Make Room. Modern Design Meets Craft. WEST. Designer: Jennifer Walter. Photo: B. Martin

Continued from previous post “A Map Is Worth A Thousand Words.”

Our society is glued to TVs, computers, and handheld devices. We use them to stay informed, but an equally big part of their attraction is the constant entertainment that’s provided, which we’ve become accustomed, if not addicted to. (Not passing blame, I like Downton Abbey just like the rest of you.)

The reason I am bringing this up is that I think attending a retail craft show is a form of entertainment too - and a good one, if you have to ask. Yes, people go to these events knowing they will probably buy our work, but craft shows are also a fun, exciting, interesting, and colorful form of entertainment for many. You don't have to like it, but you know it's true.

The next logical question that follows: if you are an artist at a craft show, what do you do to entertain all these people strolling by? How do you get them to pay attention to your booth?

Granted, we all think that our work is worth a trek across the Gobi desert (Ain't no mountain high enough...,) but if we find our booth surrounded by equal greatness to the left and right, then what makes us so special? In other words, what factors are at play for craft show success, or failure, other than booth location and the often-cited competition? Price of our wares? Yes, it’s a factor, but not the most important one.

Always cheerful and welcoming: Jennifer Merchant.

Especially in large shows like the ACC Baltimore, anything an artist can do to stand out, get recognized, and found again during the second walk-through is going to be the ticket. Experts on booth design and behavioral psychology wrote whole shelve-loads of books about how to accomplish this and it’s an often talked-about topic in professional development forums. All the experts agree: you only have a few seconds to leave a good impression. If your booth fails to pique interest within that short time frame, customers will move on to seek more exciting scenarios no matter how awe-inspiring and technically skilled your work is!

Looking back at your own experience eagerly walking into certain craft booths while passing over others, what was it that drew you in? Can you name anything other than the work on display? (Not a rhetorical question. If you can describe an attractive booth I’d love to hear about it in the comment segment below this post. Thank you.)

Good to see an old friend from the 'burgh: Alison Hilton Jones. What was the first thing you saw in this image? Yup, me too.

Many artists use black or white drapery as their booth walls because it conveniently comes with the package provided by the show organizer. There’s nothing wrong with using that drapery. I absolutely understand efficiency and not wanting to schlep something with you that’s not sorely needed, but how about adding a little of your charming artistic individuality to that drapery to make it stand out from the other booths? Have it be more interesting to look at than plain white or black?

Some artists at the ACC show added a dot of color to their backdrop (see the above image, Alison Hilton Jones) and it made an immediate, positive difference. A panel of colorful fabric or paper is eye-catching, does not weigh much, and is easy to come by. Most artists had a big picture of their work or their name in huge letters at the back of their booth wall. Both are good things to do, but they’re not exactly exciting new ideas. The question is, what else can you do to enhance your customers’ experience, to set yourself apart from all the other hundreds of booths people plan to look at?

There surely are many different ways to decorate a 10x10, but, with few exceptions, I saw a lot of sameness at this Baltimore ACC show. Not in terms of the work that was offered, which was interesting and highly-skilled, but solely in terms of how it was presented by the artists. Where are the fresh ideas, people? To draw attention, you need light, color, and some kind of activity. The most people did was stand behind or in front of their display looking good. Sorry, that’s simply not cutting it if you want to stand out.

Chihiro Makio and a helper. Love that work! Notice how the color of the green sweater draws the eye?

If there is one big request I have of artists currently thinking about creating their personal show booth it would be this: Please be much more adventurous with your interior booth design. Our customers, especially the non-art crowd, are not looking for an education from you about the technical prowess of your work, they are looking for an entertainment experience, preferably a thrilling one.

Please realize that we are in the luxury business, all of us. We are selling very nice work, but they are non-essential (for our survival) items. We aren’t curing cancer here. We make fancy objects for people who have a little extra cash on the side, which they are willing to spend on themselves. They don’t have to buy our work, they certainly don’t owe any of us a purchase simply because we show up. It is their choice whether or not they buy. How about you make that choice easier by giving them something they want? What do they want? (Thank you, I thought you’d never ask.)

