When a Show is Going Poorly, Keep Smiling: A Business How-To

Most handmade business owners make their bread & butter doing craft shows, fairs, and festivals–or at the very least do shows for the exposure or to connect with other makers. Whatever your reasons, shows are overall an excellent experience, but what do you do when they’re not? Or rather, what should you do when a show is going poorly?

Here are some first-hand accounts of crafty business owners’ experiences (and to keep it classy, all names & shows have been changed).

“Smile, That’s the time you must keep on trying…”

My first bit of advice is the most important and is the simplest to follow: remain positive–even if you are being hailed on, you’ve experienced a theft, haven’t sold a single thing, or have overhead a million people say “I could make that,” take a picture, and move on. Keep a smile on your face, say hello in a cheery voice, and be friendly (and maybe next time, post a sign that says “No Photos Please”).

mt image 1What to Do if your Booth Placement is not Ideal Or, the Story of Cordelia & Wallace:

Up first, in our first-hand accounts, is Cordelia & Wallace. Cordelia & Wallace were both doing the same show, even though they sold a very similar product–hand painted fans. Cordelia & Wallace have very different styles and were set up far away from each other at the show. The show itself was good, and both Cordelia & Wallace sold a number of their beautiful fans; however, Wallace was disappointed in his booth placement. Cordelia was on the first floor of the show, and he was on the second. Wallace felt that this was unfair. Cordelia knew the show organizers and he felt that his booth was tucked away in a forgotten corner of the show on purpose.

We’ve all felt this way–you’re at a show and there’s a great crowd, but for some reason they are just not heading your way. Here’s my second piece of advice, make the most of your space & the experience. If you’re in a forgotten corner–do something to change that: play some lively music, create signs/arrows that lead people to you, use social media like Twitter, FB, and Instagram for a show specific contest, or you can always talk to the show organizer (or the MC if your show has one) & have them remind people that there are more booths in your area. You can also hand out coupons for your booth in the heavy traffic spots of the show.

What you shouldn’t do is take a page from Wallace’s book. Wallace complained to anyone who would listen to him–other vendors, the volunteers, and worst of all, the shoppers. Wallace seemed to have a permanent frown on his face. His complaints and demeanor drove potential customers away from his booth. No one wants to listen to someone complain, especially not if they’re trying to unwind, shop, and have a little fun with their family & friends. Most people attend these events to indulge themselves–let them have a good time. Don’t ruin it even if you’re wondering if you’ll ever get out of the red.

Another problem with Wallace’s complaining is that he complained to the wrong person–Cordelia. He blamed her, and he let her know it. Wallace told her blatantly that he believed that she had used her connections with the show organizers to put him in a bad booth and drive up her own sales in the process. Another important function of shows is to network with other creative, handmade business owners. Don’t burn bridges, especially if it’s your first show.  What Wallace did not know was that Cordelia vouched for him as a vendor at the show (which was heavily juried, and as a result, he almost didn’t get in). This conflict got back to the show organizers, who were not happy with Wallace at all for raising such a ruckus. Wallace was swiftly banned from all of their future shows; he effectively razed all of his bridges to the ground.

Shows are competitive places, but the amazing part about handmade craft & art shows is that the competition is friendly. Everyone genuinely wants other makers to do well. We’ve all been in this situation before–there may be another artist making a product similar to yours. Instead of getting upset or jealous, take a step back and reassess what you make and how you make it. Ask yourself what sets your product apart from the rest? (This is especially true of jewelry makers). There’s a lot Wallace could have done differently:

–Instead of complaining, he could have asked other booth vendors for advice or ideas. The handmade community is very friendly, and generally helpful despite the undercurrent of competition.

–Wallace could have studied Cordelia’s booth & asked himself questions so that he could be more successful at future shows. Questions like: Why are her fans selling better than mine? or, Do we share the same target-market?

–Wallace could’ve asked to cross-promote at the show with other vendors–getting more shoppers to come his way. This is also an excellent way to forge new relationships.

