Show Advice: The Costs of Doing Business

(Note: with the 2018 Triffid Ranch show season getting ready to start, a lot of bystanders and longtime customers interested in starting their own small businesses ask for advice and recommendations about attending and selling at shows. While asking me for business advice is comparable to asking Jeffrey Dahmer for tips on vegan recipes, these ruminations might be of some entertainment value, especially among those thinking about jumping into the show circuit.)

As of this coming May, the Texas Triffid Ranch celebrates ten years since it went live, and nothing over the intervening decade was as good a teacher as doing lots and lots of shows in various venues. It originally started with comic and science fiction conventions, and moved over to various craft fairs and art shows for years before everything moved to the first gallery in 2015. Lots of little shows helped nail down what works and what doesn’t: the items that clear out within the first ten minutes and the ones that don’t move at all, the displays and support gear that knocked everyone’s socks off and the ones that really needed to be thrown in the trash before the show. A book on camping that I owned when I was a kid recommended that beginning backpackers should make lots of local trips, then deliberate as to what they should bring with them after they get back. The phrase “every ounce that you didn’t need feels like a pound when you’re on the trail” applies equally well to everything that needs to be loaded and unloaded at a show location, especially if you’re the only one doing the heavy lifting and you can’t get your cart close enough to where it all has to go. The experiences and occasional scars lead to sometimes great after-show stories (I have friends at Texas Frightmare Weekend who still call me “Sparky” after my truck was struck by lightning before one show), but they also explain the occasional winces when someone asks “So, have you considered vending at (fill in the blank) show?”

It’s a very valid question, and one that’s asked all of the time. Sometimes it’s asked by bystanders who don’t want to purchase something right then who hope to snag it at the next show. Sometimes it’s asked by someone who came across a mention of a new event seeking vendors to fill a dealer’s room, or a pop-up show looking for something different. Many times, it’s asked by customers far enough away from Dallas that they’d be willing to travel to a halfway point, and other times by those who’d just love to see the plants in their own home towns. It’s the next question after answering “No,” “Why?”, that’s the entertaining one.

The reason for the entertainment is because no one answer applies, and each vendor answers it differently. Sometimes it’s because the show has bad timing with other events, sometimes it’s due to logistics such as access to transport or parking, and sometimes it’s because the vendor had such a horrible experience at a previous show that bankruptcy and homelessness are preferable to setting up another booth at the next one. A lot of times, though, it’s purely a matter of economics: unless a vendor is in his/her business solely as charity, the basic idea of being a vendor at a show or event is to try to make more money by the end of a show than what the vendor started with at the beginning. Even if the vendor IS a charity, the idea is to get more of a return, either by reaching more people or more unquantifiable reasons, than the vendor would get by staying home and slamming his/her head in a car door. Figuring out which shows and events are amenable to these needs and which ones don’t have any compatibility is a skill that has to be learned, usually from years of experience.

To start, let’s define why a vendor wants to go to a particular show, and vice versa. The motivations for the vendor were just mentioned, so let’s take a look at the venue. Some shows are nothing more than markets: the organizers rent or otherwise utilize an otherwise unused space, indoors and/or outdoors, and rent individual spaces to the vendors and anybody else willing to put down the money. These may or may not charge an entry fee to attendees who want to come in and look around. Some are tied to a charity or other nonprofit organization, where in addition to charging for vendor booths, vendors may be asked to give a percentage of their final sales. Others offer vendor spaces as a way to pay for other programming: a great example is with literary conventions, where fees for vendor spaces help pay for spaces for author readings, signings, and other activities. A real cynic would bring up the shows that are intended as private parties for the organization staff, where the only reason anyone else is allowed entry is to pay for the beer, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

While we’re at it, it’s time to bring up something that should be absolutely clear: the reasons for attendees to go to an event aren’t the same as for vendors, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Without fail, when anyone asks a vendor about setting up a booth at a show that didn’t work out that well, an explanation of the why gets at least one utterly enraged person whining “Well, I liked it!”, as if that neutralizes any of the vendor’s issues. It’s GREAT that you had the time of your life at a show, that you encountered the experience or the person that completely changed your world, or even that you found someone willing to take your extensive 35-year collection of Chuck E. Cheese game tokens. You’re coming in for an experience to take you away from daily concerns: for us, it’s work. (This is why most vendors will gracefully bow out of going to parties or any activity other than a medically induced coma after shutting down for the night. We’ve all been “on” all day or night, and while we love you all, all most of us want to do is sit someplace quiet with a drink of choice in hand and an hour or so of down time before going to bed.)

