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How SPIEL Is Reinventing Itself After Forty Years

by Mike Didymus-True

This article by Mike Didymus-True originally appeared on BoardGameWire.

Two things have remained almost constant throughout the forty years of SPIEL, the world’s biggest board game fair: each year will be bigger than the last, and Dominique Metzler will be in charge.

The first of those tenets foundered amid the coronavirus pandemic: 209,000 attendees in 2019 fell to zero in 2020, replaced for a year by an online-only Spiel.Digital event. Numbers were heavily subdued in the return of the live event the following year amid the global Covid recovery, with 93,600 attendees being the lowest turnout for the fair in over a decade.

That number had recovered to 147,000 by the 2022 event, but three months later SPIEL’s second constant fell: Dominique Metzler, who had been involved in running the fair since it was held in a school in 1983, announced that she was retiring, having handed control to new owners Spielwarenmesse eG, organizers of the giant International Toy Fair in Nürnberg, Germany.

It’s arguable that the biggest changes since SPIEL ’22 have been for new managing director Carol Rapp. Rapp, a long-time Asmodee and KOSMOS senior marketing executive, joined the SPIEL team only in November last year and suddenly found herself in charge of managing SPIEL’s biggest event yet – at least in terms of hall space, if not attendees.

This year’s fair will cover about 60,000 square meters – more than eleven football pitches – across six halls at the Messe Essen exhibition center, SPIEL’s long-term home, surpassing the footprint of the event in 2019. But how will the numbers stack up when the doors open on October 5, 2023, following new record attendances set at both the UK Games Expo and Gen Con this year?

Rapp told BoardGameWire, “We will hit more than 150,000 this year, I’m very confident of that. If we can reach 209,000, I’m not so sure – that was the peak in 2019, so let’s say somewhere in between — wide guess around 180,000.”

While that might prove a conservative estimate come October, it would still make SPIEL ’23 three-and-a-half times larger than Gen Con, the biggest game convention in the U.S. – and Rapp already has eyes on how the show could potentially expand into halls seven and eight in future years.

She told BoardGameWire that among the litany of questions from publishers keen to understand how the new ownership and management would affect SPIEL, many wishes revolved around the fair providing more play space alongside its retailer booths to bring it into line with Gen Con and UKGE.

She said, “Gen Con has so much room where you can just play games, and the hotels around, they offer rooms. We have that in Essen, too – it’s not that well known, but we still have some hotels offering play areas during the night.”

“But we are in Germany. We are a show, and we are not a convention, which is a slightly different thing. So we do what we can, but we are not able to offer a 24-hour show. That’s impossible with Messe Essen – at least right now.”

Pressed on whether talks had taken place to shift SPIEL further towards a convention, however, Rapp said, “Yes and no, at the same time. So yes, we are thinking about it. But at the same time, I also have to say, Messe Essen has to agree.”

“It will be extremely expensive for whoever will bear the cost, and it’s not clear who can bear the cost. Will it be the visitor, the exhibitor, should it be us – nobody knows. But I can promise you if I do that calculation with a German showground, it will be much more expensive than what Gen Con is paying in [Indianapolis].”

“[O]ne of the reasons, for example, I can imagine is the salary in Germany. Our government is discussing minimum wages of €14 an hour right now, plus social fee, which makes it around €20 per hour. And that is a lot higher than what you have in the UK – I just talked to someone located in the UK about that – and also what America can offer.”

“So taking along the security that is needed to run the show for 24 hours straight – that will raise the cost a lot.”

“So that’s why, even if we want to [stay open 24 hours], we need to find a way to make it happen, and cost is one of the [problems to solve]. Acceptance as another one; having publishers being able to offer that is the next question in there. So there are so many open questions that we cannot answer in one year, where we need a minimum of two to three years to find a good solution for everybody.”

“But yes, it’s on our to-do list to at least have a close look into that.”

As well as new management, owners, and logo – and a new mascot in Meeps the cat – this year’s SPIEL will look very different on the ground, a decision which BoardGameWire reported in June has not gone down universally well with all of the exhibitors.

SPIEL is remodeling all six halls at this October’s event, splitting the fair into separate segments for children’s, family and light-to-medium games, expert games, tabletop and miniature games, roleplaying games and trading card games, with a mix of small, medium and large booths in each zone.

Rapp said it was always the plan this year to reorganize the fair’s main entry point, Hall Six, which through organic growth of Spiel and changes made due to Messe Essen’s refurbishment a decade ago had become unstructured and “a little bit of a mess”.

She said, “The idea was that we create that nice, shiny welcoming Hall Six, for the 70% of people entering the hall through this entrance.”

“[A]nd when we started the conversation with the exhibitors — of course, some bigger ones at the start – when they said, ‘Yes, we will move’, many others said, ‘Okay, now that the big guys are moving, probably we should too, right? So can you offer us something?'”

“And that was the very moment, right after the application time was over, that we had to sit down and think ‘What do we do this year?’ If we just fill the halls, it will be a total mess in all the other five halls. And that’s not a good idea.”

“So either we stop it completely and do it in 2024, or we do it now, in full — and that’s how we ended up with a complete new floor plan.”

Describing the previous set-up as halls one, two, and three being “nice and shiny”, and four, five, and six as “a little bit of, let’s say, organic mess”, Rapp added, “We thought it’s a better idea that the visitor, the consumer, they understand where to find some exhibitors, some products, some kind of products.”

When asked about publisher pushback to the plans, Rapp said, “I mean, we know that, of course, and we are in constant conversation with many different publishers here.”

“We have even some that really tried to be in the hall where they always stayed, but we always try to find a good solution for them, meaning that if we have someone who’s offering from two [themes], they will be placed in an area that is, let’s say, going from one of the themes into another one, so that they are still fitting in a way, but they’re not totally out of range.”

Rapp added that the size of the organizing team for this year’s SPIEL has been increased to seven, which she hoped would enable publishers and attendees to get quicker answers and help than in previous years.

She said, “I know Dominique was very present everywhere, and she did a great job. And I was so honored when she gave me the call and asked me [to head up the fair].”

“But now we are in a different era, and that means it’s not only two or three people organizing the show; we have a full team, we will be seven people when Essen is up, and every one of us has their own ideas.”

“We discuss everything, we take decisions together, and it’s not only me talking to the public; it’s always the one who’s working on a project – and that’s important for me, that’s important for the show, and that’s also important for the people to understand. We are a team, and it’s a team effort. And I think that is one of the most important marks I can set.”

“What will be the impact? I think we will be a little bit more approachable in the halls, because there are more of us, so we will not all be stuck and focused on one specific topic, or running from meeting to meeting because we will have time for that.”

“Being there, talking to people to see what is happening. And also be open for ideas and feedback, of course – and it’s also the feedback from publishers so far. Everything we have, we get an answer rather soon.”

SPIEL ’23 runs between October 5 and 8, 2023 at the Messe Essen exhibition hall. Tickets are available online here.

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