Tag Archives: show advice

Show Advice: Priorities

(Note: with 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.)

So you’ve made the big leap from talking about starting a small art retail business to doing it, a feat roughly as terrifying and as awesome as finishing flight school and starting the solo flight. The fear never goes away, nor should it, but that’s combined with increasing confidence in your abilities and skills. This is where you get to discover whether you’re suited for selling your work or if you’re better off putting it on consignment elsewhere. It’s also the point where, like not watching for that flock of geese or filling your auxiliary tanks with black-strap molasses, you’re going to have a whole new set of worries as you evict the old ones.

Right now, the small retail show or vendor’s room is facing stresses and trends that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Living in the future means having plenty of options to take payments that don’t involve cash. The same technology, though, means having to focus on uniqueness, which really affects niche events such as science fiction conventions: the days where a vendor could clear out the local Walmart of Star Wars figures and sell them at a 200 percent markup are as dead as Y2k panic, and for as long. Smartphones mean that if you’re selling a commercially available product of any sort and it isn’t perishable or otherwise in immediate need, customers can and will stand right in front of you, price-compare, and make same-day-delivery purchases right then and there. Alternately, one quick picture send out via Instagram or Twitter might mean having a crowd in front of your table in an hour. For those of us who remember having to lug cash registers and halogen lighting to shows, it’s a strange and terrible and wonderful time.

Even with that, it’s always nice to know what concerns are worth worrying about and which ones aren’t and when they switch. For instance, most beginners worry about custom bags and packaging with their contact information emblazoned on it, which should never be a concern to anyone making less than six figures’ worth of sales per year. Even with those who do, a well-placed business card has more of an impact and is less likely to be used as an emergency cat litter box liner. Likewise, the things to worry about can look a lot like the things that should be kicked down the road or kicked off a cliff. While this isn’t a comprehensive or even a coherent list, it hits on the important notes of a decade of Triffid Ranch shows, and here’s hoping my pain is someone else’s enlightenment.

Things Not to Worry About:

Your neighbors selling more than you. A very common fallacy among hubristic vendors at shows is the assumption that any money going to any other vendor is money that’s being stolen from them. It’s a slightly understandable feeling, aggravated by that feeling when you’ve sold maybe three items over a three-day weekend and the vendor next to you has completely sold out of inventory by Friday night. Sometimes that fallacy gets poisonous enough to say something completely inappropriate in public, such as the vintage bookseller who comes to shows and badmouths anybody not selling books before he and his brother set up. Sometimes it gets even worse, where those vendors throw tantrums to the show staff about having to play well with others and threatening never to come back unless the offender is banned forever. (This is one of the reasons why I no longer bother with being a vendor at literary science fiction conventions, especially the big industry events such as World Fantasy or World Horror: the official excuse as to why new vendors aren’t admitted is that “the previous year’s vendors already reserved their spaces for the next event,” and the conventions are very careful not to rent vendor’s room space big enough to expand because they don’t want to deal with the bookseller tantrums.) On a much smaller scale, there’s the grumbling and snide remarks made in passing, which make the event a lot less fun that it could have been.

Instead, here’s what you should do as a vendor when someone else is cleaning up: celebrate it. don’t grumble about your poor sales, especially since you don’t know how long that may last at that show, and the situation may be reversed by the end of the show. Instead, congratulate them when they come up for breath. If your neighbor has a crowd five people deep in front of the booth, use that time to spruce up your own display or otherwise be productive instead of sulking behind your phone. If this continues through the whole show, just break down, pack up, congratulate them again, and acknowledge that you just didn’t find your audience at that show. (If you have several shows in a row with similar experiences, then either you’re picking the wrong shows or your inventory just isn’t clicking, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)

Yeah, you’re tired and you’re disappointed, but you WANT your neighbors to do well. Firstly, the better you treat your show neighbors, the more likely they’ll reciprocate at the next show, and that sort of goodwill is infectious. Secondly, as anyone who has ever worked a carnival or fair will tell you, attendees who see someone else with a new purchase and a big smile are much more likely to buy something themselves, so by cheerleading for the currently hot vendors, you’re increasing your own odds of the show becoming something great.

People “stealing your ideas”. Anybody familiar with publishing knows the ongoing schtick about beginners afraid of someone “stealing my ideas”. Based on the very occasional publicized lawsuit involving a movie or television production company stealing source material from published fiction, the assumption is that every writer with some vague idea of a short story had best go to extreme and legally unsound ideas to keep unethical editors and publishers from swiping that vague concept and making money from it themselves. There’s no need to go into the fallacy of mailing story ideas to yourself as a “poor man’s copyright” or how those lawsuits are based on someone high-grading a creator’s already-completed work, with the emphasis on “work,” and how the plagiarism prevents the original creator from being able to leverage their own work. The main thing to take away is that if you have a truly innovative item or concept that you wish to sell, get it copyrighted, trademarked, or patented, right now.

The reason why I bring this up is because with nearly 8 billion people on the planet, the odds are pretty good that at least two people with the same exposure to the same influences might come up with the same general concept. What turns this from daydream to a marketable concept is the work necessary to implement it. Patent and copyright law in most countries is intended to protect the work, not just the idea. Everything else…well, as tempting as it would be to assume that you’re the only person in the history of humanity to make little wooden chests decoupaged with old comic book pages, you’re probably not. If you’re showing your little chunks of your heart and soul in public and they’re not something that can be protected under the law, there’s not a whole lot you can do to keep someone from seeing it, thinking “Hey, I can do this!”, and trying it themselves. If that weren’t the case, we’d probably still be paying royalties to the Neanderthals for use and development of flintknapping techniques.

