Front Desk Madness, or the non-existent “I just want to look around” badge

Front Desk Madness
For illustration purposes only.. most people are perfectly nice.

“I just want to go shopping”…

“I’m not here to game.. I just want to hit the flea market and vendors”

“I don’t need a badge, I’m just here to…”

Having just come back from probably one of the cheapest gaming conventions of any size in the United States of America (HISTORICON 2011), and having worked the desk there, it still amazes me to read the caustic criticism conventions get online for not letting people in for free just to (quote) “just look around”.  On the Miniatures Page, the be-all and end-all for miniature wargaming arguments, there was an after-action thread on HISTORICON which actually took HMGS (who puts on the show) to task for not letting a thread poster in for free, because, presumably, it costs HMGS nothing to let him shop, and the vendors benefit by his free shopping presence.  And by extension, our economy gets stronger, increasing the tax base, more people are back at work and America’s position as a leader of the free world is assured well into the current millennium.  Perhaps I’m drawing the analogy out too far there, but you see the main point of the poster’s argument: I should get in free, because  I won’t cost you anything and  I’ll spend my money and make your vendors and flea market guys happy.

Yes, we had a few of those.  I witnessed one encounter.  One gentleman (whom I thought bore a passing resemblance to the late Satanist Anton Lavey, no sinister connection intended by the comparison), burst into a loud invective when the Front Desk staff attempted to charge him a 25 dollar day pass.

“Twenty Five Dollars.. to walk around and Shop?? REALLY?? TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS!!  I don’t believe this!  We’ll I’m here.  You got me.  But I won’t be back next year! This is my laaaaaast HISTORICON!!”

“I’m sorry, sir, I’ve been working this front desk for fifteen years and we’ve never had a free walk around and shop pass at HISTORICON.  I apologize for the inconvenience”

(snarls and tosses money) “Just… give it to me” (stomps off)

I know this seems improbable, but I’ve experienced far worse.

Let’s examine the notion that a person who walks in and just “shops, doesn’t game, visits the flea market, maybe” actually costs nothing to the people running shows.  The answer is, for anyone who looks at a balance sheet, is usually no.  Every person attending a convention represents a potential cost.  IF the people running the convention are paying a facility cost (the price for renting the physical space and services) then each person attending a show is presumably being charged an entrance fee– a portion of which is intended to contribute toward convention expenses and  facility costs involved.

There are some exceptions– a facility might cost an organization nothing (e.g., donated space).  A facility may be cheap enough so that free admission is seen as an act of good will and good public relations (and easy to write off).  A guest may be in a special category (special guest/targeted PR market/minors/spouses).  Exhibitors might be bearing all the costs of the convention with their fees (this type of event is usually called a trade show, not a convention, and even though many of those charge entrance fees).  And so on. I don’t doubt that free admission convention badges exist, but that does not change the essential calculus.

Someone, somewhere, has to pay for that badge.

In truth, I have never walked into a convention involved in a non-technical, non-professional niche hobby (such as model railroading, stamp collecting, miniature wargaming, comics, movie memorabilia, etc. etc.) for free, just to walk around.  Not ever.  It’s quite possible there are smaller events that are more “clubby” than “general admission” in nature and they might allow people in for free (example, a game event from a gaming club that has already charged dues that covers the gate), but such an event couldn’t be very large.  We all get back to the basic math of someone having to pay for the place.

 HMGS, the organization that I belong to that was running HISTORICON, is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the teaching of military history through the mixed medium of miniature gaming and educational seminars.   Note that Non-profit does not equate to “losing money”.  It is perfectly acceptable for a non-profit to charge for an event to cover the expenses of putting on the event itself.  And it’s not even considered ruthless profiteering if there is a surplus left over after the show to help continue the organization’s loftier goals, as long as the organization continues to pass its financial audits and obeys the law.

Most gaming conventions are established to meet the needs of the community and most gaming conventions are commercial endeavors.  If I were to walk up to the gates of, say, ORIGINS GAME FAIR and ask “I just want to walk around and buy things.. I don’t need a badge” , I fear the laughter would be loud and long, right before they called for security to escort me out.  And their published information testifies to this.. there’s not a “walk around badge” in site.

Doing a quick survey, here’s a few other conventions that would give you a craggy look if you asked them to just let you in to walk around and shop:

Most of these webpages underline or highlight or bold the text covering the basic notions I have been talking about.  You need a badge to get in, and badges cost someone money.  This is not an unrealistic assumption to make, as no business is in the business of losing money, at least at a notional level.  Even a non-profit business.  If one can’t afford the fee, than perhaps it’s time to reassess the cost of being in a hobby.

And yet, this “letting me in for free just to look around pass” perception persists, year after year.  And year after year, it’s the same old arguments.. “Why not a special five dollar I just want to shop badge, then?” And so on.  As far as HMGS is concerned, most people who attend over a day are usually there for a mixture of reasons, and shopping is only one of them.  Walk-ins, first timers, day shoppers and the like are charged something because the costs are spread out over ALL attendees, including vendors, full up weekend attendees and day trippers.  There are many ways of structuring fees and this is perhaps the least onerous of them.  Don’t believe me?  Go get a one day ticket to WBC in a few weeks.

If I were king of the world, maybe there would be a way to let everyone in for free, and to have vendors and exhibitors and flea markets and special guests and such.  Of course, being king of the world makes it easy to ruthlessly intimidate hotels and convention halls to do my bidding, because, you know, I’m King of the World. For the rest of us poor schlubs, we’ll just have to economize the best we can.  And let’s try to understand the bigger picture before we complain next time, eh?  Good gaming!d


  1. I confess I’ve never been on the other side of the registration desk, but I’ve been attending conventions for about 35 years, now; both science fiction and gaming conventions. Never in my life has it occurred to me that I wouldn’t have to buy a badge, even if I knew I wasn’t going to play any games or attend any presentations.

