As found on BoardGameNews.com, Scott Tepper's Interview with Mary Couzin of ChiTAG (link at end of article)

If youíre reading this article, odds are good that you would like to see the general public exposed to more of the games that we enjoy playing.  How many gamers, though, are actually doing something about it?  I though it would be a great start to 2007 to focus on a person who is working towards this goal. 

In 2003, Mary Couzin organized the first Chicago International Toy & Game Fair (Chi-Tag) at the Chicago Navy Pier, with the goal of introducing the general public to a wider variety of games and toys than they would normally find in their local toy store.  In 2006, the showís 4th year, Chi-Tag moved to a larger space, the Schaumburg Convention Center. 

Mary took some time out of her busy schedule to talk about the effort necessary, as well as the rewards of putting together a trade show that aspires to be the Essen of the US.

Mary, what is your gaming background?

Mary Couzin: I didnít play many games in my childhood or in college since I worked my way through for my BBA from Notre Dame and a MBA from Loyola.  It wasnít until my twenties I got the bug.  A college friend worked at Western Publishing before it was acquired by Hasbro and would bring prototypes to play and tell inventor stories. What great fun that was!

I couldnít believe it would be that hard to invent a game.  A co-worker and I invented our first game, Hollywoodís Reel Schpeel in the early 90ís, one of the first movie games on the market.  We received all sorts of awards and went through three production runs.  If you had told me it was harder or just as hard to market a game as invent one, I wouldnít have believed it until I did it myself.

While on the tradeshow circuit, other independents would say we should all band together to save on show costs and mailings, so I started DiscoverGames.com.  Rio Grande was one of our first members as was R&R Games.  DiscoverGames is celebrating its 10th anniversary this Toy Fair.

Along the way I invented a couple of more games, had a consulting agreement with University Games on a movie game, and went to Essen.  I was lucky to be able to hang out with Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum and meet a lot of people there I probably would not have otherwise. 

What was the catalyst that prompted you to want to put together a toy and game trade show?

MC: While at Essen I just couldnít believe how much people loved games.  And they were beautiful engaging games!  Kids were playing games in the aisles.  There was nothing like it in the States.  We had trade shows and hobby shows, but no consumer shows targeting the mainstream.

Also, I had terrific games in our DiscoverGames line and they werenít getting enough attention in the marketplace, so why not create more demand for games.  You see reviews for every form of entertainment in the mass media except for games, why not create demand. I didnít realize how hard that it would be and still is.

What was your business experience before you created Chi-Tag?

MC: Aside from business degrees, running a small game company and a custom cake decorating company, I worked in international benefits for an actuarial company and then was a partner in a real estate firm.  I quit my full time job in June to concentrate on Chi-Tag and DiscoverGames.  I still sell real estate in Italy if anyone is interested.

How did people react when you initially proposed the idea of Chi-Tag?

MC: Initially everyone was supportive until it came time to put money down.  Having DiscoverGames gave me contacts in the game industry to start the show.  I will eternally be grateful to Rio Grande, R & R Games and Out of the Box for their support.  Lothar Hemme from Ravensburger in Germany has been a tremendous source of encouragement as well.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to put the first ChiTAG together?

MC: This type of show had never been done in the States before and so many of the mainstream companies didnít know much about Essen, so it was difficult to get the idea across.  A friend of mine in Germany has been very supportive over the years, and gave me some background when I asked about Essenís growth.

Essen has become what it is due to the fact that there has been co-operation between the organizers of the event and the games industry. When Essen started in 1983 they had about 3,000 visitors.  In 1984 the attendance doubled, and the school, where it took place originally, was too small.  So they moved to the exhibition centre.  At that moment in 1985 the new location was too big.  It was a risk!  At the end of the day they played volleyball in the exhibition hall because there was so much space between the booths, which cannot be imagined today.  But the people involved in the show saw the potential of the event.  Now they have more than 140,000 visitors every year.

In Germany there is an organized toy industry association.  In this association there is a subordinated group of currently 18 games manufacturers that meets twice a year and calls themselves the Fachgruppe Spiel.  In addition, they started a common website and run projects in German schools to prompt pupils and teachers play games.

In 1985 this group decided to support the show in Essen and to make it THE game event.  Consequently all the members of Fachgruppe Spiel have been present at the show since then.  This was a very important decision because all the companies really focused their activities on Essen and did not support other events with the same impetus.

Unlike Germany/Europe, in the States we have Hasbro and Mattel with the lionís share of board game sales.  From their point of view there is little reason to support Chi-Tag because it just helps the smaller guys.  When I build the attendance enough, they will see more value in it for themselves.  We also do not have game companies co-operating to form a group like Fachgruppe Spiel.  I doubt Mattel, Hasbro, Rio Grande, ZMan and others will sit down together to figure out how to promote board games, let alone support an Essen type fair.

We were thrilled to have Hasbro exhibit this year.  For the first three years attendees and other exhibitors asked if they would be there. We hope they come back as an anchor in future years as Rio Grande has been for us since the beginning.

Hasbro has participated in past years both in giving us product for giveaways and giant games for the Giant Jenga Challenge and our Largest Twister Event Ever in Chicago.  Mike Hirtle, V.P. of Research and Development at Hasbro, attended in previous years to look for game concepts.  I understand he and Mike Gray found a game to license at this yearís Chi-Tag.  I saw both Mikes playing games in the Rio Grande booth at Chi-Tag as they are both fans of Eurogames.

