Guests of Honor at Conventions

7 June 2016 | 44 Comments

This topic veers a little bit away from crowdfunding, but it’s still in the same realm of building community.

Over the last few years, I’ve been completely flattered by upwards of a dozen conventions asking me to attend as their guest of honor. The request means a lot to me–never in my life did I think I would be the type of person that people or conventions would want as their special guest.

Most of these conventions have offered to pay for me to attend. Usually this involves a plane ticket, hotel, per diem for food, and a convention ticket. In total, this is anywhere between $300 and $800. In exchange, they don’t ask for much more than my attendance and perhaps a special event or two.

I’ve turned down all of these requests.

There are various reasons I’ve done this, but this is the biggest of them: I don’t think my presence is worth the convention’s investment.

Here’s how I look at it: Conventions probably have various reasons for investing in guests of honor. Maybe it’s pride, legitimacy, tradition, etc.

But at the core of the idea is that conventions are investing in a person whom they believe will be an attraction for attendees. Not just a fun attraction, but someone who will drive ticket sales. A great guest of honor inspires people to buy in to a convention that they wouldn’t otherwise attend.

That’s where I just never feel right accepting a guest of honor invitation. I know that my presence will not increase ticket sales, so I’d rather just attend as a paying guest (if I’m able to attend). I have fun playing games with people and talking to them about games/Kickstarter/kittens, but I don’t feel right having people pay for that.

In fact, I would wager that there are very few guests of honor who actually drive people to attend conventions that they weren’t already planning to attend. Have you ever done that?

Let’s run a little poll to find out–I’m genuinely curious about the results. I could easily be in the minority here. Perhaps you have some other thoughts about guests of honor as well. Feel free to share in the comments!

44 Comments on “Guests of Honor at Conventions

  1. Jamie,

    While your point is valid, I think the tradition of guests of honor will continue. As such, I think you are as good of a choice with as much to contribute as any guest of honor I have seen at a convention.

    Of course, you have much more community engagement than most, so dragging you in as a guest to get you engaged to the attendees is unnecessary.

    1. I don’t attend many conventions. At one I did attend, they had a big time euro designer. I was too was busy play testing to listen. I “forgot to go”, and forgot his name. This might be just me as a designers. These comments left by normal people will bring value.

      I think someday there will be game boxes signed, as a paid signing, like movie stars. This might exist but again…

  2. Depends on the type of convention. If it’s GenCon or Origins or what have you, then no guests of honor have no impact. There’s 1000 reasons to go (or not) and Guests of honor don’t weigh on my choice.

    But for a smaller convention, say Geekway, if there was guest of honor, and there were interesting ways of engaging with them, then it might have an impact.

    1. Khyle: That’s a good point that the size of the convention may matter. Last year, Geekway had Zev (of Z-Man Games) as their guest of honor. It was cool to see him wandering around and playing games, and I got to talk to him a few times. However, I wonder if anyone attended Geekway solely (or largely) because Zev was there.

  3. I can very much see your side of this conversation but for me I am looking at the customer service side. Does an announcement of a new guest bring me in, most likely not. But if I see the convention that I am already attending trying to bring in great guests I see that as service to the customer and promise to those that are here, and those that are thinking about attending in the future, that they are trying their hardest to make a a great convention for the guest. A convention that will make me want to come back year after year. I see the guests of honor as more of a long term investment to a con. I have certainly looked at past guests of a con when deciding if I this was a convention I would like to go to.

    1. Tor: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. That’s an interesting way to look at guests of honor as a long-term investment, that it’s more a matter of hindsight (“Wow, I had a great time at Convention X, and it was cool that Special Person A was there–I can’t wait for next year!”) than foresight.

  4. I think you are partially correct. I doubt very much that someone will, out of the blue, decide to start attending conventions because a particular designer happens to be there. However, there are many conventions to choose from….and I could easily see myself (or anyone else) deciding to attend a particular convention over another due to the Guest of Honor. I would assume the hope of the convention would then be that the person finds other great things about the convention that would induce them to be a repeat visitor.

