GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #14: Food Fight!

Another small topic in the “Good Booths Gone Bad” series, but one I’ve also given a lot of thought to. Artists often supply candy or munchies for their customers. Today I’ll share my experiences with having food for customers.

I’ve run the gamut with the food thing, and I’m currently down to nothing. No food in the booth. And I have different feelings on food treats at retail shows and wholesale shows.

Here are some of the good stories about food in the booth:

Offering treats to your customers is a nice gesture and can break the ice. In his seminars and CDs about selling, Bruce Baker describes how this helps create an air of hospitality in your booth, by “taking care of your customers.”

This really can be a powerful thing in your booth.

My friend Mark Rosenbaum, glass blower extraordinare from New Orleans, brings homemade pralines to his wholesale shows for his customers and his fellow exhibitors. It’s southern hospitality at its finest–and Mark is originally from Connecticut. As a nice side effect, Mark’s pralines create quite a buzz at the show. Buyers see you with a praline and exclaim, “Oh, I have to get down to Mark’s booth for mine!”

Here’s another great example: At one wholesale show, a buyer burst into my booth. He was obviously exhausted and agitated. He’d had a long, hard, frustrating day.

He’d just flown in from the other coast, his plane had been delayed, he’d been up since the wee hours, and he’d missed a couple of meals. Before I even gave him a chance to look at my work, I offered him a clementine and a chair. He took a seat gratefully, ate several clementines and almonds, and told me about his day. It was a wild one!

We had a pleasant chat, and he left with a “be back” tomorrow. I didn’t really think I’d see him again. It had been a slow show, and we hadn’t even talked about my work or his store.

But he came back the next day to thank me for simply taking care of him. He couldn’t believe I’d put selling on hold and just treated him like a fellow human being. He ended up placing a big order. A REALLY big order!

Other ways food can work in positive ways:

Food treats can provide a welcome distraction to children, giving Mom a few minutes to actually look at your wares.

It can also break the ice with a difficult visitor–say, the bored husband who is doing all the shlepping and none of the actual buying.

Now for the downside of offering food in your booth.

Figuring out what to offer is mind-boggling.

And lately, I’m finding that food, like demonstrating, can attract non-customers to your booth.

Let’s start with food choices.

First, anything you offer should either be individually wrapped, in small packets or naturally “wrapped”–like oranges. Otherwise, you have health issues with people eating things that other people’s hands have touched.

This isn’t too hard, though it can be tricky finding anything other than candy that’s packaged this way. Health food stores and the organic sections in supermarkets are great places to look for healthy snacks. Halloween is a great time to look for individually wrapped treats! Stock up for your winter shows then. Lunch box snacks are also a good alternative, like individual boxes of raisins and such.

Now you have a wrapper to dispose of. This can be another nice little touch–“Here, let me throw that away for you!” But still, it’s just more about the food.

Then there’s the issue of food allergies and sensitivities. These are becoming much more common, especially with children. No peanuts! Or anything that touched peanuts. Or anything that looks like it might know a peanut. I’m jesting a little, but I know that peanut allergies are serious business.

Chocolate is off-putting to people watching their weight. (Also the age-old debate: Dark, milk or white?) It’s also messy in really hot weather. Sugar in any form is a no-no with diabetics (and with our aging demographic, including moi, adult-onset diabetes is an issue. People are really trying to watch their sugar intake.)

Very small children can’t have hard candies, so whatever you provide, you may end up with small lollipops for them.

Cheap, out-of-date, bargain basement candy can be like wilted, bedraggled flowers–yuck!

If treats are chewy, they can’t be too chewy–watch those fillings! If they are hard, they can’t be too hard–jaw breakers have limited appeal to middle-aged people. If they are salty, they can’t be too salty–now I need a drink of water!

Clementines are healthy and juicy, but also messy. You not only have lots of pieces of rind to dispose of, you have a customer with sticky fingers. (I had a packet of baby wipes handy for the guy at my wholesale show.) And even though clementines are small, sometimes people just don’t want to eat a whole one.

Werther’s butterscotches were the perfect choice for many years–individually wrapped, quality candy, a flavor almost everyone likes. People loved them! But the last few years, hardly anyone took them. Again, too many people watching their sugar intake.

You think I’m being fussy about this? A few years ago at a wholesale show, a buyer actually complained to me that too many artists at the show were offering chocolate as a treat! (To his defense, he was trying to watch his weight….) So many of us were providing food that we were overfeeding our buyers.

Here’s the next to last item to chew on. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Snacks at retail shows can attract people who have no intention of shopping in your booth.

I’ve had people cruising by in the aisle dart over to my booth to snag a handful of candy as they pass by. They often don’t even look at me as they snag a handful of candy. It feels weird–like I’ve paid $1,100 to be at the show so I can assuage their hunger pangs.

I’ve had the kids of fellow exhibitors discover my “candy stash” and help themselves liberally at every opportunity–until I gently pointed out that the candy was for my customers. (To give them credit, they cut it out once I mentioned that. They aren’t bad, just young.)

And as for distracting children for their parents’ sake, we’ve seen that people with kids are rarely actually shopping. We’ve noticed over the years that people who are taking care of other people are usually at the show for the edutainment factor. I don’t begrudge them this. I’m glad they’re there, exposing their kids and companions to the beauty of handmade craft.

But amusing their kids so they can shop is more a function of me being a sympathetic mom than actually thinking a purchase is going to come of it.

I don’t mean to sound cold-hearted and soulless about selling. I don’t expect everyone in my booth to buy something. I love schmoozing with people and I love taking care of people in my booth.

But I’m also there to make a living selling my work. I’m not there to feed or entertain the general public endlessly. When I started to feel like the kind lady at the office who always has a bowl of candy on her desk, who realizes people are simply standing around eating her candy, I knew it was time to do something else.

Now I’m more likely to simply share MY food with customers who really need it.

I tend to bring the same kinds of food anyway–things that are small and bite-sized, easy to munch on between busy times. Things that are as healthy as I can manage at a show. Things that are comfort food.

And the notion of sharing MY food is even more powerful than that bowl of candy. If a customer really looks hot and tired, it’s nice to say, “Hey, I was just going to have a clementine–would you like a few sections?” Or “I packed an extra packet of raisins–have some!”

It also says I see them as an individual who may be tired or hungry, and not just as a customer. It actually makes me feel more kind than just having a bowl of candy out.

My last and biggest reason for not having candy in the booth?

I EAT IT!!

So again, food for thought. (Sorry! Sorry!!!) If none of this resonates with you, then do what’s working for you.

But if you find yourself nodding your head to any of this, then don’t feel guilty about pulling the food treats. Think of other ways to engage and take care of your customers.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #13: Stay In Your Booth!

Today’s topic isn’t a no-no in the sense that it will reduce sales. It’s a no-no regarding your professionalism, and consideration for your fellow craftspeople.

Stay in your booth.

You have signed a contract for the use of a 10’x10′ space (or however big a space you paid for.) It’s amazing how many people interpret that to mean “….and whatever else I can get away with.”

It’s 10’x10′. Period. Your booth must fit inside this space. Most commercial booth set-ups are actually a smidgen less than 10’x10′ for this reason.

That means if you construct your own booth, any bolts, bracing, floor plates, light bars, etc. must fit inside your own space–and NOT stick out into your neighbor’s.

There’s sometimes a little leeway in the airspace–IF you check first. Even then, you must be thoughtful of what is going to cause problems and what will be okay. A banner above your booth may be fine. A banner that hangs over into the aisle and gently whaps people passing by in the face is not.

Although sometimes shows set height limits for booths, these are often ignored by craftspeople. Sometimes I’m the shortest booth in my row. This usually isn’t a problem, if the backs of the booths towering above me aren’t too ugly. Most of people’s attention does stop at the top of my walls and lights.

Once, though, an artist with a very tall booth behind me got the bright idea to use the BACK of their booth as exhibit space. They put artwork up. (Yes, I know my noun/pronouns don’t match up. I’m going so far to protect their identify, I’m not even mentioning their gender!)

My first clue something was wrong was when a gentleman in my booth looked up, pointed to his wife at something above him–and both of them abruptly left. It happened a few more times. I stepped out from behind my counter–and saw several pieces of artwork displayed prominently above my booth wall.

Not nice. I complained to the show management, and the offending work was taken down.

In fact, this is a good guide for judging if you have crossed the line or not. When someone is in my booth, nothing in your booth should attract them out of it–except, of course, the “regular” view they would have of your booth across the way.

This guideline explains why music could be considered the same kind of infringement, and why some shows ban music being played in your booth.

In a way, it’s too bad–I would love to create a total environment for my booth using music, as I do in my open studio events. But the reality is, it’s hard to do that without at least 3-5 other exhibitors also being able to hear your music (your neighbors and abutters, front and back.) If customers love your music, they will be pulled from your neighbors’ booths into yours. And if they hate your music, you will drive everyone’s customers away.

And if you don’t think that’s a big deal, wait until it happens to you. At another show, someone rows and rows away from me began playing a guitar–and customers streamed from booths all around to go see what was happening.

Also, think how it would sound if everyone played music–even soft music–in their booth. Can you say cacophony? (I can say it, but I couldn’t spell it. I had to look it up.)

Another common “trespassing” offense is exhibitors who use the aisles to display work. If the work is on your booth walls, that’s usually okay. But if you put a rack of clothing out in the aisle, that is usually verboten (or should be.)

Not only does are you taking up more floor space than you paid for, but you are actually affecting the traffic flow of customers in the aisle. People are either slightly blocked by the rack–and pause to look, or even decide to go into the booth. Or worse, they swerve around it–and the swerve can actually move them totally past the entrance to YOUR booth (if you have the misfortune to be next to this craftsperson.)

Even sitting on a chair in front of your booth has this effect. In fact, it can be worse. I’ve stood at the end of a row of booths and watched people apparently swerve nonchalantly around a seated artist.

I say “apparently” because several things are actually going on. They are not only avoiding the artist’s physical space, but his emotional space. When you walk around someone, you tend to avoid eye contact–like maneuvering down a crowded sidewalk. It’s the way we peacefully navigate in crowded spaces. We avert our eyes slightly, murmur an apology if necessary–“…’scuse me, pardon me”–and move on.

Except when people avoid eye contact, they tend to look away–and miss looking at the booth next to that artist’s booth. Ta da! Your six seconds of opportunity to visually attract people into your booth is gone. Six seconds or LESS, because that’s how much time it takes to walk past a booth.

The rack people usually know exactly what they are doing. In fact, at one show I did, the person (not coincidentally, a buy-sell guy) asked to put a rack in my booth and offered me $10 for every garment I sold. (I thought it was odd at the time–I was very green–and said no. Now I know how totally bozo that request was!)

Although usually high-end shows, don’t allow racks in the aisle, the first artist to ever block entrance to my booth was a very famous artist, who does all the top shows. The rack actually extended several feet across my booth. (**fume**)  This person ought to have known better.

Show management is usually good about trying to keep the aisles clear, for fire safety rules if nothing else. If you’ve asked the person nicely to move the rack, and get no response, show management will handle that one for you.

The chair people….I dunno, I don’t have a great solution for that one. Except to ask nicely if they would move to the other side of their booth, away from your side. I’ve done this before, and it works reasonably well. At outdoor shows, it’s possible to sit outside the aisle, and then everyone is happy (and the aisles are clear.) Again, sometimes show rules come right out and say “no chairs in the aisles”, and again, they will handle this if asked.

Another way you should stay in your booth is vocally. When you are talking to your customers, it’s easy to get excited. And some of us do get a little exuberant–and loud. Please, please, lower your voice. Do try to remember that this really isn’t fair to your neighbors who are also trying to talk about their work. It’s a small space–even if you want to talk to one person so that the person browsing in the other corner can hear you, it doesn’t take much volume in a 10’x10′ space. If people three booths down can hear everything you’re saying, you are being too loud.

One artist near me was so exuberant one year, customers came while they were away from the booth–and I could do their pitch for them perfectly. (Okay, that should NOT be read as encouragement to bellow. I’m not going to do that for you if you keep it up.)

