Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Improving "The Best 4 days in Gaming" with Geek Nation Tours

This year my family and I attended Gencon 2016 with Geek Nation Tours. Yesterday I wrote about my background with Geek Nation Tours and the Head Geek Teras. I also talked about why we (my family and I) chose Geek Nation Tours for our Gencon 2016 trip and how the lead up to the convention was improved being part of the tour. I also talked about the madness that was our trip to Gencon, starting nearly a week before the actual convention. I want to talk about and review the actual Gencon experience through the filter of being part of the Geek Nation Tour experience. As you can tell from the title, I certainly have a favorable view on GNT and what they bring to the table for this type of event.

Arrival - Tuesday before Gencon 2016

We set out from Chicago mid-morning on Tuesday, stopping at the Albanese Candy Factory for some gummy bears and then grabbing lunch before arriving at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis mid-afternoon.  We knew our tour guide, Alex, would be at the hotel but were not sure how many people were showing up early and what the schedule was. We unpacked our car onto a bellhop cart then left it with the Valet, heading into the hotel to get checked in. Alex was easy to spot, camping out right as we entered the hotel and easy to find. He was familiar with us as part of the tour once we introduced ourselves and was as cheery as I've experience Teras to be each time we've run into each other. Although Teras was not going to be leading this tour, Alex made the matching first impression and things were off to a good start. He even knew our specific details and mentioned he'd already checked on our cot, which we were unsure we'd be able to get with our room. The tour guide knowing those types of little details is a very personal touch, and just overall a nice thing to encounter.

Just prior to heading to the desk to check in, Alex mentioned there would be an informal dinner and get-together that evening with the other tour arrivals, and asked if we thought we'd be attending. I nodded, mentioning that we'd be trying to locate friends who were in town early, but might be dropping by, I wasn't sure. Following that I headed out to check into the hotel and get up to our room. Even though we were on a tour, Marriott was very accommodating and added a note to my file as a Marriott Gold Member, giving us Concierge lounge access due to my hotel status.

Pre-Gencon Gaming

There is a gaming group in Indianapolis known as the Kentucky Fried Gamers. Each year they coordinate a pre-gencon gaming day on the Wednesday before Gencon for their club. Geek Nation Tours has partnered with them for a couple years now and gotten tour participants access to the gaming. This is a really fun set of games, with a great group of gamers, in two fantastic venues. We chose to take part in a "still in development" role-playing game known as Playthings, being run for us at Scotty's Brew Pub downtown Indianapolis. Although the traditional drinking spot for the 501st Storm Troooper brigade, there were no Storm troopers in attendance on Wednesday. We (my wife, daughter, and I) did have a fantastic time playing in a private session of Playthings. It was a lot of fun as we got a chance to role-play living toys (i.e. Toy Story) with the game developer.

Geek Nation Tours events/dinners

One of the really great parts of Geek Nation Tours is the nightly dinners they host for the tour group. Each dinner at Gencon was scheduled with a pre-dinner gaming time, followed by the dinner itself, followed by more gaming. These events not only provided a fantastic and reliable gathering point for the end of the day but also a quieter spot for gaming with friends. These dedicated gaming spots are particularly hard to find at Gencon, with the post-convention evenings filling up every available spot (table, couch, chair, and even floor) in the hotels surrounding the convention.This year GNT set up an opening and closing dinners in the JW Marriott hotel bar/lounge restaurant, a dinner at the local Brazilian steak hour Fogo De Chao, and 2 dinners at the in-hotel Italian restaurant.  Each of these nights also featured speakers from gaming companies (CMON, Osprey, Mantic, Steamforged, etc) and open gaming with tour provided games.

