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Interview with UK Games Expo organisers
Please welcome Richard Denning and Tony Hyams, joint co-directors of the UK Games Expo. Richard founded the event in 2007 but Tony soon found himself involved. In 2013 the pair moved the event to the NEC Hilton Hotel as well as setting up a company (UK Games Expo Ltds) to run it, assisted by several managers. In this interview they answer questions about the convention.
This year’s UK Games Expo is May 30th to June 1st at the NEC Hilton Metropole.
Jonathan Hicks: Perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself, and tell us about your gaming history?
Richard Denning: I am a GP in real life and , when I get the time, a writer. I got into wargames around the age of 11 after seeing an episode of Callan in which there was a Napoloenic wargame going on. Soon afterwards I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller RPGs. Most school holidays were occupied fighting out some World War 2 campaign or other or else exploring dungeons. This carried on into university days. Whilst I did play board games in those days I discovered euro-style games in a big way around the early to mid 90s. So I have pretty much tried all forms or tabletop gaming.
Tony Hyams: I am a Christian minster (Rev) by trade and spend a good deal of my time preaching and teaching at churches around the country.
I had no idea about gaming beyond chess and traditional card games until I found copy of “Warlock of Firetop Mountain” stuffed in a Christmas stocking when I was 14. I bought and played all of the FF series of books and one day found a reference to a game called Dungeons and Dragons in the back of the latest Fighting Fantasy book. I asked at school and a mate said he had a copy of the basic set and so my gaming life began in earnest. I played every rpg I could find while dabbling with board games and some miniatures but rpg’s have always been my first love.
JH: Tell us more about the genesis of the UK Games Expo; when did you come up with the idea and how did you get it off the ground?
RD: In 2006 I helped to run a couple of gaming events in Birmingham. One was a wargames convention and the other an event called Game which involved a variety of organised play events. I had heard of Essen Spiel and Gencon (but never been) and I started putting out feelers about the idea of an annual event along those lines. Encouraged by conversations with a few board game publishers I soon afterwards attended Essen Spiel with Patrick Campbell and others. That was the trigger to organise the first UK Games Expo in 2007. I personally sent out thousands of emails and messages inviting gaming groups to attend. We attended dozens of conventions to promote the event. We then approached Easter 2007 and were getting desperate for a ticketing system to sell tickets from. That is where Tony comes in.
TH: I was sat in my office where I ran a small IT company as well as part time Christian ministry when I had a knock on the door from a friend. He asked if I could teach him to build a web based ticketing system. I said yes, he asked “In the next 4 weeks?”. I laughed, I can build it in four but not teach you in four, and thus I was introduced to the UKGE. A hectic four weeks later and an introduction to Richard and we had a system in place. That first year I designed and ran the ticketing system which was not helped by my wife going into labour the Friday night before the expo opened. I told her “You can’t have a baby now I’ve got the tickets and order packs to take to the expo in the morning” Apparently it doesn’t quite work like that. However tickets were delivered in the morning and my daughter the afternoon which I got to with 30 minutes to spare. The following year I was doing the ticketing, the programme, the volunteers and the rpg schedule.
JH: It’s obviously a huge job to arrange such a well-regarded convention. Can you give us an idea of what’s involved from day one to opening?
RD: Each year’s planning really begins even before the previous year’s show because we are always having to look ahead 2 or 3 years and think about dates as well as expansion. The week after Expo we sit down and work out how we did and confirm the following year’s event. We usually get a bit of a break over the summer but even then are in touch and chatting about things. By September we have started to design our Trader pack for the following year. We head off to Essen and sell trade space. From October onwards we start booking in traders. Over the winter I am in touch with potential guests and in January we start work on seminar schedules, tournaments etc. We go live with the booking system in March and are pushing and promoting everything. Mick Pearson is recruiting Volunteers and John Dodd has been busy getting all the RPG events sorted. I send and receive thousands of emails every year. Expo is really a second job for us – in particular for Tony and I.
TH: My work flow differs slightly from Richard’s. There is a reasonably sophisticated admin computer admin system that helps run the convention. Richard and I live 30 miles away from each other and other managers are scattered around the country. A central admin system that controls the information is essential.
In order to maintain and develop this software I start shortly after the expo finishes so it is ready to go in November. As Richard has already said things grow steadily from November onwards. The key is communication, communication between the expo staff, traders, volunteers and of course the gamers. It is keeping up with the volume of traffic that takes so long but also makes things work well. Richard and I both like to get things done as soon as possible so when the next task arrives we don’t run out of time. It’s manic and hard work but as they say “If it was easy, everyone would do it ?” 🙂
JH: I’ve run a small one-day convention myself and I had moments of frustration and near implosion; I even vowed never to do it again. The UK Games Expo is always a great success but there must be times when you want to pull your hair out, so what kind of pressures are there and how do you cope?
