Applying for Your First Handmade Show

Flea. Maker’s Market. Vendor Fair. Art Show.

They go by many names but the process is the same – finding and choosing the right event, then sorting out the application process for new creative businesses can be a daunting process. For many new makers, there is a ton of fear around rejection as well.

This post is part of a three part series on Applying, Preparing and Attending vendor fairs.

You might be at the point where you’re established enough, and you feel like you have enough of your product to take it to take it to the market. The problem? You’re not sure where to start. Or you’ve done a few events and want to refresh or expand your market presence and need a little organizational push.

There are tons of different things to consider when getting ready for your first show.

Aside from choosing a show, then applying, you have to then consider your display, what to pack and how much product you’ll need. You’ll have to think about licenses, insurance, and taxes. (Spoiler: the licenses are required to sell your work in public spaces might vary based on the city and state you’re working in as well as based on the event organizer’s requirements.)

You have to consider logistics. Will you need a helping hand for set up and tear down, and/or if you’d like to have someone with you for the duration.

What happens when you need to eat or use the restroom?

All of these questions totally normal. To be expected, even. There are tons of questions you might not think to ask for your first show season. But don’t worry!

I’ve been doing this a while, nearly ten years, first as a farmers’ market vendor selling plants, herbs, veggies and flowers, then as a community healthy eating educator at health and fitness events, and most recently with my own jewelry line Sense + Reverence.

I put together some of my best resources here to share and to help new vendors get started with ease and confidence, or for established artists to reevaluate and plan for a new season.

This is a long read, from start to finish and has a ton of information that will help you sort out the process.

Here are some of the topics covered  in this post: 

  • How do I choose a good event?
  • What are best practices for applying?
  • What should I do with rejection?
  • How do I create a good display for a vendor fair?
  • How much product do I need to bring?
  • What licenses do I need to sell at events?
  • What should I expect from a well-organized maker’s market?

Choose the best show for your genre of work

There are as many types of vendor shows as there are types of makers, it seems. And that’s exciting, but daunting at the same time. It’s exciting to participate, to be invited and to branch out – but, at the same time, it’s important to be selective to protect your business and brand, and your time and physical/material resources.

The first step to choosing which shows to apply to is to assess your brand and products. If you’re selling large scale oil paintings, an art and craft fair at the local high school gymnasium isn’t going to be a good fit. Or, if you’re selling macrame wall art, the yearly juried arts fair put on by the local museum isn’t going to work either. You’d probably be pretty disappointed if you move forward in one of these situations – and that’s not a good look!

There isn’t one that’s inherently better, or superior in any way – and I’m a firm believer that there’s an audience for all art (sometimes we really have to look for our people, right?) and your success at these events depends on application discretion. The best practice is to find the show that will attract your ideal customers, is organized well and established enough to support the event experience for both shoppers and vendors.

When I’m putting together my short list for shows, I go through this process and make a spreadsheet of all the options (including dates) to consider.

The first step is collecting basic information about the ALL shows you’re interested in attending.

Dates, booth fees, application/jury fees, estimated crowd size, timing and travel required are huge initial considerations.

If you lay out the dates, sometimes there are shows that overlap and you’ll be able to do a quick gut check on which one fits your brand better. Keep the second one in mind until you’ve had the opportunity to work out some more of the details. For people looking to attend the ‘maker’s market’ or flea events, social media is probably the best bet to find these.

Professional artists for juried/unjuried art festivals? ZAPP is a great place to see a running list of shows and their application criteria, as well as application dates and other pertinent info. They’ll even send you reminders to apply when it’s time!

Okay. You have a list. Now what?

Time to research.

When you’re looking at these events, it’s pretty easy to get sucked into the marketing feel and persona that goes with them. You don’t have to attend every show you’re invited to, and you definitely should be very selective. If it’s not an event you’ve been to before as a customer, you’ll want to do your research. There are a few key questions to ask that will make your decision a lot easier.

Ask: How long has the show been operating?

Usually, the first few years for a new event (any event, really) can be a tough sell, marketing wise. First and even second year shows can be a gamble as far as attendance. You might be able to find out what the anticipated attendance is, (or get an idea from published material from the organizers) but this number can be wildly inaccurate based on a number of factors that aren’t really predictable – up to and including the weather. I don’t automatically rule out new events – but they are a little trickier to anticipate than established ones, and going in knowing that there are uncertainties is super important to temper expectations and be adequately prepared.