So how do you keep someone from walking up to your booth, looking over the items you lovingly knitted, sewed, forged, sintered, potted, or 3-D printed, and getting the same gleam in their eye that some Denisovian had about Mousterian hand-axe construction? You get passionate about your work. The moment somebody planning on hitching themselves to your wagon asks “Is there a lot of money in this?”, tell them, honestly and truthfully, “that isn’t why I’m doing this.” Instead of making lots and lots of the same exact item, continue to expand your range, so that the wannabes see that they need the same level of dedication to catch up. Take the time to explain to customers why your inventory is so special, so even if someone else offers a product roughly similar to yours, they want to buy from YOU. You don’t need some alternate persona or some schtick: be yourself. However, that passion is infectious, and the passion also implies that you’ve put so much more work into your work. If you inspire someone to find that same level of passion, just run with it and welcome them. If they don’t, then they’ll drop it and move to something easier. Either way, your work stands out, and anyone attempting a half-assed knockoff will stand out as such.

Non-customers poking about your sources. It sounds insulting, and it definitely feels insulting: that person coming up to your booth who has no interest in buying anything, but who has to know where you get your materials or components. Note that you as a creator are under no obligation to reveal your sources on anything that isn’t affected by state or federal law, although it’s definitely in your best interests to be completely upfront about materials and components that might be dangerous if misused, especially if it might come into contact with food or drink. However, the vast majority of these non-customers aren’t interested in competing with you or even in trying to get an in with your sources: they’re exactly like the people who have no intention of becoming stage illusionists but who obsess about how to replicate every one of Penn & Teller’s illusions. They don’t want to compete against you: they want to know how you do what you do so they can brag to their friends about this supposed inside knowledge, “direct from the artist,” and be able to provide references if they’re called on it.

Want proof? Respond to a poker with something along the lines of “Oh, the supplier went out of business about five years ago” or the completely honest “I make my own,” go into a little bit of detail, and watch their eyes glaze. Expect the same who want to know about your techniques or who ask if you teach classes: they’re more interested in knowing that you’ll share your knowledge than in partaking of it.

The “You Should Just” crowd. A subset of the pokers are those who have just enough knowledge of your field of expertise that they’ll drop the most esoteric and exotic fact they can find. In the case of carnivorous plants, it’s always a very rare and very hard-to-grow plant that only a couple of people in the United States have the room or the time to give the proper care, such as demanding to see a Nepenthes rajah up close. Upon hearing that you don’t have one, no matter the reason as to why it makes no sense to have one available right then, they’ll cluck their tongues and exclaim “Well, you SHOULD.” This isn’t about a customer with a particular need. If you say “I have X, but it’s back at my shop/in my gallery/in the inventory I haven’t unpacked because I don’t have the room,” they’ll wander off, because it’s all about claiming superiority. If you simply don’t have it, they’ll keep fussing “Well, you should just carry one…” until either you shoo them off or they find another bright shiny object to chase.

If three or four potential customers ask about an item, this suggests a legitimate demand among the community, and you should cater to their needs as quickly as you can. However, if it’s one person who keeps insisting that you really NEED to carry one obscure and expensive item, and doesn’t want to put down a deposit or otherwise confirm an actual interest, ignore them. If you succumb and get that one item just for them, they’ll cluck their tongues, rush off, and make absolutely certain never to see you again.

The $5 crowd. Do enough shows, and most vendors can recognize the people who are only there to snag as much free stuff as they can carry off. (I want to emphasize that a huge distance lies between those who may not have money now but who are interested in your inventory, and those whose sole interest is in getting everything they can for free. The secret here is to treat everyone with respect and consideration unless they prove they don’t deserve it, because that 8-year-old who is in awe of your stuff but who is dead broke usually grows up into an 18-year-old with disposable income who remembers treatment from a decade earlier, even if you don’t.) The more insidious ones are those who somehow get it into their heads that your items should be at some magical price that’s usually way below your cost. I refer to them as “the $5 crowd,” because they get upset that everything isn’t priced at $5US. I’m not sure if this derives from memories of some magical time in the early 1970s when anything short of cars, houses, and nuclear weapons could be purchased for less than $5, or from some strange mental default that sets this value to everything.

Either way, this leads to pointing at an item that incorporates $40 in materials and sneering “I’ll give you $5 for it,” or scoffing “I wouldn’t pay $5 for that.” Sometimes it extends into blatant lies, such as claiming “I saw something JUST LIKE THAT last night on Home Shopping Network that was selling for $5,” or insisting that some magical store three timezones away has something exactly like your handmade and hand-designed item “and THEY only sell it for $5!” It all comes down, though, to the Euclidean idea of the issue, and that was demonstrated to me last year by an East Texas goofball who crashed an art show and harangued every artist there with the same question: “Do y’all know someone who makes something EXACTLY LIKE THIS, but just not for so much?”

