Did you know that Nokia was a paper manufacturer, Avon sold books door-to-door, and PAX started as an esoteric webcomic called Penny Arcade? Nokia and Avon have both receded from their height of cultural relevance, but PAX is more influential than ever as the host of some of the biggest gaming conventions in the world. In this article, I will give you some insight into PAX Unplugged (PAX U) so you can decide if it’s right for you to attend, or continue attending.
Originally PAX was focused on video games, with a small section dedicated to board games. In 2017, PAX debuted its board game-focused convention called PAX Unplugged. Despite scheduling conflicts with BGG.Con, PAX U got impressive attendance numbers. High attendance caught the attention of more exhibitors, and more exhibitors attracted more attendees (you can see where this is going). Getting accurate and consistent attendance numbers can be difficult, but with an attendance of around 30,000, PAX U is easily in the top three largest board game conventions in The USA.
I managed a booth at PAX U for four years, and during that time I saw two major benefits to exhibitors. 1. PAX U offers a more diverse attendance than some of the other large conventions in The States, and 2. It takes place during the holiday shopping season when there is a lot of gift buying.
When I say PAX U has a lot of diversity, I’m referring to the types of gamers in attendance. Gen Con and Origins, the two other biggest board game conventions in the US, have a high alpha gamer attendance. What I mean by alpha gamer is someone who frequents BoardGameGeek.com, listens to board game podcasts, and, most importantly, they check out as many new games as possible and introduce these new games to their friends and family. Getting your game into the hands of alpha gamers should be important to your marketing strategy, but it shouldn’t be your only strategy, IMO.
Yes, alpha gamers will be attending PAX U, but this convention also gets a lot of local families, video gamers, and general geek fans. PAX U does a great job of attracting a broader audience because it makes it easy to attend and participate. The exhibit hall and events will always be the biggest draws of a convention, but PAX U also offers a free open play area. PAX U has a huge area in the convention hall dedicated to open play and learn-to-play, with a large library. I highly recommend you give PAX U a couple of copies of your games to be included in their open-play library.
There are a lot of theories about why board games are so popular in the Midwest, but I believe those theories are outdated because board games are popular everywhere. If you only support gaming conventions in the Midwest, you’re neglecting huge populations of board game fans. Some areas of the US are harder to reach than others because you would need to support many small conventions, but PAX U is the best way to reach a large number of gamers in the North East.
In addition to marketing, PAX U might be a good convention for you if you want to make sales. Because PAX U takes place at the beginning of December, a lot of attendees are there to buy games for themselves and gifts for friends. If someone likes your game, there is a good chance you can sell them multiple copies of the same game. Running specials like “buy two and get 20% off” can be very effective at PAX U, especially for gateway games under $30.
Even with Holiday sales, making money at a convention can be difficult after you account for your expenses. Travel, lodging, booth space, and shipping will add up quickly. To make this convention more attractive to exhibitors, PAX U offers free drayage. This becomes even more attractive if you can drive your supplies to Pennsylvania yourself because you can unload and set up your booth yourself. Other fees still apply, especially for the larger exhibiting spaces, like advanced warehouse fees and union fees if you have features or a hanging sign that requires professional setup.
The drawbacks to PAX U are common to all conventions, time and money. These drawbacks might be exaggerated due to timing. The holidays are a great time to market your games, but it’s also the busiest time of year. Pulling yourself or your employees away from their regular responsibilities might be difficult or impossible. And although PAX U tries to make exhibiting affordable, it’s still going to cost a good amount of money to attend. Money this time of year can be tight, especially if you offer terms to your retail customers.
Trying to attend or have representation at every board game convention is nearly impossible. Attending smaller local cons might be affordable, but you won’t have time to do anything else. Attending all the large conventions is possible, but it will get very expensive, especially if you consider the international cons. In the end, each publisher needs to decide which cons to attend, but in my opinion, PAX U should be on your shortlist.