Let’s start with a breakdown of costs, to help explain which events make sense and which ones don’t. Above everything else is the basic fee for setting up at an event or convention, the shorthand for which is “Booth”. The Euclidean ideal of Booth is a space, usually 10 feet by 10 feet (the average floor area of a show tent) in which a vendor can put up tables, shelves, displays, and everything else needed with which to conduct business, and everything else is incidental. Many shows include a table and two chairs as part of Booth, some include electricity or wifi access, and others charge fees for everything other than the floor space. The prices are also wildly variable, depending upon the venue, any support required to set up, and the intended audience. Some shows offer discounted rates for educators or artists, but also segregate the discount spaces from the main vendor area and refer to the space as “Artist’s Alley.” Either way, if you hear a vendor bragging about how “I made Booth about an hour after we opened,” that means the vendor sold enough in an hour to cover the cost of the space and everything provided as part of the booth fee. As a general rule, the booth fee has to be paid long before the vendor can set up, and walking in and telling the management “I’ll pay you with the money I make at the show” usually gets a response of roaring laughter or short gestures with a taser.

Sidenote: To make sure that the vendors at a festival or show offer products that match the theme or tone, those events may need to prescreen applicants before allowing them in. Since this requires a staff to go through applications and determine who fits the show theme and who is showing up with a big crate of flea market vacuum cleaners (and don’t laugh: I’ve seen it) before any ill will starts between vendors, expenses have to be covered. Smaller shows roll those expenditures into the booth fee, but larger ones that have to sift through thousands of applicants may charge an application fee. More often than not, that fee is nonrefundable, but it’s also a small fraction of the price of a booth. If the application and fee go in and the jury decides that your booth is essential, then and only then does an invoice for payment go out. This is why having a separate bank account for business makes sense: keeping booth and application fees in the business account means that the fee money isn’t grabbed by accident to pay personal expenditures, and show management really like the vendors who can pay for their spaces nearly immediately instead of after multiple reminders.

Sidenote two: As with application fees, some fees and donations are completely acceptable in the business, but might be a dealbreaker for some vendors. For instance, many shows run by nonprofits may request a donation of an individual item or service for a raffle or auction, or a percentage of total sales over a day or weekend, with the proceeds going to the show. Just make sure that the event has clear wording on whether unsold donations are kept or given back to the vendor: a big first-time show of my acquaintance last year decided to host an art show full of solicited artworks, where the organizers assumed, “because that’s how it’s always been done,” that they kept all unsold artwork for themselves. One show of my acquaintance has a non-refundable “preference fee,” where paying the fee encourages the vendor’s room organizers to give preference for particular locations, but it’s not a guarantee. Likewise, although this has only happened to me once, any mention of an additional deposit to be refunded at the end of the show is a big screaming red sign warning “the only way we can keep vendors from packing up early and leaving on Friday evening is by holding their deposits hostage, because that’s the only money they’ll be getting the whole weekend.” If a proviso in an event sounds suspicious or otherwise dubious, such as one show that not only charged for booth space but required a $1 million insurance policy against possible damages (and the number isn’t a typo), bail if you feel uncomfortable making the expenditure.

Now we get into incidental expenditures, which are only incidental compared to booth fees. Unless you live literally next door to the venue, you’ll need some sort of transport to get inventory and displays to the venue location. Starting out, a car may work, but rapidly a larger vehicle becomes essential, and it’s completely your choice as to whether you buy it or rent it. Renting a van or truck makes more sense if you have fewer big shows in a year, but the convenience of not having to worry about depreciation and maintenance is offset in being charged by the mile and/or the day and whether the day of your show coincides with every apartment dweller in your neighborhood needing to move. (Very seriously, should you go for rental vehicles, reserve your chosen vehicle early, and always budget about three times as much time as you think you’ll need for setup and teardown.) Do you have a cart or dolly to haul heavy stuff to the booth location, or will everything you plan to sell fit into containers you can haul yourself? An equally important question: do you have someone who loves you enough to help you set up and break down without thought of compensation, or will you have to pay for assistance, both in compensation and in event passes? If the venue doesn’t include electricity or wifi access as part of Booth, these are usually covered as separate charges, and their use depends upon how badly you need lights or video displays. (With a lot of hotels, the electrical fees can be almost as high as the booth fee, and a disturbing number of hotels still charge for wifi as if it’s still the 20th Century. You laugh, but being stuck in a hotel banquet room where the manager has an illegal jammer for hotspots and charges $75 per day for slow and spotty access is something that still happens.) Local shows mean being able to sleep in your own bed and bring your own lunch, so consider hotel and food costs if you’re doing one out of town. And with outdoor events, you’d best have some kind of tent or other shelter, and tents of a suitable size can be expensive. Add all of this up with the booth fee, and this gives you the absolute bare minimum you need to make in sales before you break even.