–Wallace could’ve completed the show’s survey (which has the benefit of anonymity). His comments may spark a change in how the show is set up & organized. Constructive criticism, not complaints, are what help show organizers improve upon a show.

–Lastly, keep a show journal. Write everything down. Total sales; total expenses including booth fee; show organizer’s contact information; attendees (were the majority of shoppers young teens or was it a mix of people?); what went wrong; what you needed (this is particularly important for outdoor shows)…etc. Use this information when you’re planning, making product for that show, and also to decide whether or not that show is good to do again.

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What Should You Do if a Show is Disorganized? Or, the Story of Zoe and the 2 Terrible Shows

As a seasoned handmade business owner, Zoe has done a number of shows. Like most crafty business owners, Zoe decided to branch out. She choose 2 new shows for 2014. They both seemed promising. One show was brand new–in its inaugural year. First-time shows can be tricky, because on one hand if the show picks up momentum and does well you’re on the bottom floor. You’re shooed in & most likely will be remembered for later years. However, if the show experiences a lot of hiccups or problems as it’s starting out, those problems can be passed on to the overall success of each vendor. So approach new shows with caution.

My first piece of advice in this situation is to wait it out. Pay close attention to their social media–are a lot of people rspving for the event?, does it seem like they’re getting a ton of web traffic (based on comments)?, and do you see/hear any advertisements for the show itself? Also pay close attention to how organized they are. Unsuccessful shows are often the most disorganized. If you receive updates regularly, or an extensive well-thought out list of set-up instructions and FAQs then you’re in the clear. However, if you do not receive anything or the show organizer is incommunicado, you may want to rethink your plans.

In Zoe’s case, she did not see any ads for the event, there were few people rsvping on FB and few people mentioning it on social media, and finally, a week before the show she received the set-up instructions. The set-up instructions had Zoe upset. This is how it read:

Dear Zoe, of Zoe Designs,

The show is only a week away and I need everyone’s help to make the show a success. I didn’t have money for advertising this year (sorry!), so spread the word as much as you can. Your booth fee went to a number of expenses: the space, the insurance for the event, permit, as well as snacks for everyone. While I purchased snacks for the event, there are not enough to go around. So bring some snacks with you. Please also make sure that your snacks are gluten free as I have a gluten intolerance. All snacks will be set out on a table for everyone to share!

Also, I do not have a car at the moment so I will need a ride to the show at around 9ish. Who wants to pick me up? (Remember that no one can get in unless I’m there! After all, I am the only one with the key to the building! lol). I also couldn’t find any volunteers to help out with set up so when you get to the show, I’ll need some of you to help tape out the spaces, set up tables & chairs, and put up the event sign. But that should be easy, there’s a lot of us! Let me know asap if you are willing to help out. Show set up will be after 9ish. I’m so excited! Yay! See you all soon.


Margery, Organizer of the Super-Cool Awesome Craft Show

p.s. Does anyone know the tax code for Made-up-ville County, Kansas?

If you get set-up instructions like these, you should do whatever your gut tells you–and in Zoe’s case that was to cut her losses and take a hit on the booth fee & forgo the show entirely. Sometimes, the best thing is to bow out as gracefully as possible (and as early as possible) and not do a show. Zoe replied to Margery’s email and told a little white lie: “Sorry I can’t do the show after all. [Insert white lie here: We’ve had a family emergency/I’ve come down with the stomach flu/etc.] I hope the show goes well. All the best, Zoe.” This white lie allows you to do that show in the future if it does pan out; it also doesn’t burn any bridges.

Keep in mind, that shows are not just a financial expense, but that your time & energy are also spent in the process. Some shows will suck the energy right out of you. This show would’ve been exhausting–setting up not only your booth, but also the show itself. When you’re thinking of bowing out of a show ask yourself if your time could be better spent? If it can, then bow out gracefully.

