for shops and distributors who are buying in bulk, they come round with surprising frequency and it's nice to just be able to sort it out without having to pause the game you're playing.