Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Things I learned from my first outdoor craft show.

This past weekend, I vended at an outdoor show for the first time. I've done craft fairs before, but setting up in a field presents many challenges that I didn't have to deal with in an art gallery or indoor communal space. As I suspected, I learned a lot about what works, what doesn't, and what's just plain out of your control when you're showing your work outside!

Your displays probably aren't secure enough. Most outdoor vendors know the importance of staking and weighting down tents so that they don't become airborne in a strong wind (and if you didn't know that -- yes, it really is THAT important.) I'd heard horror stories about flying tents taking out a fellow crafter's entire stock, so was extra paranoid about securing mine, and the tent did just fine. The added bonus of a good secure tent is, you can tie things like easels and table legs to the tent's supports for extra stability.

It was the other parts of my display, which I really wasn't worried about, that succumbed to Mother Nature. (more on that in a bit.) Free hint: If the back supports of your necklace busts are cardboard, they will turn to mush if heavily rained upon. Duh. That didn't even occur to me, and those are now in the trash and will need to be replaced with something more impervious. If you can easily knock a display over with your hand, the wind can knock it over too. Are you planning on reusing your empty boxes by draping them in some nice fabric and placing them on your table to create height? Don't leave them empty -- a bad wind will send them flying even if they're duct taped to your table. I stuck a couple of hardcover books in each one and that helped weigh them down against wind.

These necklace busts are now in the trash -- their cardboard back supports were no match for heavy rain.

Next time I'm going to vend outdoors, I'll take my displays outside on a windy day, throw some earrings or necklaces on them, and see how they behave. I don't want any more surprises!

But even if you do everything right, the weather may still defeat you. As the show was opening Sunday, a freak storm with strong winds blew up out of nowhere. I was horrified when I actually saw one of my weights -- a big bin full of kitty litter -- become airborne. I'm sorry, but if the wind is strong enough to take out something that heavy, nothing short of Super Glue is going to hold down little sparkly pieces of jewelry! The most terrifying moment came when we were struggling to take down the tent walls -- yes, they kept out the rain, but made the wind worse -- and an entire folding table upended, spewing earrings and bracelets all over the ground.

I'm still working on solutions for serious storms going forward -- if you've got a great tip for windproof jewelry displays that also create height and visual interest, I'd love to hear it! At this point, the best advice I can offer is to have a well-staffed table. I had a friend helping me but we needed more than two people to hold everything down during the worst of the storm. I really regretted sending my boyfriend home after he was finished helping me haul everything -- a third pair of hands probably would've saved the table when my friend and I were racing to get the walls down.

Be flexible regarding your setup. I did a test run, in my living room, of my tent's layout, finally settling on an L-shaped configuration of tables and easels with the entrance at the front and me at the back. When I arrived at the park at oh-my-god-o'clock Saturday morning to set up, I was shown to my spot and the person in charge casually mentioned, "oh, and people will be coming into your tent from both sides so you'll want people to be able to pass through the tent." Uh, OK then! So, on the fly I rearranged my setup so that the tables were on either side of the tent, and people could walk right through. It worked out OK, but next time I'll arrive armed with a few different setup ideas just in case of unexpected layout requirements.

Yep, there's the kitty litter bin that went airborne. Also, midway through Saturday I realized that everyone was entering only on one side of the tent and no one really had felt the need to pass through. So I moved my sign to where people could actually see it.

If the weather turns really bad, you also may need to redefine your idea of a functional display. I finally committed the cardinal sin of laying some necklaces flat on the table, and just dealt with it. Did it look bad? Kind of.... but not as bad as having broken necklaces because the easel they're hanging on keeps blowing over despite being pounded into the ground and tied down in three places.

My lovely necklace display, which had to be scrapped when the rain and wind hit Sunday.

Bring more rope, tape, and tools than you think you'll need. At the last minute, I ran out and grabbed a roll of duct tape and some of those big black plastic binder clips like they have at the office. I wasn't sure if I'd need them, but decided to have them on hand just in case. And I wouldn't have made it through the weekend without those two items. The binder clips were great for attaching displays to my table and clipping down my blowing tablecloths... and, well, duct tape solves everything, right?

Sunblock, sunblock, sunblock. As a pale-faced goth who truly prefers to stay pasty white, I am religious about slathering myself with SPF 1,000,000 whenever outside. But it's funny how quickly thoughts of protecting one's skin go out the window when one is more concerned about holding up one's displays and accounting for all the jewelry that just spewed onto the ground in a big old tangle. Yeah, I'm rocking an awesome sunburn on my back right now, since the sun came out and I apparently was sweating off my sunblock faster than I could reapply it.

