First Time at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair
This year I finally got the chance to visit and volunteer at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair (CHITAG). I will honestly say I’ve probably gotten the most out of this convention than any other gaming convention I’ve been to. Between the volunteering, conferences, the fair and networking there was so much to do.
I heard about CHITAG two years ago, but this was the first year I was in town for it, so I decided to reach out and see if they needed volunteers. The first time I went to GenCon I was working an exhibitor booth and I found that working a convention was my favorite way of being introduced to it. I went online to their website and saw the contact e-mail for the fair and reached out months in advance with my skill sets and availability since there were week-long events and I have a day job so limited time off. I later found out that a woman named Mary Couzin was the one receiving all the e-mails and telephone calls for the Fair because she was the creator and organizer. Due to her schedule and Nadine Sehnert’s I never knew if I was going to work CHITAG. Thankfully I went to an event at the Chicago Public Library and got a chance to meet Mary in person. She was wearing an CHITAG shirt so I asked if she worked at the Fair because I was looking to volunteer. I had no clue that the person I was asking had started CHITAG. She gave me some marketing materials and her phone number.
I called her the next day to see how I could help. At this point there was only 2 weeks until the Fair. After an hour-long phone call, I had committed to posting the event on various gamer sites, passing out flyers and coupons in the suburbs and working the fair Saturday from 7am to 6pm and Sunday from 8:30am to 7pm. I also ended up doing a few graphic projects. At this point I was ready to hang up the phone. My expectations were that I’d get a chance to work another convention and that would give me a chance to meet big companies I’d never had a chance to meet at GenCon, Origins or PAX Unplugged. But Mary is a huge supporter of everyone getting something for their work and so she asked me what my goals were. I told her I was working to be a game designer and my dream was to work full-time in the industry. I knew she hosted a 2-day conference for inventors which included speed pitching and a seat at the TAGIE awards show, but I had no idea that she was going to let me attend these events in exchange for my hours of volunteering. The original tickets to the Conference were out of my price range thanks to planning a wedding so being given this opportunity was unbelievable. Unfortunately, I had to miss the first day of the conference because I was out of vacation time at work. The parts of the conference I did have a chance to go to were informative and inspiring.
Tips for the Future on Volunteering
If they don’t contact you back it doesn’t mean they don’t need help. It probably means they are so busy they don’t have the manpower to respond right away.
Don’t expect anything in exchange for volunteering. If they do offer something that's just an added perk.
If you say you’ll do something do it! I drove two boxes full of flyers to local coffee shops, restaurants, toy stores, libraries and more.
Only commit to what you can handle. Overextending yourself doesn’t help anyone.
Bring snacks and water just in case! Staying hydrated is key.
Wear comfortable shoes. I was probably on my feet at least 5 hours a day.
Know your physical limits. I have back problems and sometimes need this reminder that I’m not Wonder Woman and it’s okay to ask others for help.
Stay happy and positive. You will get tired and event goers will annoy you or ask lazy questions like “where do I buy tickets”? When a booth has a huge sign that says Tickets right in front of their face. Making people feel stupid shouldn’t be your reaction to these questions. Just help them and move on to the next person.
Have fun and work hard! People will notice!
Inventor and Innovation Conferences
The conferences were a 2-day event with events each night that were included in your ticket. Sadly, I missed the first day but was able to go to the Thursday night mixer where I ended up meeting some other new designers, industry professionals and a few familiar faces. Like any other event people will hang out with others that they know. I walked in basically knowing no one and just started talking to people that looked as alone as me. Then I watched a group of girls playing another new designer’s game about finding the perfect man. I connected with a woman playtesting the game named Megan Hinterman Kanous. We had similar feedback for the game. We both believed the game needed to move outside the traditional idea of the perfect man. Why not add the perfect women or better yet, change it to the perfect person!? Games today are moving towards being more accessible to what is happening in the world and I love that! Sadly, the woman didn’t seem interested in the feedback. But that sparked tons of great conversation with many other people the rest of the night. Megan and I ended up knocking into each other a lot over the weekend. She introduced me to some great people and I later found out that she was on one of the panels I missed Thursday. Hopefully they video taped it. I appreciated her talking to a new designer.
Friday’s conferences were short but impactful. There was a speed pitching event, so they pushed to keep presenters on time. I can honestly say I’ve never seen so many eloquent speakers at one event. The work Mattel is doing to help kids and the environment is astounding. Between their braille Uno cards, inclusion in their newest Barbie lines and gender-flued doll line called Creatable World they are helping a new age of kids play. Not to mention their work to make plastic safe for the environment by creating them out of plant-based materials. If I wasn’t already excited to be apart of this Toy and Game Industry before, I am now! I could have been there for a week watching these long-time industry professionals tell their stories. But I had to get ready to speed pitch.
