Historicon 2018: Moving Mecca & The Importance of Venue

By Bill Gray 08 Dec 2016 1

Mecca for tabletoppers has moved home, well at least sorta. On November 3rd, the HMGS (Historical Miniatures Gaming Society, Inc) announced that its flagship convention Historicon will relocate to the Garden State Exhibition Center, Somerset, NJ in 2018. The convention is currently hosted by the Fredericksburg, VA Exposition Center, and for those who are not aware, is widely considered the premier historical tabletop wargaming convention in North America. At one time drawing in excess of 4000 + participants, journalist Amy Gammerman of the Wall Street Journal called it the “mother of all wargaming conventions” and quipped it was so old that Lee and Meade planned Gettysburg after stopping by for a visit.

Editor's Note (March 6th, 2017): The HMGS has since received word that the New Jersey Garden State Exhibition Center is to be sold and converted for use as a data centre. Sadly, this means that Historicon won't be at this venue and as such the contents of this article are now largely invalid. I'm leaving the article live as-is for Bill's analysis and wider context, but please check the HMGS boards directly for up-to-date information regarding Historicon venues.

Garden State Exhibit Center

My first Historicon was part of a career move to Enola, PA and the convention was just five minutes away at the Penn Harris Hotel in Camp Hill. The event outgrew that venue, however, and then moved to the Lancaster Host Resort in Lancaster, PA, the center of Dutch Amish Country. In many respects the Host was a perfect location. Pricing was low with an average of $124 a night, there were plenty of places to eat nearby and the area was very family friendly. Dutch Wonderland was just across the road and Hershey Chocolate World only about 20 miles or so away. There is even an adjoining golf course for those so inclined. Space was comfortable as well with an expo center weighing in at 23,450 square feet, plus a grand ballroom with space for 1000 people and yet another show room that could accommodate 1600. There were also a plethora of smaller meeting rooms that easily morphed into a new concept called Club Rooms whereby local groups got an exclusive room for their games the entire weekend. More importantly, the entire complex was self-contained. Hotel rooms, dealer areas, gaming areas, lecture halls, eateries and the whole shebang lay under one roof or close to it. And after a while, the Host became so familiar with HMGS’s needs and preferences, that every time a convention was hosted it was almost like coming home to a pair of soft, comfortable slippers at the end of a hard day.

Best, however, was the fact that the Host was smack in the geographic center of HMGS’s membership demographic. I was doing this kind of research for HMGS way back then, and it was no surprise to find that most members lived along the I-95 Interstate Highway corridor running from Washington DC thru New York City. The northeastern US is the most densely populated region in the country – seriously, New Jersey is just a really big and endless suburb of New York – and the Host was less than three hours drive time from DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York. Three of the four cities actually have drive times less than two hours and two have but 90 mins max.

Alas, age and other factors finally began to take its toll, and as of today the Host is in need of significant repair and renovation. Let’s face it, when the Health Department temporarily shuts down your restaurant for sanitation issues, better days have passed you by. That and growing attendance resulted in an abortive move to Baltimore which fell through and then to a temporary home at the Valley Forge Convention Center at King of Prussia, PA. Having the place next to the Valley Forge National Park was neat; having it only a mile or so from the behemoth King of Prussia Mall was not. Lots of wives and girlfriends coincidentally showed up and spending in the dealer hall went down proportionally (not that there’s anything wrong with that, really, I’m happy for my wife to spend as much as she wants, uber really). When the site became a casino, Historicon had to move again, this time to the Fredericksburg Expo Center down Virginia way, where it has remained for several years and where the event will be next year.

HMGS Ancients Tournament

Like most venues, the site has both pluses and minuses. I found the acoustics lacking and the concrete floors pretty tough on knees and legs. Everything was not under one roof and given that attendance is normally about 95 % male, there were lavatory issues. On the other hand there were excellent and reasonably priced accommodations right nearby, as well as what seemed to be all the restaurants in the wargaming world. There was even a Wegmans (you non-US folks probably need to Google this to understand) mega gourmet grocery right across the parking lot, and being within minutes of three large American Civil War battlefields was a nice touch. It also boasted 80,000 square feet of space, and this was more than adequate.

And attendance fell.

There were many issues, but from my perspective the primary problem was demographics. By moving the convention down south you were moving the event towards a more sparsely populated section of the country. Thus any new attendance picked up from Dixieland was more than offset (actually a lot more) by folks in the northeast who declined to come the extra distance. For example, the time needed to drive from the New York – New Jersey metroplex to Lancaster was just under three hours and from Philly just over an hour. To Fredericksburg the time to drive jumped to five hours for New York and three and a half for Philadelphia. Give the population density of Manhattan vs Richmond, VA, the drop seems understandable.

So now we turn to another chapter in the wanderings of Historicon, this time opening a page at the New Jersey Garden State Exhibit Center in Somerset. Demographically – and on paper at least - the location seems to be a good one as it is in the middle of the New York City/New Jersey metropolitan area. It’s also only an hour and half from Philly, three from Baltimore and three and a half from DC. The location alone should foretell a significant increase in attendance, if the facilities are decent of course.