And while sometimes things can go awry and show organizers may need your help, keep in mind too that your booth fee entitles you to certain things: your space clearly marked, your space clean & clear of any obstructions or debris, volunteers to help out at the show, clear-cut instructions or a schedule for set-up, tear down, etc., a vendor packet with important information that you need to know, and that the event will be advertized by them to an extent.

mt image 3The second new show that Zoe decided to do this year was a well-established show (in its tenth year). This story is a bit more unique in how lots of things can go awry. Sometimes this can happen, it is important not to get discouraged. When Zoe applied to the 10th Annual Craft-a-pa-looza Show in Maguset, NH at first she was told that she didn’t get in. Then, a month before the show she received an invoice from the show organizers. Zoe contacted them and asked if maybe a mistake had been made. Indeed one had (about 3 phone calls later). The show was rather large and well established, and so Zoe’s spidey-sense didn’t tingle all that much (as it had with her other new show) when she hit a significant bump like this one. And so, she did exactly what any handmade business owner should: despite the lack of time, she got organized and planned every detail. Your organization, while it may not make up for a show’s incredible disorganization, it will help you remain calm & collected. Unfortunately for Zoe, her problems did not stop there.

Set-up instructions were sent a day before her flight to NH. On the plane, Zoe created a schedule for herself that included many variables (checking into her hotel, driving to the event space, eating dinner, and then finally checking in to the show and setting up). She created a schedule for the entire weekend-long show. The certainty that came from her own personal schedule allowed her to feel more at ease in the face of disorganization to come.

When Zoe arrived at the show to set up, the organizer, Kate, was not ready. Kate had drawn out the booth spaces on small slips of hotel paper. Things did not look promising for Zoe. They did not have a vendor packet, and hadn’t even gotten around to printing out vendor badges. She would have to wait on line in the morning to pick hers up. (So Zoe scheduled an hour to pick up her badge and printed out a schedule of the weekend’s events herself.)

The show was being held in a large hotel. Zoe arrived to the ballroom where she was told to set up; however, there were chairs still piled high throughout the room, and clearly the hotel staff was still clearing out the room from a previous event. Booth spaces weren’t even marked. After bringing up the issue with Kate (who told her that they were a little behind), Zoe thanked her and waited patiently. (It is important to never set up on an empty stomach for this reason. You may end up waiting around for a while.) While she waiting, Zoe unpacked the car and brought in all of her booth displays, tables, & chairs. (She was smart in keeping everything on the cart, just in case she needed  to move). After an hour, Zoe was approached by one of the music coordinators who noticed she was waiting around with a cart full of stuff. He calmly told her that this space was allocated to the music venue.

Zoe then returned to Kate, who cleared the matter up (after 30 more minutes), and moved Zoe to a different space. Luckily, it was already marked and Zoe was able to start setting up. It is important to arrive at the earliest check-in time if you suspect the show you’re doing to be disorganized. It allows for you to keep your cool, not feel rushed in unloading & setting up, and also allows you some down time in between set-up and the start of the show.

All throughout the next morning, vendors were setting up. Zoe was putting on the finishing touches to her booth when she was approached by one of the volunteers, a young man named Peter. Peter asked Zoe if it would be okay if the booth next to hers encroached a little into her space (about 5 inches). Zoe had left herself room to move in & out of her booth. The space was there, but the space was hers. She politely declined. While you want to be a good neighbor, remember that you’ve paid for your whole space. Don’t let anyone guilt you/force you to give up what you’ve rightfully paid for. Your booth fee covers a certain amount of space. Remain within it and remain polite.

The last major problem that Zoe encountered was that all of the new vendors at the show were put together in the same room. This is not ideal for new vendors at an established show because they don’t have a fan-base for that particular show. Many people are loyal to makers they’ve purchased from previously. (Show organizers if you’re reading–don’t do this! Mix together your old & new vendors. It benefits everyone.) Unlike Wallace, you should take a page from Zoe’s book. To combat this issue, Zoe did the following:

–She played up their newness as an asset. Zoe created a sign & put it at the entryway of their room & down the hallway. It read: “Brand New Vendors! Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Here Before” Transform what may seem like a disadvantage into something positive.

