I have been to my fair share of conventions over the years. Although there is something very similar about each show, they each have their own unique feels and personalities. The first con I ever went to was Gen Con in 2011. It was an eye-opening experience to see just how big the hobby which I had enjoyed in my own small way, had blossomed to a major event that attracted people from all over the world.
I’ve grown a little jaded at some of the bigger shows over the years. They’re great in their own rights and I love that they give an opportunity for so many people to get together and share the hobby, but for me they always represent work. I see far too little of the people and games that make going to a show fun in the first place. Lately, I find myself looking forward to the smaller events, like Breakout in Toronto, BGG in Dallas, Basecamp at a secret undisclosed location, or the Gathering of Friends. This year, I get to add one more to the list of shows to which I hope to make an annual pilgrimage. I have heard nothing but good things about GrandCon and I was lucky enough to sit down and chat with the founder and owner of the show, Brian Lenz.
Lenz had been a hobby gamer for most of his life, starting with Dungeons & Dragons, 3M bookshelf games, and old Avalon Hill titles. Just like me, it was a trip to Gen Con that really opened up the world of tabletop gaming for him.
“I was getting into my 40s and I had never been to Gen Con, and I had wanted to go my whole life.”
The opportunity presented itself and he was quick to grab the chance.
“Outside of D&D, I had zero hobby games,” remembers Lenz. “Since that trip, I have amassed a collection of over 2500 games.”
Inspired by his experiences at that first Gen Con, Lenz decided to create a meetup group in his hometown Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“At first I was really looking for anyone who was interested in learning more about games.” The group very quickly grew and now the West Michigan Tabletop Gamers boasts over 1400 members. It was through that group that Lenz made another connection that would make GrandCon possible.
Marc Specter, owner of Grand Gamers Guild had been interested in starting a show for years. A partnership with Lenz made that a reality. Originally conceived as a hybrid show between games, RPGs, and comic books, GrandCon has evolved to centre more around just games. This year, will be the seventh annual show.
Lenz has learned a lot from running GrandCon over the years. What started as a local show with an attendance of around 1500, has almost tripled in size.
“I don’t know anyone in their right mind that says their show runs as smooth as silk,” confesses Lenz. “There’s always hiccups, there’s always hurdles to get over.”
One of the big challenges for GrandCon, is that although they have built up a strong following and name recognition, they are most often compared to shows like BGG and Dice Tower Con, and it’s tough to compete with the cachet of those two names. Convincing publishers of the value that his show offers was an uphill battle at first, but one that he’s starting to see turn in his favour. More and more publishers are looking at GrandCon as a destination.
As the owner of a small show. Lenz knows the importance of thinking outside the box when it comes to luring big name guests. He recalled in his first year, finding the number of Tracy Hickman, a New York Times best-selling author of Dragonlance novels, writing RPGs for TSR, and a personal hero of Lenz’s. He called Hickman up and they ended up chatting for three hours. By the end of the call he was signed on as a featured guest at the show. When people asked Lenz, how the heck did you get Tracy Hickman to come to this show, he simply replied: “I called him.”
Now, before you start thinking that running a gaming convention is all fun and games, Lenz is quick to mention that it is work for him. He spends the event making sure everything is running smoothly, putting out fires, and taking care of a million little things that you never think of when you attend one of these cons. That’s not mentioning the months of preparation that go into it. He is quick to point out how important having a strong support team is to running this sort of show.
“The volunteers I’ve had over the years have been wonderful and critical to its success,” he said. “The show wouldn’t happen without volunteers. No show would.” Despite all the help he gets, the responsibility of the show ultimately is on his shoulders. “I run it like a business. I have to.”
If you’re considering starting a new show from scratch, Lenz suggests knowing whether you want to run it as a non or for-profit event. You should also know how you want your event to be organized. You can’t go into your first year with high ambitions and no plan. You should have a detailed flow chart to deal with any occurrence you can think of and then some for ones you can’t. Things will go wrong at a show, they always do. It’s up to you how you deal with those situations.
Lenz remembered one moment from last year, when a potentially bad situation occurred, but turned out really positively. Jon Gilmour was supposed to be running a session of Kids on Bikes for some of the guests, but the scheduled rooms had been taken over and they were forced to find other accommodations. Lenz knew of another room that they could use, but it was in a maintenance hall area, normally restricted for show staff. Well, the hallways was dark and strewn with old mechanical parts, and some people were starting to wonder where Jon Gilmour was taking them. They even affectionately referred to it as the murder hall. However, the end result set the scene perfectly for the session they were about to run. It’s moments like this that you have to be ready for and to turn a potentially bad situation into one that people remember fondly.
One thing is for sure, events like GrandCon wouldn’t happen without the tireless efforts of people like Lenz.
“I don’t do this for the money,” Lenz stressed. “But it does give me a lot of joy to bring a community of people together in the hobby. I love seeing those emotional ties people feel when they’re playing a game. That’s what makes our industry so special.”
If you’re interested in attending GrandCon this year, the event runs from August 30-September 1 in Grand Rapids at Devos Place. Tickets are on sale now.