Monday, September 19, 2016

Pre-Gencon 2016 with Geek Nation Tours

This year my family and I decided to take the trip to Gencon 2016. This is not an insignificant undertaking, trekking 3 of us nearly 600 miles across the country for a 7 day visit to one of the largest game conventions in the world. Of course we decided to make things a bit more complicated in a couple ways. First, we realized the week before Gencon my 17 year old daughter got an unexpected week off. This opened up the opportunity to leave for our drive earlier than expected, allowing me to attend a Guild Ball tournament the Saturday before the event. I checked my hotel points (thank you work travel) and realized we had enough to cover a couple contingencies. We subsequently decided to add an additional 2 day excursion to Chicago onto my trip to play Guild Ball due to my daughter having never been there and Chicago being one of my wife and I favorite cities in the US. This resulted in a 9 hour drive to Indianapolis, an all day Guild Ball tournament, a 3.5 hour drive to Chicago, 2 days of sightseeing, then a 3.5 hour drive to Indianapolis to check into Gencon. Gencon runs Tuesday until Sunday for us, then a 9 hour drive back home on Monday.

Let's talk a little about Gencon tickets and lodging. The Gencon experience begins in January of the year prior to attending for most people. This is when the initial badges go on sale along with Gencon housing opening up and becoming available. Attendees who wish to stay anywhere approximately close to the convention center have approximately 5 minutes to get online on the specified day and log into the system to wait in a digital queue hoping to get a hotel room. This is an absolute nightmare, and I don't actually know anyone who ends up getting decent rooms out of this. Most of the attendees I know pay very high prices for rooms which are typically a couple blocks away from the center. Months later this exercise begins again to grab up event tickets for events you want to participate in. Make sure you know the time and date to jump online to get lucky on some placement in a digital queue and hope the 1K or more people ahead of you int he queue don't buy up the event tickets you want.

All of this is not to say Gencon is not an excellent experience. There are some specific frustrations that build up which are typically alleviated once you attend this monstrous event. Once we experience Gencon and return home it's the joy of the actually long weekend gaming that we remember, not the frustration in the beginning. 2016 was different however, we found a way to improve the overall experience. Geek Nation Tours.

My background with Geek Nation Tours

I've been somewhat familiar with Geek Nation Tours for many years, initially encountering Teras (the Head Geek) when he started advertising a geek focused tour company at Adepticon. He is an incredibly nice guy, even for the notoriously pleasant Canadians, and we spent time talking about podcasting and 40K. At the time I thought the idea of his venture was cool but was not convinced it was for me. My Adepticon trips are well covered on the lodging, travel, and activities front so I didn't see the need for a tour company.

Teras and I stayed in touch through the years, often catching each other briefly at Adepticon and Gencon. In 2014 I ran into the first challenge I'd had with Adepticon registration, missing out on both the discount room block and logging into the registration late and missing out on events and the VIG registration. Working through my frustration I decided to reach out to Teras and see if he had rooms left. I ended up joining the 2014 Adepticon tour, getting my VIG registration and solo-room for the same price as my basic late registration room cost would have been. In addition I was able to take part in some of the tour activities and dinners which were an absolute blast!!! After missing 2015 I ended up with some oddball plans for Adepticon this year so things did not work out for me to take part in the Geek Nation Tours group. Despite this, Teras had opened up one of his tour events to Adepticon attendees, the Industry dinner, which I was able to attend and really enjoyed.   

Geek Nation Tours @ Gencon 2016

My experiences with Geek Nation Tours left no doubt in my mind that when it came to Gencon I wanted to attend as part of their tour. My wife and I mapped out the budget and set out in late 2015 to make this happen. A basic Geek Nation Tour package for Gencon includes lodging, dinners each night, your Gencon badge, and transfers (taxi/shuttle/etc) from the airport if your flying in. The lodging pricing is set based on a double-occupancy assumption, with an option to pay a bit extra if you want a room to yourself.  This is a well prepared package which Teras and his team has set-up and works for most everyone who travels in. Of course I am a special snowflake and had to muck up the works on this, but isn't that half the fun???

We had 3 people traveling to Gencon together, my Wife, my 17 year old daughter, and myself. We wanted to share a room and planned to drive to Gencon. We also wanted to have all three of us be able to take part in the tour activities, particularly the nightly dinners and gaming. I reached out to Teras and we were able to work out those minor changes to the tour package, doing lodging as double occupancy for my wife and I as full tour members and a discounted tour rate for my daughter as she didn't need lodging costs covered. We came to an agreement on pricing, I gathered up the money and sent it off to him, and we were registered for the Gencon 2016 tour. That's when the real fun began.

Ok, let me first comment on one of the biggest motivators for us to join the tour. Having planned tours for as long as he has, Teras and Geek Nation Tours is able to reserve excellent hotel rooms at the events attended by the tours. At Gencon he has a reserved room block each year for his tour in a hotel adjacent to the convention center. This is incredibly important to both my wife and I as we prefer the convenience of walking straight into the convention from our hotel. This year the rooms were at the connected JW Marriott, with only a short walk across a catwalk (air conditioned no less) to get into the venue. These are some of the toughest rooms to get (and most expensive), and we didn't have to think about it at all. Once we signed up with GNT we knew we'd be at our preferred hotel location.

That special GNT touch

It was after the actual tour registration that we started to experience the true value and benefit to being part of Geek Nation Tours. The first nice touch was an email from Teras containing three badge codes and a  nice set of instructions on how to use them. Our Gencon badges being part of our tour cost, these codes let us log into the Gencon system and add our badges to our accounts. The process was incredibly easy and now we knew we had both badges to attend Gencon and a good hotel room at the event.

Over the next couple months we got fairly regular updates as Teras learned more information about what was going on at Gencon. He made sure to send out reminders to all the tour participants for early reviews of events and other types of activities. He also monitored the coordination an annual practice where GNT and the Kentucky Fried Gamers team up for a day of pre-gencon games. As part of the tour we were given access to this game day on the Wednesday prior to Gencon, and Teras helped us stay abreast of the news and register for those days events.

Along came the dreaded day of trying to register for Gencon events. The week leading up to this day Teras went to extra efforts to set-up a dedicated Facebook group for tour participants along with keeping everyone reminded and up to date on how registration would work. The morning registration would go live the tour facebook page become a general group chat for participants discussing and coordinating events they would want to do together. Everyone on the tour was very friendly and there was an active discussion. Hints and tips for getting desired events were freely shared and then registration went live, with all the tour participants commiserating as our wishlists of event processed. The whole experience became fun opposed to the typical drudgery watching your digital queue number tick down.

Once this was complete we continued to receive regular updates for our tour right up to our arrival in Indianapolis. As this post is getting a bit long I'll split the review up into 2 articles. Come back tomorrow (or go to the next post) for "Improving "The Best 4 days in Gaming" with Geek Nation Tours"
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