Role Selection is an interview series in which we chat up folks who work, live, and play board games in a variety of ways to learn about the roles in the hobby they’ve chosen.
Character Name: Tony Vandenberg
Role: Convention Vendor and owner of Black Moon Games
Location: Lebanon, New Hampshire
First Games Played: Dragon Strike, Magic: the Gathering
Favorite Current Games: D&D (5th Ed), Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
Best Selling Games: Boss Monster, Mysterium
Quote: “The main point is that we want to go home with less than we brought.”
Character Bio: If you meet Tony Vandenberg at a convention, chances are he’ll be on his feet. The board and card game vendor knows you can’t meet new customers while sitting down.
All that standing makes for a long day, but it’s part of Vandenberg’s growing presence as a northern New England game retailer. A few years ago, after a game store Vandenberg had worked at moved out of town, his wife encouraged him to start his own business, and Black Moon Games in Lebanon, NH, was born. He’s turned hard work into success; this summer, Vandenberg opened a second location in Rutland, VT.
Conventions help Vandenberg expand his reach beyond his two stores. He goes to between six and eight shows per year, including Carnage Gaming Convention, Vermont Comic Con, and Granite State Comicon. And for each convention he goes to, Vandenberg – like other vendors – starts off in the hole.
The typical cost for two display tables is about $400, and that’s on top of a U-Haul to carry product and a hotel room where he can collapse at the end of the day.
But, as Vandenberg explains, there’s more to be gained while vending at conventions that what shows up on the register tape.
Tony Vandenberg: The main focus is, obviously, to sell things. . .But if my expenses come close to what I made, I don’t sweat it too much because the big thing about conventions is that they’re a good marketing tool. You go to Vermont Comic Con and there were tons of people walking by my booth, picking up my card and going, “Oh, you have a store in Rutland [VT] now – I didn’t know that.”
I bring a stack of business cards to each show, and…people grab them. I had people at Granite Con saying, “I live in Framingham, MA, and my local store won’t order me this RPG book; I’m willing to drive an hour and a half if you’ll get it for me.”
I don’t expect that, especially in the age of Amazon, and when people tell me something like that, I’m blown away.
Matt Golec: Nice!
TV: I always like to do a good load-out for a con, to have an impressive booth. If I didn’t bring a whole lot of stuff to a convention…I feel it’s almost like an insult to the organizers.
I like to bring a lot of stuff, I like to have an impressive booth, and obviously we do our best to have an impressive store. You get these people who aren’t near a game store. They find out about you through these conventions, and you can earn loyal customers that way.
MG: Tell me what goes into making an impressive booth.
TV: The main thing I tell myself is new stuff and little stuff. I always try to bring a good selection of small box games – Coup, Boss Monster, Exploding Kittens, Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert – those games will sell in greater numbers because they’re small. Especially if it’s a show like comic conventions with tons of vendors in the room, someone might only have $20-30 to spend at each booth.
Magic, you bring to every show no matter what. Magic always sells.
I also bring a lot of big box games, and I’m routinely surprised at how many of them sell, especially if you focus on newer things. I give a good six-month look at releases and see what’s new, what’s getting a lot of buzz.
Last year at Carnage, I sold three copies of Mysterium. I don’t usually go deep at conventions – I’ll usually grab one copy of everything. But sometimes I take a risk and say, “Okay, Mysterium is really huge right now, I’m going to bring three copies.” And they all sold, day one. They were gone. I could have brought six and sold them.
It’s part planning, but there’s always something we forgot that people want. . .But I plug the store and if they’re within driving distance I say, “Hey, I know we’ve got that back at the store, here’s my card.” Hopefully they’ll make the trip.
MG: How do you get people to come over to your booth?
TV: Well, I don’t go into full carnival barker mode.
MG: I would imagine that turns people off.
TV: Yeah, you don’t want to be roaming the halls trying to get people to your booth. But Granite Con was last weekend and my legs still hurt because I’m on my feet all the time. I don’t like sitting down when I’m doing vending gigs.
Everyone who comes near the booth, I say hi. Sometimes that’s all it takes. You ask how they’re doing, you make contact, and they’re probably going to stick around a little bit more than if I was just sitting behind my booth, staring off into space.
At Granite Con, my wife was helping me, and we took lunch shifts. I sat down to eat my burger, she sat down next to me, and I said, “You need to get up.” Because someone’s got to be up, talking to the customers.
