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Posted on Sep 3, 2009 in Boardgames

GenCon 2009 – Game Conventions and the Economy

By Paul Glasser

With gamers on tighter budgets, many GenCon vendors saw sales of higher-priced items slip. Photo by Paul Glasser.The economy was the elephant in the room at GenCon 2009. Shoppers were on a tight budget, buying less, and paying with cash.

Jennifer Szynski, 21 of Dayton, Ohio, was one of many gamers who said they were on a tight budget this year. She was browsing the vendor’s hall for Harry Potter trading cards and had a strict $200 budget. Szynski spent about the same amount last year but said she’ll stick to her limit.

In addition, she said she tried to save money by splitting hotel expenses with more people and cutting down on her meal costs: she and five other friends crammed into one hotel room; instead of buying food at the convention center, she brought bags of chips and snacks from home.

“We only have so much money and we want to save it for the con.”

She also enjoys playing games on the PS2 and original 8-bit Nintendo system and said she’s been buying used games recently in order to save.

“We’re all spending less,” she said.

Mark Lucas, 48, lives in Indianapolis, where GenCon is held. He said he’ll be on a tight budget this year, too. Lucas and his two teenaged sons were looking for dice and t-shirts, but he had control over the wallet.

“Everybody is probably spending a little bit less,” he said. “They probably have less to spend because of the economy.”

He and his sons enjoy role playing games (RPGs), board games and computer games. Lucas said they have cut back on purchases and are buying more used items from friends and eBay.

Vendors also noticed attendees were more tight-fisted with their money this year. Mike Sakuta of the Swordmark Company, who sells decorative and battle-ready swords and armor, said this year was “really bad.” Shoppers were buying less expensive items and paying with cash.

One of his most popular items this year was a Prince of Persia-themed chain whip, which sold for $45, whereas in previous years more expensive items such as $100 katanas or $200 rapiers were popular.

Despite the drop in sales, Sakuta doesn’t have any specific plans to cut back inventory or reduce the number of events he attends.

'Things are a little slow, but I'm not going to complain,' vendor Andrew Bawidamann said. Photo by Paul Glasser.“We’ll weather it,” he said.

Not all vendors saw a steep drop in sales. Andrew Bawidamann, who produces military-themed pin-up art and t-shirt designs, said he was doing “OK.”

“Things are a little slow but I’m not going to complain. I heard people are doing a lot worse.”

He added that the effects of the recession were also evident at Comic Con in San Diego earlier this year, saying he did well but many other vendors saw a 30 or 40 percent drop in sales.

He said having an affordable price point is important – he sold t-shirts for $20 and work shirts for $45. Bawidamann also attributed his success partly to his unique client base – many of his products are targeted toward members of the military.

“They’re not worried about job security. They are still getting paid every two weeks.”

However, Bawidamann said it seemed like attendance was down slightly at GenCon this year, perhaps 10 percent, and said he saw a slight dip in sales. Although he’s not feeling the full effect of the recession, he’s still had to adjust. He usually attends a number of different events each year, including GenCon, Comic Con, tattoo shows and knife swaps, but this year he skipped several of the smaller events that only netted him a small profit.

Overall, he said, the recession has hit the art industry hard, Clients are now paying artists six or nine months after the work is finished. A number of his colleagues and competitors have been forced to close shop and try to find “real jobs” – which are few and far between, he said.

But not everyone has been affected by the recession equally – Canadian exhibitors and attendees both said they were still going strong.

A trio from Toronto – Lori Rule, 25, Robyn Sinner, 24, and Brian Connelly, 26 – shopped for steampunk costumes at GenCon this year.

“I like to think I’m contributing to the American economy,” Rule said.

From left, Lori Rule, Robyn Sinner and Brian Connelly from Canada shop for steampunk costumes. Photo by Paul Glasser.Sinner bought a black $150 top hat and a pair of black $7 gloves to go with her elegant black gown at GenCon this year. In total, she said she spent about $300 on her costume.

Rule said it cost about $200 to complete her ensemble, which included a leather vest and goggles, while Connelly said he spent about $150 on his costume, which includes a long blue overcoat.

Despite the added expense of traveling more than 12 hours by car or flying to Indianapolis, Rule said GenCon is popular among Canadians. Canadians have a number of smaller conventions each dedicated to a certain genre, such as horror or sci-fi, but nothing as broad and large as GenCon, she said.

“We’re willing to go a long way for something like this because we don’t have anything like it,” Rule said. “There’s lots of stuff to buy and participate in.”

In Canada the recession has been less severe than in America; nonetheless, the unemployment rate there is 8.6 percent. Sinner said she, Rule and Connelly all still have jobs but some of their friends are unemployed and couldn’t attend the convention.

Michel Smith, an event organizer for the Ottawa-based group Red Shirt Games, said many of his events this year were sold out. Even on a Sunday afternoon, when many people had already left, all his games were full. One of the most popular games this year was Silent Death, a space adventure game designed by club members.

He said the group hasn’t been forced to cut back on the number of events they host because the economy in Canada is still strong. This year they hosted approximately 100 games with about 600 players.

One event unrelated to the economy also had an impact on attendance this year: about 8:30 p.m. Saturday the entire Indianapolis Convention Center was temporarily evacuated because of a fire alarm.

While convention attendees waited outside for the "all clear" to reenter the building, many of them played “Red Rover” on Maryland Avenue, a main thoroughfare in downtown Indianapolis, to pass the time.

Although the interruption was brief – about 10 minutes –Smith said it was enough to drive some gamers away. A Silent Death game was sold out when it began at 7 p.m. and Smith even had to turn away a few players, but after the fire alarm was over, about half the players didn’t return. A game at 9 p.m. was also sold out, but only a few of the ticket holders participated.

“Never in all my years have I seen a fire alarm at a convention, GenCon or otherwise,” Smith said.