The important thing to remember, with these and the people who offer to trade your handmade items for “exposure,” is that your work is important. Your time is important, even if you horribly undercharge for it. You aren’t doing yourself or anybody else any favors by conceding to the $5 Crowd, because not only will they not appreciate the favor, but they’ll then use that as a cudgel against other artists and vendors by screaming “Well, THEY let me have it for $5!” These people are not your customers, and you want to know how you’ll know this? You’ll know when they wander off and then contact you six months later after buying some cheap bootleg knockoff for $5 from Amazon or Walmart or Etsy and demanding that you help them get their money back. (Oh, and don’t even bother to respond to those requests. Just tell them “You might need to bring that up with the person you bought the item from,” because that’s all you owe them.)

Things to Worry About:

Having Enough inventory. Yes, I understand. You work a horrible 40-hour-per-week job for a control freak who clocks your bathroom breaks and collects urine samples every week as a cheap alternative to Budweiser. The commute to and from work makes you wonder if some of your fellow commuters have to be kicked in the chest to be reminded to breathe. You drag yourself home after ten hours of nightmare seemingly designed to bring out your worst misanthropist impulses, and instead of sitting on the couch or bed and crying yourself to sleep, you’re hard at work on making the items that make you live. You subsist on ramen and assorted captured insects so you have money for metal or fabric or glue, and you risk hallucinations from sleep deprivation in order to work way past a normal bedtime. You hear about an upcoming show, further risk rickets and night blindness by spending your grocery money on the booth fee, and gather your available inventory together. You’ve got enough to present yourself at the show, right?

Seriously, and with as much kindness and as much love as I can muster, if you haven’t been a vendor at a show before, look at your existing inventory. If you can put everything you have on one six-foot table and not have anything else on standby, cancel that show and don’t sign up for another one until you have three times that amount. And don’t settle for three times of the same items, either. Increase the variety as well, so that every potential customer that walks by your table will see SOMEthing that catches the eye. If you’re doing clothing, focus on a strong line of items instead of a little bit of kid’s clothes and a little bit of men’s clothes. If you’re doing jewelry, offer options other than just necklaces or rings. While you’re at it, offer items at multiple price points, because the crowds interested in high-end items and penne-ante pieces change between shows. My wife refers to the small items as “bread and butter,” because you can make your booth fee on 40 $5 sales as you can on one $200 sale, and those $5 sales increase the likelihood of those customers coming back, either at that show or at subsequent ones, and buying a lot more.

If any advice to new vendors was the most important, it’s this: too much is better than not enough. Bring out too much inventory, and you’ll have to pack it up and haul it back home when the event ends. That’s a lot better than selling most of your stuff in the first few hours and then having to sit at an empty booth for the rest of a weekend. Much more importantly, even if a potential customer goes over your table and checks out every last item without finding anything, it’s still an opportunity to engage, to ask “So what are you looking for?” and even talk about custom assignments. If the table is mostly empty, odds are that the attendee won’t even get that close: s/he will do a quick driveby, see nothing of import, and scoot out and never return.

For us veteran vendors, nothing is more heartbreaking than seeing someone with undeniable talent and skill who didn’t make a single sale because every last item had to be spread out in an attempt to fill the space. The table doesn’t have to groan and threaten to buckle from the load, but it should always have a reason for a show attendee to stop and give it a chance.

Another reason to have more inventory than you have room to display? Accidents and emergencies. You get to a show and discover that the entire contents of a box or tub are damaged or otherwise unsellable, which happens more often than you’d think, or you realize that the one remaining tub is sitting on your kitchen table. The last thing you want to have is a massive hole where a big item was supposed to be, and sometimes a lot of smaller items can fill the space in both table and sales just as well.

Having your own space and display in order. After a little while, every vendor doing events and shows has at least one story about a particular folly in displays and signage that almost made sense at the time it was first used. The big wooden rack that held paintings but that kept catching the wind and going airborne. The glass display case that looked oh-so-impressive but that required three people to move it into a vehicle and threatened to decapitate the driver during sudden stops. The backlit sign just marginally longer than the available truck bed, causing it to disassemble from road vibration on longer trips. The aspect that nobody wants to talk about: the displays and signage that the business outgrew but couldn’t be pitched because “I paid good money/this was a gift when I started out/I really like it”.

Your display space reflects upon your business as much as the inventory, which means that regular maintenance and upgrading is necessary. With wood furniture, paint or stain the inevitable travel scrapes, and seal the wood to prevent staining from rain or hands. (April Winchell of the much-missed site Regretsy was absolutely right about how bare wood was hipster catnip, and the individuals who go on and on about the authenticity of unfinished wood in displays obviously haven’t been around long enough to see the grodiness of a display after five or six shows, what with Cheeto-covered hands, spilled drinks, and the occasional sneeze.) With metal, carry polishing cloths or bottles of Brasso, and don’t put off fixing broken welds or popped rivets. Plastic? Invest in any number of plastics-safe polishes, and be prepared for the inevitability of plastic and resin eventually going yellow and/or brittle, a lot sooner if you do a lot of outdoor shows. If something breaks to the point where the repair is more noticeable than the rest of the display, replace it with a new one, because if it breaks again, it’ll most likely be on the existing damage.

