Phil Crawford, marketing and social manager at Player 1 Events, discusses how Insomnia Gaming Festival has evolved in 23 years to become a major ‘community-driven event’ at the NEC
How has the event evolved during its tenure at the NEC?
We are a community-driven festival which also has a range of sub-communities covering a number of different themes. For instance, we’ve evolved over 23 years from 200 people playing computer games together to smaller venues, to then moving to the NEC, where we have the scale and capacity to deliver a far broader experience.
Being able to expand our event and grow it to its current size means we can include so many more people into our community, welcome new communities and have the potential to get bigger and bigger. With more people comes more interest from industry which leads to bigger and better attractions, drawing in more people. Being at the NEC gives us the opportunity to harness that snowball and adapt the size and shape of our show to accommodate this growing community of players and publishers.
At what point did you look at the option for visitors to camp out in the hall?
Our event always included camping even at previous venues but the shift to the NEC meant that we could exclusively offer indoor camping and a more pleasant experience for everyone, which at our core, is what we aim to achieve.
The event feels like an audience-first format, which really understands its community and can identify with the issues/challenges and needs they face. Would you say this is important for the show’s success?
It’s the most important part of our show and its success. We are a community-driven festival. While we consider ourselves experts in our field of event organising and quite a few of us are gamers, we don’t make any big decisions about the show without first opening up to the wider community for feedback. This allows us to not only put on the best gaming festival that we can but one that only provides the community with what they have asked for. Of course, we can’t please everyone but we hope this open approach will allow us to show that we do only what is best for the community as a whole.
When looking at how to grow the audience and broaden reach, where do you look?
It’s all about the communities. Not just our own but other like-minded communities that might show an interest in Insomnia. We look at cosplay communities, tabletop communities, esports, online gaming, and anyone that has a passion for play – we look to engage with them and show them what we’re about. And of course, we trust our own core community to tell their friends about their great experiences at the show. Nothing spreads the word faster than word of mouth!
We also have the location, at the centre of the UK, which makes us more inclusive. People travel from all over the UK to come to the festival, it’s easy to reach. We also have plenty coming from overseas. You can walk from Birmingham airport straight into the event which is a great advantage.
Do you work with influencers and key players within the industry, do you find that has an impact on your community and the traction of the event?
We invite several creators, press and industry guests to our event. In our eyes, these aren’t just more customers but an entirely new community to bring into our growing audience. Our creators love the show and love to invite their own sub-communities to meet them and get involved, our press love to check it out and be presented with an opportunity to create content and our industry guests love to check it out, network with each other and see another great example of a wholesome part of the gaming industry as a whole.
For our creators, we have created the ‘Creators Tavern’, a medieval bar-style area where creators can come along and tell their audience when they’ll be there on social media. It’s a relaxed environment with the opportunity to meet without the enforced nature of a line-up meet and greet, which we have found offers less to our creators. We need to know we’re offering value to the creators. Creators can apply online to gain access to the festival, but from our side it’s not necessarily about the high numbers of followers they have but more about whether their audience fits for the show. If we think it’s a good match, we will look at what we can do to support that creator and add value to their attendance.
Insomnia captures quite a few communities within the festival, across cosplay, esports, gaming etc – do you find you have to invest in building each community to keep the pull of the festival there for audiences?
It’s less about investing in building these communities, they exist already and they are rapidly growing themselves. For us, it’s about speaking to them, opening up about what we are planning to do, taking their feedback and adapting accordingly. We try and create something that makes that preexisting community want to join ours.
For instance, we found a sub-community for speed-running, which is the art of playing video games as fast as possible. It has a dedicated audience which we have now turned into a speed-running zone with a commercial partner. It is an example of something which came as a trend and we responded to it by looking at how we could cater to that particular sub-community.
The gaming and digital sector is booming at the moment in terms of events and festivals. Why do you think this is? Is face to face key for even the most digital communities?
We get asked this a lot. “Why should people go to gaming events when they can play together online?”. The counterpoint to this always harkens back to the end of lockdown when the pubs reopened and people were finally able to see each other after spending a year talking over the phone or via video calls. While it was functional and we all made do, nothing beats being able to get in the same place and do what you love together. Insomnia captures this feeling and presents it back to the community.
What are the key pulls for Insomnia? Is it the big exhibitors/gaming companies, or does that depend on the visitor?
It very much varies by visitor. Some people love to come and see big brands and their products, some people want to just game as much as they can with whoever they can and some will even just come seeking out some hidden gems on the marketplace stalls that they can’t find anywhere else. The key for us is to cater for as many people as possible and listen to the individuals and their sub-communities for the feedback that they want to give.
How important is it to capture the event and bring it to life for those who aren’t visiting, but could be persuaded for the next one?
We always make sure to bring a team of very talented photographers and videographers with us when we hold Insomnia for this exact reason. We’ve seen how visually striking media can stop someone from “doomscrolling” through social media but it’s as much about giving people who did attend something to get nostalgic as it is about reaching new people. Give someone something visual to share with their friends rather than just trying to describe it.
What would you say to other exhibitions who are looking at how to build communities for their events? Where should they start?
I would say the most important thing is don’t just talk to your audience, listen to what they have to say. The general public is so wise to marketing and buzz words now that unless you are genuine in your approach to being open, it will get seen from a mile away. That’s why we love what we do and love the people that attend our events because we listen and know them.
Gaming as a theme moves fast, our feedback process is intensive and we are constantly polling and putting out surveys to our Insomnia community. For instance, Insomnia 65, which took place pre-pandemic, highlighted just 2% of our attendees were on TikTok. We know that stat is now basically obsolete, and things have moved on rapidly, so we keep checking in, keep asking for feedback. Our view is that our festival is a platform for our community to feed into. There is no point only focussing on historical data, what people might have liked in the last show. We must ask what they are excited about for the year ahead, what they want to see next, what games or trends are on their radar.
The next edition of Insomnia takes place from 26-29 August at the NEC.