In the end, for a non-essential-for-survival item, a customer wants something they can personally connect with on an emotional level. Something that reminds them of and makes sense with their own history. That could be a memory of an experience, of a feeling, of a place, or of a person. This is all a bit esoteric, so allow me to explain what I mean:

You are in an environment where selling is the big idea, so this is not the time to be shy. If you provide someone with the expectation of a unique booth environment, chances are much higher that person will want to come into your booth, engage with you, and buy a piece of what you have to offer. The best advice I can give is this: Help your customers by giving them something to connect with. That connection can be visual or aural. (Smell also comes into play sometimes, but it is almost impossible to pull off at an in-door event as it would first infuriate your neighbors and then draw the fire marshal to your booth.)

If you doubt me, look at it from your own perspective: If you were at a craft show as a customer, you would only buy what makes sense to you, what excites you, what your spouse/partner/friends think is cool/nice/desirable, what you think you will look good in, what fits on your walls and inside your home. As you just noticed, your own buying decision has nothing to do with the artist you are buying from, maybe a little with his or her skills, but certainly never anything with the hardships and frustrations the creative had to overcome. Why would a customer looking at your booth feel any different about buying than you do yourself?

Face it, outside of a gallery or museum situation, when it comes to selling directly to the public it’s truly all about what your customer wants. It’s not about you, the artist. Sorry.

How about adding an image to your display other than your work that can evoke a memory in your customer? Say an image of a rock concert (i.e. hands waving,) a nature setting (i.e. the beach, the forest, a lake,) or anything else that you would like to bring up as a potential connection point between your work and the person looking at it. If you are unsure of what that could be, try polling some people and see what that data suggests the connection points are.

Colorful and well-edited: Katja Toporski' booth.

Always good to see her and her work, Nicolette Absil. She's already thinking of adding more color to her display soon. Probably gold or a contrasting color. You go, girl!

Another suggestion: Please do your customers a favor and edit your display down to fewer pieces. Way down. I saw booths that had such an abundance of work on display, it seemed as if the artist dragged absolutely everything out in hopes that something, anything, might spark interest. A well-edited display will help your customer to focus. Focus on the story you want to tell and focus on the emotional connection they need to make. You can always offer more variety once someone is seriously interested.

Oh, and please: Do not hide behind your display eating sandwiches or appear uninterested or bored. Having a helper in your booth will ensure that at least one of you can engage with the customer.

I found a great example of a good booth experience with Deb Karash (2 images above.) Her whole setup was highly functional and creative, interesting and different. Look at the lamp and mirror attached to the side of her wall and the handy tray below it. Clever. Also: All of the round display openings are lighted on the inside and fully accessible.

(By the way, Deb is currently thinking about selling these booth cases because she came up with something new to showcase her work in. She's keeping things fresh for her customers.  If anyone’s interested to purchase her display pictured here, she asks that you be in touch via her website.)

Ford/Forlano also had a very good display, it was open on two sides and resembled a gallery setting. There was no hiding possible for Steve or David, they set it up so that they simply had to interact with people - and they did. Nice job.

I really liked David D'Imperio's display of lighting units at the end of a row. Beautiful! Check out his website!

While I am at it: Let customers handle your work in person. Please take it out of the display case and hand it over every chance you get. We are not in a museum environment. Unless the work can break or get smudgy, let people touch it. In fact, if the work could break or get smudgy then how about handing out white gloves? Now that would be a new experience!

Displaying work at eye level truly draws visitors in. Have a large mirror close by so that people can admire themselves while wearing your work. Watching other people having a good time in your booth is great advertising. People are drawn to booths that look “different,” booths where customers are warmly greeted and genuinely welcomed, where someone speaks in a non-condescending way, where a customer’s opinion is listened to and, lastly, booths where something interesting and fun takes place!

How many of these things happen in your booth?

Anna Boothe (905, glass) and David Short (1906, ceramics) were awarded Best Booth Design in Baltimore this year. I'll see if I can get you images of their booths, will follow up on that. In absence of these newest images, I would like to cite Emiko Oye’s ACC San Francisco booth from a few years back as a shining example of how to create a great booth experience (2 images above.) Attention drawing, unique, memorable, and, best of all: perfectly suited for her work. I never saw that booth in person, the closest I ever got to it was seeing images online, but I still remember it to this day. Now that’s a memorable booth.