(Sidenote: If you can possibly help it, set aside a separate fund in your show budget for display upgrades and maintenance, and go through a regular brutal assessment of your displays, lights, and accessories about every six months. Ask friends and family to assist, and ask for their honest opinions on your final arrangement. Are you making contemporary jewelry, but still using New Kids on the Block sheets as a tablecloth? Are your shelves and racks so patched and duct-taped that they could be props on The Red Green Show? Are you still using incandescent or halogen bulbs that were purchased back in the Twentieth Century? Does your assembled display suggest “Fun Shopping Experience” or “Telethon for Tetanus”? If you see issues, that’s what the display upgrade budget is for. At the very least, take advice from professional retailers and upgrade your displays every couple of years just to spark new interest. Yes, it’s money that could be used for inventory or transportation, and that’s why it’s usually severely neglected.)

(Sidenote two: unless you’re struck by lightning at the end of a show and wake up six months later in a body cast, clean up your damn messes when you leave. Yes, shows have either volunteers or paid personnel whose final responsibility is to sweep the floor and dump the garbage after you leave, but dumping your detritus all over and chuckling “Job security” to the poor person having to do final cleanup is a jerk move. That behavior comes back to bite you, especially if it gets back to the show organizer that your area looked as if Hunter S. Thompson had camped there for a month. I know two vendors who somehow managed to leave more junk at the end of every show than they’d packed in at the beginning, and they’re only now starting to realize that the only shows willing to take them are ones desperate for ANY vendors. These are usually shows where the vendors outnumber the attendees, so you understand the importance of cleaning up after your filthy self.)

Timewasters and parasites. As you continue in your small retailer career, you’ll find people who, to be nice, want to be involved but who don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart. This includes people who nag endlessly about “any room for an assistant?”, but who can’t do anything besides sit behind the table and text all day. You’ll be hit up by alleged organizers of big shows who want you to sign up and pay the booth fee RIGHT THEN, and who refuse to go away when you decline. You’ll get the people who work for other shows and come to yours to badmouth their competition. Expect the guy who camps out next to your table and creeps out potential customers with his very loud reviews of his very extensive hentai collection. You’ll get the ones who comment “Gee, you have a nice table here” and either ask if they can have “just a corner” to sell their own items or ask to put a big fat stack of flyers for a direct competitor right out in front. And it’s nearly a rite of passage to get that one seemingly enthusiastic customer who swears on four grandmothers’ graves that s/he will be “right back with the money if you put that item in reserve for me” and then disappears forever. Being a retailer, in any capacity, is an immersion in the human condition, and that includes lots of mixes of stupidity, arrogance, cluelessness, greed, and/or delusion that parade around in skin suits. If you think you might have it bad, just consider what anyone working the front counter at a comic shop or a movie theater has to deal with every day.

Sadly, since nobody has developed a surefire jerkwad repellent (and that person would be the richest person on the planet within weeks of developing it), you’ll have to deal with these people and more, and one technique works well in 97 of 100 cases. The moment someone pops up to try to take advantage of your basic human compassion, just tell them “I’m not in a position to do so right now: could you come around after the show is over?” Well, this works on everyone but the hentai creep: in his case, ask him nicely to move elsewhere and call loudly for security if he refuses.

Always remember that you can say “NO” at any time, and also remember that your ultimate responsibility is to customers, as in “people who exchange money for your inventory.” If that Etsy trunk show organizer shoves one of your customers aside to tell you all about her event next week and doesn’t respond to “could you come by after the show?”, you have no responsibility to be nice or even civil afterwards.

(Sidenote: Many shows and events are sufficiently large or of enough specific interest that they may get bands of roving reporters and photographers wandering around for reaction shots. If your inventory or your backstory has enough of a hook to attract further interest, you might even get a followup from one of those reporters, either asking for a few words and a quick photo of your display or for contact information for a more formal interview. Without fail, they’ll come around right at a time when your booth is completely overwhelmed by curious attendees and returning customers. A quick and easy way to spot the difference between real writers and wannabes is to see how they respond upon seeing a crowd around your booth. Anyone with any actual experience in reportage, or at least any without a major “You, OF COURSE, know who I am, don’t you?” hubris infection, might pop in during a lull between four separate conversations, make a quick introduction, and ask “Mind if I ask some questions when you’re not so busy?” It’s the frauds and incompetents that literally shove people aside and demand that you pay attention to them RIGHT THEN, and blowing them off in order to take care of customers won’t affect you in the slightest.

Last year, I had one such charlatan not only interrupt two people with serious questions, but who huffily asked me “could you get an assistant to take over so I can interview you,” his words, right then and there. He sulked off when I explained that an interview might be better after the show, only to come back when the crowds abated somewhat. Not only has that interview never appeared in any publication, print or online, but the only subsequent contact from him was a solicitation to write blog posts at truly entitled prices.)

Getting enough sleep. No matter how much practice or preparation, the last week before a big show is a cascade of sleep deprivation. If you aren’t staring at the ceiling wondering if you took care of that last-minute thing or coming up with a new concept right when you should be unconscious, you’ll be getting up extra-early to get everything to the show in time. There’s always the joy of thinking “I can get this last thing done in an hour,” getting to work, and looking up to realize that you’ve worked the whole night through. If you work a day job, you have the joys of balancing the last-minute emergencies that always happen as you’re trying to get out the door with show prep.

