Gen Con gaming for another attendance record

Organizers of Gen Con Indy, one of the city’s largest annual conventions and perhaps its most unusual, are expecting record crowds at this year’s event in August.

Registrations accepted through June are up 25 percent over 2011 and exhibit space has been sold out since January, both strong signs that this year’s attendance will be the biggest ever. That’s pretty impressive considering the lingering economic uncertainty and the fact that last year drew the largest crowd in the 45-year-old gaming convention’s history.

Gen Con seems to be outgrowing its reputation as an exclusive convention of game-loving geeks who are known to fully embrace the spirit of the activities by wearing costumes of their favorite characters. In fact, Gen Con’s economic impact on the city is estimated at $36 million annually.

“We’re seeing a lot of families now,” Gen Con spokesman Jake Theis said. “The stereotype is that gamers are mostly male. But we’re seeing them bring their children, their wives and girlfriends.”

Gen Con arrived in Indianapolis in 2003 and will celebrate its 10th year here during a four-day run beginning Aug. 16. Total turnstile attendance has risen from 82,000 in 2005, the first year in which the organization has reliable figures, to 120,000 last year, a 46-percent increase.

The convention is becoming so large here—second only to the National FFA Convention, which in October 2013 begins a three-year run in Louisville—that it’s beginning to attract a lot of corporate interest.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Scotty’s Brewhouse and The Sun King Brewing Co. are but a handful of downtown businesses with promotional ties to Gen Con.

The local Sun King location for the first time this year will brew a special beer, a Belgium black ale, in honor of the convention. Gen Con conventioneers can enter a contest to name the beer, which will be introduced at the downtown JW Marriott hotel during a tapping party the day before the start of the convention. The beer will be available at Sun King’s tasting room on North College Avenue as well as at various bars and restaurants in the city.

“We’re trying to bring a lot of flavor to the city, so we hope this is the first step in a long-term relationship,” Sun King co-owner Clay Robinson said.

Ruth’s Chris began offering box lunches to convention-goers last year and will do so again this year. And Scotty’s traditionally provides a special menu geared toward gamers.

For Ruth’s Chris, which has a restaurant on North Illinois Street near the Indiana Convention Center, where Gen Con is held, the lunches are a way to introduce visitors to its meaty cuisine and its other locations across the country.

The $9.99 lunch consists of two steak sliders, chips and a cookie. The restaurant hopes to sell 300 of the lunches, which can be ordered in advance online, said Ramona Adams, sales manager for the Illinois Street location.

“We just think that it’s a great audience,” she said. “The age and the demographics have changed a bit. We’ve learned that they’re bringing families, and they’re very loyal to those who support gaming and Gen Con overall.”

To the delight of downtown businesses, Gen Con will be in Indianapolis for several years to come.

In December, the convention’s parent, Seattle-based Gen Con LLC, announced a five-year agreement with the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association that will keep it in the city through 2020. Gen Con had a previous commitment through 2015.

Gen Con is unlike any convention the city hosts because it attracts a wider audience than most conferences patronized solely by their membership, said Chris Gahl, ICVA’s vice president of marketing.

“Gen Con is a bit of an anomaly because it’s open to the public,” he said. “Many conventions don’t have that component.”

Visitors to this year’s Gen Con convention will travel from as far as Japan, Great Britain and New Zealand, said Gen Con’s Theis. Activities span traditional board games to exotic sci-fi contests.

“The biggest complaint we hear is that there is simply too much to do, see and experience,” Theis said.•

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