The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Craft Show Tales

A fellow soapmaker I know has a saying that’s absolutely true.  She says that some people like to buy lottery tickets, and some of us like to do craft shows.  So much wisdom here, folks.  Let me tell you what I’ve learned from about 20 years or so of being a vendor at craft shows: it’s no picnic.

Before I started selling my wares at shows, I loved to attend craft fairs.  So many handcrafted, unique works of art to behold: jewelry (one of my favorite things!), tasty foods (another one of my favorite things!), pottery (oh, I love pottery, too!), clever kids’ toys (yes, I have kids who want toys!), and…you get the picture.

There is probably a correlation between being a customer at a craft show as opposed to being a vendor.  It’s something like the difference between visiting Disney World and working at Disney World.  Or possibly being a landscape worker at the White House as opposed to being the POTUS.

Twenty plus years ago, my sister had a home based business and sold her products at some big shows.  That sometimes required travel, as well as a helper to assist with setting up, running the booth, and tearing down the booth.  I was so naïve, I thought that this would be so much fun that I couldn’t possibly accept payment for spending the whole day in paradise – why, we would be there early to set up and get to see everyone else’s booths before any customers.  I had dreams of shopping to get to cherry pick all the best stuff.  Of course, dear sister made sure that her booth was completely set up before I was allowed off my leash, and then I learned that not too many vendors were too excited about making sales while they were trying to set up.  And then there was the subject of setting up.  Unloading, lifting, carrying, carting things to the booth, sometimes not being able to park all that close to the entrance, and moving all those crates around to get the product set up on the displays – it was a lot more physically demanding than I ever imagined it would be.  After several hours drive in the car and a couple of hours of setting up, I was bone tired. The next day we were on our feet most of the day, and then we had to pack it all up, load it in the van, drive home, and then unload the van.  I was achy for a couple of days from using muscles I normally didn’t use.  Hmm.  This craft show biz is actually work, I realized.

A few years later, I started making soap and naturally I started hearing the siren song of the craft fair calling to me.  Since I lived in a big metropolitan area, there were plenty of shows within 30 miles or less, some of them were very close.  I started doing the smaller shows, and got my first lessons in how to be discerning.  There were plenty of little shows with low booth fees, but when the organizer only charged $20 or $30 for a booth, you can presume that there will be no advertising in the budget.  Schools are notorious for this type of show, and it’s expected that the families of the students at that school will support the craft fair.  It’s a nice theory, but it rarely works that way.

One thing that has always astounded me is when I hear another vendor say, “Well, at least I made my booth fee.”  So it’s a bad show, and this comforts you that you worked for free?  And the products you made with those supplies that you paid for, along with the labor involved in making your product for weeks before the show – you think that you broke even, but in reality you lost money and your precious time.  It’s really flawed bookkeeping to think that you broke even in this kind of scenario.

After I had a few shows under my belt, and I learned to pass on certain types of shows, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how it worked.  But I was wrong.  Sometimes there were happy surprises, and then there were some dismally depressing shows that I went into with high hopes.  My very worst show ever was one of those; I was personally invited to an annual Christmas shopping event at a country club less than 20 minutes from my home.  The organizer told me that the show was by personal invitation only, that she looked for the best handcrafters and artisans to sell their wares at this event for her fellow country club members, where they did the majority of their Christmas shopping.  The shoppers had valet parking and were served trays of fancy snack foods and glasses of wine and champagne while they shopped.  This sounded like shooting fish in a barrel to me, so I couldn’t wait to do this show.

I arrived at the venue just as sheets of driving rain started pouring from the sky.  I pulled up to the gorgeous Tuscan-inspired covered entrance, surrounded by immaculate landscaping, and was approached immediately by the valet.  No, I told him, I was just here for the craft show and needed to unload my vehicle, but he had a look on his face like I’d just told him I was the new landscape worker and didn’t know where to park.  He informed me that I certainly could not park there for any length of time at all.  Not now, not ever.  Tired of arguing, I asked him where he would suggest I could park to unload without getting drenched.  He pointed to a spot about six feet away from the covered area and told me that was the best he could offer.  This was after I had noticed exactly ZERO vehicles approaching as we had spent the last three or four minutes talking.  So silently steaming, I parked where I was told and began to unload the car. 