If the show is far enough away that you have to stay in a hotel, there’s the aggravation of late-night searches for a 24-hour grocery or drugstore because you packed the cat instead of the toothbrush, or discovering that the night manager already gave your hotel room away and the only option is to pay $500 per night for the last room or go to another hotel. If the show has food vendors, those carrying coffee or high-caffeine soft drinks are the angels to incoming vendors, especially in the last few hours before breakdown. I won’t even start with the well-meaning friends who assume that because you’re in town and have a whole six hours between the end of one show day and the beginning of the next, you have to get together with them for dinner or a party. If you’re smart, you’ll bow out on those invitations unless you know you can get enough sleep, because you’re no good to any of your customers if you’re so sleep-deprived and hallucinating that you alternate between extolling the virtues of your work and waving a marlin spike around while yelling about reptiles.

I don’t have any personal stories to relate about particular sleep horrors, although I discovered last September that I can go approximately 40 hours without sleep before I encounter my inner William Burroughs. However, I was neighbor to a vendor at one big show in Fort Worth who ran into everything that might interfere with a good night’s rest. He came in on Sunday morning about a half-hour before the show opened to the public, uncovered his table, told everyone about how he’d driven three hours to be there because his wife had to work that day, sat down in a little folding chair, and promptly passed out. Customers coming by his table couldn’t ask him questions because he was insensate, and his snoring started drowning out sales pitches from other vendors and announcements over the hall intercom. Finally, as the show ended and the rest of us started breaking down our displays, he nodded, stretched, and complained loudly about how he hadn’t sold a thing all day and how he hoped his wife had done better the day before. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that she did the same exact thing, and hoped he’d do better when his turn came. I haven’t seen them at any shows in a while: I hope they’re getting enough rest…

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.

Show Advice: The Essentials

(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.)

It’s every beginning vendor’s lament: why isn’t there just one kit available with all of the stuff I need to start selling my stuff at a show? It’s bad enough to discover all the things you should have had ready for your first show, but it’s even more embarrassing to discover that item or service that you absolutely needed for the fifth or twentieth show. “Worse” is discovering, long after you’d despaired and kludged together something that performs a very specific function, that someone else had a perfect solution that you didn’t know about because you weren’t asking the right questions. It doesn’t get any better as time goes on, either: consider the number of old-school vendors who purchased halogen lighting around 2002 for suitable light for ceramics or jewelry, who now grind teeth on LED kits selling for a fraction of their paid price, using a fraction of the power, and producing a tiny fraction of the ambient heat.

The reason that nobody makes an all-in-one beginner’s show kit, aside from an issue of units moved, is that every vendor has specific needs that a generic kit won’t fill. A glassworker will share certain bits of show equipment with a jeweler, but possibly more with a potter or a blacksmith, and probably very little with a painter or someone offering unique beef jerky. Needs change based both on increased inventory and on changing markets: aside from the halogen lights mentioned above, what may have been an essential item a decade ago might be pointless to carry today. (For instance, when I started selling plants a decade ago, I regularly brought out a small bookcase, full of various new and used books that applied to the subject at hand. Three years later, I left the bookcase at home for good because of Amazon and the then-new habit of customers scanning a cover and making a purchase online. I still make book recommendations, but the weight of the books and the bulkiness of the bookcase soon became more effort than they returned.) However, the need for a recommendations list still applies, and the organization of my list of recommendations comes from a rather unorthodox source.

For those who aren’t classic Volkswagen enthusiasts, one of the classic guides to Volkswagen repair and maintenance is the very thorough, very detailed, and very funny book How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by John Muir. The pertinent aspect we need to focus on is that Muir broke down tool kits and collections into three categories. Type 1 tools were the ones any Volkswagen driver should have in the vehicle at all times, no matter what. Type 2 tools are ones that should be in the vehicle if possible, but absolutely should be available at home for more advanced repairs. The Type 3 toolkit was a collection of items that may not be necessary for emergency repairs, but that the Volkswagen addict would need for tuneups, overhauls, and extensive modifications. You didn’t need a Type 3 kit in the back of your 1973 Superbeetle for an everyday commute, but combining all three toolkits took care of pretty much everything that might go wrong with an air-cooled engine.

With this inspiration, a decade of Triffid Ranch shows hasn’t come across the full spectrum of possible necessities, but that decade managed to sift through “a lot of weight to haul around for something that gets used maybe once per year,” “nice to have,: and “I’ll set your grandmother on fire if you try to steal mine” items and accessories. Much like the aforementioned Volkswagen tools, this guide breaks them down into Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 accessories. These include:

Type 1 Toolkit – Essential At All Times

A dependable credit card reader or POS (point of sale) system: Cash may still be king, but the introduction of Square and other mobile credit card processing apps immediately changed the game for most vendors: it meant being able to take credit card payments without expensive and irritating credit card processing systems. Fifteen years ago, anybody setting up a business license or applying for a tax ID number in the States was hounded for years with random unsolicited phone calls about purchasing credit card readers that may or may not have been legitimate, but Square and Paypal killed that market. (Imagine that.) Today, most attendees at any event you can imagine will tell you “I just don’t carry cash any more,” and any purchase that requires cash is probably one that won’t happen. If you can afford to have 40 to 60 percent of your potential sales walk off because you can’t or won’t process credit cards, knock yourself out, but everybody else this far into the 21st Century will have some kind of card reader and software ready to take that payment. Pick the card processing service you like the most, but pick one, preferably one with a reader that can process chipped cards, and have it handy for all shows. Later, if you have enough items that you need to track incoming and outgoing inventory, a point of sale system will make you and your tax accountant very happy, but worry about being able to process purchases before you worry about tracking them.