You also want to have a good presentation. In the past, we’ve had a long row of tables, and you have all the games placed out – stacks and stacks of games. That’s often impressive, where people come over just because you’ve got so much stuff.
This year, we’re trying something a little different where I have shelving and a more store-like setting. You come in and browse the shelves. I’m going to try that again at Carnage, and hopefully that will be successful. I was always bothered by the ‘piles of stuff’ method, because you’ve got to shove stuff around just to get at it.
A Vendor’s Life For Me
MG: Tell me about the morning of a con. How early do you have to get up and pack the U-Haul?
TV: I usually load up the day before. . .These past few conventions, they have an extra day where vendors can load in because there’s so many of us. It takes us about two hours to unload everything, set up, and be ready to sell.
Generally they give you tables and chairs; anything extra you need to bring. Some people at the big conventions bring tons of grid wall. They make this whole store on the sales floor, which is really impressive. I don’t think you need to go that far.
But I like to bring in some shelving and we have little displays for the small games. You’re often working with very little space. Everyone has to fit in the same room, and so you have to maximize your space. That’s why I started doing the shelving, because I can go vertical rather than horizontal.
MG: Is it about the same two hours for breakdown at the end of the day?
TV: Breakdown goes faster. We just throw everything in a box, and there’s less stuff to put away, which is nice. This is kind of a metaphor for everything – destroying is easier than creating. When you’re setting up, you want to make sure everything looks nice, but by the end of the weekend, you’re just tossing stuff, saying, “Let’s get out of here!”
MG: How do you decide which events to attend? Is it distance, or cost, or size?
TV: We’ve been sticking to things that are fairly local to us. I haven’t done any convention that’s more than two hours from the store. I figure if we’re closer, you get that marketing aspect. Plus you’re talking to people who are in the region.
I might look into one of the Boston cons, maybe get a foothold there. But right now we’re focusing on Vermont and New Hampshire.
There’s a lot of other factors. You have to consider the costs, like what’s the hotel going to be, what’s the U-Haul, what’s the table fees from the con itself, all weighed against the expected attendance.
MG: Do you guys usually sleep over (in a hotel) at night?
TV: Yeah. Unless it’s really close. . .It’s easier just to stay, because then you can wake up the next day refreshed and go.
After a long day of standing, talking to people, moving games, I don’t want to have to drive an hour back, try to sleep, and then get up at 6AM to go back.
MG: What do you bring along for yourself to get you through the day?
TV: Usually I’ll bring some snacks so I’m not relying too much on hotel food, because that can be very expensive. That adds a lot to your expenses. I try to bring granola bars or Fig Newtons or something like that.
And a lot of coffee. That usually helps. You hit that 3 o’clock point and it’s coffee time.
MG: What advice would you give yourself about selling at conventions that you wish you’d known when you started two and a half years ago?
TV: Know your audience. Hauling a bunch of miniatures, for example, to the average show is not worth it. . .It ends up just taking up more room than it’s worth in the hopes that the random 40K player is going to grab some Space Marines.
For sales at the comic cons, it was a lot fewer big box games and more about the small box games and CCG stuff.
Dice do very well, but that’s any show. Always bring lots of dice. If I could give any advice to anyone who’s getting into vending conventions, it’s dice. You will sell tons of dice.
Surprisingly, I sold more evergreens at the comic cons than I would at [a dedicated game convention like] Carnage – meaning Catan, Carcassonne, etc. I would focus less on the specialty games that would sell to the die-hards here and more evergreens, more family friendly stuff. At the comic cons, I had lots of parents come up looking for games for their kids.
Another reason I like going to cons is that you meet so many people that never would have walked into your store. Even if never see them again, the next year you go back and say ‘Hey, I remember you!”
The next vending trip for Vandenberg is the Carnage Gaming Convention in Killington, Vermont on Nov. 4-6. After that, though, the New England convention season slows down for several months, during which time Vandenberg can focus on his retail locations.
Maybe he can even sit down for a minute or two.
For more information about Black Moon Games and their current wares, visit their webpage.
Matt Golec is game designer with a background in print journalism. Combining these skills, he aims to explore and give voice to the many different jobs within the hobby industry that don’t frequently get reported on. He can be best reached via Twitter.
You can discuss this article and more on our social media!
Photo Credits: Multiple Photos from the Black Moon Games site.