This winter will be my third year working at craft & trade shows in a ~serious~ way. Not only are in-person shows great for selling things, they're even better for making connections with other people, whether they're other crafters or customers. I've done tiny shows, huge well-marketed shows, giant successes and giant failures, and I'm here to give you my advice on how to navigate the sometimes rough waters of in-person shows.
Know Your Business
Knowing your own business is the most crucial point to succeed at craft shows. You should know your business model and your brand inside and out before even applying to a show.
Price points: This will show you if you're right for a specific kind of show, that's why a lot of applications ask you what your price range is. My stuff is too cheap to do well at a fine arts festival, but too expensive for a flea market, so I do best at shows that are in-between.
Your business model: Do you do only custom pieces? Do you give discounts for multiple items? Are your soaps made by hand from ingredients you grew in your garden? Each of these has their own special place at a show. If you sell custom work, like wedding photography or family portrait paintings, you might not do well at a low-priced Black Friday craft show, but people would be more interested at a wedding trade show or summer fine arts fair.
Who's your customer? This is a super important question to ask yourself when building your business, and again when looking for the right show for you. If you scout out shows beforehand, you can see who is actually going to it and if they match who you're selling to. I sell best to young women who are either in college or in their 20's or 30's, so a show that caters to older women or fine craftsmen might not be for me.
Your product line: Get this in place well before applying to shows. Have a good variety that people can't say no to. Have low, middle, and high-priced items so that you can appeal to any budget. Make it cohesive and fit your brand.
Your brand: Basically, branding is using touchpoints (your packaging, the type of product, colors, language, message, etc.) to reach your ideal customer. I really, really hate the term "brand", but it perfectly describes what makes a booth work. Having a cohesive brand will do wonders for attracting your dream customer, and makes it easier in the future to create amazing products, so get this together!
Research & Experience
First, make a master list of shows to apply to. When I first started, I searched on Etsy for a local group for my city. I joined RNEST, the Rochester NY Etsy Street Team, and I learned so much about the local craft scene through their website and meetings. From there I googled for craft and publication fairs in my region, and expanded from there. You can find out even more by becoming friends with your fellow crafters and even customers at shows you do.
Go to as many shows as you can, in person. I can't stress enough how important this is! You can learn a little from show websites, but you can get the full experience by actually going to them. You can see the kind of customers and non-customers that walk around, you can see what kind of vendors they accept, and you can see how well organized and promoted a show is before you ever spend the booth money on it.
Don't do shows you can't afford. Similarly, don't do far away shows before you do a bunch of local shows. If you counted up all the money you could potentially make from the stock you have, cut that down to 1/3, and if you can't make up the travel, time, material, and booth costs, then don't do it. Do the math beforehand to avoid any financial headaches later.
The only exception I would make for this rule is that if you're already experienced, and you get invited to a prestigious show that will make you a lot of connections, you might want to consider it. Trade shows often won't make you profit right away either, but the long-term investment is worth it if you research it fully. There are a couple of shows we do every year for the magazine that don't make us a profit, but we meet and start relationships with a lot of publishers, contributors, stockists, and peers which is really helpful for us.
Don't do outdoor shows until you've done indoor shows. I don't do summer shows as a rule - for my business, they just don't work. But if you are considering an outdoor festival, keep in mind they're almost always quadruple the cost, you need special equipment for a tent, there's much more chance of damage from weather, and customers on the whole will not buy as much as they would during a holiday sale. (Unless you have summer-specific items.) Either way, I would suggest working on indoor shows to get experience first.
Once you're in, learn their parameters and amenities. Check their website or attached information to see if you need to bring tables, what the parking is like, what the show & preparation hours are, if you get electricity & wifi, etc.
Get someone to help you, because your neighbors and the show organizers will probably be too busy to help you with load-in security and bathroom breaks. And if you're lucky, your booth will be so swamped that you'll need a second person to answer questions and take orders.
Learn your spiel. This is super important! It not only clarifies your brand, but helps you anticipate questions and look really knowledgeable on the fly. Hit all of the major positive points of your business. Have (at least) a few funny/interesting stories about the production of your work. Share what makes your item different from what they're comparing it to.
