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Counter Talk


A hopefully regular column from one retailer's perspective.

(NOTE: For best effect, it'd be a good idea to read Sandy's capsule review of the GTS before you start. I make reference to a couple of points he brought up there.)

I had never been to Las Vegas before.

I went for the first time a couple of weeks ago for the GAMA Trade Show. For anyone who doesn't know, GAMA is the Game Manufacturer's Association. They are a trade organization. What exactly that means is one of the things they try to figure out every year at the trade show. Actually, they do what any trade organization tries to do: they run an annual trade show (pretty well, if you judge by this year.), provide information to members, and try to provide services that individual members might not be able to afford on their own, like Credit Card processing, group health insurance, and the like.

But back to Las Vegas.

I would be hard pressed to think of a better place to get the cream of the gaming crop together to indulge in three days of naked capitalism. The city is an RPG setting itself. Flying in on the plane, you can actually read the neon signs a half mile up in the air. Very Cyberpunk 2020. Once you land, you are quickly whisked past anything that might look like a place where you might not need to spend money and dropped at a hotel that has 6 restaurants, a 6-screen first run movie theater, an 80-lane bowling alley, and about 50,000 slot machines. Sorry it's so small, we're not on 'The Strip', don't you know.

My New England upbringing had not prepared me for such a place. But apparently, others were prepared. More on them later.

For the non-retailers reading this (and for the retailers who didn't attend), trade shows work something like this: you fly in the day or night before. You try to meet with whomever you actually know who might be there (Hi, Sandy!) before the show actually starts. If you're lucky, you get in early enough to go see 'the Star Trek ride'. If not, you ride around in a cab while they drop everyone staying on 'The Strip' off first. Then you go to sleep, exhausted from jet lag.

At the GTS this year, all of our breakfasts (which they quaintly termed 'brunch', because they didn't give us any time for a lunch) were paid for. Given that we were in a hotel/casino off the strip, it was good but not great. Eggs, fruit, hash brown potatoes, and cold juice made for the most vegetarian-friendly meal of the show, all three days. The catch, of course, is that all of the meals are paid for by manufacturers, which means that just around the time you're contemplating another glass of apple juice to wash the second half of your biscuit down, someone (or several someones, if they've split the cost of the meal) stands and gives you presentation. Just like at school. * Yawn *.

On Day 1, WOTC won points by buying us breakfast, standing up and saying something to the effect of, "Gosh, but we're glad you're all here. Enjoy the show." and then sitting the hell back down. They must have figured that retailers willing to spend several hundred bucks to get here would know who they were and have a handle on what their products were. Go figure. They also invited everyone at the show. That was a classy move, because all the other meals were paid for by companies who only let in retailers and their own employees. Would it kill them to feed an extra 50 people? I don't think any of the competition would sabotage their presentations or anything. For what it was worth, I offered to make 'Underworld Employees' out of my favorite manufacturers so they I'd have someone besides poor Sandy to bother for the rest of the meals.

So, stuffed and happy, we head to seminars. These are what you might expect: hotel conference room, various subjects, presentation, then take questions. I like these seminars, because I have a big mouth and am not afraid to monopolize the Q & A to whatever degree seems polite. With the large number of retailers at the seminars (something like 150 stores, with 350+ people present), I was lucky enough to come home with some tidbits I hadn't expected (like how cheap & useful an 800 number really is, for example). The only downside is that they ran the seminars simultaneously, so if you wanted to see two that ran at once (say Customer Service and Web Sales) you couldn't. I agree with Sandy's assessment that to run them more than once wouldn't be feasible. If I feel foolish enough, then I'll volunteer to get together enough cameras to tape them all, then set up VCRs in the lounge so retailers can watch them on tape at their leisure whenever. Any volunteers who are going next year and wanna help me with this, e-mail me.

Seminars end in time for the dealers hall to open. Been to GenCon? Been to Origins? Same idea, except the companies are focusing on interesting retailers in their products. So the dynamic is slightly different than what you see as consumers. Instead of stacks of the latest release to sell, and chicks to try and sell them to you, we get game designers, company presidents, and mock-ups of what we'll be seeing in three months if they can get it out in time for GenCon. this makes the pitches a little bit different. Basically, the manufacturers are showing their stuff off so that I'll go buy it from someone else. Oh, did I mention that the distributors are out for blood at these things?

