Thursday, February 2, 2012

Choosing an art show, event or festival

You've decided to sell your handmade jewelry. Perhaps you've set up an Etsy store, built a website, or put a few pieces in a local shop. But why sit around, waiting for something to sell? Why not do an art show, festival or some other event, where you can get out and meet customers face-to-face, talk to them about your work, hear feedback, meet other artists?
And SELL things! Well...

Just because you've got a vendor booth, doesn't mean you'll vend anything.

I don't want to discourage anyone, but it's true. As a jewelry designer myself, the founder of the Triangle Jewelry Makers with a membership of more than fifty local jewelry artists, and as someone with many artist friends, I've got a lot of stories about The Shows That Went Wrong. Usually, it goes something like this...

You paid a $200 vendor fee and there were 30,000 attendees at the festival, but you only had $200 in sales. (And, no, that's NOT "breaking even" because there's still the expense of the materials you used to make the jewelry you sold, the time you spent making it, the income and social security taxes you'll have to pay, the time you spent being at the event, the gas money to get there, the signage, etc.)

OR... you bought a new 10x10 tent, folding tables and matching table covers, and spent all day in the 100-degree heat. Your jewelry and displays are all dusty because you were located in the corner of a dirt parking lot and the wind was blowing. And worst of all, you sold nothing. But, hey, you gave out a lot of business cards!

Not all vendor opportunities are created equal. 

Not all shows are well-advertised. 

Not all festivals are popular. 

Not all audiences are a good fit with what you're selling.

Sometimes when we're vendor noobs, we're eager to get into any show we can. And that's not a bad thing. It helps to gain experience at a few small events before applying to a large one, or one that is juried. You'll learn how to streamline your set-up and take-down processes, figure out what displays attract the most attention, get the hang of your Square credit card reader, and be able to take photos to submit with applications to other events.

Participating in an art show, event or festival is also very validating. It's encouraging to see people's faces light up when they look at your work -- even if they don't buy a single thing. It makes you feel like a "real" artist, in a way that Etsy doesn't.

Another good reason to do a festival is networking. You might not sell much, but you're meeting people and making connections -- with both the attendees, the event coordinators and your fellow vendors -- and that can really pay off later. You might make a friend for life, be invited to show in a gallery, get picked up for a consignment opportunity, score a custom commission, or receive an invitation to an even bigger and better event.

But if you've had a string of Bad Shows, or you just don't know where to start, here are a few tips.

1) Try small, personal venues. I have better sales at small events where I am the only seller, or only one of a few. I've made as much profit, or more, than at large events such as parades and festivals with 20,000+ attendees and tons of vendors (and a high booth fee). And I spend a lot less time setting up, taking down, and sitting there. Small venues might include:

* A gallery or featured artist showing.

* Setting up in front of a restaurant/cafe/pub/theater/etc during a holiday, such as Christmas or Valentines.

* Private jewelry parties in someone's home or office.

* Unusual events where you might not normally think of vending -- such as dance recitals, fundraisers, athletic competitions, animal shows, cultural performances, etc. The key to doing these sorts of events is that your jewelry should tie in, somehow. Horse jewelry at horse shows, Celtic jewelry at Irish dance recitals, etc.

2) Select a show, event or festival which has a vendor/attendee ratio of about 1:200. That would be about 7-8 vendors for an event with an attendance of 1,500. Or 50-60 vendors for an event of 10,000. There's nothing magical about this ratio, and it's not set in stone. But it's a general observation made by my friend Christi, the Gem Gypsy, and it seems to bear out in my own experience.

Think of it like this: An increase in potential customers, along with a decrease in the number of vendors vying for attention, should mean more sales for you.

Other factors certainly apply -- how the jewelry is displayed, how well it fits the audience, and also ...

3) You are probably going to sell more at an event where people pay to enter, and less at one that's free. Don't know why, but it's a phenomenon many jewelry sellers experience. Possibly because people who can afford admission are generally going to have more money to spend, and be willing to spend it. Or possibly because paid entry events are more of a "happening" for which attendees want souvenirs. Or both. Or some other third reason? Don't know, but keep it in mind.

4) You'll probably sell more at a juried or exclusive art show, or a special event to which you've been invited, than one open to anyone who applies. Juried and special events are understood to be "artsy," and will attract people seeking quality goods and who are willing to pay for them.

At events without any vendor vetting, there's often too much competition from flea market type sellers with cheap mass-produced goods. You'll be stuck between the knock-off purses and the made-in-China sunglasses, and people won't realize that you're an artist.

Do you have any more tips for choosing a good venue? Ask us your questions and share your experiences with us!

Jen Hilton makes one-of-a-kind jewelry sold through her website She is the founder of the Triangle Jewelry Makers and is featured in the books "Steampunk Style Jewelry: Victorian, Fantasy, and Mechanical Necklaces, Bracelets, and Earrings" and "1000 Steampunk Creations: Neo-Victorian Fashion, Gear, and Art" available at Amazon and other booksellers.

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