Another way to stay in the booth is to keep your bad mood and complaints to yourself. Let me say that again, in big, bold letters:

KEEP YOUR BAD MOOD AND COMPLAINTS TO YOURSELF.

I am astonished at artists who rant at the drop of a hat, especially during a fair. It’s bad enough to have to be around people like this in any circumstances. Set-up and breakdown are stressful enough. We all have our moments, of course. But someone who is unhappy and determined that everyone else needs to know that, is a total downer.

It’s hard enough to listen to this before and after a show. But during a show, it’s criminal. Nothing breaks a happy fair shopping mode than listening to someone else complain.

If you are a show complainer, you may think your fellow artisans are admiring you for your amazing insights and cutting words. They aren’t. They are sitting there wishing, hoping, praying that you will suddenly be struck down with laryngitis. Or worse.

Because you are bringing everybody down, down, down. And “down” people do not buy stuff.

Save it for later. Save it for drinks with friends. Organize a meeting and get your complaints in a row. Hey, bring some solutions, too! Those are always helpful.

If you must complain, do it Q-U-I-E-T-L-Y, so the only shopping mood destroyed is the one in your own booth. Please, please, please, don’t muck up ours.

Which brings me to the last “stay in your booth”, which is simply, “stay in your booth”.

I’m so guilty of this. I’m so used to the flexibility of my life, being able to move in and out of my studio at will. Staying in my booth all day, every minute, especially at my nine day retail show, is really, really hard.

But it never fails. The minute I leave, someone who came in especially to see me invariably drops in. And I’m not there. “Where were you??!!” hisses my daughter when I come wandering back.

It’s so hard. There are so many temptations, so many lovely things to look at, so many delightful fellow craftspeople to catch up with. I love schmoozing with people, and many are folks I only see at shows.

But try to remember why you are here. This is your big chance to see your customers, those wonderful people who think your work is marvelous, and prove it by buying it. Customers are the people who make it possible for you to even make this work, by providing you with income so you can stay home and make it. Customers are the people who come back in with stories of how your work has made them happy, beautified their home, enriched their lives. They are the ones who bring you photos of your work on their mantelpiece, and bring their friends in to meet you.

This is their time.

I’m really trying to make time for fellow craftspeople after the show, getting together for dinner, etc. It’s hard–they are so interesting!–but it has to be done.

Of course, we could always solve this problem the obvious way–and simply go to a show occasionally as a customer!

Make the most of your show hours. And be a good booth neighbor.

Stay in your booth.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #12: Drama Queen Flowers

I can’t think of big huge categories to talk about anymore. Let’s talk about flowers in your booth.

WHAT BEAUTIFUL FLOWERS!

I am so conflicted about flowers. I love them. They add a festive note to your booth, to be sure.

But they can be a huge distraction, too.

Some common mistakes with flowers:

1) Common flowers. Some flowers just scream “grocery store purchase!” Skip the mums.

2) Fake flowers. We’re trying to sell art here. Or fine craft. Or at the very least, handmade stuff. What do plastic flowers say??!!

3) The wrong color flowers. Make sure they fit in with your color scheme. It’s amazing, but an “off” color in your arrangement can really grab the eye in a not-good way. (Yes, I have made this mistake.)

4) Overkill. Too many flowers. It looks like you’re actually selling flowers. Or the flowers overwhelm the vase they’re in. Potters do this sometimes–the flowers are more attractive than the pots. (This is not a slight to potters, just that they’ve picked flowers that are not fitting in with their work.)

5) Underkill. (I know, there’s no such word, but I couldn’t resist.) Scraggly, ungenerous displays spread too thinly throughout your booth. Potters do this all the time, too. They show dozens and dozens of vases, and want to show that the pieces are, indeed, vases. So they take one or two nice bouquets and break them apart, sticking a few stems in each vase.

The look is one of a person who collects so many vases, they no longer have enough money to spend on flowers to put in them.

6) Too, too beautiful. This is the worst thing. You have only a single beautiful display of flowers, and you don’t sell vases, you are just decorating your booth.

The problem here is, the flowers are the most eye-catching thing about your booth.

Some people think this is a way of pulling people into your booth. Yes, it works. The catch is, WHO are you pulling into your booth?

People who love flowers, that’s who.

One year I spent big money to have a local artist make me a gorgeous arrangement for my booth. The colors were great, it looked great in my booth. And I got lots of people coming in, asking me all kinds of questions.

About the flowers.

They’d ask if I’d grown the flowers. When I said no, they asked who did. I told them about the fabulous flower person in my home town. They’d ask about the flowers (miniature gladiolas.) Where did I get them? Did I have a garden? They’d tell me about their gardens and gladiolas.

Which led to long, involved conversations with people who actually had very little interest in my work.

If I were a gardener who was selling flowers, it would have been great. But I’m not.

By the second day, I got it. I took the lovely flowers home to grace my home. I substituted a plain vase of dried reeds. You can see this vase in the back left hand corner of my booth here.

It was just as good a “prop” for my little environmental display in that corner, but it did NOT distract from the art anymore.

Even if you are at a wholesale show, where presumably buyers are a little more focused, an incredible display of flowers can be a huge distraction.

I saw one jeweler at a high-end show who had the most fantastic display of orchids. As I walked by her booth (we were on the same aisle), those orchids caught my eye every single time. I kept going into her booth to look at her work–and all I could look at was the damn orchids. It was like an enchantment.

Lose the drama queen flowers.

And just in case you think I’m exaggerating….

Two years ago, AmericanStyle magazine did a huge article on me and my studio. Page after glorious page of images of my work, my worktable, the artwork in my home. Lots of pictures of me, me at work, me next to a fabulous wall hanging.

The photo shoot, which you can read about here was a day-long affair. The photographer brought two bunches of tulips from a flower shop in his neighborhood. They were the only tulips he could find in Boston, and because they were not fresh, they were cheap. We used them in several shots–in my studio, in my home–switching the vases around, etc.

I cleaned my house for weeks. My studio looked fabulous! You could see the floor!! There were no shoes or dirty laundry piles in my home. We looked civilized! Or at least like we had no kids or pets. My artwork looked incredible!

I have a jillion copies of the article, and I show it proudly to anyone who visits my studio. I even made a poster out of it.

And there’s always someone who says, “Where did you get those lovely tulips?!”

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #11: That Free Milk Thing

Today I’ll share some of the perils of selling and demonstrating in the same booth. The subtitle refers to that old adage, “Why pay for the cow when the milk is free?” My titles are getting convoluted, aren’t they?

Our state craft guild has a special kind of booth situation available to exhibitors at our annual craft fair. It is a combination sales and demonstration booth, and it’s HUGE–20’x30′. It’s unusual because usually demonstration booths (which have a greatly reduced booth fee or even pay the craftsperson to demo) are not allowed to actually sell product. In this booth option, we pay a greatly reduced fee, but we are allowed to demo and sell our work.

Traditionally, sales suffer greatly in this hybrid mode. Bruce Baker talks about this in his booth design CD. Once you start demonstrating, people expect to be entertained and educated–edutainment. It can be hard to turn that passive “amuse me” energy around back into active shopping. It can be done, but it’s hard.

Whenever Bruce says this, or when I mention it to other craftspeople, there are always some who protest that they are highly successful demonstrating and selling their work at the same time. But to me, it sounds like the people who claim they sell well enough without taking credit cards. Ask them again a month after they have a merchant service account. They grab your arm and gasp, “I had no idea…!!

In other words, you may be doing well enough, but you could be doing even better. (For those of you who are not selling your work, it’s like someone who buys their first microwave after never having had one before…. Sure, you can get along without one, but you just don’t know what you’re missing.)

To support this observation, traditionally our fair committee had to beg people to do the sales-demo tents. No one wanted to do it because sales were so poor in those tents (even though they are on the “main drag” of the fair.”

It got so bad, some people were allowed to do the same demonstration two years, three, even four years running–and more. (It’s supposed to one-to-two-year-max, temptingly large space at an unusually low price, to offset poor sales.) Often our pool of applicants was new exhibitors who simply couldn’t afford a full booth fee.

One or two applicants might be more established exhibitors who figured they could take a hit for one year, in order to boost their visibility and reputation for years to come. When I interviewed these past participants in the program, they always said they did not do well sales-wise, but it was worth it for the increased sales in later years.

The year I decided to do a sales-demo tent, I actually made an appointment for a consult with Bruce. He gave me some valuable insights in addition to those I’d absorbed from his CDs on selling and booth display.

My sales-demo booth provided record sales for me at that show two years in a row. In fact, I was doing so well that we now have a huge pool of applicants every year for those tents.

What other exhibitors saw those two years was a constant crowd of visitors–and buyers. They saw people actively shopping almost every time they went by the booth.

Unfortunately, though I made it look “easy”, a lot of work and thought went into that design process.

The biggest design problem was how to handle a space that was as big as SIX regular booths. I followed most of the guidelines in the other essays in this series. Here are a few issues specific to sales-demo booths.

DON’T LEAVE ME!!

Most people have the right idea of separating the sales process from the demonstrating process. But many exhibitors carry that to an extreme. The booth ends up looking like the brains of those unfortunate people who have continuous seizures, where the surgeons actually disconnect the two halves of the patient’s brain.

The exhibitor splits the booth right down the middle. On one side is the craftsperson, making his stuff. On the other side is a little store where you can buy the stuff he’s making.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any intuitive flow between the two. You have to leave one world and enter the other. The most extreme case I saw, the divide was so physically complete, you had to actually leave the booth on the demonstration side, and re-enter it on the little store side.

Please do not make people leave your booth and come back again in order to buy something from you. Can you see this in a regular store?

Customer: “Oh, look, I just love this! I’m going to get it! Do you take Visa?”

Sales clerk: “Why, yes, we do! Now, you just run across the street with this to the other store, and they’ll ring it up for you.”

I know it’s “only a few feet” in a tent, but it is halfway around the world psychologically.

How did I bridge the gap between these two worlds?

With traffic flow, signage and display.

TELL, TELL, TELL

As I talked during my demonstration, people listened. In fact, we soon found there were two kinds of people to be found in my tent: Those who came in only to watch and listen–and a totally different group who came in to listen as they shopped.

Oh, and I didn’t have to speak loudly, either, as some exhibitors do during a show. Research shows we are hard-wired genetically to hear the human voice–which is one of the reasons you can hear a single opera singer over an entire orchestra. (Isn’t that COOL??!) So please only raise your normal speaking voice a notch or two, even in this very large space, okay?

I had my demo area right up near the front of the booth. Bruce suggested this, so people didn’t have to commit to even coming far into the booth to see if what I was doing would interest them. They could hang out for a few seconds, then choose if I were engaging enough to stick around.

If they chose to stay, they had several options.

They could sit and watch and listen. But immediately off to one side, there were a series of display areas. These were filled with interesting supplies–piles of fabrics, strands of trade beads, baskets of buttons. A stash of beaver-chewed sticks and antlers. Books showing examples of cave art.

It was visually dense and appealing–like my work! Appealing, colorful, touchable, FUN.

I had signs. Everywhere! Signs explaining what everything was and how I used it in my art. It had the feel of a museum display, except people could actually touch the fabrics and play with the beads.

As people followed this “trail of interest” around the perimeter of the tent, they came to a few environmental settings of my art–a large wall hanging on a “wall”, with a beautiful table underneath, flanked by vases of flowers and my sculptures. “This is what I look like in your home” was the message.

Finally, the whole thing segued into a true shopping experience. The rest of the booth looked like a gallery, with islands of shelving filled with jewelry and sculpture, and more wall hangings on the walls. Lots of lights kept the space bright and easily viewed.

For those more eager to get to the shopping part, the center and front of the booth, right next to the demo area, was set up for sales, too.

People could also come into the booth at multiple points. But once inside, everything was different enough that they wanted to see the entire booth before they left.

BE THE ARTIST

This is one of the few opportunities for you, the artist, to totally immerse yourself in that role. Yes! Your dream, to simply sit and create, and let someone else sell for you!

Use it.