If you’re unsure, you can reach out to the organizer and ask questions.

Things like how are they marketing the event are important to know – and follow up by checking out their social media profiles to see if they have the bandwidth to bring in the crowds needed for a successful at the event. 

You should be able to find out most of the event information just by doing a bit of worthwhile online research, and if you have questions – my experience is that the organizers of shows, are approachable and thorough. The majority of the organizers are genuinely helpful and do this because they love it – and it shows.

Pay attention to how you feel when communicating with event organizers – if you feel like there are any red flags, it is important to note that.

If the person you’re communicating with feels aloof or sales-y, or even worse – doesn’t respond or responds with a form letter copy/paste – it’s definitely a red flag.  I am definitely all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, but when more than one thing feels a little off – it’s time to evaluate how to move forward, especially in business. A huge important part of building a business is building relationships and community, and it’s important to me to spend my energy supporting organizations that follow the same ethos.

I’ve definitely made some mistakes in choosing shows over the years – and every time, there has been an issue that, against my gut feeling, I’ve chosen to accept as is and move forward, regardless of my initial impression.

And, nothing is guaranteed – we have to realize and understand that there are a few gambles when it comes to these shows, and some of them are outside of our control and the control of those putting on the event.

While it’s fun and exciting to be a part of these shows, they are an investment – in your time, energy and product – and it’s important to have as much info as possible to make an informed decision.

New makers are often flattered by invitations to apply or participate, and it’s important to assess and get feedback on shows from other vendors who have participated in previous events.  Sometimes what you think will be a ‘smaller show’ ends up being a better event than the bigger, more prominent events! It’s always fun to be pleasantly surprised, and coming home from a successful show is a feeling like none other.

Ask: What vendors were present at the past events, if any?

If it’s a new event, ask what other artists have already come onboard? This isn’t about assessing competition or other brands, it’s more about making sure the other participants are among the same caliber of creative business.

You can usually find a listing of previous year’s vendors, and that’s helpful to gauge if your work will be a fit for the venue. For example, I generally steer clear of events that allow direct sales or multi-level marketing companies as they don’t generally pan out for my work – but other handmade artists have great success at shows like these.

If an organizer is aloof or reluctant – that’s a big red flag. Like I said, it depends on what you’re making and selling and who your ideal customer is to what events you should align your brand with. It doesn’t make sense to attend events that won’t draw the customers that convert to enthusiastic supporters of your work.

A note on pay-to-play events

There are normal fees involved with reputable shows. Application or jury fees and a booth fee are the norm.

Some shows offer add-on conveniences at an additional fee, or have tiered booth sizes for different types of makers and different sized businesses. Things like premium placement in high-traffic areas, access to electricity or even paying for the same location at the event for the season are totally acceptable and commonplace.

My advice is to be wary of any events that ask you to sell tickets to participate, as often – you’re required to sell a certain number of tickets and still pay a booth fee, so essentially your time and energy is spent marketing an event that you’re paying to be at – rather than focusing on creating your actual work or investing that time in the tasks it takes to run a small business. I’m also personally wary of event organizers that charge fees of businesses to include them in social media or other campaigns – unless it’s a sponsorship package for the event.

With the information you’ve gathered above, you’ve done a huge part of the work in due diligence, and your research will pay off! The more aligned a show is for a small business, the better it is for everyone: customers, organizers and artists.

What makes a show successful for a vendor?

Three things are very important for me to feel a show is successful: (and one I’d repeat)

  • organization and communication from the people putting on the event,
  • ease of load-in, set up and break-down.
  • sales.

A well organized event has visible staff directing or helping direct vendors during set-up, clear (and reasonable) expectations, and a set of policies in place that are a win-win for both parties.

I’ll talk about these and more in the next installment of this post! 

 

Next in this series, I’ll talk about preparing your inventory and display for shows.

I’ll talk about these things (and more)

 How much product should you bring to a handmade show?

What licenses do I need to sell at events?

What can I expect from a well-organized maker’s market?

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