As another good example of giving people a memorable booth experience, I’d like to point to the ACC’s cluster of Let’s Make Pavillion in Baltimore. Centrally located on the show floor, each booth hosted a different craft activity people could try out. No reservation or prior knowledge required. No long lectures given either. The booths were well attended on Friday and positively packed on Saturday. Why? Because they offered something unique and fun on this show floor: an interactive environment and a chance to try out a variety of craft media - or, in the case of the Balvenie booth, sipping some whiskey. (I never got around to a whiskey tasting myself, one of my major regrets that weekend. I heard it was really good. Oh well.)

Granted, you won’t be able to light up a torch, hand out Martinis, or do an extended workshop in your own booth. But you are a creative person, I am sure you could think of a small experience to make your booth be the one people will remember and want to get back to! Think interactive, interesting, and helpful.

Shooting off the hip here: Jewelers, can you offer free ring-sizing? Fiber artists, how about putting up a mini-loom or embroidery stand, let people touch a needle? Ceramicists, is it possible to have a non-electric wheel somewhere people can just sit at to get a feel for what it’s like? Wood workers: How about having various tools on display for people to touch? I bet visitors would love that. As far as I am concerned, I’ve never seen a tool I didn’t like.

Just brainstorming some thoughts out-loud here to get you going. I understand booth real estate is precious and you want to primarily sell to make ends meet. I get that. This engagement idea I put in front of you is about giving visitors something unusual and interesting to wrap their heads around and connect with, let them be more than just walking wallets. If you think these ideas are too distracting/time-consuming/difficult then feel free to come up with a smaller-scale activity and brainstorm with me and others in the comments below. How about hanging an iPad or small flat screen TV on a wall showing a short video about you?

Ask yourself: What would draw your attention to a booth - other than the work? What would be an awesome experience to have?

Grant Whittaker and yours truly.

In that vein, another interesting activity the ACC started this year was the Style Slam which took place close to the Let’s Make booths. A group of fashion stylists went through show booths looking for pieces to highlight, then staged a make-over-slash-fashion-show event demonstrating how the work they picked could be worn. It was all lights, camera, action. In short: a lot of attention-drawing fun.

I happened to meet one of the show’s stylists, Grant Whittaker, on Friday evening and we hit it off right away. Grant is funny, irreverent, and very charming, a total ham. (His mom is from Germany, like I am, and he speaks German with the cutest Heidelberg accent. Hilarious.) Grant presented the Style Slam on Saturday and his showmanship qualities were perfectly suited for the event. He drew a crowd to the Style Slam booth for sure ... hmm, you see what I am getting at?

To round this up: From what I have seen and what others confirmed: the ACC Baltimore is one of the important US craft shows artists aspire to exhibit in. As a visitor you expect a bonanza of craft and you will get it. The best part? The sheer size of the show. The worst part? The sheer size of the show! Go ahead and try taking it all in during one walk-through, see if you can recall much of anything afterwards, let alone manage to get back to that awesome artist you swore you would always remember (I'll never forget good old what’s-his-name.)

This show is big and it brings in crowds who like it just like that. People’s tastes are different and that’s why the huge variety on this show floor is a very good thing. There’s truly something here for everyone to like.
Was I glad I came? Absolutely. Most of the work was very good, much of it was outstanding. Meeting some of the masters and geniuses of the various craft fields in person is definitely a privilege we don’t often have, and I was glad to see so many of them clustered here and ready to chat about their work. Would I visit this show again? Yes, and I highly recommend you give it a try too. Spend as much time as you possibly can. Two days is a decent amount of time, three days is not too much.

Insider tip: bring comfortable shoes...and your wallet.


(3) The show artist perspective. Laura Jaklitsch: Background and startup cost.

Myung Urso in her booth. Her work showed very well against the grey backdrop.

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Replies to This Discussion

Sooner or later anyone in retail should learn to not judge someone by any criteria, especially clothes. I try my best to be engaging to all, but when I am the customer, I get tired of the perky hopeful how are you chit chat from every single artist I walk up to. I get tired of "if you have any questions" Some of my best customers look as if they never heard of art jewelry, let alone buy and wear any. 