A cash box and sufficient change: Although paying by card is more and more of a standard, never, ever pass up any cash thrown in your direction. This requires (a) enough change to break larger bills and (b) a lockable and securable box to hold that change. Depending upon the size of the show, that means both making change for innumerable transactions under $20 and the occasional big transaction requiring more than $15 in change in return. Make sure that this box can be kept secure so that it can’t be snatched if your back is turned, nor set underneath a table or boxes to where reaching it is inconvenient. While I won’t tell you how much change you need, make a fair assessment on your inventory (most items under $15 will be paid for in cash) and bring at least twice to three times what you think you’ll need, in both bills and coins. Any excess in change at the end of a show is just that much more change that won’t have to be collected before the next one. Also, if you are selling in a state that charges sales tax, make sure not only to have enough coinage to handle a day’s transactions, but purchase a sales tax calculation card so you don’t have to punch the final amount into a calculator with every transaction.

Sidenote: everyone who has ever worked retail will tell you about That Guy who walks in right at opening and tries to pay for some tiny item with a $100 bill. You are not obligated to give up all of your change because he didn’t want to get his bill broken beforehand, and point out that you may not have any way to get change for anybody else. If this happens often enough, or if you have concerns that these are attempts to get rid of counterfeit bills, feel free to display a sign reading “We Cannot Give Change For Any Bills Above $X.”

All necessary permits and IDs: This category depends upon federal and state law and municipal ordinances at a show location, and requires research that depends upon what is being sold and where. DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS RESEARCH. At the bare minimum, in the US, register for a state tax ID number long before your first show, and keep a copy of the tax ID with you at all times. A tax ID confers a lot of privileges in most states, such as being able to purchase wholesale inventory, but it’s also vital for both state income and sales taxes. (For instance, here in Texas, residents do not pay a state income tax, but pay a state sales tax on most items purchased within Texas. Oregon has exactly the opposite situation, with a state income tax but no sales tax.) Since all businesses selling items within Texas are expected to collect and pay sales tax, tax agents can and will hold event organizers responsible for allowing sales without that remittance, so most events require proof of tax ID before vendors can start setting up. This also applies to food, alcohol, or other perishable permits, additional handling permits for restricted items, inspection tags, and anything else that may be regulated in the state in which you’re operating. If the cost of those permits is higher than the potential return on sales, then you might want to reconsider exactly how badly you want to do the show.

Sidenote: For a very long time, many movie and television intellectual property holders looked the other way when various small vendors offered products that infringed upon copyright law, partly because tracking down infringers wasn’t worth the time and partly because sales of little handmade items were seen as encouraging sales of larger and more expensive licensed items. Those days are as dead as Fotomats and milk delivery. IP agents can and will drop by shows and conventions and drop off cease & desist orders against individuals selling items that use the agents’ parent company’s intellectual property without compensation. The good news is that if you’re serious about a particular product, many IP holders are willing to negotiate licenses based upon expected sales: for decades, plastic and resin model kit manufacturers have worked with movie and TV studios on official licensed products that trade a very low licensing price in exchange for not being able to use the actual property name. If you get a license under those terms, bring that paperwork with you to be able to show any agents asking about your permissions to sell a particular item. Just don’t be surprised that arguing about the invalidity of copyright law with bootleg toys, clothing, music, or sculptures won’t go very far.

A dependable, sturdy cart and/or handcart: These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but pick one based on the needs of your inventory and displays, as well as accessibility in elevators and in narrow hallways, and be reminded of the adage “Cheap is expensive.” If you can, spend the extra money and buy one with pneumatic tires. Hard rubber tires are okay on hard, smooth surfaces such as hotel hallways, but they always manage to get caught in tracks and elevator floors, and they’re nightmarish on irregular surfaces such as unpaved lots or trails. Much like discovering exactly how many inclines your “flat” neighborhood has once you start bicycling it instead of driving, hard cart wheels let you learn exactly how irregular and gravel-strewn that allegedly immaculate roadway or parking garage really is. Spend the money to get a good cart, because there’s no guarantee that the event location will have any to borrow (a lot of hotels are banning the use of luggage carts by event vendors, because they tend to disappear for the entire weekend and hotel guests can’t access them), and treat that cart as if your liver is strapped to the underside. That means respecting it and not bashing it around because you can, making sure the wheels are properly inflated (get a good bicycle pump, and not one of the bike-kit pumps intended to strap onto your bike, unless you like sitting around for the next three hours pumping up a flat or underinflated tire), and never EVER lending it to someone you don’t know who just needs to borrow it “for just a minute; I can pay you!” Even if you get it back, which isn’t always a guarantee, you have no guarantee that you won’t get it back damaged or demolished. If you trust someone enough to lend a cart, get something as collateral that requires that person to come back, such as car keys or at least two children. Anything else, and it’ll walk because “what I left is worth more than the cart,” and you still need that cart to haul your stuff back when the show is done.

Sturdy storage tubs: If you’re just starting off and can’t afford anything else, you can squeak by a few shows with those cheap Rubbermaid tubs intended for longterm storage of Christmas ornaments. If the total weight of items in each tub exceeds 10 kilos, you need lots of packing to protect fragile items, or if the items need to be protected from weather extremes, spend the extra money for locking, stackable storage tubs. Those Rubbermaid Christmas tubs can’t handle larger or bulkier contents for very long, they have a real problem with cracking or rupturing when used often, and stacking them with any significant weight in the upper tubs means that the lower ones probably will be flattened by the time you get to your destination. Stacking tubs means increasing the amount of inventory you can bring to a show that can be fitted into a vehicle, and tops that lock onto the tub mean that contents won’t go bouncing out if your vehicle hits a pothole. Most importantly, don’t even think of using cardboard boxes unless you like playing with cardboard slurry when setting up or breaking down in the middle of a thunderstorm. You may think it won’t happen to you: I thought the same before getting caught in a near-tornado in Fort Worth and watching fellow vendors make frantic dashes to their vehicles with containers that fell apart in their hands.