    1. @bubbazippy: Sure, definitely. That’s what I was aiming for under this poll response: “Yes, I’ve attended at least one convention that I wouldn’t have attended if they didn’t have a specific guest of honor”. I’m not saying it’s the sole factor you might attend a convention or choose one convention over another, just that it’s the deciding factor.

  5. Jamie, I’m completely on the other side of this one. I attend a fair amount of conventions every year both for pleasure and for work. As a game developer I always look forward to who the convention can bring in, whether it be for panel discussions, opening ceremonies, or even just an autograph both. I’m interested in people like you showing up because it gives me a chance to make a connection with a “virtual mentor/peer”. These experiences can not only help someone like me in my trade, they can often be energizing and emotionally affirming.

    To say that you don’t think you’d draw an audience, is crazy to me. Not only would I want to attend a convention you where a guest of honor at, I’d love to go to a convention that was full of Jaimes.

    My day job is in video game development and every year I’m enough to attend the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. This is a convention specifically geared towards video game devs improving their craft. It’s amazingly informative, honest, and inspiring. To my knowledge there isn’t such a thing for the card and board game industry. If there where, I’d expect you to be at the top of the guest list every year.

    1. Joe: It’s helpful for me to hear from some on those opposite end of this spectrum! Thank you for sharing.

      One thing to note is that I’m not saying that, say, game designers shouldn’t attend conventions. Like, I recently attended Geekway to the West. I paid for my ticket and hung out with strangers, backers, and ambassadors pretty much the whole time. Perhaps some of those people found value in that connection. But the convention didn’t have to pay me to do that–I did it because I love Geekway. (Though maybe I’ve answered my own question there–if a convention pays for a guest of honor, maybe that person will have such a good time that they’ll attend in future years as a paying guest.)

      I do have some empirical evidence about the audience I can (or cannot draw): Last year at Geekway I hosted a roundtable discussion about Kickstarter. The convention had about 1600 attendees, and 20 of them showed up for the discussion (and a few of them were friends). That was a big signal to me about the minimal impact I have on conventions. And I’m fine with that–I’m fortunate to have other platforms to connect with people.

    2. This was sort of what I was thinking as well. If a con somewhere was running a panel track about taking your game idea through the process of design, development, and publishing through Kick or other means, Jamey would be an excellent guest to have on those panels. The nature of this hobby doesn’t lend itself to very many of the “come out and get your stuff signed” type creators in the way more traditional media does though.

  6. It’s an interesting thought. A couple years back I decided to go to Archon (across the river in Illinois) partially because Eric Lang was the guest of honor. I didn’t know much about Archon at the time, but the fact that they had a board game guest of honor told me that they did have a board game presence there.

    The convention in general had less of a focus on board games as I was anticipating, but the Eric Lang definitely made it worthwhile. We went to his events, but more than that we got a lot of great one-on-one time with him. Since there weren’t a lot of gamers at Archon, he ended up spending a lot of time with us over the weekend just hanging out.

    This is back when Mystic Ape Games had barely just started. He played our first prototype and gave us some very honest and constructive criticism. We got to play two of his prototypes. He taught me how to play Ra, shared a lot of great stories, and gave some very helpful advice.

    It definitely made the con for me, and I’ll always remember that. So I think there’s value in it. Even if it doesn’t sell tickets, someone may get an interaction through a panel or event that they wouldn’t have pursued otherwise.

    1. Austin: That’s awesome! I can see that a big name like Eric Lang (who I’ve heard also has a great, sociable personality) could draw people in, and I’m glad you had a good time with him.

  7. While I have little experience with game conventions, and none as an organizer, I think they could easily take a page from other professional conferences and move to an invited speaker model.

    Invited speakers are typically given a free registration/conference badge but have to pay their own expenses otherwise. This can be a good way to fill out panels with speakers people want to see at a relatively low-level of investment for the conference organizers.

  8. Jamey,

    You have humility to spare, my friend. I absolutely see your point, and while you may not feel as though your arrival as a guest of honor may not drive ticket sales, I would argue that there are many folks who would love the opportunity to simply spend time with you…in the role as of guest of honor, panelist, or at the SM table.

    Hopefully, I’ll either get out to St. Louis, we can meet-up back here in VA, or another place in the geekdom.