As for pricing, I do put prices on each piece, but underneath on a sticker so it doesn't take away from the piece. I used to have tags, but didn't like them dangling all over, people do have to ask, but only once, because then they know where to look. What I would really love is to have the space to have the price on a small block next to the jewelry, but that is impractical in a small booth. 

I don't really have to add this, but speaking of clothes. I was at Penland, and everyone was wearing the same grunge outfit, boots or chucks, and tattooed. I went to the Bead and Button in Milwaukee, and they were all wearing the same outfit there! Artsy clothes, an asymmetrical haircut with a swoosh of bright color.  

Bahahaha! I might be packin $350 next year, so... watch out!

I'm glad you agree on pricing view-ability, Brigitte! No matter how much money you have (or don't have), you're going to have to ask, and it's always awkward and uncomfortable. 

Another anecdote: My mom went to a jewelry booth at ACC a few years back. Very minimalist work, hard to tell what would set apart prices and by how much (no stones, etc). So, she had picked out a couple pairs of earrings she liked, asked the price - around $250 - continued browsing. The artist suggested another pair - similar style, size, materials - and when he rang her up that pair was nearly $500! Needless to say, she was too embarrassed at that point to back out so she went ahead and bought the earrings. As a jeweler, I couldn't tell much of a difference and, not that they weren't worth $500, but I would've gone with the $250 too. Now, instead of feeling happy every time she wears them like she should, all she can think about is how much they cost and she feels guilty for spending that much money. I would never want a customer to feel that way, and she certainly won't be going back to that guy in the future.

Well it's too bad that she went through with the sale and now feels bad. I have prices showing on my pieces and often people say, thank you. I don't have a price on a few of my high end show piece because people seem to gasp. I'm ready to tell them those prices as soon as I take the piece out. 

Brigette, great article.  I agree with you on so many points.  I make jewelry and always try to make my display just a backdrop for the work.  I am always trying to improve my display and am wondering if I will ever get it to be just exactly what I want.  The article did help and the pictures made me wish I was there to take it all in.

Thank you,

Lona Northener

Hi Lona - Thanks for your feedback. It is indeed very difficult to think of everything, do it all, and do it perfectly. Like with most things in life, the point is not perfection but giving it your best shot trying, so you have my heartiest applause for that!

I hope Harriete's spot-on remark about our customers being used to splendid displays everywhere they go, paired with my few examples of interesting window display will be helpful. Since this post came out, I also heard from people privately that they plan to google "great window dressing" (or something like that) and see what hey can learn and use in their future booths. More power to you all!

Really great and thorough article. There are some practical matters to keep in mind from the artists view: For those who fly, and apparently a lot of jewelers do fly to shows-I myself am working on it, there are so many parameters to keep in mind for a flying booth, including actual weight. The shows rent pipe and drape and that's where you have cookie cutter, but it's not practical to take it with when flying, shipping is not only expensive but many of these indoor venues have additional costs, Drayage fees, which run into the hundreds. I don't know that artists are having stellar shows these days. word on the street is adequate is the new good. With that in mind, artists try to keep overhead low. Of course the booth needs to look great...just pointing out the many obstacles and challenges.

Thanks Allison, this is so true, and, it changes from show to show what we have to work with.

there may be many that disagree with what i will say, but it has been my experience for the last 15+ years i have done shows.  i do not do acc by choice.  yes, it is wonderful for name recognition but i have never been willing to risk that much $$ on one show and have chosen to do most others except acc.  it has been a blessing for many, but my thoughts are not related to a specific show.

brigitte stated, what i think to be quite true: "If you doubt me, look at it from your own perspective: If you were at a craft show as a customer, you would only buy what makes sense to you, what excites you, what your spouse/partner/friends think is cool/nice/desirable, what you think you will look good in, what fits on your walls and inside your home. As you just noticed, your own buying decision has nothing to do with the artist you are buying from, maybe a little with his or her skills, but certainly never anything with the hardships and frustrations the creative had to overcome. Why would a customer looking at your booth feel any different about buying than you do yourself?"  

my perspective is:  i make a nice/interesting/interactive booth--but i doubt it would be considered the most exciting or avante garde.  just what makes sense for me and my vehicle situation to the best of my ability and with time in mind--i already take 10 hours to set-up a solo gig.  