Pens, pencils, and Sharpie markers: You don’t have to go crazy with different varieties of pens and pencils, and you don’t absolutely have to buy pens and pencils with your contact information on it, but you WILL need some sort of writing implement at all times. It’s not just for you writing down essential information for transfer to more permanent media: it’s for others either getting information from you or giving it to you. Throw at least a pair of permanent markers (I recommend Sharpies, but I also recommend checking them on a regular basis both for ink flow and for unmashed tips), for marking packages, bags, and wayward children.

Flyers, postcards, and other physical media with your contact information:  You’d think that in the days of the internet, physical media wouldn’t be necessary. Put up a URL or QC code on a banner, and you’re golden, right? That argument is complete garbage for two reasons. The first is that while people are more and more likely to take a photo of a URL than in times past, that’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to read the final photo. “Vern, is that an ‘l’ or an ‘i’?”The second is that it might not be accessed in the first place. The best way to prevent that worry is to make sure you have plenty of physical media with your contact information. I am perpetually surprised at the number of vendors at shows who think that ripping up a sheet of lined spiral notebook paper and scribbling contact information in it is enough to guarantee a later sale.

Now, what you decide needs to be on your card, sticker, refrigerator magnet, or NFC chip is up to you, but a few tips based on experience. Unless you have a physical storefront location, don’t include your address on business cards, unless you want people to stop by in the middle of the night. (I’ve had a maildrop since the beginning, and the Web site specifically states that this address is a mailing address only, but I still get at least one person per month who goes to that address “to see the ranch” and blows a gasket to discover that they can’t just walk in to see the plants.) After you settle on a logo and design, pass it to a few friends for readability: if it’s so Illustrator-poisoned that a friend can’t figure out what you’re selling, then your customers definitely won’t. While supplemental material can be photocopied, don’t use photocopied flyers as the main promotion material: the only venues that still do this are old-school science fiction conventions where the head of promotion had to sneak access to his mom’s Xerox at work. These days, postcards are considerably cheaper than they were in times past (especially through online services that cut deals for bulk orders), they can look exceedingly professional, and they’re just large enough that they’re less likely to be dropped in a pocket and forgotten.

Batteries or other power sources, especially for phones and tablets:  Even with the best of shows, accidents happen that might cut off your electronic devices’ access to sweet light alternating current. Sometimes, it’s incidents outside of the event organizers’ control: a personal favorite was with the hotel that suddenly decided that the event couldn’t have access to electricity…after most of the vendors had paid for same. (The hotel manager stalked through the event the whole four-day weekend, making sure that nobody at the event was stealing his power by inspecting every last outlet on the floor.) In others, you only discover an issue when you arrive and someone breathlessly tells you “Oh, yeah, we don’t have power” because the organizer decided to spend the money on an ad…on AM radio. In all of these cases, anybody running a point of sale system or credit card reader is going to be wincing, and wincing even more if the phone or tablet doing the processing doesn’t have a full charge. Even if the event has the most dependable power source ever seen by humanity, purchase a power storage device good for at least an additional eight hours of continuous use, and KEEP IT CHARGED. Experienced vendors know from firsthand experience that a lot of transactions can occur long after official closing hours or in situations where you’re unplugged, and those transactions can’t be completed on a device that’s completely drained.

Clips and fasteners: Clothespins and paperclips for holding paper and light cloth together, heavy clips for attaching signage to your table, Zip ties for securing power cables, or bungee cords for holding folding items closed while transporting them: get good ones and make sure to have them in an easily accessible container.

Lightweight displays and table covers: With the shows that offer tables and chairs as part of the booth fee, most include tablecloths and table skirts to make the (usually beaten half to death) tables look better. If you have so little in the way of inventory that you can lay all of it atop your table, then you’re done. If you have more, or if it needs to be shown in a particular way, make sure to get or make displays that show them the best, because presentation DOES matter. Likewise, make sure to have at least a couple of good tablecloths to make your items stand out or to garner interest from passersby that you wouldn’t get from standard white tablecloths. Oh, and for those vending at shows over multiple days, bring a couple of sheets to cover your table and inventory once the show shuts down. Should you be a little late arriving the next morning, the sheet signals “gone Chopin, be Bach in a minuet” and minimizes the chances of early arrivers messing with your displays.

Type 2 Toolkit – Good To Have

A sturdy folding table and chairs: Many shows and events seeking vendors advertise tables and chairs as being provided as part of the booth fee. Others simply lease out the space to put said tables and chairs, and it’s completely up to you as to how you want to arrange it, and still others charge extra for them. One way or another, having a good table and chair set is worth the expenditure, especially if the provided items are inadequate to the task (which happens often) or they just aren’t available. For ease of transport and setup, I recommend tables that fold in half for storage, and I also recommend buying a new table instead of depending upon that one that a friend or neighbor had in the garage for the last decade. (Neil Young was right: rust never sleeps, and you don’t want to discover rust’s effect on support pins or table legs five minutes after getting all of your sale items and displays on top.) The most important thing to consider is how much weight that table will support, and whatever you do, do NOT assume that it will and bring it to a show without verifying this. Test  it first, preferably with something nonbreakable. Likewise, when doing outside shows, always bring boards or other supports to go under the table legs, unless you like your table sinking into the ground and dislodging everything atop it.

