Gen Con-style events, an extra hall: UK Games Expo mulls expansion options as it preps for its biggest, most international event yet

When the UK Games Expo first opened its doors in a Birmingham conference centre in 2007, it was co-organiser Richard Denning’s hope it could go some way to recreating the atmosphere of big name events such as Gen Con and Essen Spiel, albeit in a much-reduced form. About 900 excited gamers descended on the debut UK Games Expo that first year – a tiny portion of Gen Con’s 27,000 attendance a couple of months later. But aside from a cancelled show during 2020’s pandemic and two subsequent years of recovery, that attendance has been growing ever since, reaching a record 32,000 unique visitors last year. Denning has had a front row seat while UKGE ballooned more than 30-times in size – and says the 2024 event at the end of May will break records again after the team pushed the boundaries of what can be squeezed into its existing space across three giant halls of the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre.

UK Games Expo director Richard Denning

Denning told BoardGameWire that this year’s Expo has already signed up more than 600 exhibitors and co-exhibitors – well up on the 520 it hosted during the 2023 event, and a feat only made possible by the organisers stripping away as many areas of ‘dead space’ and storage zones as possible to claw back every available inch of floorspace. Despite that expansion the exhibition space has quickly become filled, with potential exhibitors at this stage having to sit on a waiting list and rely on dropouts in order to clinch a spot. Denning said, “We’re now looking at potentially moving into other halls and things, potentially for next year. We had a long discussion about ‘do we do it this year? Do we add on some more room at the end?’ But the trouble is that this close to the show a lot of exhibitors are sort of booking their space on the basis of an assumption about the layout… and if you’re sticking more space in a third hall, that never quite works.” He added, “Every time we do add a new hall on of course there are more costs, and so you have to be careful not to rush too much into that, because if you go too quickly, then well, obviously you could end up overspending on the space. And that might mean you haven’t got a show the following year! But we suspect that we will be expanding space in 2025. We’ll announce that further on in the summer I think, once we know what we’re doing.”

Chief among Denning’s hopes for future expansion is further growth of the show beyond its core experience of publishers demoing games – again citing Gen Con as an inspiration for where UKGE might be headed. Last summer the Expo hired its first dedicated events manager, in the hope of boosting its own events offering out of the hundreds and into the thousands – although nearing Gen Con’s 20,000-plus event schedule is probably still some way off. He said, “I’d like to see more growth of the events and different things for people to do that are unusual as well, and I think that’s where we’re going. That’s why we brought on this event manager, because we have seen that growth since the pandemic and such – a doubling, doubling again of booking into all these things, whether that’s going to see a live entertainment show, or playing in a tournament, or going to a seminar or whatever it might be – people like to not just wander around the trade hall and not just buy things and play demos, or play in the open gaming space, but actually have other activities that they can’t do just at home.”

UKGE attendees experience the Shut Up and Sit Down live show. Photo Credit: Ben Broomfield

Denning cited as an inspiration Gen Con’s True Dungeon – a hall-sized immersive dungeon crawl experience featuring life-size sets, professional actors and puzzles to solve, saying “I think it is certainly something which we would seriously like to look at doing”. Space and cost are ever-present bottlenecks, of course, and Denning said the Expo already works under a tight schedule to get the show dismantled at present – although he is in discussion about whether more freedom could be available in other halls that would provide the extra time needed to take down such a large entertainment offering. He said, “I like that more immersive experience of something that goes on all day and into the evening, with workshops and seminars and tournaments, and lots of events and live entertainment: more stuff than you could possibly do in three days, so that you’re thinking ‘I’m gonna come back again because I want to do that, tried to do that, I missed that, maybe next year.'”

Despite UKGE’s rapid growth in recent years, Denning remains grounded about the possibility it will keep expanding at the same pace – especially given the current macroeconomic climate, which has hit the budgets of publishers as well as consumers. He said, “No tabletop hobby show I’m aware of has been this size in the UK ever before… we’ve had that spurt, and are we flattening out, or are we going to carry on for a bit? There’s no actual way of knowing that really. Logically you think, well 30,000 individual people is only a very small percentage of people that could come to a show like this. And certainly the interest in these sorts of games seems to be growing across the population. So the expectation is, I think, that it probably will still carry out growth for a while. But I think it’s always best to be… not exactly pessimistic, but sort of cautious about that, and work on the basis that ‘let’s assume it’s going to be the same size next year’, then we’ll see where we go.”

Denning added, “I think it has been a surprise that we’ve continued to grow given the economic downturn and difficulties at the moment, and inflation and everything else. I think, probably what we’ll have to see this year is how well exhibitors do. If there was an element of concern, it’s ‘is that balance okay’? Because if there are too many exhibitors and not enough visitors, and the visitors aren’t particularly spending much money then ultimately, that’s not good for the exhibitors.” Denning said UK Games Expo’s producers picked up anecdotal evidence at the Tabletop Scotland event last August that attendees were still coming with lists of games to buy, but were perhaps only picking up one or two rather than a large shopping list of titles, given the pressures on household budgets in the current macroeconomic climate.

He said, “I think that there are probably budgets that people have got coming to these things and that, I think, might be a bit of a challenge, given the growth of the numbers of exhibitors – but I think probably what happens is people still see these events as a bit of a treat… they’re going to go to it, they’re going to save up for it, they’re going to budget it they’re going to make sure they get there, and hopefully they can budget for a bit of spending money while they’re there for games and things. We haven’t experienced any downturn in the size of the show or the growth of it and the number of people coming – what might be happening at the level of individual publishers is that maybe they’re struggling a little bit to get as many sales themselves as maybe they once did. And that’s something which I suppose will just sort itself out over time, you know – in some cases maybe they can’t bring out as many games quite as quickly as they once did.

The Open Gaming area at the UK Games Expo. Photo Credit: Ben Broomfield

“I think there’s honestly a question mark there and we’ll only know how well they’ve all done once we’ve spoken to them after the after the show. But then again, I thought it would be the case that [exhibitors] last year would have had a bit of a difficult time, and therefore maybe they’re not going to come this year or are going to have smaller amounts of space. And whilst we got a bit of that, we’ve also got those that come along wanting double the amount of space as they had. So I think it’s a very complicated situation going on amongst hundreds of different exhibitors, and some of them are having really quite a good time and some of them are struggling a little bit too, and there’s all points in between really. But I suppose that’s the challenge. Equally, the number of exhibitors has increased, so therefore, across the board, they must be doing all right. Otherwise, why would you come back?”

Denning said that as well as 2024’s Expo being the largest ever in terms of hall space and exhibitors, it is also likely to be its most international event yet – a welcome statistic given the frustrations faced by many non-UK publishers in the wake of Britain leaving the EU. He said it had been quite a challenge for publishers post-Brexit to work out new red tape and increased costs associates with customs barriers and trading in the UK. “That has made some individual companies coming to Expo a little bit reluctant”, Denning said, “and some of them they’ve taken a year or two to get back to coming, or they’ve had to work out how to do it. Often that means finding UK partners they can work with to make a lot of the paperwork aspect of things easier. But I think a lot of that’s happened now, so the internationals are sort of coming back in quite large numbers.”

UK Games Expo runs from May 31 to June 2 this year at Birmingham NEC.

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