Inside, I found my spot and began to set up – with hair dripping wet, makeup washed off, and wet clothes.  Nearby my booth space were large, heavy wood double doors, which caught the wind and rain, blowing open with frequent blasts which never allowed my hair or clothes to dry.  Now this door continued to do the same thing throughout the show (even though I asked, no pleaded, with someone to fix it), so any customers that came around the corner began to walk very briskly by my booth, looking straight ahead. It was a lot like one of those theme park rides that splashes or drenches you when you least expect it.

Sales were dismally low.  Wine was for the customers, not the vendors.  That made me sad. Or sadder.  So when it was time to pack it up, I gathered up my dignity and belongings and headed for my SUV with a loaded up trolley.  I noticed a couple of other vehicles loading up at a side door I hadn’t seen that morning, probably because the downpour had obscured visibility, so I headed that way in my car to load up the rest of my stuff.  And guess who came over to greet me?  It was that snobby doorman/valet, who told me that I couldn’t park at the side door!  Now I’m normally a pretty calm person, but by now I’m about ready to cut a b*tch – after a heated exchange, with him waving his arms frantically like a deranged traffic cop, I finally moved back to my original spot.  I jumped out and sprinted (pretty impressive for an old, fat and tired woman) over to the doorman, just in time to see him direct a large van to park in – yep, you guessed it! – the spot where he told me that I couldn’t park.  I do not know what kept me from jumping on him and beating him about the face, but I think it’s because I’m too pretty to go to prison.  Or at least at one time in my life I was, and now I’m just too soft and spoiled.

He saw the expression on my face, and this is what he said: “They are county club members.”

I was loading up the last of my crates when the organizer came by and casually asked me how it went.  Can you believe it? - I didn’t beat her up, either.  But I did let her know that I didn’t care if she sent me an engraved invitation with a box of butterflies and a bottle of champagne, that I was never, ever coming back.  I told her about the doorman, being soaked, watching customers scurry by my booth to avoid getting sprayed, and then being told that I was a second class citizen because I wasn’t a country club member.  Her facial expression never changed, throughout my five-minute rant.  So I left, and just as I promised, I never went back.  That show was the bad and the ugly – now for the good.

A professional association of secretaries invited me to be a vendor at their quarterly meeting, where they brought in a motivational speaker and had a handful of vendors set up around the perimeter of the room.  About 50 secretaries had signed up to attend, and the event was only about three hours, which included a catered luncheon.  All the red flags were there: small group, low paying jobs, short amount of time for customers to shop…this did not have any of the signs I looked for in a good (profitable) show.  The organizer really wanted me to come, and I tried to politely decline, but she kept emailing me.  And she called me and was so nice.  So I said yes.  They would set up the tables for the vendors with tablecloths and skirts, so all I had to bring was tabletop displays and product, so that helped.

Everyone was super nice, and they raved about my products – and they bought.  The organizer, the one who was so persistent about me coming, spent about $150 all by herself.  And I sold almost $1000 worth of product in those three hours, the whole time being treated like a rock star.  Someone brought me a plate of food from the buffet table, and offered to sit in my booth while I ate at a nearby table.  Two more of these lovely ladies helped me load up what was left of my stuff and helped me get it to my car.  I was stunned, in a good way.  A show I tried to get out of had turned into a nice way to spend a Saturday, and I was home by 3pm to enjoy the rest of the day.

Lesson learned: sometimes, you never know what will happen at a craft show.  It can be miserable, wet, and soggy.  Or it can be magical, like Disney World, or like buying a winning lottery ticket.

 My booth at a craft show this past weekend.  Yes, I still do craft shows.  And I still shop at them, too.

My booth at a craft show this past weekend.  Yes, I still do craft shows.  And I still shop at them, too.