From the bar to the ice cream parlor: Hosting more inclusive professional meetups

Back in 2017, as IGDA NYC co-chair, I wrote this case study describing how we adopted a new format for social events, passing over the traditional game dev bar mixer in favor of an all-ages, alcohol-free alternative.

I repost it here for posterity, and in anticipation of the day when advice about hosting indoor gatherings is relevant again.

CASE STUDY: Coffee and Ice Cream Socials

There are plenty of game industry networking events, bar mixers, and drink nights out there, but we wanted to do something a little different — so instead, we started up the IGDA NYC Coffee and Ice Cream Socials.

Held every third Monday at an ice cream parlor rather than a bar, our socials are alcohol-free, family-friendly, and open to all ages.

We’ll be at Ample Hills Creamery in Gowanus, Brooklyn, with an upstairs roof deck and a great menu of whimsical, handcrafted flavors, including dairy-free vegan options.

Come grab a cone or a cuppa and hang out with fellow game devs!

As the event description indicates, we conceived the Coffee and Ice Cream Social events as a conscious alternative to the standard, ubiquitous bar mixer or drink night. We wanted to expand the audience to be more inclusive of people who typically wouldn’t be interested in or able to attend events held at a bar, including teenagers and underage students, parents of young children, and anyone who doesn’t like to drink or isn’t comfortable in an atmosphere where alcohol is consumed. We also made a point of explicitly broadcasting our intent to diversify, rolling out the welcome mat for people who may have already written off game industry mixers as “not their scene.”

We chose the “coffee and ice cream” pairing for having broad, all-seasons appeal. We host the event in a spacious ice cream parlor that’s open year-round and offers warming items like coffee and hot chocolate to tempt people out in the cold months. Though it’s worth noting that our very first event was held at a little hole-in-the-wall ice cream shop in February, in the middle of a blizzard, and the place was packed all night with both our group and a steady stream of regular customers — there’s a certain inflexibility in demand for ice cream in even the coldest weather!

Ice cream is a great motivator for getting people out, but any kind of cafe and bakery or dessert spot could work well too, as long as it has sufficient space for groups and is quiet enough to talk (without disturbing the regular patrons!). Some of our attendees have mentioned that while they don’t drink alcohol, they don’t drink coffee or eat ice cream either, but come for the company anyway. It’s tough to cater to everyone, but a broad menu that addresses different tastes and dietary preferences (dairy-free and gluten-free options are big plusses) helps create a more inclusive environment everyone can enjoy.

Playtesting games at the ice cream social (long after the ice cream has already been eaten.)

Our socials are held on a predictable fixed schedule, the third Monday of every month. We set up a single recurring event on Eventbrite for the year, minimizing setup effort. We picked a Monday because the beginning of the week is much less cluttered with events, making conflicts less likely — and it’s a light, fun event to look forward to for an early-week pick-me-up. Our socials also start earlier than many of our other events, at 6:30 rather than 7 or 8, and officially run for two hours, so it’s not the kind of thing that’ll keep you out all night. The early start time is meant to appeal to people coming straight from the office, before (ruining?) dinner, or maybe even stopping home to pick up kids (and spouses!) to bring along without keeping them up past their bedtimes.

We don’t pay for the use of the space, but it’s vital to maintain a good relationship with the venue so that they’re happy to continue to host us. If you get friendly with the management, you may even be able to arrange for perks like group discounts if you’re bringing in good business when things are typically slow. We want them to smile when our group comes in, not roll their eyes at that rowdy game crowd again. That means making sure we replace any rearranged furniture and clean up after our group, and letting our attendees know in advance that it’s buy-your-own (sometimes the name “ice cream social” comes with the expectation of free treats) and encouraging them to purchase and tip generously.

Because the space we use is sometimes rented out by paying customers, we also have to check in beforehand to make sure we’re not blocked out, and notify our attendees if we need to relocate or reschedule. Of course, if you have a sponsor willing to pay to reserve space, or even set up a limited tab with free cones or coffees for early arrivals, that’s even better!

Our events are casual networking socials, and tend to be fairly loose and unstructured. One of the ideas we’ve considered but haven’t implemented yet is designating specific theme days, like “Family Day,” “Playtest Day,” or just a “Game Day” where people bring something to play. Theme days can be useful to draw out specific crowds and add a little variety to the events, but these activities all happen naturally to some degree without us organizing it from the top down.

Because it’s quieter and more spacious than a typical bar, the environment lends itself well to showing off works in progress or breaking out simple tabletop or card games. (If you do bring games to play, make it something with broad appeal and suitable for a wide audience — think Metagame or Fluxx, not Cards Against Humanity).

It’s also easier to converse and hear each other without shouting. Usually we wind up breaking into smaller groups at individual tables, but sometimes we combine all the furniture into one mega-table, and once we even naturally formed a circle and just had one big group conversation without splitting up. If the dynamics seem to be getting too cliquey or exclusive, don’t be afraid to make introductions, move furniture to add seats (if the venue allows), welcome people into the circle, and introduce group activities like games or otherwise consciously adjust the format in order to stimulate conversation and bring people together.

Coffee and Ice Cream Socials can offer a low-key, safe, comfortable environment that expands the audience beyond the typical bar scene crowd, making your events more inclusive and diverse. They’re easy to host, with little to no cost and low organizational overhead. I hope this case study helps you start one up in your own community!

If you have any questions about hosting these events or anything else, I can be reached at @jess_haskins on Twitter, or you can also reach out to the IGDA NYC chapter at nyc@igda.org.

Happy hosting!

Narrative designer & editor. Founder, Paperback Studio. http://jesshaskins.com | http://paperback-studio.com