When I am in my regular booth, it’s simple to talk about the work, how I make it, why I make it, and sell it to people who connect with that. When I am demonstrating, the move to selling mode is a total “spiritual disconnect” with most people.

This phenomenon was so visibly profound, my sales team finally told me to stay in my chair when people were in the booth. The mere act of me rising from my demonstration station was enough to send people running from the booth. (Okay, I heard that in the back row!) My sales team even brought potential customers over to my demo table with questions, rather than call me over to them.

It was a subtle but powerful thing: Here is the artist at work. We will have an audience with the artist. We will approach with respect, catch her at a good point, and ask her about this wonderful piece she made.

I’m not saying I sat in my chair hoity-toity with an attitude. If you’ve ever been in my booth, you know me better than that! I’m just saying there was a palpable difference in artists between actually making art and actually selling art–and customers were sensitive to that difference.

In fact, I think when some artists say they hate the selling or business side of their art, they are having a hard time transitioning to that aspect. When we can embrace the creative aspect of selling–as the end result of making stuff–we can perhaps feel more comfortable with it.

Because selling is really just getting our precious work into the hands of people who love it but can’t make it themselves–and so they are willing to trade their time (in the form of money they’ve earned) for our time (the time we spent making it.) Pricing is just establishing the ratio whose time is worth what.

The change in energy from showing/sharing to selling was palpable, even if I knew I was just getting up to offer assistance or answer a question.

TRAINING DAY

So hire–and TRAIN–a sales force. I hired a team of five people to split shifts and work the entire fair for me. That sounds like a lot, but it’s a nine-day show. Every day, I had at least two other people working that booth with me.

First, I picked people who were….I was going to say “people people”, but that just sounds silly. People who were good with other people. This is not a job for terminally shy people! They don’t have to be extroverts, but they have to comfortable in their own skin so they don’t make your customers feel awkward. (You know the kind of person I mean.)

If they’ve had any sales or marketing experience, that helps. And if you ask around, you’ll be surprised how many people do.

Be careful about picking spouses or family members. Best case, they love you so much, they may hound people to buy your work. Not good. Worst case, they don’t really want to do it but can’t say no.

Be careful about picking friends who are also artists. They must be able to set their own art aside and sell yours! You’d be amazed how hard this can be for people. Don’t hold it against them–but if they can’t do it, don’t ask them to! This is YOUR time and YOUR real estate–not theirs. They must not lead conversations around to THEIR work or use precious selling time to market THEIR art. (Hint: If they wear THEIR jewelry or clothing while selling in your booth, big red warning light there.)

I invited them over for dinner before the show. I gave each person a packet of information about me and my work, prices, magazine articles, etc. The purpose was not for them to memorize everything, but to familiarize them with my work and story.

I gave them talking points and selling points. But in the end I told them, “Tell customers why YOU like my work. If what you say is true for you, they will sense that. And that will be more powerful than any prepared sales spiel I could give you.”

So they shared with each other what they loved about my work. BTW, I learned a lot from this, too! They told me great things about my work I’d never thought of.

Then I gave each of them Bruce Baker’s CD on selling craft. I suggested they simply listen to it as they did dishes or on a long drive. If they had time to listen a few times, that would be great. And I included this “listening time” in the number of hours I was paying them for. Though Bruce is so easy to listen to, some of them said they listened for fun.

My investment in this sales team resulted in doubling my sales at this show.

The first year I did this, I couldn’t afford to pay my team what they were worth in cash. So I offered minimum wage and a generous trade option. They could chose the money and $x in goods, or $3x in straight goods. Or if they found another artist’s work at the show they loved, I would offer to trade my work with that artist.

The first year, everyone chose the trading for my work, and one person took me up on trading with another artist. The second year, everyone simply wanted my work. That worked out well for me! But do give people the money option, because some people simply need the cash.

I also bought everyone’s food at the show, and had them over again for dinner after the show. This “wrap-up” dinner was great! Once again, they shared observations about my work, and customer dynamics, that were extremely helpful.

Once again, I hope some of my personal experiences help you rethink what’s not working for you now.

And as always, if what you’re doing is working for you, don’t change it–unless you think it could be better.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #10: Mystery Product

Have you ever walked by a booth and couldn’t quite tell what they were selling?

Worse, maybe the booth was full of people, which intrigued you. But the booth was so full, you couldn’t get in. And you couldn’t see the product for the crowd. “I’ll come back,” you may have thought.

But with no visual clue to even remind you later, you probably didn’t.

This is the booth with the Mystery Product.

When your work is very small (like jewelry) or your display or display fixtures are as visually domineering as your product (you make picture frames but not the images you display them with, for example) or if your booth is constantly full of people blocking the view from the aisle, it’s important to signal to people outside your booth exactly what it is you’re selling.

I struggle with this constantly. My wall hangings are vibrant and easy to see. But it’s not always obvious what makes them special–the fine detail, the embellishments, the incredible stitching and layering of fabric.

Also, it’s not immediately obvious I also sell jewelry. This is because I love to display my jewelry on tall stands and cases, with the pieces laid on paper backgrounds or display bean bags, as if you were looking down on a museum display.

But this means no one can actually see my jewelry until they come into my booth.

So how do I let people know?

Big, big pictures.

I started using large-format photos as posters early on, and it has helped hugely. My photographer has a huge printer capable of printing out big images of my work. But places like Kinko’s and Staples can do this quite easily, and cheaply, too.

If you don’t have such a resource near you, try on-line vendors. There are a lot of them nowadays! I just googled “poster from photo” and found services starting at under $20 for a 24″x36″ print.

You can use inexpensive and lightweight poster frames to finish off your print. I had my first few professionally framed in black metal frames, the kinds where you buy two sets of two “sides” and screw them together. What are those called???

Your photographer or a graphic arts service can also print out your poster text–it’s good to at least have your name on it–but in a pinch, you can even just print out one huge word at a time on your home computer. (I vacillate between “Luann Udell” and stuff like “Luann Udell fiber and polymer” or “Luann Udell Mixed Media”.)

If you are neat about it, you can just cut and paste the individual words onto your poster since one word printed in a GIANT FONT will obviously fill an entire sheet of paper. (The original cut-and-paste function, pre-computer!) From six feet away, it will look all of a piece.

One or two posters, hung just high enough to be visible over a crowd, will be easily seen from the aisle.

And now everyone will know what you sell.

Many people use one of their jury shots–a straight-on shot of a single item, on a neutral background. But you can get creative here.

An environmental shot shows something in an appropriate environment. This is great for stuff that doesn’t have an immediately discernible scale or purpose, like, say, a floor cloth. It could be a card, a place mat, a rug…. But do a shot of a big floor cloth on a floor in a room, and it instantly reads as “Floor cloth! In YOUR home! Making YOUR home look as great as THIS!”

A model photo of someone wearing your clothing or jewelry is compelling. One big mistake, though, is focusing on the model over the work. Avoid having the model actually looking into the camera, or even looking out. Make sure any lighting highlights the WORK, not the model. Leaf through fashion magazines. Pay attention to what compositions let you focus on the jewelry or clothing, and which are the ones where you find yourself staring at the person wearing them. Avoid shots like the latter.

Detail shots show a small part of your work. Sometimes it’s obvious what you’re selling (clocks!) but what’s charming about them is small (hand painted flowers!) Here’s where the opposite image can help–a beautiful detail shot or close-up. My photographer has a signature photo style–he will intentionally have the image bleed off the edges. Oh! That sounds terrible! I mean he will show the image partly out of the frame. It gets you “closer” to the product, allowing for more detail, but you can still tell what the item is.

One of the most intriguing posters I ever saw was in the booth of an artist who did simple, enigmatic wooden folk dolls. The image was a small grouping of them, but only from the shoulders up. I borrowed this idea for one of my best known images. You can see it here on the far right of the banner: My home page It’s still one of my favorites, too.

In fact, some people use an actual banner in their booth instead of just a single poster or two. I have one, with my name and some images of tiny details of my work. I had a local graphic arts service design A Sign Stop (their site loads slowly in this preview pop-op, try opening in another tabe or window for best results) and I think they did a beautiful job. But I think my posters look more “upscale” and my banner looks more “craft show”. “Banner” just doesn’t say “art gallery”. That’s just IMHO, though. I do use my banner at shows, but above my sales station now.

Lately I’m experimenting with more “vertical” ways of displaying my jewelry. I’m actually thinking of going back to those plain black velvet upright displays. I think a few of them might help signal that there are cool little wearables somewhere in there….

But for now, a couple of great posters–one showing a beautiful detail of my wall hangings, another featuring a glamor shot of my daughter wearing a stunning necklace–will tell the story for me.

For good images of detail shots, do check out the banner on my home page once more: Banner on my home page You will see close-ups of my fiber work, jewelry and sculptures. If you explore the site, you’ll find many other images that would work well as posters. You’ll see examples of plain jury shots and detail shots in the jewelry section, an environmental shot with detail shots on the wall hangings page. I’ve posted the model shot of my daughter before, but here it is again: Robin looking gorgeous

I hope it inspires you to get creative with your own ideas.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD#9: What’s Your Sign?

Booth signage fills an important role in your sales process. When people are shopping, they want you to be aware they are there, and to acknowledge them. But then they want to be left alone to shop.

When they are ready to be sold to, they let you know by asking a question. That’s their signal that you can start selling.

Bruce Baker describes this little dance of engagement perfectly. His take on how to be a good dance partner is itself is worth the entire cost of the CD or seminar. You must leave people alone to shop until they are ready. Otherwise, you will simply come across as a pushy salesperson rather than an artist who has something lovely to sell.

Often this “signal to talk” starts with a question about the work itself. If you are busy with another customer, a sign can keep them engaged until you can speak to them yourself. Or the question can be about something in the sign itself.

A customer looking at your work and reading your signs is deeply engaged in your work. It’s like a double whammy.

WHAT SHOULD A SIGN SAY?

Price is the first and most obvious choice, especially if you have something small or delicate or a jillion of something and can’t individually price them. Also, pricing can give you a chance to talk about the piece. “$350” is one sign choice. “An original award-winning design by Lori–Handknit cardigan made with handspun merino and silk yarn $350” is another.

The most attention-getting is “New!” Part of our hard-wired genetic heritage is a love of novelty. We love “new”! Your regular customers love to check out your new work. Your new customers like to see that you’re keeping your designs fresh.

My favorite sign is my artist statement. It gives people people a chance to look past the work to the first story behind it–the story about what it is and why I make it.

Tell the story behind a certain pattern or piece–how you came to make it, or who or what inspired you to design it, why it’s special. Tell about a new technique you’re using.

One last reason to use a sign: When you simply can’t stand to explain something one more time. If you’ve explained something a billion times, and just can’t bear to say it again, put it on a sign for people to read. Or print up a little card to give to people.

I never thought I would tire of telling people how I make polymer clay look like ivory. But one day in my booth, four people in a row asked me that exact same question. They were each simply engaged in looking at my work, and none of them heard the others asking.

Having to repeat it four times in four minutes was crazy-making. I almost said to the fourth person, “Weren’t you listening?!!” as if she were my teenager.

I call it the Salad Dressing Principle. When I was a waitress in my dad’s restaurant, I would get a group of people ordering. And every single person would ask what kind of salad dressing we had. No one listened to the choices until it was their turn to order. Thank God we only had three choices. (We were a very informal restaurant and this was 40 years ago.) French, thousand island, vinegar and oil. But if there were six people at the table, I would have to recite those damn salad dressings at least six times. More, if someone interrupted to say, “I’ve changed my mind. Can I have the vinegar and oil, too?”

I know it’s human nature–I do it, too! But it IS annoying. And annoyed is not how you want to feel when you are talking to potential collectors about your work.

I suddenly remembered that my gift enclosure cards had a little explanation about my faux ivory. The next person that asked, I whipped out the card and said, “Here’s a little card I wrote that explains that for you. And you can keep that!” Whew!

SIGN DO’S AND DON’TS

Spellchekc, please.

Please, please, please check the spelling on any signs you put in your booth. Unless your “persona” is the quaint little backwoods craftsperson with no “larnin'”. Even that wears thin.

