Whether you’re an “Old Salt” at booking your shows… or if you’re brand new to the art and crafts show market, one of the most important things you can do is to attempt to select the right kind of shows to participate in. Of the thousands of events available to you, most people only need 30 to 40 of them at best. Narrowing that selection down to those most likely to produce the results you want on a budget you can afford is a challenge all of us face. Part of the problem is that the variables we have to weigh in the selection process continually change. None of us have a functioning “Crystal Ball” so there is no way to predict exactly how a show will turn out, but it doesn’t have to be a total “crap shoot” because you can weigh some of the basic factors and significantly enhance your chances of making money.
Pick The Right General Category Of Show. We’ll talk about a bunch of subjects throughout the next few pages, but lets start with one of the most basic issues… matching your work to the prospective show. I can’t tell you how many people have left me scratching my head as to how they’ve wound up at some of the events in which they were participating. I’ve seen world class wood carvers at a $20.00 local church show… I’ve seen exhibitors with buy-sell trinket jewelry at fine art shows… exhibitors with abstract paintings at country craft events… certainly these are extremes, but they do happen. Unfortunately a tremendous creative talent does not automatically endow us with a marketing genius as well! If you don’t know what kind of work you produce, then take the time to either ask someone who will be honest with you or go to a few shows yourself and do an objective comparison with the work other people produce. Whether you create crafts or fine art, you’ve at least got to be at an event where the prospects are generally looking for the style of work you produce. If you paint or make expensive jewelry… make sculpture or some other “fine art” type of work… make sure the event you’re going to is mostly a juried event presenting fine art. If you make wooden signs with cutesy sayings with a rather rustic look, inexpensive jewelry, folksy paintings on useful objects (mailboxes, trash cans etc.) you probably ought to make sure you’re attending a craft show. Certainly there are lots of finer points to consider… and we’ll make sure to talk about them soon, but lets start by getting the right work into the right type of show.
Now that we’ve got you looking in the right general place for your potential choices, lets begin to hone in in those choices a bit. We’ll consider the effect of pricing, style, socioeconomic strata, location, show themes and more. The interaction of these criteria will have a definitive impact upon the shows you choose and once you’ve determined what arena in which you’d like to participate, you’ll know the questions to ask sponsors of prospective events.
What Are We Really Selling? If you produce crafts, we can further refine where your work should be exhibited. Begin by determining where you fit in with regard to price. We’ll make some arbitrary divisions here. Determine if you want to sell your items in the under $10.00 range, $10.00-$30.00, $30.00-$75.00 or over $75.00. Fine art and fine craft has pricing ranges too but generally they are a bit higher. You may want to find out whether small prints were selling or larger ones. What was the percentage of sales of original work vs prints? Did anyone make any major sales? Whatever you’re selling it’s important to get a feel for what was walking out the door! When you consider an event, ask past exhibitors and the show sponsor what kind of items and in what price range they saw items leaving the show as purchases? That’s way more important than what was being displayed! Often times the sponsor of the event will try to portray the show in the most positive light so they’ll tell you about what they consider to be the most “prestigious” type of work or the most expensive work that was displayed. That’s great to know from an aesthetic standpoint… but what pays the bills is knowing about the type of work shoppers were willing to part with money for to take home. ASK… ASK… ASK… get past the hype and down to the nitty-gritty about what was selling. If you have the flexibility to produce work in a variety of price ranges, you could more accurately choose the stock you’ll bring to this particular event or at the very least concentrate your efforts on what will most likely sell.
What’s Happening At The Show? You may also want to find out about the other activities that will be taking place during the show. If there is a carnival attached to the show then you know there will be a lot more impulse type of items selling and chances are the items you do sell will be the kind that are easily transported. Not many people are going to take a $200.00 piece of pottery on the tilt-a-whirl! If there is a boat show going on you may want to bring some nautical pieces. If the show has a theme like a Strawberry Festival, an Art Deco Theme or something similar that would most likely attract a crowd with a particular interest then it’s worth noting… and if possible you should have at least some work that would serve that area of interest. There are probably almost as many different themes for shows as there are shows themselves so find out what you can and try to cater to that crowd.