Our magazine spiel includes that we're community based, our printer uses sustainable materials, we come out every season, the recipes are all whole foods so anybody could try them out, all of our content is vegan, this and this issue has gluten-free recipes, there's a really funny story about that article you're checking out, etc.
Package your product line. At least a little. If you've never done a show before or haven't worked wholesale, you might not have really thought about durable packaging for individual products. We tie recipe card packs in cotton string, slip them into plastic sleeves, and seal them with a kraft sticker with our logo on it, for example. Going back to branding, experiment with different packaging until you find what's right for you.
Set up your booth beforehand. Check out local thrift stores and flea markets for display units that will work with your products. Get inspiration from fellow crafters. Create signage that informs customers and fits with your aesthetic. I think the most important booth tips are to stay within your brand, create height differences & flow, and find/craft interesting functional displays. Practice your booth setup in your house before your show to get a good feel of it.
Make orders well before show dates. First things first: get a credit card reader. I would go with Square, Shopify, Etsy, or the one we use, Intuit - whatever platform you already use will work just fine. You'll be missing TONS of sales by not offering credit card payments, and they're extremely simple to use. Second, get yourself some business cards - I just use Vistaprint. Third, order any shopping bags or sleeves you'll need for customers from ULine or similar office supply chain.
Create an in-person policy. Do you want to accept checks? Can they contact you afterward for any repairs or further service? Do you do returns? What about bulk discounts? Will you give free shipping to locals who order online later? You probably won't know the answers to all of these when you're starting out, but keep peoples' questions in mind when they ask at shows.
Promote the show. Even if this is already a well-promoted show, you should share on social media that you'll be vending at it. It's a win-win for everybody involved, especially if you take great photos :)
- your products, in sealed containers
- display units, tablecloths, and lights
- tables & chairs that fit your space
- scissors, tape, string
- bags/sleeves for customers
- card reader, phone/tablet & portable charger
- cash, for change (I usually get about $60 in ones and fives.)
- business cards & holder
- clip board, paper and pens (for mailing list)
- a notebook (for many misc. purposes)
- a calculator (if you're not using your phone/card reader)
- paper order sheet for custom orders
- price sheet/stickers
- water, headache medicine, & snacks
A couple of quick tips:
- Look the part! Wear something stylish that fits the look and feel of your booth.
- Always bring your tables & displays in first ;)
- Get to know your neighbors and take a walk before the show starts - this is the fun part!
- Bring something to do in case the show is dead, but don't be reading a book when there are people looking at your items. I always bring a sketchbook - it gives me something to do, and I can show people that the lettering in the magazine is indeed hand-drawn.
- If you're not using an inventory-based card reader system, you might want to bring a notebook to write down what exactly is selling that day. It's very useful to examine after the show!
Dealing with people. Always say hello, at least. And that they can touch/open/examine anything in the booth (if you do allow that!) You can read their body language and see what they're looking at, and how interested they are - that's how you'll know what to say to them without scaring them off. Here's where your spiel will come in handy. You can take one or two things from the spiel and start a conversation around it.
This becomes more natural the longer you do shows - you eventually know what your "frequently asked questions" are, and in what situations people ask them. If you can't tell, let them ask questions and always answer with open-ended statements, letting them ask even more questions. Always thank them, even if they don't buy anything, and keep a positive attitude - I've never gone to a show where I made zero sales, and even at the bad shows I always had fun, interesting conversations with people!
There might be some people who say rude things, like "I could make this for $5," or they might just look and turn away immediately. These people are not your customers, they're just people who happen to be at the show being rude, so they do not matter. There are other people out there who are your ideal customer, so if you have a terrible show you might just want to look for a different kind of show or, if you're really unsure of your product line, update it.
Ninety percent of the work for an event is done before the show begins. Your show research, business work, and product development should do most of the selling for you. The only things that really affect you that day are the weather, your booth placement, and your attitude. So work hard on the preparation, and you should have a great show.
I hope this helps anyone trying to get into the craft show market, and if you have any questions or other tips that I missed here, let me know in the comments!