Signs are supposed to communicate with your customer when they aren’t ready, or can’t, talk to YOU. Poor spelling and bad grammar get in the way of that.

There’s an old story about a business owner who deliberately misspells a word on a sign outside his store. People passing by stop in to tell him–and he ends up selling stuff to them. I don’t buy that. (ha! Pun intended.)

I don’t think I’ve ever sold anything to a person who talks to me only to tell me I’ve made a mistake. I think that’s because it’s in the same category as the people who compliment your work, then leave. They may like your work, but not enough to buy it. Paying you a compliment is literally that–they “pay” you with a compliment and then they feel comfortable about moving on to the next booth.

In the same way, people who point out a mistake in your set-up or signage (“You forgot to price this!”) feel they have “paid” you by “helping”, too. And then they are free to leave.

So unless you actually are able to turn such exchanges into real sales, skip the sly spelling errors.

BIG FONT. BIG, BIG FONT

As we age, our eyes don’t focus as easily. Small type and sans serif type get harder to read. Even if you think you are only marketing to young indie girls, their grandmothers may be shopping for a teen granddaughter. Use big fonts for your signage.

POINTS OFF FOR BAD PENMANSHIP

If you have lovely handwriting, by all means, handwrite your signs. If not, don’t. If you really don’t have a computer and printer handy, buy a set of alphabet rubber stamps. It can be charming. Really!

TOO…MANY…WORDS

With signs, as with many things in life, you can have too much of a good thing.

The worst sign I ever saw was at a prestigious fine craft show. It was a sheet of paper with narrow margins, covered with a full page of unbroken type. No paragraphs, no breaks. The font was small–less than 12 pts. The writing was convoluted and rambling.

It was a big show, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work, and though I was younger, I still had trouble reading that sign. I tried to read it four times and kept losing my place. I finally gave up.

Then I was embarrassed that I couldn’t READ it, so I left the booth.

You can also have too many signs.

I tend to oversign–I make up signs for EVERYTHING. Then take them out while setting up my booth.

In this photo of my booth at the 2006 League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair, you can see the one big sign I used. This had the entire article featuring my work that appeared in the April 2006 issue of AmericanStyle magazine. I have smaller signs that aren’t as visible in the photo. Normally I’d also have at least my artist statement up, too. But with such a big sign, with so much information, I didn’t want to add a lot more verbiage in the booth.

(see link above for bigger picture)

You should have just enough signage to enhance your WORK. Otherwise, you have the effect of some sort of crafter’s Galactic Encyclopedia in your booth. Educational, perhaps. But not lucrative.

WHAT’S MY SIGN STYLE?

Just like your display and booth style, keep your sign style aligned with your design style. My! Alliteration at work. If your work is whimsical, get playful. If your work is formal, avoid the cutesy.

And just like your other booth features, avoid going overboard. We can often get caught up in creating a total booth environment. Everything becomes part of the “show”. A fellow artist’s husband calls this phenomenon “The Lorna Show”. IF THIS WORKS FOR YOU–if your total environment actually produces sales–then keep it.

But watch out for the edutainment factor at shows. People are increasingly seeing craft shows as educational and entertaining–but not necessarily places for serious shopping. We want to make it enjoyable for our customers, but we want them to B*U*Y, too. Otherwise, we can’t afford to keep coming.

If you see that people come in for “The (your name here) Show” and then, fully entertained, feel free to leave without buying something, trim it down.

Because, as I’ve said in every other essay on booth design, it’s gotta be about the WORK. It’s gotta be about selling the work. Your booth either supports sales of your work, or distracts from selling your work.

Find the balance point, and work it.


GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #8: What’s For Sale??

Let’s talk a little about display today. What is the best way to display your work to its best advantage?

I always secretly envy 2-D people. They basically need a few walls to hang up paintings or prints. Their main worry is, “Is that frame straight?”

On the other hand, it’s hard for a 2-D artist to stand out in a sea of similar set-ups.

On the other other hand, it ends up being about the art. Period.

And when all is said and done, that’s the way it should be.

I’m not advocating bare booths–far from it! But if I had to pick the biggest mistake I see with highly-creative display, it’s when artists get confused about exactly what it is they’re selling.

If someone picks up a piece of your display and asks how much it is, that’s your cue:  You are letting your display interfere with selling your art.

This is a delicate balance, because display fixtures are, indeed, a way to create a look and a mood in your booth. Bruce Baker talks a lot about making your display style fit your style of art.

CHEAP VS. EXPENSIVE DISCONNECT

If you make spare, elegant gold and diamond jewelry, these will not look good displayed in cheap, rickety cases or on pine display fixtures. I don’t think elegant silk clothes and shawls look good on that white grid paneling I often see at shows–the elegance just doesn’t go with that Toys-R-Us display mode.

But beyond the “disconnect” of displaying expensive work on cheap-looking fixtures, the other rules go out the door.

MATCH THEME WITH STYLE

If your work is whimsical, it can be good to have your whole booth and display fixtures reflect that. If your work is traditional, ditto.

OR MIX IT UP

There is also surprise and pleasure in contrast. Ironically, sometimes whimsical work does good in a plain and simple display. My richly textured and colorful jewelry looks really good displayed on sleek, contemporary-style black steel display stands. The black disappears, the colors pop–all you see is the work.

I’m not sure the opposite is true–when we have elaborate and “frilly” display with strong, contemporary work. Probably because the “frilly” is what gets attention, and the artwork loses.

Which brings us to the title point:

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

We can get carried away with carrying that theme of congruency too far.

I have a habit of creating beautiful vignettes in my studio and booth. I set up little rocks and stones and shells around my sea-themed jewelry. I look for colored papers and bean bags for my brighter jewelry. I look for creative odds and ends to hold earrings, necklaces, bracelets.

But you know you’re in trouble when your customer can’t tell exactly what it is you’re selling.

They pick up a pretty rock and say, “How much is this?” Or they carefully take the earrings off that cool note card holder and try to buy the holder. They see a coaster under a pin and say, “I’ve been looking for a set of those! I’ll take them all!”

Catalog companies have this happen all the time. Look at catalogs sometime, and examine the props. You’ll find that almost all of them are either for sale as product–or are obviously not for sale. That’s because the last thing that company needs is a jillion phone calls from customers who want to buy that widget on the mantelpiece that isn’t for sale.

I’m always looking for display props and fixtures wherever I go. I get all excited–“I could use this wood artist model hand to hold bracelets!” But if I get too many questions like, “Did you make this?“, out it goes.

It’s like the essay on the “beautiful booth” phenomenon. You want your booth interesting enough to grab people’s interest (if you have trouble doing it with your work because it’s small or detailed or subtle or whatever.) But once they’re in your booth, it has to be about the work.

Same with your display. It should complement–and compliment–your work enough. But the minute it begins to overshadow your work, cut it out.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #7 What Lies Beneath

Flooring for your booth is another big bugaboo artists struggle with. Should you even cover the floor? If so, with what? And of course, like everything else, it should be washable/portable/sturdy/attractive/affordable. A tall order indeed!

The first question is easy. Yes. A floor for your booth is a wonderful finishing touch. It takes away the “I’m camping out here” tone and elevates your booth to a professional selling zone. I’ve never been in a booth without a floor, where I didn’t notice there wasn’t a floor. That’s a double and triple negative in one sentence, but short story is–people notice.

They will notice it looks nicer. More importantly, if you have a comfortable floor, they will notice it feels nicer. A floor helps bound off “your space”, creating a real environment for your customers to enter. It can also help deaden the ambient noise that comes with a busy craft show, creating a peaceful environment–so your customers can shop without distraction.

I’ve actually had success with several floors. Others were cool but had their drawbacks.

PLAIN AND SIMPLE

The simplest, cheapest floor I’ve ever had that also looked great was simply a 10’x10′ piece of indoor/outdoor carpeting from a local carpet biz. Places like Home Depot and Lowe’s will have these, too. The carpet place had a much better color selection, and the prices were actually comparable.

This carpeting is wonderful because a) it’s CHEAP–usually less than $100, often much, much less; b) it comes in great basic colors–grey, tan, black, forest green, navy, burgundy; c) it folds up easily for transport (though I recommend unfolding for storage, so it doesn’t get permanent creases); and d) it washs off with a garden hose, and hangs up to drip-dry. Oh, and it wears well. Just throw down a plastic tarp or plastic/paper paintcloth underneath to protect it from ground moisture, rotting grass and dead worms and it should last for years. (These things don’t damage it, just make it stinky.)

If you are doing an outdoor show, the carpet conforms to the shape of the ground, so though you won’t get a level surface, you also don’t have to fuss with leveling, shimming, buckling, etc. If the front edge buckles up, you can just hammer it down with long nails–I think the kind they call “ten penny”, cute name!, and you can even add wide, flat washers to give the nails more surface area of carpet to hold down. These pull up pretty easily after a show. If you are doing a show on sidewalks or asphalt, obviously you cannot hammer nails into that. I’m guessing some heavy duty double-sticky carpet tape might work.

BEAUTY IS AS BEAUTY DOES

My next floor was a set of beautiful mats from Home Depot patterned to look like inlaid stone. I got this tip from a high-end artisan out west, who used them to create the look of a Roman temple in his booth. They were gorgeous! They were just single mats, so I could lay them out in different patterns. They also fit into one box (albeit a rather bulky box).

I was sure this floor would give my booth a certain classy elegance, and really stand out at the show. And it did.

Unfortunately, there were three major drawbacks.

One, they were extremely heavy. I shipped them to a show, and the weight of them tore the box apart. And it cost a ton to ship them, too. I ditched them after that one show. I remember wandering the show floor for an hour, looking for a discarded box to replace the tattered one they’d arrived in. I finally had to settle for wrapping an entire roll of duct tape around the broken box. It looked like a techno-mummy when I was done, but the box made it home with only a few more rips and tears.

The other drawback is the floor was too attractive. Everyone commented on how nice it looked. Everyone wanted to know where I’d gotten the mats. The floor got almost as many comments as my artwork, which is NOT a good thing.

The third drawback is something I’m going to come back to again and again.

The floor didn’t really fit my “brand”.

Stone floor and art inspired by cave art may seem like a good fit. But it wasn’t. The look did not “go with” my artwork. Just like the Japanese-looking paper screens, it was nice…..but caused a “disconnect” in the overall atmosphere.

I gave the mats away as Christmas presents over the next few years. Every so often, I clean the barn attic and find a couple more stashed away.

THE PERFECT FLOOR

I really like my current floor, which you can see here in my booth photo from last year’s LNHC fair. (This is the bigger photo, below is the little one.)

It’s a set of so-called “puzzle mats” from a company called Alessco which come in a variety of colors. I see they now even have faux wood patterns. Scroll through the pages numbered at the top of their web page and you will find design options, pricing, even well-priced shipping boxes that fit the floor mats perfectly. (I actually have several extra boxes for shipping the rest of my booth in, too.)

Many people find similar products at places like Sam’s Club, etc. When you figure out the actual square footage cost (as opposed to “per panel” cost), I’ve never found anyone to beat the cost of Alesso. But I know that can change in a heartbeat on the internet. I will say that these mats have a built-in outer edge, so there are fewer pieces to fiddle with. (Some brands have mats with all interlocking edges, and you buy side strips to get a straight edge.) They have a good density, as opposed to some others I’ve seen. But if you find something cheaper or closer to home that works for you, go for it.

These floors have become very popular at shows, and for good reason(s). They break down into 2’x2′ sections. They are unbelievably lightweight. They come in a variety of patterns. You can buy them as carpet sections, and now, faux wood. They wash up easily. (I throw mine in the bathtub and scrub them with some shampoo and a brush, because I’m too lazy to walk back downstairs to get the bottle of dish detergent.) And then drip dry.

Like the carpeting, they mold to the shape of the ground. So no shimming, leveling, etc. And like the carpet, it’s less messy if you throw a protective ground cloth down first.

Because of their density, they are excellent at deadening that “background buzz” at busy shows.

