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Putting It Together

by Mark A. Santillo
Jul 24,2002


ConVocation: Diary of A New Convention

by Mark A. Santillo
President, Active Imagineering Inc.

"Putting It Together"

It all starts with a vision. It doesn't matter whether it's a business or a club, a party or a vacation. Any enterprise, anything worth doing, starts with a vision. A vision is an image of how it could be, how it should be, how it will be. Sometimes a vision is personal; many times, it's shared. What matters most, however, is that you believe in it. There can be no dream without the dreamer.

Active Imagineering is my dream, one which I hope to share with you and with the many gaming friends I've made throughout the years. It's my vision of what the hobby of game-playing might become and what we as a community can achieve if we work together. And by we, I mean not just individual hobbyists but also manufacturers, publishers, writers, artists, designers, retailers, and clubs; everyone, in fact, who is involved in what we enjoy most - playing great games.

You may be asking yourself, "Who is this guy, anyway? Why should I listen to him?" After all, I'm not a game designer and, except for a few reviews, I'm not a published author. I don't manufacture, distribute or sell games. I'm not particularly well-known in fannish circles, either. You haven't seen my name and opinions spread across the internet like bread across the water. I'm just a gamer; like many of you, I buy and play lots of games. In addition, I'm also a club president and a convention organizer, which broadens my perspective somewhat; but fundamentally, I'm just a gamer. I am, however, a gamer with a vision and the will and the passion and the organizational skill to bring that vision into reality.

Even when I'm not actively playing games, I think about playing games, about the phenomenon of game-playing and the place it occupies in our lives and in our culture. The more I think about it, the more concerned I become about three trends: First, our hobby is aging and little is being done in an organized way to groom the next generation; second, as an activity game-playing has yet to gain the acceptance and visibility in our country that it has achieved elsewhere, particularly in Europe; and third, not enough is being done to advocate for the many educational, social and cultural benefits of game-playing. I would venture to say that more has been published and broadcast about the salutary effects of skydiving than of gaming.

Last fall, these intellectual concerns crashed headlong into one very salient fact: there is no major gaming convention on the East Coast. Sure, there are a few large multi-media, multi-faceted fan shows like DragonCon in Atlanta and there are many small- to mid-sized gaming cons like ShoreCon in Cherry Hill NJ, but there is no equivalent of Origins or GenCon on the East Coast. This realization set in as I was soliciting Industry support for the gaming track at the 2001 WorldCon [World Science Fiction Convention] in Philadelphia. Many manufacturers I spoke with, particularly those located east of the Mississippi, bemoaned this lack and offered their support for any attempt to coordinate such an effort. Et voila! Active Imagineering was born!

Those of us involved in the WorldCon gaming track saw an opportunity to address our sociological concerns in combination with one kick-ass convention. Ours would not be just another SmallCon, but an Industry/Consumer show like Origins. I'm talking major manufacturer presence, new product releases, demos, guests of honor, tournaments and signature events. Plus a grant-funded Teacher Training seminar series to promote the value of games in education. Based on the pent-up demand we've surveyed among East Coast gamers, we know that if we build it, you will come. Our mission, then, is to create a showcase for the best that gaming has to offer, located somewhere between Boston and Washington.

Without Industry buy-in, however, we would never succeed. Without Industry support, there would be no new product releases, demos, tournaments or special events - in short, no reason for anyone to attend. So I flew out to the GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas this past March to get that support. It was a bit scary, I admit. Would I be able to convince anyone to support us? Would GAMA be receptive to the "Origins-Lite" concept? Would I spot Siegfried and Roy out walking the tigers? The answers were, respectively, yes; maybe; and mercifully, no!

The Trade Show takes place each year at the Orleans Hotel and Casino, one of the less expensive Vegas properties located several miles from the Strip. Airfare to Vegas in March was fairly inexpensive, as were the room rates [hey, the casinos want you spending your money at the tables, not worrying about double- vs. triple-occupancy!]. Compared to the cost of attending the Big Two gaming cons, the Trade Show was a cheap date! Las Vegas itself is an interesting study in public relations. It's emerged from its swingin', slightly seedy past to a glitzy family-friendly future. Can't afford to drop a thou at craps? Be a Klingon for a day at the "Star Trek Experience." Kids not welcome at the strip joint? Take 'em to see Cirque de Soleil's latest acrobatic extravaganza instead. Even if you're flat broke you can still see dancing fountains, sinking pirate ships, wizardly duels, and talking statuary, every hour on the hour, and all for free!