Of particular note was the opening and closing dinners. The opening dinner featured a couple of benefits to tour participants which really set it apart. First, GNT tour guide Alex went and collected everyone's tickets and badges for us, saving tour participants from standing in the long Gencon lines to pick these up. All our necessary Gencon entry paperwork (badges and tickets) was delivered to us at dinner, along with a set of Geek Nation Tours branded T-Shirts, Bowling Shirts, and Yoga pants for the women. Then, over dinner, tour participants were treated to short introductions and presentations from industry insiders such as Ronnie Renton, owner of Mantic Games, talking about new releases and the hosts of podcasts such as the D6 Generation and the Nerd Herders. Following dinner, GNT had the podcasts hosts split off to smaller groups for dedicated role-playing sessions for the tour participants. This was used as a mixer for the tour, giving everyone a chance to be introduced to the other attendees. Likewise, the end of tour closing dinner was attended by the founders of Steamforged games, who gave insight into their first Gencon experience along with talking about their upcoming releases and a number of spoilers for Guild Ball, Dark Souls, and a new paint line.

Throughout Gencon these nightly dinners were a fantastic place to meet back up with the tour participants each night. This was also a great fall-back for dinner plans should something go wrong or plans be lacking, along with a comfortable and quiet(er) environment to grab some games. Each night the dinners were attended by different personalities from within the game industry who spoke about their experiences (Dave Taylor) or talked about what their companies were releasing (Osprey, CMON) along with giving demo's of their games. The more intimate dinner environment provided ample opportunity to connect with these company reps and "industry insiders" on a personal level for each of the tour participants.

"Save me GNT!!!"

We had one experience at Gencon 2016 where Geek Nation Tours really shined, although through no undue effort nor expectations of their own. A group of friend had pulled together some last minute plans to grab dinner at the RAM restaurant, a venue famous at Gencon for completely redecorating their venue and reprinting their menu in tribute to Privateer Press Warmachine. This is a notoriously difficult reservation to get during Gencon, with very long waiting time for a table. Our group had called ahead and had a reservation for 10, and we headed out to check in and eat. The whole group was excited, including my 17 year old daughter and one of our friends teenage niece. Upon arriving we were told that we'd have an hour wait despite our reservation, and we settled into 2 separate tables in the bar area (away from the actual bar). Our group was showing up and finding each other over a period of 20 minutes, with the first group including the teenage niece grabbing the first tables. My wife, daughter, 2 friends, and I were with the second portion of the group, getting there 5 minutes later. When we arrived the waitress had already taken the first set of drink and appetizer orders. We settled into the tables and as we began to order, my daughter was singled out by the waitress and told she could not sit with us and would need to leave the bar due to being under age. Despite being a fair distance from the actual bar, and despite other clearly underage people at the next table (and elsewhere in the bar), we decided (irritably) that we'd step outside of the bar area to wait for our table. My wife, daughter, 2 friends, and I stepped outside to wait.

After a long wait our names were called and we were led to our table. The restaurant was understandably packed, but we'd had a reservation and things were looking up. The hostess proceeded to lead us to a table with 6 chairs around it. This confused us, as our reservation was for 10. On inquiring (not me, the person who had made the reservation) why the table was only set for 6 we were told that we could squeeze 2 more seats in to make it for 8. We repeated the question on how squeezing 8 people was supposed to accommodate 10 guests, per our reservation, to be told by the hostess and the just arriving waitress that we'd have to squeeze further to make everyone fit. We were also told that if that was not sufficient for us we'd have to wait at least an additional hour for them to put together another table. As our group grew increasingly frustrated we were confronted by the waitress asking why we we couldn't just wait another hour and go back to our tables in the bar (which we'd already vacated and had been grabbed by other patrons waiting).

At this point my wife, daughter, and I were disgusted with being treated fairly badly. I understand they had no need of our patronage, being filled to capacity during Gencon. This type of behavior by restaurant staff was frankly despicable, and we will not return in the future to that establishment. We all realized at this point that we had a very good alternative, although we could not invite our friends along. We (my wife, daughter, and I) could retire to the Geek Nation Tours dinner at the hotel Italian restaurant, and be welcomed as valued guests into a friendly environment where we were not squeezing and people actually wanted us around. We decided to leave the restaurant and catch up with our friends later that night for a more enjoyable gaming experience.

As expected, the Geek Nation Tours dinner was fantastic. The food was good and we enjoyed ourselves far more with the service than we would have in the over crowded RAM and the simply rude and entitled wait staff. This stark contrast in dinners was something that really stands out as an unintended plus to the GNT planning and group as a whole.