    Heck, most of the stuff found in the dealers’ areas is so specialized and rarefied (and in many cases one-of-a-kind) that it is literally not available anywhere else. That was more true in the pre-Internet days, but even now it’s difficult to pour through a dealer’s collection of used modules via a website. In that sense, getting into the dealers’ room is a privilege, and one for which I have happily been paying for most of my life, and will continue to do so.

  2. Hey, Greyhawk, good to see you. How’s Ogre Miniatures coming along? You and I are in complete agreement here. It’s a rather shallow argument to state “I’m in a special status because I only wish to try one small facet of of the services you are offering with your convention.. honest! So let me in half price!” I’ve always understood that the space being used costs money, and if I really like the shows, then there’s a logical price I pay for attending, no matter what I’ll do or where I’ll go once I get in. To paraphrase Howard Whitehouse, it’s like bellying up to an all you can eat buffet and loudly proclaiming you only want to pay fifty cents because all you are eating are the corn dodgers.

  3. You are absolutely correct, but logic and common sense mean nothing to cranks. Wargamers are lovely people, but like any crowd there is a small percentage who feel that the rules that bind the herd do not, or should not, apply to them. They will always be there, I suspect if you talk to those who worked the desks at the comic and sci-fi cons you went to you would hear similar stories from them. Do not let the cranks disturb your wa needlessly, their lives are their own rewards.

  4. Ogre miniatures are all the rage here among my coterie of gamers; I replied in the comments of my own blog about the possibility of going to Fall In.

    I just ordered something that will be just unbelievably awesome on the table, and will be a centerpiece of my Ogre scenarios for years to come. Mum’s the word until I get it and have it painted, but MAN it will be bitchin’!

  5. I must admit, I was rather unsure before hitting my first con. I would’ve felt much more at least if I’d been able to use a ‘look around’ badge. That being said, however, there’s the monumental trouble of differentiating between genuine newcomers who are intrigued and really do just want to look around (and then, hopefully) get a real ticket, with the grumpy, conniving or otherwise sneaky types who want to get in for free.

    Ultimately, day passes, or half-day passes are really the only realistic and workable solution. But I’m with Ol’ Grog on the dealers rooms. They’re almost always packed with rare, niche, specialized swag that it’s really a reward for attending to be able to scour the place and get all those shiny new (old) things.

  6. I think there are two things going on here. One is not understanding the concept of marginal cost. Yes, “just letting me in” doesn’t cost the convention holder more after the rental for the hall and all the other expenses are paid. But that’s the missing part — why should all the others pay a share of those things, and not me? The prices are based on the organization’s costs and an expected number of attendees — the first guy to buy an admission doesn’t pay $10,000 (for example), just because that’s the share of the convention’s cost that hasn’t been paid. He pays his $25 with the expectation that there will be more like him later. The other issue is the “i’m just going in to shop” argument. You don’t pay to enter the mall. The cost of the folks who just go in to walk around is built in to the prices paid by the businesses that set up shop there, and ultimately by the prices paid by those who do shop. But people don’t think of that. It’s like getting people to pay to read a web site — once they’re used to doing it for free, they don’t want to pay, economic logic be damned.

  7. Most of you know me as the sensitive, retiring, soft spoken, caring, sharing, kind, self depricating, and self effacing personality that I am. Perhaps I can add some contrast to this.

    I simply would have said. “Of course sir, we completely understand , you sould not have to pay for a badge “just to look around! Here!– we have a special “just looking around badge.” All you have to do to use it is simply give us your wallet with its entire contents, and empty the contents of your pockets, including your car keys and any medication into this envelope. ” When they object I would say “Well– you’re not going to buy anything and are “just looking around” so you won’t need your wallet, and we keep your car keys so that you return the badge– it’s quite unique and you can undrstand that in the excitement of the convention we have lost many of they by people walking off with them.”


    Since he doesn’t pay he doesn’t get a catalog and he misses the special event listed on a full page ad where door prizes are given out for the person who can toss as many rotten tomatoes at the guy with the sandwich board. Headshots score double points!

    Just toss him out.

  8. Now… since that’s not very helpfull to you here is the answer.

    You simply ask them, in your best Socratic interogative, and the dialogue then goes like this.

    Waltcrates “Would you not agree that Wargames is an art form. That some table tops exhibit artistry and virtuosity to a high degree? Some of them are more basic and rudimentary, but as as today we have increased sensibilies of art from classical realism to post modernism, you woul no doubt gree that all wargames are a means of artistic expression?

    LCMB (Lousy Cheap Mooching Bastard) “Well- er -um– yes.”

    Waltcrates “And therefore one might say that one of the greatest of the two draws of the game is “The Sense of Wonder” the contemplation of something huge or charming, the sublime or the horrible, the experience of looking?

    LCMB – “Yes of course.

    Wlatcrates: And would you also not agree that the other draw of games is the engagement of the imagination in action, the contemplation of a game, of obstacles imposed only for the sake of overcoming,f or the excietment of watching the match, or the game, of the suspense on the single roll of a die that can yield the exhilaration of Victory and the agony of defeat?

    LCMB – “Well yes, I have been excited at a agame many times.

    Wlatcrates” Well then, when you go to the Museum of Art, to Yankee Stadium, to a wrestling match, or tan opera. You wouldn’t go up to the ticket booth and say, “Hey I don’t want to pay to see your production of Rigoletto- I just want to look around. Looking around IS in fact the thole thing you are paying for at an art museum, a sumo wrestling match, or a operatic performance.

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