This wasn’t my first-time speed pitching. I was prepared to pitch 3 games in 1 minute. Which didn’t end up happening. Instead publishers visited booths and spoke with people who captured their attention. Most conversations didn’t last over 5 minutes. I met some amazing contacts during this event and got a chance to speak to some other inventors like me. I made sure to get a business card from any company that took the time to speak with me. Many of them appreciated my rehearsed pitch that was quick and concise. I only had two issues from this event, and both weren’t the host’s fault.
Issues During Speed Pitching
The table I picked to place my game on was on the side of the room that the sun came piercing through. I was sweating in my black blazer and companies had a hard time seeing my table with the sun in their eyes. Next time I’ll remember to factor the sun into the location of my table.
I had a booth on each side of me but the person on my left was a design student with a game that had one of the most annoying components. It shot a dart to hit fish. It was impressive but he didn’t care how often the fish or dart hit me, my table, the people I was talking to or the booth to the left of him. Not only was the dart distracting but he would constantly come into my space to retrieve it while I was speaking to someone. Companies were distracted by both him and the sun to the point of me needing to repeat things or they would just move on to a new location mid-conversation. As a designer/inventor we should want to succeed but not at the expense of someone else.
The rest of the conference had great speakers, Q&As and a helpful mentorship program called SCORE. If you are unfamiliar with SCORE they are a program that helps entrepreneurs by partnering them with mentors from around the area in similar industries. After the holidays I plan on joining the program myself!
TAGIE Award Show
After a small break we all met back up refreshed and changed to attend the TAGIE awards. This can only be described as the OSCARS’s baby brother that loves toys and games. It was formal, friendly and inspiring. Awards were given out to some of the most creative people in the industry. The lifetime achievement award stood out the most. A 91-year-old holocaust survivor named Ivan Moscovich was the recipient. I had learned about Ivan in my College German class. He was famous for his love of puzzles and math. His speech brought us to tears with his lasting message of “never forget”. The holocaust was a dark time in history but we need to remember it so we can learn from it.
We also witnessed another Young Inventor Challenge winner receive her award. This program Mary created has helped many creative kids get games published and kickstart their careers. The Marvel Game Wakanda Forever was designed by a past Young Inventor Challenge winner. He even named one of the Wakanda tribes CHITAG as a thank you to Mary! I wish I had known about this program when I was little. Any state can apply as long as you’re between the ages of 6 and 18. Every year this program grows, and Mary needs your help to make it happen!
Saturday and Sunday, I woke up early and stayed out late helping run the Fair under Nadine and Mary’s leadership. I met a ton of awesome volunteers from different backgrounds. Some that even flew in to help. We rotated jobs and helped wherever we could. On my break I got to walk the floor and see all the amazing companies that were there. I had to try so hard not to buy anything. I got jealous of the toys kids get to play with now. Frozen was advertising their new movie and giving out dolls, toys and costumes from the movie. The convention hall was much smaller than a GenCon but perfect for families. The convention is geared more towards kids, but I would enjoy spending a day there as an adult with no kids. It’s impressive how many huge company names attend this show.
If you are a designer CHITAG is a great place to pitch to companies you won’t see at GenCon, Origins or any other “gamer convention”. Since it’s a smaller more laid back event, companies have more time to meet with designers to possibly sign the next big game. I was lucky enough to be able to pitch to Big G Creative. A company that has put Bob Ross back onto the map with their games. They only attend 3 shows a year so they are hard to track down. Everyone at their company was great and we hit it off right away.
Through networking, Big G Creative introduced me to a Chicago based group called Let’s Play Games that staffs Game Masters for bar events around the city. Their CEO Nick and I will be working after the holidays to put together some events. Between both our connections we are hoping to one day put on a gaming event where all proceeds go to help people with Autism. Over the years I have prided myself on working with non-profits and charities. They have become a huge part of my life.
Every event I went to I was meeting new people, talking and passing out business cards. Since getting back I have reached out to every person who gave me their card to let them know it was a pleasure to meet them. The ones I spent more time meeting I included more personal notes. I’ve found success over the years by following up with people and taking notes on what they say. It has helped me in the past receive job offers and internships. So always carry a business card. You never know who you may be chatting with.
I tried to keep this short but there were so many great things about this conference and fair. I would tell anyone that they need to attend this Fair. You especially have no excuse if you live in the Midwest. Compared to GenCon a $15 ticket for entrance is nothing. Especially with all the coupon codes and $3 off flyers out there. If you’re a vendor and have programs that relate to kids, family, games or toys it is 100% worth getting a booth. There is a lot of foot traffic. I spoke with a few smaller businesses and they said they made back what they spent to exhibit. Next year I am hoping to help advertise months in advance to bring in more vendors and customers. Even if none of the games I pitched get signed from being at CHITAG I have a good feeling that something great has come from this experience. Hopefully I will see some familiar faces next year volunteering, pitching and exhibiting!