    Cheers,
    Joe

    1. Thanks Joe! Hopefully I’ll have more time in the coming years to travel to conventions as a paying guest. That way I can play games with people who want to play games with me, and I can feel good about it since the convention isn’t paying for my ticket. :)

  9. Hi Jamey,

    I think you’re selling yourself a little short here. Depending on the size of the convention, you might very well be a significant draw.

    Though maybe more importantly, you seem to be deciding “no” based on your own interpretation of the viability of the convention’s investment. By saying no, you are taking that decision out of their hands.

    Either way, I remember how disappointed I was that I could not meet you at Origins last year (not a knock on you, I’d never been to a convention and in my naivete, I thought that all publishers attended all of them) and I could totally see someone being excited enough to meet a particular publisher that they’d go to the convention just for it.

    Andrew

    1. Andrew: My experience hasn’t been that I’m a significant draw, but perhaps that has changed or will continue to change.

      I may be underplaying the impact of time away at a convention on my decision to not attend, as it does play a role. However, I hope that someday I’ll have more time to go to conventions like Origins. My favorite style of convention is Geekway’s model, where people pretty much just play games the whole time.

  10. I once tried to tell my father-in-law he didn’t have to help up so much with money and didn’t have to help with our school loans and be so charitable, etc. I was trying to tell him I was very grateful, but that he didn’t owe us that. He said to me, “I understand what you’re saying, but it’s my money. I’ll spend it with grace, and you can accept it with grace.” And so I just said, “Yes, sir.”

    My point is, your humility is honorable, but at the end of the day, it really isn’t your position to determine what is in the convention’s best interest. They have a staff who decides those sorts of things, and if they’ve extended the offer, then there’s a reasonable number of people who do think it’s worth it. And if it falls flat on its face, you won’t get invited back. LOL

    At any rate, echoing what Joe Pilkus wrote above: there’s lots of people who’d love a chance to hob-nob with you, myself included.

    1. Geoffrey: Well said by your father-in-law! I get that it’s the convention’s position to decide how to spend their money, and perhaps I need to learn to respect that more…but I think my feelings are still valid too. :) If someone pays for me to do anything (make a game for them, write a book, attend a convention), I want to feel like I’m giving them their money’s worth. And I don’t feel that way as a potential guest of honor.

  11. Jamey:

    I concur with Joe M above. Conventions are big money ventures these days as reported in a number of places:

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjZk7HappTNAhVB54MKHbNuAdIQjRwIBw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmy.xfinity.com%2Fslideshow%2Fentertainment-worldshighestpaidcelebcouples%2F3%2F&bvm=bv.123664746,d.amc&psig=AFQjCNGjZl4uXgTcb5Y9CpHtb418SuyKyA&ust=1465333461211438

    and

    https://icv2.com/articles/columns/view/28561/more-numbers-behind-convention-boom

    And in exchange, attendees demand access. Sure, they want to see product, games, comics, etc., but some are coming to see William Shatner, or Ed Brubaker, or, well, you. Us “regular joes” will not and would not hold it against you to accept an honorarium to attend a con. Of course, the organizers and attendees will all, then, demand some access and a part of your time as part of the exchange.

    Maybe your approach better first your model. Frankly, I am still amazed and encouraged by your complete openness and transparency about the processes and talents you have cultivated all these years. But, that does not mean that meeting you in person would not serve to give and take a little form both involved in the exchange, and further cement your model as one of the most accessible and interested(and -ing) game designers and entrepreneurs in recent history.

    Keep doing what you are doing.

    1. Stu: Thanks for your thoughts and your kind words. It’s helpful for me to hear that convention attendees like you don’t hold it against me (or the convention) to pay for guests of honor.

  12. I think you are selling both yourself and convention goers short. Unless you are socially inept, have severe issues with speaking in public, etc., it is a great opportunity for you to get more exposure. From a business point of view, any chance you have to get your message in front of people is a plus. That you don’t think you are worthy of this is a little off-putting, really. And this gets into selling convention-goers short.