my observation and experience is that people come for the work, not your booth display.  if it's god awful, maybe they won't look, but if it's nice, which most actually are, and they care about your medium, they are going to look.  i do believe it to be that basic, raw, and simple.  i cannot claim to have sold to anyone that did not care about jewelry regardless of my booth. and i am on about iteration 11 or 12 now.  i really don't know anyone that ever told me that they had sales because their booth stood out so much that people came in and just had to buy.  i have seen people with arguably the best booth display in the place (and even won a best booth award), go home with a zero or low show while many others go home happy.  that's not to say their work was not great, but it does speak to the booth not being what drives sales.  it can be many factors--cost of their work, fluke, personality, etc.

and i think it was jessica that spoke to personality.  if someone walks in and is greeted warmly, the customer has no idea what your booth looks like.  it is the treatment they recall.  

i personally look at any booth that has work in which i have interest and do not even notice their display.  sounds terrible, but it is true.  and if the person is not nice, i leave no matter how i feel about their work.

i truly believe that the real secret to the best sales is to treat people as you would like to be treated (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) when they come by and hope they care about your medium.  for me, everything else feels like a gimmick that is at best ephemeral, and i think authenticity is what creates a pleasant selling environment and true lasting connections with the customer.  i personally benefit from repeat customers and i value them highly.  and i never forget to tell them how much they mean to me and my ability to continue to be an artist.  

i welcome other people's thoughts because i think i may have a different perspective or have shared a different one.  thanks so much.

I would agree with you Anne, I have seen other artists and myself receive an award for the booth, but not enough sales to even consider the show again. People buy things because of the way it makes them feel. I have seen your booth in person, and I remember it being very professional, and not so artsy it would scare people, and I remember that is a show you will never do again because the market in that city is so provincial.

On the other hand, if you are selling say designer clothes, you can't display them the same way K-Mart does, because people will expect K-Mart prices. If anyone could put in a bottle to sell, what makes people buy, they would make more money than Jed Clampet, or Davey Crockett. 

Anne, your observations, in my experience, are correct but incomplete. I agree 110% with everything you have said about providing a warm and friendly customer experience. That is supremely important above all else. 

Your point that buyer's buy what they like, not your booth design. Agreed. The best display in the world will not close sales. That has never been its purpose. 

A person engaged in the process of making a purchase decision, whether they are buying jewelry, groceries, or a car, generally goes through the same mental process. The first stage of the process is need or desire. Thus, one can easily assume that  anyone showing up at a show has passed the first stage. 

The second stage is awareness. This is where promotion goes to work, ie. the "gimmicks" you mention. The basic premise of awareness is that you cannot buy that which you don't know exists. Making potential customers aware that you exist has two key components, predisposition and point of sale. 

Predisposition is all about the things artists do throughout the year to make buyers aware of their work. "Branding, telling your story, education, etc."  The idea is let buyers know you will be at a show so that they mentally "bookmark" to look for you. In other words, they are predisposed to visit your booth. 

This is where point of sale comes in. At any major trade show the size of ACC, attendee sensory overload sets in within 15-20 minutes. Our brains protect us by allowing us to screen out a lot what is being thrust at us.  The primary function of a booth design is to overcome this screening process and grab the viewer's attention. Hopefully it will intrigue the shopper sufficiently that they will take a closer look at what is inside.

When people walk a large show, the screening process takes place on the move at an oblique distance of about 20 to 30 feet. The buyer is scanning the aisles ahead and making very quick decisions to stop or not. This is too far a distance to make that decision based on the jewelry. The screening process is heavily influenced by booth design and/or predisposition.  Ultimately, it adds up the the number of buyers who come into your booth and actually look at the jewelry. 

Only then can the jewelry speak to the buyer.


As a side note, love your work Anne. I'd buy it if even if you were selling it on a street corner dressed in a trench coat. 

Brigitte, I hope you will be able to visit me at the One of a Kind Show, spring, booth 7-1066, and see my booth! If you need tickets, I can get them. 

Roxy - It's already on my calendar for that Saturday! Thanks so much for your generous offer to get me a ticket, I have one! See you soon.


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