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What I learned from my 10+ festival booth experiences

It’s well over a year after my first booth experience and since then, I’ve participated in a wide range of art fairs and festivals ranging in cost from free-to-enter to ~$700. I’ve learned a lot of things along the way, especially at this large art festival I had in the summer of 2018, the Bellevue 6th Street Art Festival.  I will try to share my experience with you in a way that is organized, though I must say the experiences themselves were always somewhat messy and chaotic :-). But I learned something new every time, especially after talking to other artists who have been in the art festival scene for way longer than I have.

#1 – Decide how much you want to invest 

Participating in art fairs can be very expensive, depending on what your target audience is and what type of fairs are available in your vicinity. At a minimum, you will need a 10’x10′ tent and some way to display your art, such as grid walls, propanels, tables with crates on them… etc. You might be able to borrow some of these from a friend the first few times you try small art fairs until you reach a point where you need the professional stuff.  To get started with the bare minimum for a professional art festival you’ll need a tent, sand bags to hold it down, 10-15 grid wall panels, a 6 foot table (if you buy 12 or fewer grid walls) with a pretty white or black table cover, a chair and maybe some cute containers for your prints or decorations. The cost of all that, mostly bought from Amazon, would run you around $700-$900. But the good news is that this stuff lasts a long time, so if you do a lot of shows, it works out great. When you want to step up into the big leagues with buying ProPanels, that $800 you spent will seem like peanuts anyway, and you could probably sell the grid walls for a decent amount too so it won’t be a waste.  

#2 – Audience, audience, audience

Seriously. Audience!  It’s all about the audience of the art fair. Research it. Look for other people who have been to that art fair online and chat with them. If you are in touch with the organizers of the art fair (like after you get accepted), ask them to send your contact info to some people who are repeat artists and ask them about what to expect. Talk to someone who is an artist similar to you in some way (so if your medium is acrylic painting, don’t go talking to someone who weaves pillows! Find another artist who paints).

#3 – Price appropriately for your audience

Not every show audience will match your premium items, so if you’re going to a flea market or Saturday market… etc, make sure you have a lot of items that can be considered an impulse buy – say $35 or less. If you’re spending $800 to get a booth at a big show, then you can bring your large $2000 paintings… etc, but don’t bother carrying it and setting it up for a show where people expect to only spend $20 or so. Have a wide range of prices so that those who like your art work but can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars can still buy something, like a small print, or a small canvas board original, or even an artist trading card (ACEO).

#4 –Plan your setup thoroughly

Showing up unprepared is the worst thing you can do for yourself. I’ve seen someone spend almost $800 on entering an art fair and then not sell a single piece because they hadn’t prepared their setup. Don’t do that to yourself. If you show up to a show with no grid walls, no tables, chairs, or no way to display your products properly then just don’t bother. It’s better to be prepared – to know exactly what goes where in your display and how people will interact with it best. Think it through thoroughly. A lot of small mistakes can be fixed this way before they even happen. For example, are your prints easier to see if they’re in a box? Maybe you need to bring one of those portfolio displays for your prints? Do you have hooks for the type of hanging you need for your work?

#5 – The art of the display

Okay, so you’ll totally plan your setup thoroughly like I just said… but how *should* you set up, anyway? Well that’s easy. Walk around random art festivals near you and observe what other artists like you are doing! I’ve found it hugely helpful for my own displays to see what works and what doesn’t for other people. So don’t be shy… go check out other artists. Things you might learn, for example: people with grid walls will bend the two at the front of the booth to cover some of the art behind them. They do this to encourage people to walk into their booth to be able to see the art inside. If you don’t, many people will just see all the art from outside and never get close enough to be tempted to buy it! I can’t tell you how many “oh that giant painting is beautiful” people who just walked on by because I hadn’t found a way to get them *into* my booth – where they could have discovered that $10 would buy them a beautiful print of that $1500 painting. Chances of selling something if they don’t enter your booth? Big fat zero. 

#6 – Decide whether this art festival thing is for you.

Honestly? It’s not for everybody. It’s tough and it’s taxing physically and emotionally (especially if you are an introvert like me). I’d say try it at least once, and then you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth your time and effort. Like perhaps you do well with online sales, but for some art forms it is very competitive online, and difficult to really showcase the beauty of the work. Or maybe art galleries are the route for you! Just consider this because it really does work great for a lot of people, but it’s okay if you decide you don’t want to do it. 

#7 – Location! 

If you have an option to choose your location in the art fair, try to do so wisely. Most art fairs will ask you if you have a location preference and try to accommodate you. It helps if you’ve been to that art festival before so you can decide where to place yourself.  

#8 – Save yourself some money 

Trying to do things right for this big art fair I had, I bought legs for my grid walls. They cost a pretty penny and I ended up not using them a single time. I also bought some of those weird little bolts that hold the grid walls together so as to make a large 10′ wall. Guess what? That was a total waste of money too. I fixed both of those problems with $5 worth of zip ties from Home Depot. 

#9 – Bring tools

A drill, some strong scissors, a screwdriver… etc. You never know what you’ll need and having a few tools handy can be the difference between setting up on time and standing there like a fool working on your booth while people walk past it. Same thing for teardown. 