Inside the Garden State another view

Overall they seem to be, so give the HMGS Board of Directors some credit here. The facility is located either near or right off several major US interstate highways and only 25 miles from Newark International Airport, or an hour and a half from la Guardia/JFK/Philly’s air terminals. The center has 62,000 square feet of exhibit space, plus another 7500 in the foyer and another two conference rooms each seating 100 people each. There is a complete food court with seating for up to 400 people as well as a complete stand-up bar. The parking lot will hold 500 cars and a large loading dock is also present. And for those who simply can’t forget about work, Internet is on-site.

About 900 feet away from the Garden State is semi-official lodging for the center, namely the Doubletree Inn by Hilton. The hotel has just completed a massive renovation so should look as about as pristine as you can get. There are 364 over sized rooms plus an additional but limited number of suites and both a café and restaurant on premises. Very interesting is the fact that the hotel itself offers 25,285 square feet of conference or exhibit space and this includes a 10,000 square foot grand ball room and 20 smaller conference rooms. I’m not sure if this spec figured into the final decision to put Historicon onto this particular bit of real estate, but it does indicate room for expansion if necessary. I also found the cost to be reasonable and comparable to both Fredericksburg and Lancaster, $104 US a night for July next year for example. Given that parking is free and self-serve and so close to the exhibition center, this does suggest a move that was well thought out. Nevertheless there are several other hotels less than two miles nearby, and while most are upscale franchises like Homewood Suites, there is also an Econolodge for those of us who like to pinch shekels. And price is important given how expensive tabletop wargaming is, so this is not an aspect to be taken lightly.

It seems pretty good so far, but then again nothing is perfect. A look at the floor plan of the Garden State revealed to me at least three challenges that will need to be addressed. The first is that nearly all the 62,000 square feet is in a single, concrete floored exhibition room. For HMGS veterans think of the Dealer Hall in the so-called “Tennis Barn” at the Lancaster Host. Now expand that area to 62,000 square feet and recall that dealers, the flea market and games will now need to go in there. This is where issues of hard floor, noisy acoustics and privacy will raise its ugly head, but given the staff in Jersey does this for a living, hopefully they already have a plan in place.

Doubletree Inn Somerset

Two other things I noticed was that there seem to be only two small plus two large public lavatories on site, so whether or not that will be sufficient remains problematic. Again, normally HMGS conventions are 95 % male so adjustments will be necessary and it must be said Fredericksburg struggled with this. Finally, I also noticed only two small conference rooms (the floorplan seems to show a third, very small one in addition) and this will be totally inadequate if the policy of Club Rooms is to be continued. That said, there is the space afforded by the Double Tree Inn, so perhaps this is a non-problem already. True, it does mean the convention won't be under one roof, but given the hotel is so close to the primary venue this may be a reasonable trade-off.

Outside the facility itself, the only challenge seems to be where to chow down if you aren’t eating at the Garden State or nearby Doubletree. Let me emphasize again, this is a very expensive hobby shekel wise, and so tabletop gamers are notoriously stingy. I mean really, REALLY stingy, to include me. I’ll gladly drive a little further out so I can use my hotel reward points instead of cash, and when it comes to food I’ll be the first to admit I make Ebenezer Scrooge look like a registered 501C3 non-profit charity. If an associated Webpage is correct there are 39 restaurants of all types near the Garden State, to include upscale, pizza, diners, fast food and other chain establishments. However, when I tracked them on Bing maps, it did not seem like any were particularly close by. By this I mean there didn’t seem to be a lot where you could just walk across the street as with the Host and Texas Roadhouse or Ryan’s. It looks like you will have to pick up and drive, and for many of us – did I also mention I’m lazy? – once we slide our car into princess parking, Genghis Kahn himself couldn’t get us to move.

My overall assessment? I really, strongly think this place is going to work. Demographically the location is simply much better from a number crunching stand point. Yes, there will be some folks down south, to include one of my favorite vendors, for which the new digs will simply be too far to travel. That’s totally understandable, but overall what will be added in attendance should greatly outweigh the loss. Unfortunately there is no location available that will please everyone, so it is what it is.

Inside the Garden State Exhibit Center

And for me at least, the positives outweigh the negatives I discussed above. Certainly some of these negatives may be non-issues to begin with as they might have already been identified and addressed. You don’t know what you don’t know and so all of us in tabletop America will just have to wait to see if union labor (remember, in New Jersey you can’t pump your own gas) will be loading or unloading your toys.

One vibe I am getting however, from not less than 222 posts on TMP (theminiaturespage.com) and elsewhere, is that folks are pretty tired with all the moving. Even if it’s not optimum for some group of people, those same gamers are also expressing hope that this move, good or bad, will be the last one. It’s time to put down roots, make it work if not perfect and move on to more important things like replicating the attack on the Malakov during the Crimean War. The perfect venue will never be found and some gamers will never be completely satisfied no matter how hard you work and try. So don’t.

And I, for one, couldn’t agree more.

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