I know we’ve all been at shows where we said… “What the heck am I doing here!!!”  No matter how well we try, chances are sooner or later we’ll make a mistake and book ourselves into a show where there just plain is a real bad fit!  If you’ve participated in a lot of shows and you’ve experienced the thrill of selling like crazy to a crowd that really appreciates your work, then you see the situation immediately and you know the show you’re at is just a bad match.  If this is your first show then you may make the mistake of assuming that the work you’re so proud of has no market!  Of course that’s probably not true, but if you’ve only done a couple of shows you don’t yet have the perspective to see it that way and chances are you’ll get very discouraged.

I’m bringing this subject up because all too often I run into someone who’s just getting started in the business and they are ready to quit after the first or second show because sales have been extremely slow.  I’ll take a look at their work and usually I’ll discover that they are trying to sell crafts at an art show OR more likely I’ll see them with fine art at a country craft show!  I don’t mean to say you’ll never make a sale at the wrong type of event and or course these situations are obvious and extreme… but I chose them to demonstrate a point.  Matching the RIGHT event to the RIGHT work is one of the biggest challenges we all face when selecting shows.

I’m sure many of you have seen the situation I just described and I’ll bet you’re saying “man, how does he expect to sell anything!  It’s so obviously wrong!”  But of course three primary factors play an important role here. 1) The exhibitor is very inexperienced and didn’t know how to ask the right questions of the show sponsor.  2) The show sponsor didn’t give a darn and just wanted to sell spaces. And 3) The exhibitor just didn’t know where there was a good match for his work and just needed to make some money this weekend… anything is better than nothing! We’ll handle these problems one at a time. 

Situation #1.  This one is common to all of us when we start out in the business.  Personally we got lucky on the first show we did and so even though a few of the following events were blunders, we knew that good sales were possible and so we endured those that weren’t so good.  Especially for beginners, but even for some seasoned professionals… it’s important to remember that the arrangements you are making with the show sponsor is a business agreement and as such you certainly have the right to ask some questions to make sure this is the show for you.  Make sure to ask how long the show has been going on.  If it’s a first year event then you can bet that participation could be risky and the entry fee ought to reflect that.  A high fee on a first year show is only justified under a couple of circumstances… the show sponsor has an impeccable record of successful promotions… the location is proven to draw beyond any shadow of a doubt based on other shows that have taken place there… or the show sponsor shows absolute proof of substantial advertising.  When I say “absolute proof” of substantial advertising I don’t mean a promise of advertising, I mean real contracts.  And substantial advertising doesn’t mean a two column ad in the local Thrifty Nickel and a couple of Real Estate signs with the words “Craft Show” scrawled across the surface.  Ask how many other exhibitors have signed up for the event… you don’t want to be one of five people who show up.  What is the advertising plan?  What type of work sells best at the event?  If you are a fine artist, then you want to be in a show that specifies fine art.  If you are a craftsman you want to make sure you’re signing up for a craft show.  The two can work together well but usually only when there are distinct sections of the show for each type of work.  When customers shop at an event they usually come with a mind-set to view and purchase either fine art or crafts but only under limited circumstances do they come for both types of work at the same show even though we’re talking about the same customer both times!  Some events are extremely good at separating and promoting both types of work and of course the combination is a success in those cases!  I like to compare it to retail shopping.  If you go to Home Depot usually you are in the market for something like lumber or paint or some other home improvement type of merchandise.  When you go to the grocery store you are there to buy meat or produce, canned goods or other food.  Now that’s not to say you might pick up a piece of candy or a soda at Home Depot… or that if you happened to see a nice set of wrenches at the grocery store they may not make it into your shopping cart.  But generally a customer will buy merchandise that he or she sets out to purchase, and they go to the retail location that handles that type of product.  The same theory applies to fine art shows vs. craft shows.  Presented the right way, “one stop shopping” can work… just make sure the show you’re applying to is one of the successful ones who have figured it out.  You don’t want to be in the craft section of a fine art show that was designed simply to provide more revenue for the fine art awards!  Are there special exhibit booth requirements or is any kind of display OK?  Will there be commercial displays included too?  Is this event strictly for artists and craftsmen or will there be other displays and activities as well?  Can I drive right up to the place I’ll be exhibiting to unload and tear down (this is especially important if you have heavy items).  Can I set up the day before and is there a time limit for tear down.  I remember one time we signed up for a show and didn’t realize that the tear down was limited to one hour.  If you have a big display of fragile items such as we do, it just doesn’t happen that quickly! 

It’s always a good idea to ask for a few names of exhibitors who have participated in the show in previous years so you can talk to them about their feel for the show.  If the show sponsor won’t answer your questions, gives “sideways” sort of answers or won’t tell you who’s participated in the past then there’s no question something is being hidden!  My feeling is “go the other way fast!”  There are plenty of shows to choose from and you don’t need to finance someone else’s folly.