As if that weren’t enough, their last two qualities will nail it.

They are so comfortable to stand on, you won’t believe it. Your customers will comment on it, especially at big shows, or shows set up on hard surfaces (convention halls, sidewalks, etc.) Even at our outdoor show under tents, people remarked how nice it was to stand in my booth. And the longer people stay in your booth, they more they tend to buy.

The final clincher? Except for the comfort factor, people don’t notice my floor.

Like the walls, the floor “disappears”–and you see the work.

Which leads us to, what color should you pick for your floor? I’ll pick up this topic of color, theme and “branding” in future essays. But for now, I’d say keep it simple.

When I went to order my Alessco puzzle mats, I wanted a checkerboard pattern for my booth. I had seen it in another booth and loved the look. But a friend held me back. She said, “Is your work about fun and whimsy?” Okay, how about black and brown checkerboard? She shook her head. “What do you want people to look at? Your floor? Or your work?”

Well, that was a no-brainer.

For my purposes, a black floor works well. It matches my display and my pedestals, and most of my “infrastructure”. The black blends in–and disappears.

LOVELY TO LOOK AT, BUT…

What about other floor options? I’ve seen people actually “build” floors that create a totally level surface in their booths. They construct some sort of frame on the ground, level and shim it, then lay a hardwood floor on top. Some people even have handicapped-accessible ramps leading up to their floor.

Since this is beyond my capabilities–I get a headache just thinking about it–I can’t give you much information about this kind of floor approach. It does look beautiful, it does create a “room environment”, and it is flat and easy to navigate–once you are inside.

And there’s the kicker. If the ground is not somewhat level to begin with, getting inside is the hard part.

The booth next to me this year had a drop across the frontage of the booth of almost a foot. The floor started out about 8″-10″ above the ground one one side. That meant by the time you walked ten feet to the other side of the booth, there was a drop-off of almost 18″. No problem–the artist built a ramp.

Unfortunately, most shows say any such ramp access must be inside your booth, not sticking out into the show aisles (which makes good sense.) So the ramp, in order to fit inside the booth, had a 45 degree angle. Which made it as much of a barrier as the drop-off was.

People had to “launch” themselves up the ramp. They tended to grab my wall to steady themselves. I saw no one in a wheelchair in the booth (which was the point of the ramp, was it not?) And the ramp provided endless amusement to small children, who saw it as a climbing challenge. I saw many determined tots getting ready to launch themselves in a running start up the ramp, only to be checked just in time by their alert parents. Whew!

Worse, once people did get inside the booth, they had to be careful not to step down onto that ramp, or over the lip of the floor. Remember, there was still an 8″ drop-off along the front edge.

Such a floor is tempting. Once that floor is up and level, setting up the rest of your booth must be a breeze. No need to level and shim your walls, cases, display, etc.

But all week, I shuddered to think what would have happened if one person had fallen out of that booth and injured themselves.

I saw a better solution from a furniture maker a few years. He created mini-islands of raised floor sections, just big enough to fit under either individual pieces of furniture or small vignettes. They were just high enough to level and raise his furniture, sort of like extremely short (6″) pedestals. The look was a nice blend between “museum-quality display” and “this is what it looks like in your own home display.” He left the grass between the pedestals, but somehow, it wasn’t as off-putting as a pure grass floor.

BIG, BIG FLOOR

I borrowed this idea when I did a huge sales/demo booth two years ago. I had the use of a 600 square foot tent all to myself. That is a HUGE space to fill–more on that later, too. And covering that much ground with nice flooring would have cost big bucks.

After looking into options like woven environmental matting (intriguing, but I never got the samples to see how walkable it was), carpeting (even at $1 a square foot, a pricey proposition), sisal matting, etc. I settled on this solution.

I created different “areas” in the booth and treated them separately.

The actual demo area where I worked was 10’x10, and I set my indoor/outdoor carpet there. That was big enough for the work table and a bunch of chairs for my audience.

Some of the corner displays, where I had big beautiful wall hangings in “environmental” settings–with tables, flower arrangements, etc., just like in a home–I set down some small Oriental rugs.

For most of the store-like display areas, I went to a local professional laundry–the kind that provides towels and linens to hotels, floor mats, etc. I bought a bunch of used floor mats, the kind with low-nap carpet on top and rubber on the bottom. They were worn, but in decent shape and still serviceable–just not nice enough for fancy restaurants. They were GREAT for an outdoor booth. They were CHEAP, too–$7 to $15.

I used these mats under each display shelf, creating individual “islands” of shopping areas, just like the furniture maker had done. I made sure they all lay flat so as not to trip people. And I left the rest of the ground open, with the grass (mowed short to start.)

It worked beautifully. The open areas created subtle paths, yet the islands subtly set off the work on display.

I used these mats for two years in a row, then retired them our personal home use. Some are in use as “welcome mats” and several are in our mudroom. Where my rabbit found the last best thing about them–they are great fun to chew!

I was going to add about other interesting floors I’ve seen. But then realized they all had similar issues. They were either too interesting, and distracted attention from the work. Or they were not flexible and versatile enough to work in many different environments.

I would love if people shared other good solutions that have worked for them.

Remember, though, sometimes the absolute best floor is the one nobody remembers.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #0.1 Just Do It!

I’m hearing a lot of angst and guilt from folks who are reading this series. People who are ashamed of their booths, or realize they’re making some of the mistakes I’m describing.

Don’t be.

I can’t emphasize this enough: Your first booth will not be perfect.

Alas, neither will your second, third, nor probably even your fourth booth.

And for those of you who are bugging me to post pics of my booth, well, I will as soon as I figure out how to post images to this blog, or to Flicker. But I can almost guarantee you will look at it and go, “What’s the big deal?? I thought she’d have a perfect booth!!

Nope. I have a booth-in-progress that’s doing pretty well for selling my work.

It keeps getting better and better. But every time I change something, I create a whole nother set of problems to solve.

It never ends.

Nor should it–because my goal isn’t to have a perfect booth.  My goal is to have a booth that’s good enough so I can leave it alone for a couple of years.

So my advice to you whether you are trying to put together your very first booth, or fine-tuning your 20th booth, is this:

Start where you are.

Just do it.

Make it a little better as you can.  As you can afford it, as you can find the time, as you think of it.

And look, look, look at other booths. Note what you like, and what’s working. But also note if you are paying too much attention to a beautiful booth.

Because you’re not here on this planet to make a beautiful booth.  You are here to make beautiful art.

In the end, your booth is like the rest of your marketing tools.  it’s just another way to present–and more importantly, SELL–your art.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #6: Let There Be Light

Lighting a booth is such a difficult topic to cover, I was kinda hoping to sneak out the back while you were reading the other essays in this series.

But that would be wrong. And I promise that’s the last time I quote Richard Nixon in this series.

There is so much I don’t know about lighting. I’m not going to even attempt to cover wavelengths and warm and cool colors, except that halogen has a brighter look to it than most incandecent bulbs which are usually yellowish. Though sometimes those cases of cheap halogen bulbs you can buy on eBay can be yellowish, too. (Think cheap lighting at Salvation Army stores….) And I would say never use fluorescent bulbs, except the newer, daylight-quality bulbs are pretty nice. And I have no idea which bulbs work well with jewelry and precious stones, and which ones work with textiles. There are wiser minds than mine you can listen to when it comes to the tech side of lighting.

I also don’t do outdoor shows. So I don’t have any information on powering lights if it’s not already provided for you by show management. Sorry!!

So as always, I will simply share what has and has not worked for me.

TO LIGHT, OR NOT TO LIGHT…??

Why should you light your booth, anyway? Especially if you have an outdoor booth. Isn’t plain ol’ sunlight good enough?

I think you’ll find even a little extra lighting in a sunny booth is a good thing. You will always have either dark corners or dark times of the day. And once that sun hides behind a cloud, you’ll wish you’d figured out a way to get some extra lighting on your goods.

Even more importantly, good lighting creates drama, focus and movement in your tent. Light something up, and that’s what people will look at.

Lighting lets people actually see what you’re selling, so they can decide if it’s the right color, quality, texture they’re looking for.

Lighting makes people relax and feel comfortable in your booth. We are not little bat people–we still tend to mistrust the dark. We gravitate towards bright spaces and feel safer there.

HOW MUCH LIGHT?
Most people are perfectly happy with 500 watts of light. But that’s only ten 50-watt lamps. If you only have wall art, or you only have ten items to illuminate, that might suffice.

My problem in my booth is I need wall display for my 2-D fiber wall hangings, shelf display for my sculptures, and case display for my jewelry. Ten lamps gives me a light fixture every three feet in the booth, with one left over. Not enough. I almost always go for 1,000 watts in my outdoor-under-tents 10’x10′ booth. And at wholesale shows, I’ll spring for 1,500 to 2,000. That gives lots of light to play with, even allowing me to devote 2-3 lights to a single wall hanging if I want to. (And since some of them are seven-to-eight feet tall, they need more than one light….!)

HOW NOT TO LIGHT

One of the most common mistakes I see is people putting up some sort of light bar across the top and front of their booth, then shining five or six lamps down into their booth. The effect is a giant spotlight, and looks okay–until someone steps inside your booth. Now all the lighting is behind them. Wherever they look, whatever they look at, is in shadow.

Now the worst part. They turn around to ask you a question–and they are instantly blinded by the light.

I’ve found the best people to assist me with setting up my lights are my daughter and her friends who have some tech crew experience in their drama club. They understand how to use lighting to highlight and accent what you want noticed on your “set”. And a set is an excellent metaphor for how to think about your booth.

THE BEST LIGHTS ARE….???

What are the best lights?

I’m not going there, but I’ve had five different systems. You are free to pick and choose from the good, the bad and the ugly of my set-ups.

Track lighting is nice because it’s versatile. You can buy as many units as you need, and if you buy from someplace like Home Depot, you can always buy extra units and replacements if you need to. There’s almost always a Home Depot around… You can buy all kinds of lamp units to suit your needs and style, and most of them come in at least two colors, white or black, to go with your booth.

The basic problem with track lighting is it wasn’t designed to be put up and taken down over, and over, and over again. It wasn’t designed to be used outside, in the rain and heat and cold. It wasn’t designed to be held in place with cable ties. Originally, you couldn’t even buy it with plug-in cords. It was meant to be hard-wired in place, in your office or home. My first sets had to be rewired with extension cords with plugs.

My first lighting set-up was an expensive set of low-voltage track lighting from a very popular on-line lighting company, supposedly marketing to the craft show industry. The track was actually pretty good quality. I had issues with the low-voltage lamp units from day one. They were so heavy, they would actually pull apart under their own weight. I was constantly having to strap them back together with cable ties. I think they are still upstairs in my barn attic somewhere.

BWT, here’s common misconception about low-voltage lighting–you are NOT using less wattage! This is a very layman explanation, but wattage is the AMOUNT of electricity/energy you are using. Voltage is how hard and fast that electricity/energy coming through your set-up. It’s sort of like water coming through a squirt bottle in a fine, hard stream that travels 15 feet, and a wide, fine misty spray. Same amount of water coming through. So don’t think you are going to pay for 500 watts of electricity and you can put up 1,000 watts of low-voltage units/lamps. If you have 1,000 watts’ worth of bulbs, you are using 1,000 watts of energy. The low-voltage thing is a safety issue, not an energy conservation issue.

In fact, in low-voltage units, that extra energy is dissipated in the transformers in the form of heat. I’m told that build-up of heat can be a source of some of the problems I experienced with low-voltage systems.

I’m also told that other kinds of transmissions can interfere with low-voltage set-ups, like if someone in the next booth at a big trade show is using a TV in their display. I have no idea if that is true. Maybe a techie person can research that and report back. I do know that my system would work beautifully at one show and totally conk out at the next.

My second set of low-voltage track came from Home Depot. I had the same issues with reliability, but fewer than I did with the expensive mail-order set.

