I couldn’t sleep at all Tuesday night. I was staying in Baltimore, at a great hotel, and while there had been a disturbance at the venue earlier that evening, that’s not why I had trouble sleeping. The sounds of the bustling city didn’t keep me awake either. Neither did the fact that I couldn’t fall sleep on my flight out from San Diego. The reason I couldn’t get unconscious was because I was excited. I tossed and turned like a little kid on Christmas Eve because I couldn’t wait for The National Sports Collectors Convention (NSCC) to begin.
When I attended my first NSCC, I felt like I had been sent to the Gulag in Russia for some crime for which I was wrongly convicted. As Upper Deck’s Customer Service Manager back then, I received a steady diet of off-the-wall complaints for all five days of the show. My blood pressure elevated every time I heard one of my co-workers say: “Oh, yeah, you want to speak to Chris Carlin.” After hearing people who appeared completely rational start complaining passionately about things like why Upper Deck can’t hand-package every trading card release to reduce flaws on some of the cards, to why we don’t make Jai-Alia cards, I realized one thing: People love Upper Deck cards.
And you know what? I do too. The 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card hooked me immediately and it was my dream come true to work for Upper Deck. Yes, I had to deal with complaints at the NSCC, but people don’t complain if they don’t care about your products. During one sleepless night during my first NSCC with all these complaints running through my head, that simple fact dawned on me. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t take the time to complain, right? They just wouldn’t care. Each complaint is a proclamation of love for our products. I was comforted and soon fell into a deep sleep.
I began to see the NSCC as an opportunity on several different levels. It poses an opportunity every year to listen to compelling ideas from people who care about Upper Deck products. It provides the chance to hear complaints about goods and services that are not perfect and what might work to make them right, while hopefully salvaging a relationship with a customer. It creates the opportunity to share how compelling and fun this hobby is with new and old collectors alike. As hard as it is to get yelled at from time to time about something I didn’t really have any control over, after my first NSCC, I knew I had to keep coming back every year. It’s simply not a show I would miss for the world.
If you are anywhere near Baltimore this weekend and have ever cared about any sport, you have to come. There are tons of crazy/weird things that will make you ask yourself, “Who would buy that?” and then the next thing you know you’re walking around with a framed signed photo of Don Mattingly posing with Donald Trump and his family because (let’s face it) when are you ever going to get the chance to own something like that again.
So why was I so excited, exactly? Because I knew what would happen. It’s almost the same every year and I love it. But to let you in on the secret, here are just some of the reasons why I’ve enjoyed the show so far and why I can’t wait for the rest of the weekend.
The Set Up – Getting to the show before anyone else is an electric environment. Booths are being erected. Displays are going up. Deals are quickly being struck with vendors already set up. And at the Upper Deck booth we are unpacking like crazy, hoping that everything sent reached its destination in good condition. We went all out this year. We have some amazing pieces to see. We brought out several unique insert cards from our upcoming 2010 Sweet Spot Football and 2009-10 NHL The Cup releases which will hit in late August-early September. People have been drooling over those cards. The Michael Jordan autographed Curve Display has been a traffic stopper as well, but there is one eye-catcher that stops both young and old collectors in their tracks every time. It’s the 2009 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions complete set of the Entomology, Landmarks and Thoroughbred Hair Cuts inserts. It is really amazing to see all these cards together and it’s commonplace to see people’s jaws drop when they stop by for a look.
The Hotel View – I didn’t realize just how central downtown Baltimore really is. All I knew about Baltimore prior to my first visit this weekend is what I learned on HBO’s critically acclaimed show The Wire and it certainly didn’t paint the best portrait of the city. Goes to show you can’t believe everything you see on TV. Our hotel is situated right next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and beyond that on the skyline you can see the field where the Baltimore Ravens play. Oh and you can see into the ballpark from the hotel. How cool is that? Additionally the convention center and harbor are all within walking distance and with the exception of the humidity, I’ve loved this city so far.