#10 – Make your prices crystal clear and professional-looking

A lot of people feel very uncomfortable asking for prices of items. So don’t think to yourself “oh, I won’t put any prices and that’ll get people talking to me, that’s good!” No. Just no. Many of them won’t talk to you, they’ll just walk away without buying anything. And for the prices? Don’t go to all this effort just to skimp on finish. Make your prices look professional, print them out at OfficeMax if you have to. It’s not that hard. There is Avery online software for example where you can design all the tags and then print them at home on their pre-cut cardstock. Things you can include for paintings, for example: What’s the medium? size? price? 

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My First Festival Booth Experience

On July 8th, I participated in the Portland International Muslim Cultural Festival as a vendor, selling my paintings and jewelry. It was a great day, very well organized, and unlike most festivals, the organization that put this festival together (the Muslim Educational Trust) offered not just the 10′ x 10′ space for the $100 application fee, but they also put together the booth canopy AND gave us one 8′ table plus 2 chairs! It was really an amazing deal, and the turnout to the park was great. I met so many interesting people, including the man who served as president of my alma mater, The American University in Cairo, while I was studying there. Overall, I can’t wait for their next event, as I will definitely plan to go.

I’d like to share with you some of the things I learned while preparing for the event, as well as at the event itself. I’m generally a rather organized person, which I’m told is uncommon for an artist (but i refuse to believe that!) so I love lists. Crossing something off a list just comes with its own special feeling of accomplishment, and more importantly: it helps me make sure I’m not forgetting anything important before the festival. Here are some of the things that were on my list that I found most useful, in case you too need some guidance on things to do before your first fair:

  • Design and print business cards. I printed only 100 which cost around $30 from Office Max (would have been cheaper to buy them on vistaprint if I’d printed them way in advance)
  • Design and print a business banner. I made mine a 16×30 canvas with grommets, and it was perfect. Larger would have been nice but I didn’t want to invest too much money upfront. That costs around $24 at OfficeMax, including grommets
  • (potentially) Register your business or trade name/”DBA” (doing business as) if you already have a business. That cost around $5 to add the trade name. Registering an LLC from scratch, however, cost me around $240 but i’d already done that part in February.
  • Add all artwork to your website because once it’s sold, it’s gone.
  • Make sure you have high resolution images of each art piece so you can make prints later if you want to
  • Bring a notebook for people to sign up to your newsletter (if you don’t have one, get one!)
  • Get Square (or any other payment processing card reader) to accept credit cards. Who carries cash anymore?
  • Print price cards for each piece, and figure out how to attach them to the paintings without damaging them.
  • Figure out how to display the art (For paintings – gridwall panels? Small book stands? Crates to make different levels? laying flat? Peg board? For Jewelry – lay flat? Velvet stands? Boxes?)
  • Buy packing material and bags to give art or jewelry in.
  • Create all your social accounts (facebook page, twitter, instagram, youtube… etc.)
  • Try all intended displays at home before the festival.
  • If it’s outdoors and the fair is lax enough to not require a tent, get ohne anyway. They vary in prioce from an $80 walmart one, to $2-300 for a really good one with walls. The latter is the type they usually require at big art fairs.

I also learned a few things this time, and I hope to keep those in mind for next time.

  • It’s hard to sell art at a fair that isn’t specifically for art. Most people do not buy a $300 painting on a whim. So choose your audience and what kind of fair to participate in.
  • Being authentic when someone is interested in your art or approaches you about doing another art festival is really important. That’s how I found a buyer for my “It’s Raining Pride” painting. I spoke about what the painting meant to me, when I made it, and why, and that resonated with my customer.
  • People love cheaper things at a fair, so either price it affordably, or make smaller art works that people can still enjoy without dropping big bucks on your items. If your cheapest item is $100, that’s probably not in the impulse buy category, so people would have to be actively looking for art (such as at an art fair) to want to buy your stuff.
  • Make sure you add signs for the cheaper stuff so people who are looking for a deal know where to look. I sold a lot of $5 necklaces to people who would otherwise not have spent any money on my booth.
  • That I way under-price my jewelry, and that sometimes this is not a good thing. Some people will walk away when they see that low price because they suspect you’re up to no good, when in fact you’re just not entirely sure how to price things, so you tried to make it affordable. So, decide on pricing, but make sure you keep backup pricing cards to keep it flexible enough so you can change the price if you find that the response is ‘it’s too expensive’ or ‘wow, only $19?! this can’t be real’
  • The wind is a factor you should really take into account. If i didn’t have a pegboard that my sister rented for me as a gift, It would have been very difficult to be successful with my paintings in this fair. Prepare to bring plenty of tape, and maybe a few sand weights if you can get those in advance.
  • That it’s hard to remember everything. So don’t beat yourself up about mistakes. I forgot to bring out the notebook and encourage people to sign up to my mailing list, for example, but it’s okay. There’s always next time!
  • For the packing material, make sure it is easy to deal with when you’ve finished a sale, so you don’t make the person wait forever while you wrestle with your bubble wrap pieces and tape. I ended up giving a buyer one of my hand made felt painting protectors because it was too difficult to put bubble wrap and protective paper on the canvas with how windy the day was. Now I think I should make more of those felt protectors and just take those with me instead of bothering with bubble wrap!

All in all, it was a great experience. I learned so much, and I can’t wait to use the money I made to invest in making more art and jewelry for my next festival!