–Prepare beforehand. If you’re new to show, create extra advertisements for your handmade business. Zoe created promotional postcards that offered everyone 10% off of their total purchase at her booth. The coupon-postcard was good for the whole weekend & up to a year online in her Etsy shop. She also encouraged people to mail postcards to friends & family. Before the show began, she placed her promotional postcards in key areas throughout the hotel: at entryways, check-in stations, the bar, and the restaurant. Zoe also gave a stack of postcards to volunteers (who she gifted with free product) and asked them to hand them out personally to people in the hallways.

–Zoe used social media frequently throughout the weekend-long show. Although her usual target market exists primarily in another state, you want to keep that market invested in your success. She blogged about the experience, posted pictures to Facebook, and created a fun story for her market to follow along with.

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When Other Things Go Awry…

These stories of course are not the norm. Most shows are well organized and established and those that are new, generally have a couple hiccups but no major problems. Typical issues and solutions are:

Issue: When another vendor’s booth encroaches into your space Solutions: 1) You can politely ask them to move out of your space. Remember to be as friendly as possible in your request. After all, they are your neighbor for that show and are often your only bathroom/break salvation. 2) If you’re not comfortable confronting the other vendor, or they ignore your request, tell your show organizer. They will settle the issue for you. They have the ultimate authority in this situation. Don’t be afraid to ask them–they want everyone to be happy & get along.

Issue: When shoppers take pictures of your work & say that they’re going to make it themselves instead of purchasing it Solutions: 1) Post signs that say “No Photos Please.” People will not re-make something without a guide, and photos are often that guide. 2) This is much sneakier. Put out photos of you making your work in your cute studio space; pictures of your family getting into your craft; or other photos that humanize what you do or help to tell your story. People will feel guilty when they see these photos & will not be as quick to make it themselves. 3) Consider selling the pattern  (or even kits) for what you make in addition to your product. If people often say they’d like to make it themselves, involve your business in their creative process. 4) This is also a little sneaky & a bit risky. Intimidate them with your skill. If they say they want to make it themselves, make the process seem daunting, elaborate, or incredibly time consuming. Most people will change their minds and instead, purchase your product. 5) And lastly, approach it from a customer service perspective. Offer to make them a custom product instead. Maybe they want to make it themselves because they’d like your product in a different color/shape/size etc.

Issue: When there is an overabundance of vendors selling similar products, like for instance jewelry which we’ll use as our primary example Solutions: 1) Research the other jewelry vendors that will be selling at the show beforehand. Know about their product & process. Set yourself apart. Either develop or make new & different styles or products for that show. 2) Cross-promote each other. If someone in your booth says that they like gemstones more than chain mail jewelry, send them to the vendor who makes gemstone jewelry who is at the show. This creates an environment of goodwill and sends a powerful message about respect and craft within handmade communities–which ultimately drives people to shop handmade & local over commercial businesses. 3) Offer coupons, deals, or promotional contests for that show in order to help you compete with other vendor’s prices. Be careful though not to undervalue your work. 4) Visually set yourself apart. Create a booth space that is exciting & inviting for shoppers and offers them an experience, rather than a product.

I hope these first-hand accounts and issues & solutions will help you navigate the often frustrating and fantastic world of craft shows, fairs, & festivals. Remember my first bit of advice, to remain positive no matter what. Keep smiling and keep on trying.

2 Responses to “When a Show is Going Poorly, Keep Smiling: A Business How-To”

  1. Holly

    The postcards, with the suggestion that they be mailed to loved ones, as well as the photos of the artist in the process of creating their work, are two quite brilliant ideas. You are such a superstar, Sam!

  2. Jackie

    I read through your blog on “Zoe at the craft show” & LOVED it. I am hosting a craft show in March 2015 for my kid’s school PTA. It gave LOTS of great insight from an exhibitor. Though i have been 1 myself many times; it’s always nice to hear what others think. I would love to join the group or at least get more info. please? I have a ceramic/hobby studio in Tulsa & LOVE craft shows.

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