RD: There are huge pressures. Tony and I spend hours a week on Expo – increasing to pretty much every free hour from March onwards. As I said I am a self-published writer but the books tend to be abandoned for 3 months before Expo. I am just so busy that I have to book sometimes off work to manage the show. Many people seem to think we are a big organisation. We are not. There are just 2 directors and 4 other managers involved in the planning. That is all. We all have day jobs. In the end we do get a major buzz out of the event working. It still amazes me to see thousands of people turning up. That makes it worthwhile.
TH: There are two things that are difficult, one is frustrating the other makes you want to give up. As it has grown the knock on effects are what frustrate me the most. For example we had to switch from NEC car park E1 (next to the Hilton) to N2 because the NEC had a concert on the Saturday night. This not only meant we had to hire shuttle buses, an extra cost with no way to recover it, but had knock on effects for the Alien Laser Tag event. This is being put on the Hilton staff car park. No problem with E1 as the staff can park and walk to the hotel. Huge problem with N2 as we have to cover 24 hour hotel staff arrivals (more shuttles). A delay of a month, with costume/effects design on hold etc and just a huge amount of extra work to get back to where we were a month ago. The event is so big that every change can ripple through. The second one ? People who act as if we are trying to swindle them or do them a dis-service. We are gamers and both have jobs that are important to us. With all the time we put in it can be soul destroying when people post or email implying that we are just some corporate lackeys. However this is only a small minority but there are times we both feel the stress.
JH: The UK Games Expo covers a huge range of tabletop games so what can gamers look forward to this year?
RD: This year we seem to be attracting more international companies. Z-man games are back (they came last in 2008) and Zev is really cool. Lookout Games have a presence in an expanded Mayfair stand, Wattsalpoag return again and for the first time Steve Jackson Games have an official stand (not just demo space). Overall we have 20% more trade space and some 110 exhibitors which just means loads more to see.
TH: Paizo have show an interest in UKGE for the first time and are dipping their toe in with sponsored Pathfinder demos and a visit from Paizo staff. We have of course Alien Laser Tag which sees a return to a “Living” event like the “Living Dungeon” we used to run. More gaming space, more tournamnets, more seminars some great guests, Dragons Den for budding game designers and an expanded family zone.
JH: What are you looking forward to? What’s your personal favourite part of the event?
RD: I actually really enjoy the setup. There is a sense of excitement and camaraderie when we pick up the vans and start loading stuff on the Wednesday. But once we walk in on the thursday and the trade halls start to take shape Friday it just builds. Oh there are stress moments when some trader thinks they booked a bigger stand or something but I love seeing the stands fill up. But I think for me the best time its walking around Saturday afternoon when it is all up and running and 3-4000 folk are just having fun – it’s that moment I love.
TH: I’m not so keen on the set up. This could be because I am responsible for the trade room mark up.
Every stand has to be precisely (within an inch) marked up in the correct position and size. This has to happen from Thursday night, so last year didn’t finish until 5:30am. Saturday afternoon is I think the sweet spot for both of us. By then we have pretty much done all we can, the rollercoaster has gone over the lip and we are just riding the ride. What will be will be. I haven’t told anyone but I love going round on Sunday afternoon with the awards results to tell the lucky winners. I don’t always get to do it but it makes me very happy when I see how delighted the winners are. It’s not the public ceremony but that first time they know.
JH: What do you see in the future of the Expo? Bigger, longer, maybe more frequent? Or are you happy with it as it is?
RD: I think it can grow. I see no reasons why 10,000 attendees is not possible one day. I want to see Friday get more important and see more people arrive then. We have no immediate plans for 3 days of trade but its not impossible. But traders seem happy with 2. I honestly could not do 2 shows a year and manage the day job. BUT I could see it get bigger and maybe a little longer in time.
TH: In the small hours of some of the winter mornings, (3am) when Richard and I are working expo stuff through on Skype we talk about how it could go. The truth is we are both surprised each year how much it grows. There is always a feeling that someone who knows what they’re doing will be along in a minute to take over. I don’t think you can go more frequent, players don’t have the holiday and we wouldn’t have the time. Bigger, yes, games are starting to become more mainstream it is possible for it to break 10,000+ which would be mind blowing for a UK games convention. We are never happy with it as it is. I don’t think that is in either of our natures to settle, it can always be done better, bigger with more cool events, guests and above all games. Three full days is definitely a goal and one we are working on by trying to pack more into the Friday.