Who Are We Selling To? How about socioeconomic strata in the area? Here again this could be a potential “deal breaker” for you if the factors are wrong! Some of this is available right online. One site I found was located at http://www.fairdata2000.com/SocioEconMapper/ and by clicking around you can zoom into a geographic area and find such things as percent of poverty, racial distribution, average median income, percentage of home owners vs. renters, automobile ownership, educational levels and much more. I know some people may think that some of these factors my conjure up opinions that may be prejudiced in their generalizations, but some socioeconomic factors invariably will decide what, when and how the buyers will act. Unless the sun starts rising in the west and setting in the east, not too many people who make less that $20,000 per year, rent the house they live in and have 4 children under the age or five will be purchasing too many $4000.00 original painting to hang in the living room! They may however buy a key chain at a craft show or maybe give the kids $2.00 each to find some little trinket. By contrast, if you knew you’d be going into an area dominated by homeowners with a median age of 50 and above, incomes in excess of $150,000 and surrounded by a solid base of upscale businesses then it would probably be fair to take the position that the $4000.00 original painting to hang in the living room may be a relatively common sale while the key chains my not do quite so well. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure this out, just use a bit of common sense. Once again it’s smart to do your own research on the area you’re considering. Many times show sponsors are not only promoting the show you’re considering but they are also a strong advocate of the community in which the show will be taking place and as such they may have a much more “optimistic” view of what they want the community to become rather than what it is. Unfortunately once you’ve paid the entry fee, set up your canopy and paid for the hotel, you’ve got to deal with what there is here and now… not what may be in a few years. An optimistic view of the future may stir grand visions… but it won’t pay the bills on Saturday or Sunday afternoon THIS weekend!
What Is The Location Like? According to the show sponsor, the event was to take place in the “most lovely” park you’ve ever seen. Old oak trees were to provide a cover of shade throughout the sunny day and the flowers along the winding paths shoppers would be following would lend to an ambiance conducive to selling even the priciest of work! WOW! That sounds great! Sign me up! BUT… wait just a moment… maybe we need a little translation here. How far away is the vendor parking? If the show really is a good one you know you’ll be needing a constant supply of merchandise you can’t always keep under a tarp behind your booth so that could mean a half mile trek down the road to retrieve that work the customers are snapping up. How many sales could that cost you? And how about the setup itself? Sure the park has those lovely trees and the flower lined paths (and Dorothy promises the wicked witch of the west won’t appear)… but my guess is that also means you can’t drive up to the location your booth is in so unless you happen to be selling paper fans you’d better be prepared for a long walk with your work. Hand trucks and carts aren’t too bad for a relatively short distance, but the journey can be a long one if it amounts to a couple of blocks, the work you have is heavy or god forbid you have any rain during setup. All of a sudden those “flower lined paths” become the mud pits from hell! And those shady oaks keep dropping branches on your canopy and threaten to tear the top. Maybe things will turn out just the way they were described… but maybe they won’t! Make sure to ask facts about the location and the setup so you can make an informed decision about the show and come prepared to accomplish the load-in and load-out whatever the weather, the terrain or the distance you’ll have to haul your display and work. Since most show sponsors have never done what you’re about to do, they often times have very little appreciation about what’s involved.
Do The Local Accommodations Suit Your Needs? If the show is right down the street from your home and there aren’t a lot of other events going on anyway, then what the heck… it’s a no brainer! The reality is that there aren’t too many of those events taking place. In view of that we have to ask around a little more to find out if doing the show is actually practical. First of all we’ll need a place to stay unless the commute home is practical. Some places in the southeast have a lot of nice hotels and the rates are quite competitive. I always use those green or red travelers guides you find up and down the Interstates or maybe you could even use one of the online services like hotels.com, priceline.com or kayak.com to find a decent, inexpensive room. I always like to find something nice and clean, but remember… we’re not on a five star vacation… we’d like to have some money left over that we didn’t give to the local hotelier. It’s also possible the show sponsors have a special deal with one or two hotels… this is certainly worth asking about and could result in a substantial discount. On the other hand, in some areas dominated by tourists or at times when occupancy is very high at the local places you couldn’t get a discount if your life depended on it. I know I’ve fallen victim to this more than once and if you sign up for a show before you check out the hotels, that $250.00 entry fee you agonized about could just be a drop in the bucket compared to the hotel bill!
Of course accommodations include more than a place to stay… you’ll also have to eat and park your vehicle too. Are there reasonably priced restaurants within close distance to where you’re staying? Do you have cooking facilities in your hotel room? Once again, this could set you back quite a bit with the wrong situation. How about parking? Usually I don’t think much about it because I live in a little town where the parking everywhere is free. But a couple of years ago I did a show in Virginia where I paid $40.00 a day just to park our truck. A day for setup and two days for the show amounted to $120.00 I hadn’t figured on. Make sure to ask!
What Is The Weather Generally Like During The Time The Show Takes Place? Of course we have no way of knowing exactly what the weather will actually be like during the show… but many times we can have a general idea. I know that during September and early October in Florida you can bet on at least a 50/50 chance of rain. In the first two weeks of March here in the south there are always plenty of winds. During February in Buffalo you can pretty much count on snow! We have weather trends that usually happen every year. You’ll want to make sure your display and your work can endure the threats mother nature will most likely be doling out. Some work will survive the beating the environment can dish out better than others. Pottery for example doesn’t generally care whether it gets wet or not… it just cleans up nicely and dries once the sun comes out. Quilts on the other hand won’t be anywhere as agreeable when the rain starts to come… however if you accidentally drop a quilt on the ground it fairs quite a bit better than the pottery.