    There is always a subsection of convention attendees that either have a business already or who are thinking about it. You have information that could make their lives easier. I, for one, don’t like making mistakes that others have already made if I can avoid it. There is a lot to running a business that I don’t know and I’m always looking for information to improve my abilities. You have (some of) that information.

    Would I attend a convention because *YOU* were there? No. Probably not. But that is not the point. If it is something I can fit into my schedule, I’d go to a seminar you are running to get information. THAT adds value to the convention from my point of view and makes my time better spent at that convention. Sure I could play in a game instead…but I can also do *that* at any convention. In a large sense, playing games is not a draw for anyone to go to a convention because you can do that anywhere. Including in your own house or at the local gaming store. Yet we go anyways.

    Only 20 people showed to seminar you ran at a convention of 1.6K. What is wrong with that? That was 20 people you got to talk to, meet face to face, form a relationship with, and who will now go out with knowledge that you had AND have a positive experience with your company. And all you had to do was spend a couple hours with them and give them the benefit of your time.

    Which brings up another point…. Your time has value. Conventions understand that. They don’t just look at this as a “celebrity” will draw more people in, thus making up for the expense of flying you in and paying for your room. They also look at the overall value of having someone with an area of focus engaging with their attendees and understand that your time has value (you could be at work coming up with a new game that weekend instead of leading a focus panel). So they offer you 300-800 worth of value to compensate you for your time.

    In short, I think you are discounting an opportunity that would help yourself as well as convention goers. Now, if you just suck at personal interaction that interacting with others would do HARM to your business and to the convention, that is something else. But based on what I’ve seen on your blog, i find that hard to believe.

    Take the chance. Accept a few offers. Don’t worry about how many people show up. Tell your story. Interact with people. If everyone gets up with a look of, “well, this was a waste of my time”, then stop. If they get up with a smile on their face and some thing to think about, then you’ve done your job.

    1. Hrothgar: I certainly don’t mean to sell attendees short. And I’m not saying that I’m not worthy. (It’s odd that you would be offput by something I didn’t say.) I’m saying that the ROI of a guest of honor–me, in this example–doesn’t equate to the expense. I may not be the life of the party, but I still have fun playing games with people.

      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with 20 people attending the roundtable discussion–I’m very grateful they attended, and it was a good use of my time. Hopefully they walked away with some ideas about Kickstarter that they didn’t have before the discussion.

      I think you’re somehow reading this post and my comments through a lens that isn’t needed. Please just take my words at face value.

  13. I think your also overestimating the money they are spending on you. Even pricing it at $1000 for travel expenses, and converting that to 2 hours of your time on a panel. $500/hr for a paid speaker is peanuts to these sorts of events. The exchange here is your time for more exposure/advertisment/excitment of your products. Also these conventions need events to fill in the time people spend at them. In my eyes your main decision is, does x convention provide a big enough chunk of your target demographic to justify you 1-3 days there. Obviously some modifiers in there for: do you want to attend anyway, how busy are you during this period, how much travel is required. If the events didnt draw people, the conventions wouldnt spend time/money setting them up.

    1. Tony: That’s an interesting way to put it: “does x convention provide a big enough chunk of your target demographic to justify you 1-3 days there.” That is something I consider when choosing to attend a convention.

  14. I’ve been an expenses-paid invited guest at a fair number of Anime conventions. The way I do it is I try to make myself available to the convention attendees as much as possible, and in particular give them a “behind the scenes” perspective on the industry and the process of “making the sausage”.

    Conventions have guests not just to increase sales, but to provide opportunities for interaction and inspiration. A single conversation you have with a con-goer might result in them being a guest-of-honor a decade down the line.

    As long as you make an effort to be available, accessible and amenable, it’s a fair deal.

  15. at other geek-centric (not-gaming) conventions, guests of honor ARE the big draw. I went to a lot of star trek conventions when I was a kid and it was mostly in order to interact with the celebrities or at least hear them give a talk or whatever. having guests of honor in gaming conventions may just be a carry-over from that practice.