That personal touch

Geek Nation Tours really added a personal touch to the whole Gencon Tour, demonstrating their dedication to making sure everyone on the tour enjoyed themselves and didn't miss anything. Tuesday evening following our arrival we (my family and I) were hustling and bustling getting situated and trying to figure out who was in town. As I know a lot of people in the game industry this was a hectic time trying to track down who was in town, who wasn't, and where everyone was. During this time I received a couple text messages from a number I didn't recognize, all of which were asking where I was and if I was going to make it out to dinner. At the time I disregarded those messages while trying to get my own coordination completed. It was only later that I realized, reading through these pings and check-in's, that the messages were from Alex, our tour guide. He was concerned that he'd seen us check in, then we'd disappeared and had not joined him and the other early tour participants for dinner and games. This is one of those things that becomes incredibly touching when you stop to think about it, as it was unsolicited and completely unexpected.

My wife talks about some of the ways our tour guide Alex really improved the overall Gencon experience personally for her. Following our arrival on Tuesday through the end of the tour on Monday, Alex made a point of greeting her by name whenever they ran into each other. He recognized her each time they passed and made a point of stopping to chat and check in with her. This may seem like a small thing, but when you consider Gencon had over 60-thousand unique attendees and the Geek Nation Tour had 20 or more participants, this is impressive. Alex spotted her not only in the hotel hallway and common areas, but also in the very crowded Gencon vendor and gaming halls, then made a point and time to chat with her about how her day and convention was going. This personal touch was the type of attention she really enjoys, adding a touch of brightness with each encounter.

Tour participants and guide

I would not feel this review was complete if I didn't take time to talk about the tour participants and our tour guide Alex.  I have to admit up front that while I have a bit of a public persona due to hosting a couple different podcast (Gamers Lounge, Guild Ball Tonight, Hobby Sofa), I'm not exactly what people would call a "joiner". My wife tends to be the friendlier person when it comes to making connections and such. Add to that my typical convention experience (Gencon and Adepticon) has me running around meeting up with different groups and friends throughout the convention. I'm rarely lacking in activities and this found us (me more than my wife and daughter) ducking out of some of the GNT dinners and events to catch up with other friends during the convention.

Even considering all of this, my wife made some friends and all of the tour participants were particularly welcoming. On our first night we greeted a couple who were looking fairly "new" and just a touch lost, inviting them to join us for a demo of an unreleased game I'd gotten my hands on. (Shadow Games by Steamforged Games). Throughout the convention my wife and daughter met up with that couple during the other dinners and both wives have built a bit of a connection following the tour.

The other important part of talking about people on our tour is Alex, our GNT Tour Guide. Alex was fantastic as not only a tour guide but also as a person to drink and game with. He appears well connected in within the gaming industry as a whole, and it was interesting to see him connected to many of the same gaming industry connections I have. We had a very enjoyable time chatting about various topics throughout the tour, and it was only at the very end of the tour he realized I was the host of a podcast he listened to. Perhaps only other podcasts hosts fully understand this, but it's sometimes refreshing to be a bit "incognito" and unrecognized for a time, as often being a recognized host can color (positively and negatively) peoples reactions to you. Alex (as mentioned above and here) was a champion throughout the tour, which would not have been as enjoyable or excellent without him.

 Thoughts and Review

 Every single encounter I have with Geek Nation Tours increases my overall appreciation for what they do and how great they are. After taking part in 2 tours and one off-tour event I can honestly say that one of my first considerations for trips is GNT. I say trips, not just conventions, because my daughter and I have looked at going with GNT to New Zealand for their Hobbit tour. During Gencon a number of our friends took notice of our experience (specifically the RAM dinner) along with one or two sneaking into some of the after-dinner gaming and access to industry insiders. They were all as impressed as I was, and asked a lot of questions about cost and how it works. Cost is not going to be fixed for each person and each tour, but I will say that my total trip for the three of us with GNT ran around $5K. We felt that this was well worth the money we spent when considering everything included.

I look forward to future tours with GNT, and highly recommend them to anyone looking to make a trip. Even if you're not typically considering going with a tour group, look at the GNT packages and you may find one that fits your needs!!!

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