In my third set of track lighting, I decided to skip the cheap made-in-China stuff and invest in good-quality lamps. That’s when I found that a) everything electrical is now made in China and b) expensive means H-E-A-V-Y. I set up my brand new units for the first time at a wholesale craft show, on my angle irons I used for supports–and watched the angle irons actually bend under the weight of the new lamps. There was no time to search for other supports, so I had to just strap the track onto the top poles of my pole-and-drapes booth.

The track is NOT sturdy enough to just suspend with lamps in it–you MUST have something to attach it to to span across your booth. Some people always install their track lighting this way, but I found it limiting. Also somewhat unsafe–your neighbor goes to hang their own drapes or display from those S-hooks that go over the pipe, and can actually stick their S-hook right into your track. ZAP!!!

That issue of finding what was sturdy enough to hold track lighting, long enough to span my booth, yet short enough to carry or ship to shows without incurring extra shipping charges, also kept me awake many, many nights.

For a long time, I used angle irons, which you can buy at any full-service hardware or lumber store, or places like Lowe’s or Home Depot.. Angle irons are perforated metal bars, L-shaped in profile, that can be bolted together to get the length you need. Then you can take them apart into shorter lengths for easier packing and shipping. They come in two weights, and I found out the hard way that the heavier weight is needed for most track lighting. It’s also nice because it provides a flat surface to strap the track onto, for more stability.

Some people use those extendable, telescoping metal “handles” for attaching to paint rollers for painting ceilings. I worried because they looked like they wouldn’t be strong enough to hold track, and they were round–so you would have round pipe attaching to round pipe. But it might be worth the experiment. Other people have used lengths of electrical conduit. I’ve seen it, I’ve never used it. And I can’t remember what I thought of it. Rats, I was hoping to get through this paragraph without admitting that…. Again, it doesn’t break down into smaller lengths, so be aware of this if you have to ship your booth.

My nice new MD ProPanel booth has stabilizer bars which “lock” the walls together and keep it…well, stable. These also double as light bars. YAY!!!!

I eventually went back to Home Depot track lighting, using their new long goose-neck lamps. They are small, lightweight and infinitely flexible. I LOVE them. One caveat–they hang down into your booth about a foot. So if your booth is seven feet tall (about industry standard) and your track is attached at seven feet, and the lamps hang down a foot….you are going to burn people who are over six feet tall. Just so you know. You can see these dangling lights in this image of last year’s booth at the LNHC fair. Don’t bump your head! (I fixed that this year.)

Also, as you insert, remove, reinsert and remove lamps from your track, you are constantly squishing apart the track. Eventually, it deforms enough that your lamps will not make good contact with the track. You may have to strap cable ties around the track itself and squinch it down good and tight to hold it together.

Look at the end where you screw in a screw to hold that plug-in extension cord. That can be another trouble source. You want that screw tight enough to hold the unit snugly. But again, if you screw it in too tight, you will actually force the track unit apart slightly. Enough to lose that electrical connection. And again, a cable tie strapped tightly around that section of the track may help hold things together.

If you use your track lighting outside a lot, you may get a build-up of corrosion on the contact points (the long thin copper strips in your track, the little copper clips in your lamps.) Keep a piece of steel wool on hand to scrub these contact points clean if you’re having trouble getting your lights to work. (Unplug everything first, of course.)

At one point, I invested in expensive clamp-on halogen wall-washers. They were designed to work on pole-and-drape. (Pole-and-drape are difficult to work with, because clamps are usually designed to hold onto something flat, and poles are round.) Unfortunately, it turned out they didn’t really work well on poles or flat walls.

AND THE WINNER IS….

I’ve now discovered individual clamp-on goose-neck lamp units. They each have their own extension cords, which is a bit of a hassle. But I also don’t have to fuss with track, track lamps, light bars to support the track and risers to raise the light bars out of range of six-feet tall people (or shorter people with tall hair.) So far, my favorite units are these offered by Pegasus Lighting: Flexible Display Light I am praying the low voltage issue does not raise its ugly head again.

These lights are good because they can light work on a shelf or on the wall, and be between the customer and the work–no shadows. But they also don’t shine in people’s eyes. They are infinitely flexible. I was able to use them at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which has a strict lighting safety code–although the cords/plug aren’t grounded, they are low voltage and self-contained. One light per cord. Also, the halogen bulbs are covered–there is a layer of glass across the front of the bulb, so the halogen filament is not exposed. The C-clamp is very secure on flat surfaces, and the cord is long enough to reach most of the places it needs to.

How do I know these are the best lights? My daughter says if I stick with the MD ProPanels and these lights, she will always come home to help me set up my booth for shows.

CASE LIGHTING

Unfortunately, I’m still on a quest for the perfect case lighting. I have light strips I bought with my original Dynamic Display System cases, with all three of the light bulb styles they’ve sold over time. Dynamic Display Systems case lighting The little “eyeball” units are the most versatile–they rotate in every direction and allow you to pinpoint an item in the case. But they are outrageously expensive, and it’s hard to find replacement bulbs. And the metallic backing paint is chipping off, allowing the brilliant halogen bulb to glare through. When I inquired about heat-proof paint to recoat the unit, I was told the paint would severely cut down on the life of the bulb. OY VEY!!! I don’t see these for sale on their website anymore, just the strips with the little 20 watt halogen bulbs. These are good, reliable bulbs, and easily found at stores. Okay, relatively easy to find. But they are not directional, or at least minimally so. I did love my eyeball bulbs….

SAFETY ISSUES
Use the heaviest gauge extension cords recommended by the show. 14 gauge is getting to be more and more common, but can still be hard to find. (Just because a cord is really thick doesn’t mean it’s 14 gauge.) Use the shortest cord you can get away with–cord that is coiled that cause heat to build up, which isn’t good.

If you are doing an outdoor show, keep all your connections off the ground. This will keep rain, dew, other moisture from shorting out the system.

If the show provides electricity and is using GFI’s do NOT attempt to circumvent them. During set-up at my big retail show, people complain constantly that the lights keep going out. As they plug in their cobbled-together lighting systems, the ground fault interrupters trip, cutting off power. They say, “The GFI’s are so damn sensitive!” As the show electrician carefully explained to me during my very first show, “Yes, GFI’s are sensitive. They trip at the very slightest flare in power. That’s what they are supposed to do. It keeps you from being electrocuted.” Get your lights set up, and test the circuit by plugging in a light then turning it on (rather than just screwing in a light into a live circuit, such as sticking a lamp into a track unit that’s live.” That helps prevent a little surge of power that triggers the GFI.

Use 3-prong plugs wherever you can. Sometimes it’s impossible, and some convention halls prohibit rewiring your own lighting set-up (like I did to rewire my two-wire extension cords to make 3-wire plug-in extension cords for my track lighting.) And always look for that “UL” (Underwriters Laboratories) label to signify your system has passed some basic safety testing. Here’s an interesting article on what that label means and how to recognize fake labels: Understanding UL by Gerry Zekowski

Remember that lights get HOT, especially halogen bulbs. Turn off and let cool before touching, handling, repositioning a hot lamp. Do not touch a halogen bulb (the part that actually lights up) with your fingers–the oil in your fingertips can actually concentrate the heat and cause the bulb to break. And periodically check your lamps to make sure they aren’t touching fabric or other combustibles, or causing your display to overheat and actually melt.

Lights themselves are hot, too. As I said earlier, I try to always go with at least 1,000 watts of lighting in my 10’x10′ booth. But I’m learning not to go over that much in my outdoor-under-tents August show. It just gets to be too much heat.

ALWAYS, ALWAYS ALWAYS unplug your units when doing any kind of work on them. I like to even unplug the units when testing my lamps. It takes a few more seconds, but if your hand should slip, or in your set-up frenzy mood you should forget and stick your hand in the track, you will stay safe. Yes, those pesky GFI’s should save you, but why take the chance?

Have I forgotten anything? Tons, I’m sure. I’ll check back and add stuff as I think of it.

Ooh, I forgot this: If you use low-voltage lamps or little case lights, they come with transformers–just like your phone charger. Transformers take up a lot of space on your surge strips. A power squid is handy to conserve space, or I use a set of short little 12″ extension cords, both from Herrington Catalog: power squid and

mini extension cords

And be sure to add your own suggestions and experiences in the comments section. Together, we can keep our fair booths looking bright and shiny–and safe.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #5: Don’t Touch!

Today’s Bad Booth topic is a difficult one. Some of you will not even want to consider it, and perhaps some of you can’t. I simply ask you to think about it, because the results are so profound.

Allowing people to touch your work is powerful.

Allowing children to touch your work will move mountains.

Bruce Baker talks about the increase sales you will experience if people can touch your work. His arguments are compelling–people rarely buy something they HAVEN’T touched first, in some way. Catalogs and web shopping sites use compelling descriptions and beautiful images to allow you to “cyber-touch” the items. Think Sundance Catalog.

Even if you have work that is too delicate to touch, he has a few suggestions on how to do that. For example, if you make items of handmade paper, you could have samples, or even business cards, made of the same paper for people to touch.

This gets hard for people who make delicate or expensive items. If you make expensive jewelry, you can’t display it easily or safely outside a case, especially at most shows.

But you should be willing and able to whip out that diamond bracelet instantly, not even waiting til people ask. When you hear that little, “oooooh..!” sound people make when something catches their eye, that’s your cue. Get it out and into their hands.
Because giving people–especially children–permission to touch something is so empowering for your customers, I urge you to find some way to make that happen.

I am fortunate the material I work with is strong and durable. When people come in my booth, I “let them land”, as Bruce says. I give them a moment to take a breath, look around, and see if the work is something they’re interested in.

The minute I see something engage their interest, I say, “It’s okay to touch!”

You cannot believe the response.

There is a look of disbelief and astonishment. And then, most people LAUGH.

It’s a laugh of relief. (Especially since most people have sneaked in a little touch already.) And they always say, “Thank you!” Many comment that they rarely hear artists say that.

They relax. And they start shopping in earnest.

We are humans. We explore our world through all our senses. But the way we really get to discover our environment is with our hands, through touching.

We stroke velvet, we touch polished wood surfaces, we pick up sparkley things. We pick up objects to feel their heft, to judge what their made of. We shake things to see if they rattle, or jostle them to hear them jangle.

It puts me in mind of our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the great plains. We pick through the roots and grubs and berries, and eventually someone (a woman, I bet) picks up a pretty pebble instead, and says, “Hey, nice rock!” (This is also my theory about why women love beads so much.)

It is such compelling behavior that when people are in situations where they know they shouldn’t touch, they actually put their hands behind their back. Or hug themselves to contain their hands. Or put their hands in their pockets. They are physically restraining themselves from touching, because “don’t touch” goes against our very nature.

So we understand why we should find a way for our customers to touch. But why kids? Does that garner us more sales?

No….and yes.

My daughter often assists me at shows, and she’s a damn good observer of human nature. She’s noted that people with children in tow at shows, especially young children, are rarely actually shopping. They are simply out and about with kids. Even if they want to shop, the kids usually don’t let them anyway.

So why should we care if children can touch, if it isn’t even going to result in a sale?

Because showing people that you understand the behavior creates a loving environment in your booth.

And kids are the ones who are constantly being yelled at for touching.

Sometimes I think our culture is a little too hard on kids. It’s easy to see the ways we pander too much to kids. But often we expect kids to be little adults–and they’re not. They are little people, though. As Oprah says, little people without as much life experience as grown-ups.

The “don’t touch” rule is especially hard on them. It’s like telling them “don’t look!” or “don’t listen!”

So I find ways to let them touch.

Depending on their age, I just ask if they’d like to hold a horse (I keep a little hand-held sculpture handy for this). Or tell them if they are gentle, they may touch my artwork. Or if they are respectful of my work, they may touch it.

The atmosphere in my booth instantly relaxes and mellows.

The parents are relieved and grateful their kids aren’t going to get into trouble.

I get to tell the kids a little bit about my work.

Other customers in the booth–who are shopping–enjoy the vibe, too. Nobody likes misbehaving children. But no one likes to listen to someone yelling, either.

And the other customers get to listen to what I have to say about my work without talking to me directly until they’re ready. Often, after the family leaves, other customers comment on how kind I’ve been.