Since we’ve covered costs, let’s look at time. Assuming that you’re a small vendor who still has to work a day job to pay bills, a remotely busy show schedule burns through accumulated vacation and personal time before  you know it, and every unpaid day spent at a show means a bigger chunk of disposable income gone if the show is slow. Don’t measure time just on days, either: there are the hours spent getting to and from the location, the hours unloading and setting up, the minutes spent trying to locate something that you SWORE you packed up before you left, the seconds of life left to the person trying to encourage you to take a chance on another show by shoving aside a customer just about ready to buy…it all adds up. Does the event location allow you to have a reasonably leisurely setup, or do you have to get everything in and at the booth within a half-hour or so? Is the loading ramp on the other side of the building from the booth location, and will you have to pass through crowds to get to it? If the event is outside, will you have paved spaces over which you can haul your stuff, or is the main area a combination of grass and mud? If you need a tent for an outdoor show, how much time do you need for tent setup and securing before the event starts, and can you drive your vehicle directly to the spot or will you have to haul tent and all across pavement or mud? And when breaking down at the end of a show, is that on a tight timeline, or will yours be laborious enough that letting the quick packers leave first makes more sense? This may sound pedantic, but a show that runs late on a Sunday and requires an extra four hours to get home and unpack might require taking Monday off as well to recuperate, and you have to decide if that’s worth the return.

Another aspect of time: how can that time be best used? Because of the rather limited belts of clement weather in Dallas before and after summer, a lot of unrelated events get scheduled for the same weekends, and determining which ones are worth choosing is usually gained from experience. For instance, let’s start with the assumption that Event A is a three-day event while Event B is a one-day event. On its face, a longer duration suggests that Event A might draw more attendees, but then consider that Event A is a three-hour drive away while Event B is literally down the road. Alternately, Event A very peripherally connects to your inventory and what your company is about, while Company B is loaded with exactly the sort of potential customers you’ve dreamt about your entire life.  And then there are the other factors, such as your inventory being perishable or living: can you risk being caught in a traffic jam in the middle of summer heat and an inadequate truck air conditioner? Do you need special permits to bring your inventory across state lines? Or, and there’s no delicate way of putting it, does the event have any indications that it’s overinflating the number of projected attendees, or that it’s going to have huge numbers but attendees who come out with one shirt and one $5 bill and don’t change either for the entire weekend?

Finally, the last big factor that every vendor should consider is experience. Every year, any number of organizations decide to start a big event and solicit vendors and attendees, and some of these events may turn out to be blowout extravaganzas sung about in myth and legend. Others fall flat on their faces due to poor organization or sometimes just bad timing. Even the successful ones may not get a second year due to logistical issues or an inability to find a suitable venue. Since blowout and dud shows can be indistinguishable a week before opening, experienced vendors tend to be leery of first-year events, and are much more likely to pay for booth space the next year, after they’ve compared notes with the people with spaces from the year before. (This isn’t completely dependable: certain sleazy operators are known for buying the names of shows where the previous organizers had to drop out of the business, pitching the new show to vendors on the reputation of the previous organizers, and refusing to honor any of the contractually obligated commitments promised. One show here in Dallas runs every few years under a brand new name, so as to avoid online search results, because the organizers know that the vendors don’t sell a thing but the organizers need the booth fees to pay for the after-show staff party.) It can be a hard thing to turn down what appears to be on paper a sure-thing first-year convention or festival, but from long experience, I’ve had fewer regrets on passing on excellent shows than celebrations on dodging bullets.

Is this everything? Not in the slightest. This hasn’t even touched on how to know when to cut your losses on a formerly successful show, at what times it’s best to ignore “being professional” and pack up before the show is over, or what to do when a show organizer simply won’t take “no” for an answer and keeps pushing to get you to register for a show when you’ve repeatedly declined. However, after considering these factors, when a vendor begs off repeated requests of “So why aren’t you at this show?”, the points already shared explain why.

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