Banners and signage: Signs and banners serve two very valuable purposes. The first is to attract attention from a distance and encourage potential customers to give your booth a try. The second is to prevent particularly stupid people from wandering up and bellowing “WHAT’S THIS?” at your inventory over and over. (To be fair, some will do that anyway, either because they’re too lazy to read or because their lives aren’t complete unless they interrupt a conversation with a paying customer with a well-placed vowel movement. The best you can do is reassure yourself that the idiot will choke to death on his 42-ounce cup of Brawndo.) Even a few years back, banner options consisted of heavy vinyl either tacked to a backdrop or wall or installed in an equally heavy frame, but now vertical and horizontal banners are available in a wide variety of materials and print options. In addition, lightweight display stands are more and more affordable, allowing vertical banners to go up on tables or in front of extra inventory. Right now, many big-box office supply stores offer excellent online options for composing the layout of your own banners before sending them to print, thereby making sure that any mistakes in spelling or syntax are yours, and in matching the right display stand to the right banner.

Lights: The bad news: even indoor shows have problems with available ambient light, especially if the venue hosting the show hasn’t switched out its fluorescent tubes since the Harding Administration. Outdoor shows have even more problems: even discounting the problems inherent when the big yellow hurty thing in the sky ultimately descends in the west every night, sufficiently overcast days can make viewing unlit items a bit problematic. The good news: at the turn of the last century, most lighting options with a remotely decent lumen output involved energy-hungry and heat-intensive halogen or incandescent light bulbs, which were both delicate and dangerous to work around until they had enough time to cool after use. Today, LED options both provide similar lumens for a fraction of the energy of incandescents, but they can be used in places and around items that would have been a serious fire hazard 20 years ago. Any discussion of lighting options is an essay in itself, but do some research, look into power options (for venues without available electricity, running an LED array off a marine battery with a DC-to-AC inverter is now a practical reality), and consider the best light type and source for your inventory.

Heavy displays: Need bookshelves, heavy racks for large pieces of clothing, or wire racks for displaying jewelry or electronic items? These qualify as “heavy displays.” Obviously, the heavy displays depend upon what you’re selling, but make sure they’re kept well-maintained, and consider weight and fragility when bringing them to a show. Remember that plastic scratches, glass chips and shatters, metal gets metal fatigue or pops welds or rivets, and wood gets dry rot, and a catastrophic failure of your display could potentially lead to injury or death. Consider why you need a heavy display and why you’re bringing it: that big glass display case being discarded at work might make a great display for your inventory, but consider that glass is both heavy and fragile, and you’ll experience them both sooner or later, especially if you’re moving it by yourself. Without fail, really big shows have at least one vendor who gives up on trying to haul back a big set of metal racks or glass shelves that are a nightmare to move in and out of elevators, and they stay put because the other vendors know better than to take them for themselves.

Type 3 Toolkit – Nice But Not Absolutely Necessary All The Time

Tent and sidewalls: It’s possible to go through a healthy vendor career without ever needing to show items outside. During the extremes of summer and winter, the only people more happy to see a show listing that reads “Indoor vending” than the vendors are the customers. The rest of the year, though, having access to a tent opens up a lot of opportunities. Some events include access to pre-pitched tents as part of the vendor fee, but a lot will emphasize that you need to bring your own. Most vendors go with standard 10 x 10 pop-up tents: getting ones in custom colors or with custom signage built-in is at the discretion of the vendor, but they’re definitely not necessary. Just make sure that either the tent comes with sidewalls or that sidewalls may be purchased separately, and not just to keep rain out during a show. Outdoor events generally hire security crews to watch over vendor tents left overnight, but they expect that the vendors put up sidewalls on all four sides before the vendors leave for the evening or break down and move out any valuable items.

Tent weights: Anyone wrangling a standard pop-up tent into position can complain about the weight all day long, but consider that a typical show tent has a lot of surface area with a relatively lightweight structure underneath to give it shape. With a sufficient amount of wind, and that “sufficient amount” may not be all that much, a tent makes an excellent parachute. If all it does is bounce up on two legs before falling over and blowing across a parking lot, consider yourself lucky, because anyone doing outdoor shows long enough in windy places like Texas can tell you stories of tents flying up in severe winds before losing lift and coming down to crash. Pop-up tent frames are strong, but they’re not strong enough to handle the impact of falling two stories or so before slamming into a hard surface. The spectacle of flying tents can be minimized either by buying commercially made tent weights that wrap around the tent legs, or by making your own from concrete or metal. However you go about it, remember that tent weights don’t work if they’re left at home or they’re not attached to the tent in some way, and the word “weight” in “tent weight” is there for a reason. Remember that cart or handtruck in your Type 1 toolkit, and make sure beforehand that it can handle moving the tent weights, either all at once or one at a time.

Is this everything? Well, that’s a good question. Let me know after you’ve done a decade’s worth of shows: you’ll probably teach me a lot when we compare notes.