GAMA runs its Trade Show for two reasons: first, to provide a valuable service to its members; and second, to generate operating revenue throughout the year. The Trade Show grants manufacturers and publishers unfettered access to the many gaming retailers they hope to convince to carry their products. For smaller companies, it's a substantial investment, since the easiest way to get your product into the hands of a retailer is to give it away for free. "Here, take our newest d20 product, one of only thousands at the show. You'll love it, your customers will love it, my mortgage company will love it..." Deals are made, reputations trashed, insults avenged. The Industry's heavy-hitters like WOTC, Decipher and AEG take advantage of the captive audience to promote, promote, promote via sponsored dinners, open bars and all the usual trade-show boondoggles. It may seem low-key but it's serious business. Not only did I have to navigate these waters on behalf of Active Imagineering, I was also meeting my bosses at Origins for the first time [about which, see my upcoming column, "There's No Business Like Show Business"].

Fortunately, our mission was well-received. I got a chance to meet some of the nice folks who lent their support to gaming at WorldCon, people with whom I had exchanged phone calls and e-mails the preceding summer. I reminded them of those conversations about the need for an East Coast show and how it could be combined with advocacy for education and youth development. I'm proud to say that several major companies pledged their support to the effort with offers to sponsor, exhibit, run tournaments, etc. Many more offered a qualified "yes," depending upon the dates and venue. It was about as much as I had a right to expect and certainly much more than I had hoped for. I came back to Philadelphia with as much swag as I could carry and, more importantly, the green light to go ahead from those who mattered most.

Returning home to Philadelphia, I began to plan in earnest. My biggest problem, however, was in putting the cart before the horse. While the Active Imagineering Planning Committee was still discussing what kind of structure we should have and what features we intended for our convention, I began contacting individual convention hotels in the Mid-Atlantic to inquire about dates and rates. Before we were incorporated. Before we had a Board of Directors. Before there was any money. And I dragged my feet on getting all of the official paperwork completed. Why this backwards strategy? Because dealing with hotels is glamorous and filing applications is not! Riding high on the good vibes I took back from the Trade Show, I was eager to get going. I wanted quick results to show my Industry contacts that plans were moving forward. By courting hotels before I was really ready to deal, I may have "poisoned the well," as one advisor put it, making it necessary to do even more work later on. So all you other would-be entrepreneurs, both for-profit and non-profit, get all of your paperwork filed before you make representations and you won't have to backpedal later.

What kind of paperwork? Well, I'm not a lawyer and I wouldn't want anyone to rely upon my advice and later have cause to regret it. Plus, business law differs from state to state. Most colleges and universities with schools of business offer low-cost programs in entrepreneurship, however, and you can always visit your local bookstore or library to obtain a comprehensive written guide. If you need more help, there are numerous free or low-cost resources available to the small businessperson, from the Small Business Administration itself to the many federally-funded university-based small business clinics. For the non-profit org, there is a national organization called the Foundation Center which has regional affiliates around the country. The Foundation Centers will help you to identify sources of funding and often teach seminars on the process of obtaining grants. Putting together a comprehensive business plan is also a very good idea. Whenever possible, show this plan to as many experienced businesspeople and professionals as you can and ask for their input. You may also wish to pay an accountant to review it. You will need this plan anyway if you hope to obtain bank loans or grants. And the more you think about the harsh reality of finances - Where is the money coming from? How much will I need? How will I pay it back? - the better prepared you will be.

It's very easy to get carried away by the excitement of a new venture; it's natural to want to strike while the iron is hot; but strike too soon and you'll just get scalded. Get your paperwork in order before you start making promises so that you don't have to work twice as hard later on just to catch up.

As of this writing, I've met with a non-profit attorney and have most of my official paperwork submitted. The 501(c)(3) application will have to wait a while but that's okay because when the I.R.S. grants a new non-profit an "advance determination letter," it backdates the non-profit status to the day of incorporation. The next step for me, then, is to finalize the composition of the Board of Directors, which is still lacking a few members, to complete the hotel proposal, and to begin writing grant applications to fund our advocacy and education activities. We'll take up the some of those challenges in the next installment of "ConVocation."

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