Situation #2.  There are some show sponsors who quite frankly don’t give a darn who they rent space to.  You might have African American jewelry and be set up next to the Ku Klux Klan booth!  Ironically a few of these type of events succeed in spite of themselves.  The majority or them fail.  If you suspect the show may be like this and the sponsor is all too happy to take your money (which they will be!)… just slow down a little and make sure to do your fact finding.  This may be a second string choice if you really need the money, but I wouldn’t pay much of an entry fee, I’d be prepared to leave early if it is too bad and I’d want to reserve the right to relocate my display if I felt my current location was not appropriate. 

The best bet is to just avoid these shows and the people who sponsor them.  They usually have next to no ethics… and it shows!

Situation #3.  Okay, here’s where I get to tout the values of “Where The Shows Are!!!”  Now if you’re just reading this because someone else lent their guide to you then now is a good time to turn to the back of the book and fill out the subscription form!  Certainly we’d like you to do that… but the reality is that our guide to the events DOES give you a wide choice of shows.

When I first started assembling the information that would eventually become “Where The Shows Are!!!” I did it because we were broke with five kids I needed to apply to most events I participated in last minute.  At the time I couldn’t afford to be out the entry fee for more than a few days because it was needed for food, clothing and a place to live.  When you don’t have money, the only thing you can have is innovation because it’s free!  I needed at least one show every week and when possible we’d participate in two of them.  In order to do this last minute you need a lot of information about events because most of the good ones are always full or just don’t take last minute entries.  As time went on of course we started selling more and more and the money became available to start booking shows further in advance.  Once again the value of having hundreds of shows to pick from right at our fingertips proved to be of great value.  After a while the questions isn’t “do I know where there is a show to participate in” it becomes “what is the best show I could choose.” 

Track the characteristics of shows where you do well.  Because of the unique nature of the work all of us produce, what works well for one person may not work that well for someone else.  I know we’ve participated in events where we couldn’t keep the pottery on our display shelves and the guy beside us couldn’t give his work away.  The next week we couldn’t give our pottery away and he was sold out the first day!  Making the right match with the show we chose explains the difference.  When we really stop and analyze the characteristics of shows where we’re successful and then those things that characterize the shows where we fail miserably the consistencies are usually indisputable.  Over the years I’ve seen a great many “systems” that attempt to “rate” the shows and provide a sure-fire way you can predict results in advance.  Nice work if you can get it… but I have yet to see it really work!  BUT, what does work is a careful analysis of those characteristics that produce an outstanding show for you.  Think about the physical setting, the income level of the attendee’s, the age of the shoppers, the lifestyle of people in the area, the proximity of major retailers like Wal-Mart or shopping malls, the predominant religious beliefs in the are (Christmas items may not sell well in a Jewish neighborhood).  You might also want to consider how well the organization sponsoring the event supports it.  Do the members of the organization buy work from the exhibitors?  Do they sponsor other activities that detract from sales.  Sometimes I’ve seen organizations take the money from exhibitors and then at the event they have booths actually competing for sales.  Some show sponsors are under the misunderstanding that you’ve made a charitable contribution to their organization.  In fact I’ve even heard them say that from time to time.  The nature of the financial supporters also tell you something about the kind of shopper you’re likely to encounter.  An event financially supported by someone like State Farm Insurance, Southwest Airlines, Bank of America, the local Tourist Development Association and so forth is more likely to attract a higher end customer than an event sponsored by the local “buy here-pay here” car lot or the “hold-a-check” corner store!  As you do shows and find successes and failures, make sure to write down your observations immediately after the show.  Don’t wait until a day or two has passed because your observations usually begin to fade with time.  Good shows tend to get better as time progresses and the bad shows tend to seem worse!  You need the most accurate information possible to produce the best possible data you’ll use for future decisions.

Your best friend in finding a good match for your work is the ability to ask questions along with your skills of observation.  Try to be objective in your choice of the shows you apply for.  Make a check list and make sure the shows you’re considering meet the criteria you’ve set for a successful event.  Don’t be afraid or hesitant to ask questions of the show sponsor because your future and potential profitability in this business may very we rely on it!  Chances are that you’ll only rarely make the “perfect match” with the “perfect event.”  BUT… the more shows you know about and the more questions you ask, the closer you can get!  The closer you get, the more money you’ll make!  People will spend thousands of dollars to get the right tools to produce a product.  They’ll spend thousands more to buy a truck or trailer to transport that product to a show.  That provides only one side of the equation.  For less money than the cost of a good dinner on the way home from a show you can have virtually every good show in the area… organized in a way you can use it… and every event is just a phone call away!  Remember, no product is worth anything unless you can sell it… and finding the best way to sell it, the best way to display it and the best show to participate in is what we’re all about here at “Where The Shows Are!!!