It was hard to get a solid read on either the hobby game industry or the future of the show at the GAMA Trade Show this week at Bally’s in Las Vegas, with mixed signals on both fronts.  While show organizers told ICv2 that registration was up, a GAMA spokesperson acknowledged that attendance by established retailers was down, and the observations of most exhibitors seemed to confirm that trend.  “A good number of our regular attendees are not here,” Matthew Ragsdale of GAMA said.  “They said, ‘we’re taking the year off, the economy is killing us.’ But we have a lot of baby retailers here that are making up, and then some, that difference. Overall registration is up 10%.”


One factor in retailer attendance may have been the timing vs. New York Comic Con, which ended as GAMA Trade Show was kicking off a couple of thousand miles away, but other factors, including the economy, were probably also at work. 


On the other hand, floor traffic was steady, and exhibitors spoke of seeing retailers that were more engaged than in previous years, and less focused on scoring the freebies and leaving.  Some exhibitors said they were seeing just as many or more retailers as in previous years, and even those who said traffic was down were doing lots of business with the retailers they did see.  As one positive indicator, Bandai’s James Takenaka told us that attendance at their breakfast was up 20%, to around 300 from 250 last year. 


Concerns about the economy were prevalent at the show, with the price of gas and reduced liquidity due to housing troubles beginning to have some effects.  But as or more important than the actual impact of energy inflation or the reduction in housing values was the general angst caused by the relentless bad news in the media.  For example, one manufacturer told us that orders were down substantially from key retailers, but that when he spoke to them, they told him that they were cutting back on inventory more as a precautionary measure than because their sales were down significantly. 


Sales on two perennial drivers of the hobby game market were also sources of concern.  Magic sales were down last year (see “Board Games Up, TCGs Down”), and Dungeons and Dragons is in an interregnum period between the announcement of the launch of a new edition and its release.  Board and family games continue to grow in the hobby channel, which is providing some replacement sales for reduced sales in other categories, but for the industry to do well, Magic and D&D need to be successful. 


The local scene in Las Vegas provided illustrations of both inflation and recession.  We stopped at a convenience store the night we arrived, and watched as the person ahead of us in line prepaid for gas for his pick-up--$120!  And tourism to Vegas is down significantly, with lines of cabs waiting for fares even at peak times, half-full casinos, and hotel/casino layoffs already beginning. 


Sponsor support for GAMA Trade Show was down this year, with GAMA unable to sell the number of meal sponsors that it had in the past.  GAMA ended up providing some meals itself in order to meet its food and beverage minimum, which must have been a significant hit to show revenues vs. previous years. 


Organization management, faced with that problem, surprised both attendees and the GAMA board at the show with the announcement that in order to reduce costs, Bally’s space had been reserved for the week following Easter/Passover weekend for the next two years.  The reaction was swiftly negative.  “They’re saying they don’t care about religious people,” one exhibitor told us. The higher airfare costs associated with travel on the holiday weekend was also mentioned as a problem. Plans to extend set-up hours into later Monday night, and to move some programming from Monday to Thursday, did not appear to mollify the strong opposition from a significant percentage of both exhibitors and retailers.  As we left the show on Wednesday night, board members were planning to meet to attempt to find an alternate solution; we’ll provide more information on next year’s dates as we get it. 


Despite these issues, the over-all show vibe was positive.  GAMA Trade Show remains the most important gathering of the hobby game industry at the trade level, and as in years past, there was a great deal of positive inter-retailer communication, along with a chance for manufacturers to show new products and get feedback.  It will take some time for both the economic impacts on the game business and the changes to the show to play out; in the meantime, the show (and the business) goes on.