  16. Jamey,

    I think there are multiple reasons that a guest of honor is invited to a convention, but I think that one of the primary reasons would be that you, as a guest of honor, can offer your perspective and insights from the niche that you occupy in the gaming hobby. I was at Geekway last year and saw Zev , and felt that it was a wasted opportunity, because he seemed to be wandering around trying to figure out what he was doing there. If the convention allows you formal opportunities (workshops) to interact with others (sharing your KS insights, offering advice to novice designers, getting feedback from players on your games) then I see your presence as valuable to the convention–and even to you. If the sole purpose of your presence is as a passive celebrity, then I feel it will be a wasted opportunity. Having interacted with you on a few occasions, I think you underestimate the positive influence you can have on the hobby. At this year’s Geekway, I was gaming with a fellow who was very excited to have had the chance to play his prototype with you–and he came back to report to us afterward that you gave him some valuable information regarding his game. Hope you reconsider.

    Craig

    1. Craig: Thanks for your comment (and it was good seeing you at Geekway, albeit briefly and in a very crowded room!). Last year at Geekway I did host a roundtable discussion about Kickstarter, and it was okay, though I honestly prefer the more organic interactions that come from just wandering around and playing random games with random people. Now that I think about it, I think that’s what Zev was trying to do, but maybe people didn’t realize they could invite him to play a game. I think I would probably look very similar to Zev in that situation. :)

  17. I read your blog post today with particular interest. My wife and I run a newer game convention, we’re about to go into our third year of it, and we’ve recently asked a person to be our guest of honor for this upcoming year (something we haven’t done in past years). So we’re looking at that issue for the first time.

    As I read your post, two things stood out the most to me. That you didn’t see your presence as being worth the convention’s investment, and that conventions have guests of honor to drive ticket sales. I wanted to give some feedback on those, though I didn’t want to post on the blog, mostly for reasons of length. This is going to be a bit rambly, I hope you don’t mind.

    As to being worth the investment to a convention, you provide an immense value to the gaming community, in the terms of games you’ve published, your blog, your videos, your positive attitude, advice and help. You have knowledge that most people out there don’t, through personal experience and through being able to put as much time and energy as you seem to have invested into the game industry. Your insight, experiences and guidance would be a welcome asset to anyone looking to get into game design and everything I’ve seen/listened to/read has indicated that you’re a friendly, easy and good person to deal with.

    That sort of brings me to my next point. I’ve always taken an unconventional view on things, and the convention we run is no exception. I didn’t think so much towards what would sell tickets when I was looking for a guest of honor, or when I’ve invited people from the industry in the past (not technically as ‘guests of honor’ but as just letting them know we’d be glad to have them there). I think of what the people attending get out of it, and what the guest gets out of it.

    For more experienced gamers, this might be a chance for them to meet someone they idolize. In so many other industries, you don’t get to meet the celebrities of your world. I’ll never be able to meet Liam Neeson in person, but I might someday be able to shake hands with Richard Launius and tell him how much I’ve enjoyed playing Arkham Horror. I may read 100 posts talking about game design, but the one time I see Reiner Knizia in person and listen to his experiences is going to stand out.

    For the newer gamers, they may have never thought beyond their local gaming group. There are designers, but they’re nebulous beings that they don’t think about. This is an eyeopener, there’s a person behind that game! They’re a person just like me! And like me, they started out playing around with the rules to a game and thinking how cool it was to pretend to be a designer.

    For the guest, they’re getting a chance to get some more publicity and advertising, building their brand name, they can share something they love with different people, enjoy their time at a convention, maybe even find some more inspiration.

    When we asked someone to be our guest of honor (and we haven’t heard back yet, so not sure how that’s going to go), I said that I’d like him to run a couple of games that he’s designed. Beyond that, I want to let him do what he’d like to do. If he wants to do a Q&A, a lecture, talk about what he’s got coming up, or just play games and enjoy himself, it’s up to him. I think it’d be a treat for people either way.

    The ticket sales doesn’t matter at all to me. Our convention is about getting back to the basics of playing games, of building stronger communities and families by providing a fun and friendly environment to play games and meet people. We’re a destination convention, right outside Bryce Canyon National Park, which offers free admission typically on the last day of the convention. We planned for that weekend so people could visit the park on their way home. We’ve worked it out with the hotel so that the attendees get free ice skating, there are ski and snowshoe rentals available at a really low price, indoor pool and hot tub, etc. The room rates are rock bottom. All of this was made so that people could bring their families and enjoy themselves together.