But I get rewarded in other ways, too. I get the funny stories. Last week at the Fair, I asked a very young child if he would like to hold one of my horses. He gazed at me solemnly with huge eyes, then softly asked, “Does he make a noise?”

I’ve come to realize that, if you look around my booth, every single artifact, every single horse, bear, stone, bone, shell, artifact (except for the ones that got big and became sculptures) can fit in your hand.

And this, I think, is no coincidence. I think from the very beginning,I knew how important it would be for my audience to touch, and hold, my work.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #4: And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

This article will be a long, but not inclusive look at walls. I am not the expert on booth design Bruce Baker is. I haven’t tried tons of different wall designs. But I’m happy to share my own personal experience with walls.

I have the unfortunate privilege to have created three distinct product lines that all demand different presentation. I need walls for displaying 2-D work; flat surfaces for displaying sculpture; and cases for displaying jewelry. I’ve had to do a lot of scrambling and head-scratching to come up with a good, integrated display to showcase my work, and not have it look like a jumble sale. (Sometimes it still does….!!)

Walls have been the most difficult.

I built my first booth for my in-state 9-day outdoor retail show, the Annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair. It’s not a good show to build a first booth for, because you get lulled into thinking you have to build an actual little “house” for such a long show. (It’s also under huge tents, which offers a lot of protection against the elements, but that’s another theme.)

In fact, many exhibitors show up with huge panel vans and trucks toting huge amounts of lumber and other building materials. You can actually hear power drills and saws whining during the two days of set-up (which is almost as loud as the whining of us craftspeople….), and hammmers pounding into the night.

Bruce Baker says most of us women say to our husbands, “Can you build me a booth?” and the guys swagger a bit and stick their thumbs in their toolbelts and drawl, “Sure, little lady, just leave it to me!” And then they build us these bulky, sturdy, heavy booths that demand a small crew of people to load, set-up, dismantle and cart away. I have actually seen women who divorced and showed up the next year with a completely different, streamlined booth, so I suspect it’s true.

I don’t mean they got divorced because of the booth (although, if you’ve ever eavesdropped while a couple puts a booth up, you can see how that would happen.) I mean that when they divorce, they come up with a different booth because they no longer have a guy with a truck and major power tools to help them put it up anymore.

The simplest, easiest and often cheapest wall solution is pole-and-drape. I bought mine from these people almost ten years ago: Flourish Canopies and Display Products They are nice people and took care of me and my pole-drape-needs for many years. It’s a good product and was competitively priced. I have no idea what’s out there now, but this company is a good place to start your research.

I have seen people make their own with good success, too. It depends on how much time and energy vs. money you have. I thought the drapes were well-made and the material was great. Lots of color choices, too. Much cheaper than I could have bought and sewn myself–and I sew for a living.

I went with a just-barely off-white color that was bright and light. I wish I could have figured out a way to have flat walls, but the drapes are pretty standard. Their material is inherently fire-retardant (VERY important, especially when you start to do juried shows and indoor shows). The poles broke down into shorter lengths, and a handy carrying bag kept it all together.

As I started to do wholesale shows, I could actually pin or attach my own drapes over the show pipe-and-drapes, to set my booth off from the hundreds of other gray drape booths. I could leave my pipe at home and simply ship the drapes (which were compact and lightweight.)

Drawbacks–the poles are HEAVY. This kind of tent is difficult to level on uneven ground. It is not weatherproof–you can ONLY use it under bigger tents or indoors. And it’s basically a square (or rectangle, depending on how many poles you set up). You can only work with straight lines and right angles.

The worst part for me was the walls were SOFT. If you only need a backdrop, that may not be a problem. But when I needed to have a stiff wall, I had to do things like hang reed roll-up curtains on top of the drape, or use those roll-up rice paper shades from Pier 1 Imports or stores in Chinatown. It looked kinda nice, all those layers, but also gave the booth a decidedly oriental look. Which was NOT what my work was about. Also, I now needed to pack more and more of these shades and screens. So my set-up was getting MORE complicated. Harder to level, harder to get straight lines, harder to get everything visually lined up.

I’ve seen booths using ONLY these roll-up shades (rice paper, reed), and they can be highly effective. Be sure to treat them with a fire-retardant spray, though, as they are highly flammable, too.

My next walls were fabric panels I made myself. I used heavyweight synthentic chenille panels. They hung from my poles and I pinned them together along the sides and at the bottom. They were rich but subdued colors, “tobacco colors” as one fiber artist said–gold, sage green, chestnut, brown. The panels hung straight, simulating a flat wall.

The effect was like being in a nomad’s tent, with layers of rich, textured fabric. The colors were warm and soothing, yet let my work pop. (I noticed men with color-blindness hated this booth–the colors seemed muddy to them.) Best of all, the look was very different from other trade show booths. You could catch a glimpse of the fabric walls way down an aisle and it just looked interesting and different–a good thing at a big show!

People came in my booth and stayed and stayed–and shopped and shopped. The fiber layers muffled noise and softened the lights, making a haven for weary buyers at wholesale shows and a peaceful, serene environment at retail shows.

Again, I could use my drapes over/with the show pipe-and-drapes. The drapes doubled as cushioning for my artwork during shipping, so it was cheap and easy to pack and ship.

Unfortunately, these panels were fussy and difficult to put up. And though the walls were flat, they were not sturdy. I still had a hard time hanging signs, 2-D work, etc.

Last year I splurged big-time and invested in MD ProPanels, which you can see here:
MD ProPanels and you can see them in situ <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/14881284@N08/1531994565/”here.

I absolutely love them. I will not compare them to Armstrong Panels because I can’t remember why I went with the MD Propanels. You can see the Armstrong version here:

Armstrong display panels

I THINK the Armstrong versions have an interior mesh, while the MD Propanel versions have a slab of styrofoam, and are lighter. I spoke to a lot of artists and went with the MDs, but you may find the Armstrongs will work better for you.

I’ve seen homemade versions of these panels being assembled at shows, and I still shudder to think of it. If you have tons of time, absolutely no money and love doing everything yourself, this may be for you. But the thought of cutting large sections of carpeting, screwing together dozens of little pieces, getting everything aligned, looking for little washers and screws, getting the fabric on straight, etc. etc. and watching those people sweat and swear and weep….well, it’s not for me.

What do I think of my MD Propanels?

I LOVE THEM.

These panels are expensive, but everything is already done–PERFECTLY. The panels arrive in uniform shape, perfectly finished and beautiful. You can order the adjustable legs which make leveling the booth on uneven ground a breeze. It takes a little practice, but the walls go up quickly and are perfectly stable once they are all connected and your stabilizer bars are in place.

I picked a neutral color that totally drops away and lets my work take center stage. The fabric still acts as a noise barrier, creating a quiet environment. It is ridiculously easy to hand signs and 2-D work with either T-pins or Velcro hangers.

You can order units that break down into two segments for easier shipping or carrying. You can order units that will accept shelves. There are many accessories and add-ons that allow you to add features at a later date.

Best of all, you can reconfigure the panels into all kinds of booth layouts. I actually used three panels to create a “tower” in one corner for a corner booth layout. You can also use both sides of the panels, so you can create little “half walls” or partitions. And hinged panels can act as doors to access storage, or to set off a little changing room for wearables.

Are they perfect?

No. You need to know you want shelves and where you want them when you order panels with shelf capability.

I wish the stabilizer bars came in varying heights because I have shows with different height restrictions.

I wish they had more components for hanging and display, because I’m finding my homemade Velcro components melt under summer heat, or freeze during shipping to winter shows.

It can be tricky to get everything square at first on hilly sites, though this is an incredibly stable booth once everything is in place.

And though the KD (knock-down) units are easier to ship, it’s still not SIMPLE or CHEAP to ship, like my drapes were.

One last caveat–as more and more people turn to MD Propanels, it will be hard for your booth to stand out. There are only half a dozen or so color choices, and the best (black) is becoming as common as dirt at shows. (Oooh, bad simile….)

On the other hand, when it came time to decide, I realized I’m not selling my booth.

What I mean is, I’m not in the business of creating the best BOOTH I can make. I’m in the business of creating the best ART I can make. The booth is just a vehicle for displaying and selling my art.

I don’t really want people noticing my booth or my floor or my display anymore. I want everything working quietly, subtly, to encourage them to simply see the ART. And to be comfortable, and enjoy peace and quiet to do that.

I think it’s working. What I’m hearing over and over the last few shows is, “You’ve created an entire world in here!

And oddly enough, although I always get high booth scores, this is the first year I got an honorable mention for my booth design. It’s odd because the booth structure itself is not “creative”.

But it’s doing it’s job–showcasing my art–beautifully.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #3: Alice’s Tiny Doors

I talked earlier about booths with so much stuff in them, you can’t get in. This common booth layout flaw is similar.

The way(s) into and out of the booth are way too small.

I called this essay “Alice’s Tiny Doors” because it reminds me of one of John Tenniel’s illustration in the book Alice in Wonderland. It’s the one where Alice is trying to get through a door that’s only two feet tall.

I’m guessing this booth layout problem happens when people design their booths on graph paper. You start to lay out these little squares and rectangles, lining everything up just so and squishing in as much display as you can. You plan a three-foot wide entrance, and leave a little three-foot wide path along here. The idea is the booth visitor will come through the little entrance and work there way along the path you’ve created.

In fact, years ago when I was part of a large group booth, the original plan was just that–a long, narrow booth with a U-shaped path consisting of two narrow entrances at the front. The idea was we would have display tables lining every wall. Visitors would come in one leg of the U and walk through, looking at every exhibit.

Everyone was very excited about the layout. Until I said, “How many people do you think can shop in that booth at one time?”

Huh?

I pointed out that the aisles were less than three feet wide. “That’s plenty of room for people to get through!” protested one artist.

Well…maybe. Though that didn’t mean people would WANT to walk through such a narrow aisle. “What happens if another person comes in the other ‘leg’ of the U?” I asked.

“People can scootch by each other”, one guy said. I noticed some of the women beginning to look uncomfortable. Women do not like people scootching by them when they are shopping.

“Okay, so let’s assume people will be willing to scootch. Buyers often shop in pairs. Now we have three people–or four people–trying to squish by each other. How conducive is that to shopping?” People began to nod their heads.

“And we’re supposed to be manning the booth. If two or three of us are in this aisle, that means every single shopper has to squish by every single craftsman working in the booth. How conducive is that to shopping?”

The layout was scrapped.

In this case, we had a beautiful booth location–four back-to-back booths at the end of a double row. We ended up keeping one large back wall (for our banner, wall art, etc.) and made multiple islands of display. Let people come into the booth no matter what aisle they’re in, I suggested. We ended up with almost six points entry.

That meant whenever one special item caught a buyer’s eye, they could immediately and easily pop into the booth and look. Once they were in our space, it felt like a department store. They could see many other intriguing displays, and they could easily move from one to the next.

This was a highly successful booth, because once people came in, they stayed.  And the longer they stayed, the more they bought.

Try not to herd people through cattle chutes in your booth. No scootching! Pablo Underhill used the term “butt brush” in his excellent book Why We Buy

The butt brush is when aisles are too narrow and someone brushes someone else from behind as they attempt to pass buy. The reaction of the brushed person is profound and extreme–they immediately stop shopping. It is an especially powerful reaction in women. So by all means, if you want women to stop shopping and leave your booth, make sure they are getting brushed and bumped from behind as people scootch by.

Guide people subtly with your display layout, and use visual cues to move them through your booth. Arrange your work so that one display leads to the next. Signage, dashes of color in a neutral display, lighting, work angled in interesting ways–all of these are so much more conducive to shopping than narrow paths and rigid layouts.

BOOTHS GONE BAD #2: Let Me In!

There’s a booth mistake that’s sort of related to the “Too Much Stuff” syndrome. But sparsely furnished booths can fall prey to it, too.

I call it the “I can’t come into your booth” syndrome.

People need to have easy access to your booth. They need to be able to walk in and feel like they aren’t going to knock something over or get bonked in the head.

You may think that’s a no-brainer, but it isn’t.