The Frowns Turn to Smiles – I’ll never get tired of this one. So many times at these shows and even at this show already where I’ve had someone come up to the booth so upset (which is a good thing; remember, they care). Getting to spend some time with them face-to-face explaining why Upper Deck does things a certain way, giving them that sneak peek behind the curtain, it is just really special. Nine times out of 10 I can have a passionate collector who comes to our booth upset but leaves happy. It’s just really gratifying to get the chance to listen to concerns and have the opportunity to educate collectors or share plans we have in place to fix things in the future. It’s so important to let them know that the people who make the brands they care about actually care about the people’s opinions who buy those brands. That is really special.
The Shaking Hands – Upper Deck spends a lot of money and time each year in producing a special wrapper redemption program for every NSCC. There is a different set of cards available at our booth each day provided collectors open up five packs of a new Upper Deck product at our booth. Randomly inserted into these packs are rare autographed cards from all sorts of sports legends like LeBron James, Gordie Howe and Michael Jordan to name just a few. When you see someone open the packs and find one of those cards, their hands immediately begin to shake. They want to show it off, but the excitement and thrill of finding one of these limited cards of a superstar athlete absolutely knocks them off their feet. It’s probably my favorite part of the show. It is such a special privilege to get to provide those moments to sports fanatics.
The Friendships – In just two days at the show it is just so great to see so many familiar faces. With the dawn of email, Facebook and so many other ways to keep in touch with friends and colleagues, there is nothing quite like the face-to-face experience you get with seeing customers and business partners who you have cultivated friendships with over the years. The caring and brutally honest dialogue that takes place between me and fans, collectors, shop owners, show vendors, distributors and league reps is really special. There is nothing quite like pressing the flesh (handshake) and spending time with people you may be totally different from outside the show, but in that great hall, you share the common bond of a true love for sports cards and memorabilia. It is very special.
The Chance to Help a Small Business Owner – There are so many great hobby shop owners out there who come to this show as a service to their customers. Some are set up and selling/buying/trading to make new customers, but many walk the show to trade items from dealers they know in other regions in order to get items in their region that their customers will want. They sell cards for their customers. They share what their customers are thinking and want with manufacturers. Quite simply, they come because they care. And to get the chance to talk with them about promotions Upper Deck can do in their store is very valuable to us. There are not as many hobby shops left as there were in the early ‘90s, but the ones that are know exactly what they’re doing. And they care. So make sure you make time to visit one if you haven’t been in awhile.
The Healthy Competition – I went to dinner last night with some customers and on the way back we came upon a guy who works for Panini America, one of our competitors. No glares or ill words were spoken. Instead smiles and high-fives were shared. Leaving we came upon some members of the Topps staff. Again, we had a nice conversation about the show and the industry. When we returned to the hotel, we came upon some of the Press Pass crew and again, we just enjoyed pleasant camaraderie. As competitive as our business is, I believe it is a healthy competition. I wake up every day motivated to beat Panini, Topps and anyone else at making the best sports collectibles, but it is a healthy competition. Or maybe I just like keeping my enemies close.
The Opportunity – More than anything else, to me and the Upper Deck staff in attendance, we treasure the opportunity to meet the thousands of collectors who have purchased Upper Deck products over the years. It is so helpful to get to hear your thoughts (except about Jai-Alai cards, that’s most likely not going to happen). It means the world to us to be able to spend time with collectors and to see their eyes light up as we share what we are coming out with next. And from the bottom of my heart, I just want to say, “THANK YOU!” We know you have a choice when you are choosing what company’s cards to purchase, but the fact that people choose Upper Deck means so much to everyone at 5909 Sea Otter Place. We love bringing fans closer to the game and we will continue to come in early and work late to meet and exceed collectors’ expectations. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
By the way, I wrote this entry between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Friday morning because I couldn’t sleep. I can’t wait for the next day of the show and I hope you are there to experience it with me.