Mike H. was also instrumental in putting together the Inventor Forum this year, which was very successful.  It also featured Jeffrey Breslow, President of Big Monster Toys (BMT), one of the most prolific and successful toy/game inventing groups, Joey Breslow, President of Grape Games, an independent game company with Tim Walsh, co-inventor of TriBond and Blurt! and author of Timeless Toys/The Playmakers moderating.  The audience and Tim were able to get three different perspectives to their questions.  Our breakfast sponsor, Delano Service, has already signed on to sponsor next yearís Forum.

How has Chi-Tag changed from year one to this year?

MC: We are much larger now in terms of exhibitors and attendees. We are adding more events like the Inventor Forum and Homeschooling Night.  We are also working with teachers and day cares for an accreditation program.  We tried to have it in place for this year, but didnít make it.  It will be there next year.

We are also learning as we go along how to attract the mainstream.  You can be on every TV station, radio, newspaper, newsletter, hand out tens of thousands of flyers, and more, but it is hard to pull people in (check out the press list on www.chitag.com).  Over 30% of our people come from word-of-mouth and 20% are returnees.

Do you now work on Chi-Tag exclusively?

MC: Very close to it. I do still work on DiscoverGames, but there is overlap between the two.

After my term expired on City Council, I was appointed to the Plan Commission/Zoning Board and still chair the Sculpture Committee, a committee I founded 6 years ago.  My time commitment to civic work is a fraction of what it was on the Council.  A very good thing since Chi-Tag is all consuming.  Letís just say I donít get out as much as I once did.

What would you say are the skills necessary to put a game convention of this size together?

MC: Perseverance.  I was absolutely convinced that over 100,000 people would attend our first Chi-Tag in 2003.  Why wouldnít people flock to a toy and game fair open to the public?  Didnít happen.  Weíll get there, it will just take longer than I had expected.

Vision.  You have to be able to visualize where you are going and get others excited about that vision.  Anita Daniel and Aaron Gessner have been with me since Chi-Tag 2004 and they see the vision of what it can be.  Catherine and Graeme Thomson from HL Games, a company that has exhibited at many shows throughout the world, joined our team last year and have provided valuable input.  We have other volunteers and interns and without their help it would be very difficult to put on Chi-Tag.

The game industry is unquestionably male dominated. Do you feel there are additional challenges for you because of this imbalance?

MC: Iíve been told this is true, although Iíd like not to think that is the case.  When I went to Notre Dame, men outnumbered the women 6 to 1.  When I was elected to our City Council I was one in 6.  You canít sit back because you think it is going to be harder for whatever reason.

What are some of the challenges of putting together a show such as Chi-Tag that people might not realize?

MC: Getting the mainstream excited about games and to understand that they can learn how to play the games at Chi-Tag.  Non-gamers, if they play, only play what they are familiar with or what is easy.  We have heard over and over again from attendees that they had no idea all these other games existed and how much fun it is to play.  We offer many entertainment options, like Radio Disney and the Ninja Turtles, that bring attendees and then they walk around and start playing games.  So many people will tell us it has been years since they have played a game and had forgotten how much fun it was - our game converts.

Chi-Tag was originally held at Chicagoís Navy Pier.  This year you moved the venue to the Schaumburg Convention Center.  What prompted this change?  What effect did moving the location have on the show?

MC: We changed the location because people didnít want to pay the high parking fees, locals and suburbanites didnít want to mingle with the tourists on the Pier, we were one of many entertainment options on the Pier and a long walk down the Pier to get to the hall.  We are now a destination, a short walk, no parking fees and no tourists.  Our attendance was down this year, but attendees were more interested in what was going on and they bought more. This is a better base to grow Chi-Tag.

What have been attendee reactions to Chi-Tag?

MC: We do exit polls and contests to get demographic information and build an attendee database.  The fact that half our attendance is comprised of people following us year-to-year or word-of-mouth says a lot about the show, especially considering the change in dates and location.

A remark from a Girl Scout leader sums up how attendees feel about Chi-Tag and shows our challenge.  She said that she thought it would just be a big mall to buy things and now that sheís attended and understands that it is so much more, she plans to tell everyone she knows how much fun it is and be back with friends and neighbors in tow.

After all the work youíve done to put Chi-Tag together, what has been the most rewarding aspect?

MC: Getting people to play more games and the game converts.

We believe in building community through play.  A recent Study by Duke shows that Americans are feeling more and more isolated with fewer and fewer friends.*** According to the June 23, 2006 Chicago Tribune, Americans surprised pollsters in 1985 when they said they had only three close friends.  Today say they have just two.  The number who say they have no one to discuss important matters with has doubled to 1 in 4.

We want to reverse this trend by building community through play and by getting people to see playing board games/toys as an entertainment option along with going to the movies, going to a concert, etc.  We want board games reviewed along with CDs, plays, movies, books, etc.  It will happen.

How do you envision Chi-Tag on its 10th anniversary? What will it take to get Chi-Tag to that point?

MC: I see us looking more and more like Essen and it is going to take more hard work to get there.  Americans are not of the same mindset as Europeans when it comes to games, but that doesnít mean we canít get them there.

Mike Hirtle suggested an Industry Board and we are working on that as well as an Attendee Advisory Board to get it to that point.  We try new ways to attract attendees every year and are working on more and more partnerships with many different groups.  The added events will also bring more attendees.  We will continue with PR throughout the year, getting stories out to the general public.  Mattel came to the show and gave us ideas to implement.  We are also open to any ideas your readers have to help us grow.

If people wanted to get involved in Chi-Tag, how can they get more information?

MC: We would welcome and appreciate all ideas and any help from anyone! They can call 847-677-8277 or email me at mcouzin@chitag.com.

Thank you very much, Mary, for taking the time to answer my questions, and for all youíve done to expand the exposure of games to the US public.

MC: Thank you, Scott!

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