You can't control some things. The weather, for example. Or, whether other sellers don't weight and stake their tents, which keep falling over into your space. (though, there was one crafter who brought extra weights for those who needed them -- not a bad idea if you happen to have extras lying around!) Or, whether almost every other vendor at the show elects not to ride out the storm, packs up, and leaves. I chose to stay, and I'm glad I did. The day turned sunny, and shoppers started trickling in. But they were expecting a lot more vendors than the six of us who decided to stick it out until the end, and every one of them told me, "I thought this show would be bigger." That's out of my control, though, and all I can do is hope that, next year, Mother Nature is a little kinder to us.

Got a great craft show horror story or lesson learned? I'd love to hear it!


  1. Great tips, your booth looked great, and OMG I cannot believe that bucket of litter went airborne!!!!

  2. Wow that was quite an initiation into out door craft fairs! I've never done one but if I do I'll definitely be keeping your tips in mind. :)

  3. Thanks for sharing all these great tips. I'm doing an outdoor show in October and will use all of your suggestions!

  4. one thing i learned at a show where the woman next to me had her car taken out by a fallen tree and her 4X4" wooden displays fly away (the wind was THAT BAD) was, at the first sign of the storm, lay your tall displays down and undo the canopy of your tent and wrap your tables with it.
    i was one of the few people who lost nothing in that show except my eyeglasses that got tossed to the concrete and scratched.
    One display idea that works well is the 4" grid wire panels that attach to the top and legs of your tent...attach your wooden panel to that in all 4 corners and it should help stabilize.
    Outdoor shows can be the best AND the worst!
    nice shop--good luck to you!


  5. Outdoor shows are tough. I do a few 2-3 day outdoor shows, and it seems like it rains every year during them. I've gone home many times to return the next day to see many vendors tents (thankfully not mine) crumble due to the rain collecting on the top, thus breaking the metal supports.

    A nice vendor told me one day, that to prevent this, go buy 4 noodles (you know, like the ones you use in the pool) and put them in the corners (where the corners meet, one end on either side). This make the water drain off the top of your tent instead of collecting on it.

    I also leave my sides up during a storm to protect my product. To prevent the sides from knocking everything over, I move my tables in (away from the sides) and take down my top level riser displays. Believe me, if there is anyone in your tent during the storm, they are not there to shop, but to seek refuge.

    As for the displays & risers...

    My risers are very simple and inexpensive. I bought wooden book shelves from Home Depot and covered them in a dark fabric. Then, in the lumber section, I had them cut down 4x4 wood posts in two heights (apporx. 5" and 10"). I wrapped these in the dark fabric as well. I applied the heavy duty velcro strips to the shelves and blocks to keep the risers stable. Believe, these blocks are HEAVY and have held up in many storms.

    My busts (I have jewelry too) are not made of cardboard (I learned that lesson the hard way as well), they are the regular busts you see in a jewelry store. I get the faux leather because they can get damp and are easy to keep clean. I have found a great place to get them cheap (nilecorp.com), but they ship slow. I also have necklaces hanging from iron racks that are very heavy and durable. I secure these with elastic (what you use to make stretchy bracelets) to prevent theft (I'll be talking about this topic on my blog soon).

    My earrings are on pretty iron earring holders I get from TJ Max. They are durable and weighted in the base. Plus, it's harder for someone to steal them if it takes time to remove them from the rack one at a time.

    Hope this helps and I'll be writing about craft shows and how to prevent theft over on my blog later this month.



  6. Jewels for hope is doing a show the end of Sept. Thanks for all the tips....

  7. i experienced many of these things at our garage sale in january (it was so bad that a passing motorist stopped her car and ran to help us). (expensive art supplies and art books bit the dust.) i'm going to do my first outdoor event in a few weeks and have been thinking about how to solve the problems you addressed. i think i'll print out this page. and continue reading your blog. thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience!

  8. Embraceletsdesigns, these are excellent tips! Thank you so much for sharing! I don't have any more outdoor shows scheduled for this year (here in Chicago the season is short) but will definitely be on the lookout for some of those items. I especially like the iron earring tree idea.

    Good luck to all of you doing outdoor shows -- sending you sunny, non-windy weather vibes! :)

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