The most aggressive pitches you'll see at these shows are from distributors. And most of the pitches are aimed at picking up new accounts. And since most of the attendees at these shows are established retailers who already have distributors, that essentially means wooing someone else's customer. So, the manufacturers don't give a lot of stuff away. They give it to distributors to give away. One distributor, who I've never used, gave me enough free books to pay for my trip. My regular distributors had a special offer if I prepaid for my order. Prepaying sucks. That's why you use a distributor, because they give you terms. What does this result in? You guessed it, I placed an order with the new guys. Of course, they also offer me the ability to make reasonable returns of unsold frontlist product, so I'm going to start ordering new stuff from them as well. Call me cheap, call me a whore, I can only hang my head and admit that, like any other small business, I can be bought.

After five solid hours of sensory overload, looking at roughs of unreleased books (Dragonball Z, anyone?) and avoiding talking to small press publishers who you really don't want to be rude to even though their games suck (and I'm not naming names here, sorry.), we get a half hour to clean up and then they feed us dinner.

Dinner is great if you're not a vegetarian. Apparently, massive hunks of whole cow are the cheapest way to feed large numbers of people. So first night meal is cheese, crackers, and wine from the open bar. Because of the half dozen restaurants downstairs I mentioned earlier, I'm not concerned. Someone makes a speech or something. I don't remember, honestly. Hint to next year's meal buyers?

After the meal, we convene in the conference rooms for more seminars and the like. On day 1, it's our annual Retail Division Meeting. The chairman, our representative on the GAMA board, tells us how spoiled and silly the manufacturers think we are. "Why those little." we all chorus. We generally agree that yes, we feel good about ourselves (the motion passes), business is good (not unanimous, but that motion passes, too), and that we'd really like there to be some open gaming, so we can learn to actually play some of these games the manufacturers have been pushing on us all day. Say, where are they right now, anyway?

They're at the 'Star Trek ride'. And playing blackjack. And poker. And wondering why I'm not willing to spend a lot of personal energy singling out their game to push in my store. Hmmm.

So, repeat the above for three days, getting more delirious and opinionated as the show wears on. All in all, well worth the trip. It made me feel like I was important somehow, outside my own little retail kingdom (NOTE TO MANUFACTURERS: A casually stated, "Oh, yeah, I've been to your store, I liked it, good shop" buys five minutes of my time for your pitch even if I think your game is not fit to line birdcages with). And that feeling that you're actually recognized in your industry is the biggest intangible reward that going to one of these shows generates. I'm looking forward to next year. I hope I can bring my wife. I think she'll like Vegas. She's a doctoral candidate in comparative literature, and Vegas is the most postmodern city I've ever seen.

Which brings us back to the only real downer of the show. Las Vegas.

It's cheap to get to. It's close by. Great food. In short, it's a cool place to be. Maybe too cool?

The second the dealer's room closed, the Dealers fled. To see the other dealers, the ones in the nice shirts downstairs. Last year in Miami, there wasn't a thing to do. The hotel was in the middle of nowhere. It cost a fortune to eat out.

But egad, did I play a lot of games.

In the dealers room, in the restaurant, in the bar (especially) and even in some of the hotel rooms.

The problem with this year's GTS demo room wasn't really a staffing problem. The staff was there. For the most part, it's the authors and designers of these game companies that attend GTS. What we have here is an attention span problem. It's like when my mom expected me to do Algebra homework when I had just bought Ultima 4. No dice, ma. Please, guys, no dice unless you're telling me what I need to roll on them to avoid crashing my starfighter into an asteroid.

And understand that if I see the president of one of my distributors sitting at a high stakes poker table, IT DOES NOT INSPIRE CONFIDENCE IN THAT DISTRIBUTOR!

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy as a clam that Guardians of Order won a grand playing blackjack. They can pay me for the book I'm writing for them. But I do need to know that the guys at ABC Games aren't betting their production budget on the come line. But again, a childhood in Connecticut does not prepare you for this sort of thing, so maybe that's just me. Down here, it's all I've got to go on.

But I suppose that on the whole, other than the proximity of the Seven Deadly Sins (and in part because of it), Las Vegas was a great place for the show. No, really. I'm certainly going back next year.

If only to try and finally go on that stupid 'Star Trek ride'.

Jim C.

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