Growing Your Business at Events

It’s good to get outside the shop.

Having participated in probably 450 festivals over the past 20 years, I can attest to the value of putting yourself “out into the world.” The benefits are many, but of course introductions to a whole new customer base are the most important. Working solely inside the shop, we can get too used to dealing with foot traffic and those customers we have developed through marketing. Of course, there can be a certain comfort in dealing with what and who we know, but you will be surprised at what business you can pick up outside of the boundaries of your store.

I have seen vendors who take tabletop-sized engravers to events, and I’ve even seen a vendor who has a specially-equipped tractor trailer with two full-size engravers and the necessary fume extraction to service them. He also had a full display section set up. Of course, the costs for doing something this big have to be considered, as well as other considerations that I’ll mention later.

Fairs and festivals can take a variety of forms and serve many different customer types. Perhaps the simplest to get involved in are your local farmers markets. Different farmers markets can have an array of rules and requirements. Find those that include “artisan and craft” products — my local market doesn’t — and check out the cost to display. A local market is likely to be inexpensive. Craft or artisan fairs are a little more specific than farmers markets and can be a better choice where available.

Fairs and festivals

I define a fair as being a general event, while a festival would have a more specific theme. County or state fairs can attract hundreds of thousands of visitors over a prolonged time period. Your first consideration is going to have to be whether you can justify being away from your store for some time. Do you have, or can you hire, part-time help to assist at the event? Another consideration is (hopefully) whether you can service what may result in a large order book.

Some communities have local street festivals that can be worth considering. The biggest factor here is whether you will attract customers from an attendance that may already know you well. Does your community run an Easter or a harvest/fall themed event? These are not likely to be overly expensive, but again you may well be drawing from a known customer base.

Regardless of these potential challenges, Christmas fairs are almost certainly going to be worth doing. Even if you have established a stable business with one market segment (awards, for example), personalizing Christmas gifts or producing Christmas ornaments provides good, sometimes great, results. Taking something off the shelf and adding value by making it unique is a wonderful draw for buyers.

Festivals can be even more rewarding than a more general fair. Renaissance festivals, cultural festivals — any kind of event with a specific theme — can attract a group of customers that obviously share a common interest. Naturally, it will entail a certain amount of research to make certain you have sufficiently themed pieces available for display. A level of personal knowledge in whatever the theme may be is a great advantage.

For example, my experience lies almost exclusively in heraldic and Celtic, (as in Scots, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton), history and mythology. The ability to share a conversation with someone who has a particular interest in anything to do with that event’s theme can create a customer who didn’t expect to be one. In my case, tying heraldry into specific family history and origins can grab a customer and pull them in.

Other events

There are events that don’t fall into my definitions of fairs or festivals: horse shows, dog shows, jewelry shows, wedding shows, gun shows, car and/or motorcycle shows can all engender interest from attendees. First, there may be an opportunity to garner the award business from these events. If not, certain types of events like car and motorcycle shows present “dash plaques” to attendees. These are small items, usually around the size of a name badge, that many attendees value and appreciate.

It can also be possible to obtain official artwork from events and create souvenirs for attendees to purchase. At car shows and motorcycle shows, having items with manufacturer logos, particularly vintage logos where appropriate, can be very lucrative. I have a friend who participates regularly at gun shows. His logic is that someone prepared to spend a lot of money on something for themselves is likely also prepared to get something for their significant other!

Festival crowd
Are festivals worth it? Yes!

Cost considerations

The most important factor, inevitably, is going to be cost. You cannot know the first time attending an event whether you can justify what is likely a hefty participation fee and potentially a large inventory and equipment investment. Is the event held indoors or outside? You may consider a pop-up tent or a more substantial tent if you’re going to more than just a couple of events outdoors. Tables for display and chairs for comfort are a great investment. For an event held on hard standing or concrete floors, some participants like having a comfort mat or pad inside their booths.

Do you require power for lighting or other things like a cash register or computer? I have seen some vendors who take their own desktop lasers to festivals. This also means special cases for the engravers are needed as well as portable extraction equipment. Do you have these items? Most events will offer tent and furniture rental, and a great number of them will provide power. Bear in mind that rentals and electrical can provide a soft source of income for organizers and generally are more expensive than we might consider they need to be.

Whether it is a small fair or a big festival, booth space is provided for a fee, usually based on a fixed size — 10 X 10, 20 X 10, 20 X 20, and so on. If you try a local market or small fair, don’t be surprised by the difference in fees and available booth sizes between various events.

If you need power and none is offered, you may want to get a generator. Modern generators come in a wide range of power outputs and there are many that utilize inverter technology and are enclosed in acoustic shrouds. They’re more expensive but are very, very quiet so you won’t disturb your neighbors.

If you are prepared to invest in your own tent, tables, chairs, generator, drapes, signs, table covers, etc., you’ll probably need to consider a trailer. Of course, several outlets offer trailers for rent but be careful to check on mileage fees and so on. The main advantage of having your own trailer is that you can outfit it to suit whatever you will be carrying.

It is very helpful to create good relationships with organizers and vendor chairs. The better your relationship, the better your chances of obtaining any special considerations. Regular attendance at events can result in getting better booth locations. Most vendor chairs will be prepared to provide attendee numbers, but a small number of attendees does not automatically mean you won’t sell much.

All these factors need to be considered if you want to participate in events away from the shop. So — yes, event participation can be very rewarding, but you need to be careful to make sure you can make the arithmetic work for your business. Of course, you aren’t going to know how worthwhile any event will be until you try, so you may need to take a leap of faith the first time around. On the other hand, if you don’t participate you won’t sell anything!

John Morman

John Morman

Celtic Tides

John Morman is the owner of Celtic Tides in Lexington, Virginia. He and his wife, Mary Jo, have been running the shop since 2005.

View all articles by John Morman  

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