Does The Show Offer Anything Extra For Exhibitors? When you arrive at some events you don’t even get a nice “hello” from the sponsors… other times they can’t do enough to help. The extras some events offer not only make life a lot nicer, they can actually help increase sales because you have a better attitude during the event. That “attitude” is extremely important when it comes time for the customer to part with money. Some of those “extras” are things like a separate washroom for exhibitors. This may seem trivial until the second day of the show when the Porta-Potty guys didn’t bother showing up! The show sponsors and volunteers can go home… the customers WILL go home, but you’re stuck! Sometimes an event will offer breakfast or even coffee and a sweet roll to exhibitors. This may not be “breakfast at the Ritz,” but when you’ve been in a hurry to get everything in place before the customers come it can be greatly appreciated. Booth sitters are another great idea. Sure we’ve all asked our neighbors to watch our booth for a moment while we ran to the bathroom or grabbed a bite to eat… but how much nicer when you don’t have to impose on others. Another worthwhile service is when a show offers help with load ins and tear down. This can substantially offset the situations where there is a long walk from your truck or van to the actual setup area OR if you’re by yourself. You don’t want to be so exhausted from the setup that you can’t properly greet your customers. How about discounts at local hotels, camping facilities or restaurants… these money savers can make a real difference as to whether the event makes economic sense. When you’re considering a show, make sure to ask about the “extras” the show may provide.
Is That Deadline Really A DEADLINE? There are shows who post a deadline and really stick with it! Of course if you produce something that is extremely competitive like photography, jewelry or wood crafts then it can be difficult to “worm your way in” after a deadline date (though certainly not impossible if you’re flexible). On the other hand, the more unique your work is, the more likely you’ll be able to possibly convince the show sponsor that they should let you in. And the result could actually be quite good for both of you! The other option is that applications didn’t go as well as the show sponsor had hoped and the deadline was set at an optimistic moment. No one likes to eat crow and have to change their original intended path… but in the end many times practicality rules and exhibitors are let into the show even after the deadline has expired.
Even if you can’t get into the event in advance… you may be able to do it on the day of the show! No show looks good with empty spaces and my general rule of thumb is that if there are 200 spaces or greater, the likelihood of someone quitting the business, having a truck break down en route, getting sick or encountering some other reason for not attending the show is pretty good. That then means the chances of you getting into the event are enhanced as well. Sometimes this can be a bit chancy because of course there’s always the possibility everyone will show up or that there will be others ahead of you. But if you need the show, it may be worth the risk.
How Much Is The Entry Fee? Is The Show Juried? I know many of you may ask, “Why wait until the last part of this discussion to discuss prices?” Well the reality is that price doesn’t mean a thing if the other criteria aren’t met first! I put these two fees together because collectively they really represent the total price of entry. You may be surprised to learn that in many cases the show sponsors agonize about setting the prices for shows as you agonize about pricing your work. Just like you… if the price is too high not many people will apply. Price the event too low and it’s difficult to make enough money to promote the event well or to provide the amenities the sponsors would like. I’ve actually written complete articles on this subject before and you could discuss in length what constitutes a fair fee. Here again is an area where you must self-analyze to assess if your work really fits in with the event you plan on applying for. This is particularly true when jury fees are involved. Even if you don’t come close to qualifying… or even if you apply late, most shows will gladly take your money and tell you “sorry Charlie.” And now with Zapplication handling the jury fees for a number of shows the amount you have to pay just to apply has begun to climb through the roof!
Naturally the higher the fee, the more you’d expect in gross sales. That is not always the only consideration however. Some events require 100% of the show fee to be paid months in advance while others are more flexible about how payment is to be made. Events that require everything up front are usually the well established shows with a reputation for great sales. They can demand this type of payment and get it. Those shows that aren’t quite as strong or have very high fees may be able to set up some kind of payment arrangements for you. In the final analysis only you can determine if the fee to participate was fair. If it was… sign up again for the event right away. If not… there are plenty of other shows just waiting to invite you in.
One of our goals here at “Where The Shows Are!!!” has always been to present a wide variety of shows in a large span of price ranges. Chances are, no matter where or when you’re looking for an event… not matter how much you can afford for an entry fee… or what type of show you’re looking for you’ll probably find it listed somewhere in our show guide.
Finding just the right show is not really a science and of course we’ll always have a few “sleepers” we never thought would amount to a hill of beans… and then there will be a few of the “dependable” events that turn out to be a bust! Through careful evaluation and a little research we can however limit our chances of getting into the wrong event at the wrong time and hopefully more consistently put ourselves in the RIGHT event at the RIGHT time! Good luck in your quest for the “perfect” show!