No whapping the customers in the head.

An artist who makes mobiles and wind chimes thought it would be cool to hang them all from the top of her booth. It would have been cool, too. Except that the top of her booth was only seven feet tall, and the mobiles hung down about 2-3 feet into her booth. And about 3-4 feet inside the walls of her tent. The effect was like walking through a fun tunnel at the fair. I was terrified I was going to get a mobile stuck in my hair.

Moving them against the walls, and up and out of range of people’s heads, would have the same wonderful effect with less customer intimidation.

Please do not electrocute the customers.

I use long goose-neck track lighting lamps overhead. The first time I used them was at a trade show booth, which is eight feet high. No problems.

The second time I used them was in my retail booth, which was seven feet high. They were out of the way of most people. Except for the tall guy who came in and had to keep swerving to avoid getting whapped in the head with my lamps. Oh, and the guy who came in with his little kid on his shoulders. Who promptly reached for the tracks. ai yi yi…..

I bought some risers that lifted the track lighting out of reach of everybody.

Let me in, let me in.

An artist had a tall display shelf right smack in the middle of the booth. “How does it look?” she asked. Great, I said. Except now I can’t see anything along the back wall. And it only leaves two feet on either side to get through–so I won’t even try, because I won’t want to run the risk of bumping anything. Why was it there, anyway?

“I don’t want to scare people out of the booth, so I thought I’d kinda hide behind it while I do some work,” she said.

Nice sentiment, but it doesn’t work. Do not hide from your customers. And put that shelf along the back wall. Until you get that 10×20 booth, of course.

Do not trip your customers.

I hate it when artists display stuff anywhere on or near the floor. Unless it’s a floor mat and supposed to be on the floor.

For one thing, anything sitting on the floor doesn’t look like you treasure it. It looks like you didn’t have a place for it so you set it on the floor. Stuff on the floor says “yard sale!”
For another, people’s feet stick out from their bodies. That is why there is a toe-kick space under your kitchen cabinets–so your feet have a place to go while you stand at the sink doing dishes. When people are standing at your booth wall, looking at your work, they do not think to look down to mind where their feet go.

Bruce Baker says people also hate, hate, hate bending over to look at stuff. This is true, too. I’m now at that age when even if I squat down, I have to think really hard about getting back up.

So don’t put stuff on the floor.

I need my space….

The next time your booth is set up, take a cold, hard look at how Can people come in easily? If they stand outside your booth and look in, that’s a good sign there’s something psychological that’s keeping them out.

If the layout is cramped, or narrow or shallow, or if things look precarious, people will not come in. They don’t want to wreak havoc in your booth!
If you do have “aisles”, make them spacious so people can get by. And wide enough so that if one person is looking at something, others can get passed them.

If you have a displays that jut out, is there enough space for people to navigate around it? Especially without bumping something else??

Watch out for dead-ends in your booth. They can be subtle–a little alcove-type space behind your cases, for example. Believe it or not, people hate being “trapped” in a booth and won’t go into places if they feel they might not be able to get out. If there’s a little corner or space people aren’t checking out, it may mean there’s a little psychological “dead-end” space there. Smooth out an angle or open it up a bit, and see if that makes it more approachable.

How to freak out your customers

Are your displays secure? Sometimes we get so caught up in making our displays easily transportable, we forget that they have to stand up to actual use. If people touch a pair of earrings and the display stand falls over, it will freak them out. If they lean on a jewelry case and it rocks, it will freak them out. If a branch holding Christmas ornaments is sticking out and snags their shirt as they walk by, it freaks them out. Especially if they pull the entire display over. And something breaks. oy.

A furniture maker makes coffee tables, end tables, smaller pieces. These are something that could easily be bumped into and knocked over, or ding a knee on. He came up with a great solution. He created little “floor islands”–small raised floor sections a little bigger than each piece of furniture–sometimes big enough to hold two or three pieces in a setting. They had a twofold effect. They elevated the furniture and gave it more presence. And they gave each piece a little “breathing room”, room for people to walk around and not run into stuff. It felt very elegant yet comfortable being in his booth.

Avoid making your customers feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop, and they will relax and shop. And shop. And shop!

BOOTHS GONE BAD #1: Too Much Stuff

One of the biggest mistakes I see in booth design is the “Loaded Booth” look.

There are many variations on this theme. There is the “Something for Everyone” look. There is the “One in Every Color” look. There is the “I Can Make a Million of These (and I Have!)” look.

Unfortunately, the result is the same. It ends up looking like the “Artist with No Focus” look.

Believe me, I know what you’re trying to say: “I’m an artist, I am extremely creative, I have a million ideas, and I don’t want to color inside the lines!”

But the result is chaos and confusion.

There is work covering the entire walls of the booth. There are widgets right up to the top of the booth. There are widgets hanging ten inches off the ground. In fact, the walls are not enough. Sometimes the widgets are actually on the floor, leaning against the walls.

Every surface is covered with widgets and more widgets. “Maybe I can cram another one in here!” thinks the artist during set-up.

If the widgets are displayed in a basket, there aren’t merely a handful, or a even a basketful. The basket will be piled to overflowing. No one can actually look through them, either, without actually dumping the basket out in a pile and looking through them that way. Except the counter the basket is on is full, too.

If there is a print bin, it is jammed so full you can’t thumb through the stash. Or there are so many bins, you know it will take a huge chunk of time to go through them.

If there are little widgets on the wall, evenly spaced so as to maximize the display space, the eye has no resting place, no focal point. You simply stand and gaze around and around, looking, wishing desperately for something to jump out at you.

How do I know?

Because this is how I set up my first booth. And this is what a friend told me afterwards.

She had money. She was a shopaholic. She loved my work.

She wanted to buy something from me. She really wanted to buy something from me. She wanted to buy a lot of things from me.

But she has mild attention defiecit disorder, and was overwhelmed with all the choices. In fact, the “buzz” of my display made her anxious.

She ended up buying NOTHING.

We could blame it on her ADD, but the fact is, almost everyone feels this way when presented with too many choices.

Even those of us who adore the yard sale modality don’t expect to find this with art.

And even if we do, it doesn’t mean we have the time, energy or patience to dig through this at an art fair.

Now pretend you are at a big art fair. Or a huge wholesale show. Or a monstrous trade show. (Think of thousands of booths….)

We want to chose the best one of something. Or be able to quickly sort out what strikes our fancy, and eliminate that which doesn’t.

Too many choices makes it too hard for us to sort.

So limit people’s choices.  As counterintuitive as this sounds, it works.

Don’t make them choose the best of fifty.  Make them choose the best of seven.  Or three.  Or even two.

Don’t make them choose from 28 subjects.  Let them choose from half a dozen.  If they don’t see what they want, they can ask.  And that gives you a chance to talk to them, too.

If you make something in lots of colors, only show a few. Or spread out the color choices among several styles. People will get that you can make it in purple. And if they like it, they’ll ask if you also make it in green. (That’s your cue to whip out your green one.)

Display fewer things, and be ready to restock an empty space quickly. In fact, sometimes that empty space is a good thing. I’ve had customers ask, “What was here??”, pointing to an empty place with a price tag. They’re curious what sold. They want to know what they’re missing. When you pull out another piece, they look at it closely. Maybe they should get one, too!

Signs can be a good way to get a customer’s overloaded brain to rest for a moment. Just keep them neat and simple and easy to read. You can hang your artist statement, or introduce a new series. You can describe a special feature about your widget, or tell a little story about a special piece.

Group your work in some way. This can be by subject, color, style or series. There are pros and cons for each way of organizing, but don’t worry about that right now. Just make some “white space” around your work.

In fact, think of how you feel when you pick up a magazine and browse through the articles.

How do you feel when you see page after page of tiny print, long paragraphs, long run-on sentences with convoluted syntax, no photos or images, and no captions?

Now think of an article with good column width, good margins, a comfortably-sized and easy-to-read font, subtitles, captions, highlights, etc. It’s easier to read, easier to jump in and sample a section, easier to find your place if you get distracted or have to put it down for a moment.

Make your booth easier to read. Make it easier to jump in and sample. Make it easier to navigate.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to prove you’re an artist. They’ll know.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD

I’m literally watching paint dry today. I’m finishing up the last of my teeny tiny wall hangings, a special series I’m doing for this year’s annual League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair.

For some reason, booths and booth design is on my mind today. A friend asked me to critique her new booth, which got me thinking about it. I also came across a blog of a new artist who did a major trade show for the first time. A picture of the booth was featured.

It was quickly obvious to me that several things were wrong with both booth layouts. They just didn’t look right. With my friend’s booth, I didn’t want to walk in. It didn’t feel right.

The more I thought about it, these two booth issues–not looking right and not feeling right–are the essence of bad booth design.

So over the next few days, in between my panic attacks and preparations for the Fair, I’ll share insights about what makes a bad booth.

Now, if you want a wonderful treatise on booths and booth design, run don’t walk to Bruce Baker’s website and order his CD on booth design. Actually, I can pretty much guarantee any CD you purchase from Bruce will help you tremendously, whether it’s his booth design CD, his one on selling your artwork, or the one on jury slides. Better yet, get yourself over to one of his seminars at the first opportunity. You will not regret it.
Bruce Baker, Guru of booth design

Another good book to read is Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy

Underhill’s consulting team actually watched people shopping, and discovered what makes them stop shopping.

I’ve learned a lot from Bruce and from Paco. (I’m not really on a first-name basis with Mr. Underhill, just striving for a friendly note here.) I do not intend to channel either of them. I encourage you strongly to invest in their products. Bruce’s CDs are a steal at less than $15 each when you buy all three, and Mr. Underhill’s book is not expensive, either.

My point is that you can start thinking differently about your booth set-up, using what you already know about shopping.

In fact, your first assignment is to go shopping. Yes! Right now! Stop everything and go out and buy something.

Just kidding. I mean the next time you have to go shopping, pay attention to what’s going on.

Hey, where did everybody go?! Get back here!

Pay attention to what compels you to pick something up and think about buying it, and what makes you put it down (besides that whopping price sticker, that is.)

Pay attention to what parts of the store and display you are drawn to, and what drives you away.

Pay attention to how you feel about the salespeople–what they say and do that keeps you shopping, and what makes you want to run out the door.

One thing leaped out at me in the new exhibitor’s comments. The artist said, “Hey, it’s about the work, right? If the work is GREAT, then nobody really cares about your display!”

That’s true….and not true.

It’s true that great work overcomes a lot.

And it’s true we are born to shop.

I think it’s part of our hunter-gatherer heritage. We love to look for the best little tidbits, the juiciest grub, the prettiest pebble, the biggest mammoth. Just substitute “perfectly marbled sirloin steak”, “coolest little pair of earrings” and “sexiest strap-back shoes” and you’ll find we have not come very far from our ancestral roots at all. (“Are you gonna eat that?”)

But I also I think when a buyer has hundreds, if not thousands of artists to choose from, then as they walk the aisles they are automatically looking for reasons to eliminate you from consideration.

They have to. They can’t look at 1,000 different things and choose the best. They have to cull out the things that are obviously not of interest, and only focus on the things that might be.

And somewhere in the middle is a whole bunch of stuff that might be worth considering…maybe…but maybe not….? Anything you do that gets you eliminated in that first few seconds means your wonderful work never made it into the final running.

I do this when I shop. For awhile, I was bored with most jewelry. It all looked alike to me. I’ve only got an hour or so to scout out an entire store. So to save time, I would skip past the entire jewelry section. Hard to believe, but there you are.

If you were a jewelry designer, how would you encourage me to stop?

We all do this as a way to organize the time we have to shop, or to stay in a budget (if only for a few hours!) “I have enough short-sleeved shirts, I’m only looking at dresses today.” Or, “I already have too many dishes, I don’t have room in my cupboards for more.” “I don’t really need any tomatoes today, I don’t care if they’re on sale.”

Our buyers do the same thing. They is us.

Stay tuned as I share some simple, common mistakes people make with their booths. You do it, I do it, we all do it. But we can turn it around.

No bad booth. Just booths that have temporarily lost their way….