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From home gathering to international festival: how Harrogate nurtures event expansion

Harrogate Convention Centre

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Harrogate is not only home to many highly established, long-standing events; this spa town has also seen some events grow exponentially over a few years, thanks first and foremost to the vision and hard work of the organisers, but also the unique offerings of the destination and support of the venue.

A group of individuals patiently waiting in line at an event, eagerly anticipating their turn.
Gamers patiently wait to enter the halls at AireCon 2023

One of such events is the AireCon Analog Gaming Festival. From a games night in its founder’s living room, AireCon grew into “the North’s biggest games expo” in eight years.

As the world becomes increasingly digital, it may come as a surprise to some that boardgaming events are drawing a rapidly growing audience in recent years. Going from one exhibitor (2016) to 100 (2023) in eight years with secondary events launching this year, AireCon Analog Gaming Festival is exemplary of impressive growth in an independent consumer show.

From home gathering to international festival

From a games night (now known as AireCon 0) with friends gathering at the founder, Mark Cooke’s flat in North Leeds, AireCon moved into Bradford for its first public event in April 2016, welcoming 102 unique visitors.

It soon became obvious to Mark and co-founder Ben Clarkson, AireCon would outgrow the Bradford venue. After an extensive venue search across Yorkshire, the organisers settled on Harrogate Convention Centre (HCC), a large-scale exhibition and conference venue located at the heart of a beautiful Victorian spa town.

A person engaged in a board game on a table.
Taking place annually in March, AireCon Analog Gaming Festival is now “the North’s biggest games expo”.

Location, location, location

“Harrogate is a great location to hold AireCon. Due the convention centre's proximity to the town centre, people are able to enjoy Harrogate as well as the event and our attendees often book longer stays either side of AireCon to explore the surrounding area. HCC are a very supportive partner and we are very grateful for their assistance in growing AireCon by five times what it was when we held the first event there six years ago,” says Mark.

Indeed, HCC’s central location in a walking town with a wide range of restaurants, pubs, accommodation, independent retailers and award-winning gardens just a stone’s throw from the venue means that delegates are spoilt for choice during their stay in Harrogate, with plenty of options to socialise with like-minded friends and even make an extended holiday out of their festival trip. The vibrant town centre also provides the perfect opportunities for organising fringe events (“Airevents”) from Park Run to beer tasting around town.

A diverse crowd gathered at tables in a spacious room, engrossed in conversation and boardgames.
AireCon has grown from just over a hundred visitors to nearly 4,000.

“The HCC team are delighted to see independent events thrive in Harrogate. Our spa town offers a unique experience as an event destination, and with numerous independent businesses operating here there is potential for great synergy with independent events,” says Georgia Glasswell, Account Manager at HCC.

Harrogate is well connected to all major cities in the UK by road and train, including six daily LNER direct trains to and from London; Leeds Bradford Airport is only 12 miles way, making the event easily accessible to gamers from around the country.

HCC’s fully customisable event halls provided the ideal space for various gaming activities and exhibition, and the scale of the venue offers plenty of room for AireCon to grow further.

Wooden sign post with directional arrows pointing at different gaming activities
AireCon grew from a home gathering to a public event that takes up five halls at HCC in eight years

Since moving into Hall D (1,050 sqm) at HCC in 2017, AireCon has expanded beyond recognition. The latest AireCon 8 on 9-12 March 2023 took over the entire exhibition side at HCC, occupying Halls A, B, C, M and Queen’s Suite, with a total floorspace of 7,478 sqm, accommodating 100 exhibitors and nearly 4,000 gamers from all over Europe, USA, Canada and Asia, with a gross income of more than 100 times the first event.

Four people standing in a group, one of them holding a wine glass.
AireCon founders Mark Cooke (second right) and Ben Clarkson (second left), together with Georgia Glasswell (first left) and Katherine Mansfield (first right) of HCC at the Exhibition News Indy Awards 2023

Working together

“The AireCon team are passionate and a great joy to work with. Each year they bring more like-minded visitors from around the world to bond over gaming in Harrogate, and we take great pleasure knowing that we play a part in this journey of growth. In fact, AireCon was shortlisted for the Most Impressive Growth category in the Exhibition News Indy Awards this year, which says volumes about what we’ve achieved together,” says Georgia.

Indeed, the HCC team were determined to support the growth of this independent event in Harrogate. We did what we could as a venue to help AireCon establish itself at the new location and facilitate its growth. This includes working with Harrogate’s DMO (Destination Management Organisation), Destination Harrogate, to offer the first town welcome for the 2020 event to make attendants feel ultra-special at the new destination.

Two people looking at a map at a stand at a train station
The town welcome in 2020 included a welcome desk at the train station and banners around town to make attendants feel ultra-special.

AireCon offers a wide range of exhibitors of games and accessories, as well as a demo zone where gamers can try their hands at new and even un-released games. There is also a Bring n’ Buy space, RPG (Role Play Game) zone with advance booking, tournaments, plenty of space for playing games and a huge library of over 500 games. An outdoor Food Faire offers tasty gaming fuel.

The next AireCon Harrogate will take place on 14-17 March 2024 and is expected to attract 5,000 visitors and take over two additional halls at HCC.

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