    What I’ve found is that at any given time, only about 50% of our attendees are actually in the gaming area, and that’s just fine by me. They’re enjoying things as a family. I should point out my perspective is different on this than most convention organizers. I work at the hotel we hold the convention at, and an experience I had there is a huge part of why we started it. I was at the front desk one day and looked in the lobby to see a family of 4-5, parents and kids, all glued to their phones/electronic devices. On vacation together, in a beautiful area, outside of a national park that draws over a million and a half visitors a year, they sat for over an hour in silence, connected not to each other, but to the internet or app games. I thought about all the family vacations I took as a kid, and how we played games with each other during any idle time and hated seeing what I saw in that lobby.

    That’s what started us on this journey. If anyone said to me they’d like to be at the convention, but they couldn’t afford it, I’d let them in for free without a second thought (and it’s something that I’ve had happen several times). I don’t care what we make from it money-wise, I just care about the experiences of the people we’re able to reach.

    To try to draw this all together, I would love to run into you at a game convention someday, it’d be awesome to be able to play a game with someone who designed it, or a game that person really enjoyed (even if it’s not one of theirs). I think, from that perspective, that maybe you should take up some of the offers to be a guest of honor, because you do bring that value to the convention.. but far more than that, you could bring that much value to the person you meet at a gaming table who might not have ever gotten to meet you otherwise. Or to the person who listens to you discuss your experiences in a panel and is inspired to walk in your footsteps.

    I apologize for making this so long, and hope you were actually able to get through it all. Just wanted to share some thoughts on the guest of honor topic.

    1. Gary: I think my favorite thing about your comment is that you occasionally reach out to invite specific people to BryceCon. I really like that. I’m sure different people feel different ways, but I would much prefer an invitation to be a paying guest than an invitation to be a guest of honor. I still have to say no most of the time because of time constraints, but for some reason that type of invitation sits better with me.

      Thank you so much for sharing your perspective as a convention host!

  18. Usually no, but depends what the guest of honour does. If they are there purely as a spectacle to assuage the ego of the fanboy/fangirl organisers (who I think drive the majority of this behaviour) then I couldn’t care less. If they are there to deliver a keynote or present something (no matter how self-promoting it is; I expect some of that) then I’d be interested. Different conventions want to get different mileage out of their guests.

  19. Jamey, you would be a draw for me as a headliner at a convention. I would rather know you were there in an official capacity than as a paying guest like me. I, like many of my gamer friends, am shy and knowing that you were there as a guest of honor would make me feel like you were more accessible for some reason. Maybe it’s because I would feel like I would be wasting your valuable time if I happened to stumble across you at a convention. Knowing your openness and interest in community from your blog, I assume you would be OK with it, but I would still be nervous about just walking up to you and talking or trying to join a game you were playing.

    In retrospect, it seems you and I are suffering from the same condition. You don’t think your presence is worth the convention’s investment. Likewise, if you were just a paying guest, I would be worried that your personal investment in the convention is more valuable than time I might take away from you by interrupting.

    My solution: You resolve to let them pay for you a couple times. Recognize that you are a commodity whose value has been going up quite a bit over the last few years. You are no longer that guy who just sold his first game. You are an industry driver with a powerful voice in our community. Help the shy masses hear it.
    Me, I resolve to recognize my value as a consumer and community member. I will walk up to a couple of my heroes at a convention and try and strike up a conversation and maybe play a game or two.

    1. Matt: Thanks! That’s nice of you to say. It’s interesting to hear from you and a few others that having me as a guest of honor would make me feel more accessible. I can assure you that I always enjoy people coming up to me to say hi. I’m not shy, but I have a little anxiety about initiating conversations within crowds, so it’s always very helpful when someone indicates they want to talk to me or play a game.

      I like your solution (both sides of it)! :)

  20. Just wanted to point out that if I knew you would be a guest of honor at a convention that was not too difficult for me to get to, I would make a bigger effort to go to it. It would be an honor to meet someone who has your level of community engagement and respect.

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