Interdisciplinary. Community. Advocacy. Humor.
In my head, I had it all organized. For weeks, I had thought about and planned my first visit to the ACC show in Baltimore. I had spoken with people who’d “been there and done that” and I had checked the ACC website for all the information I could gather. When I arrived at the Baltimore Convention Center, I knew what to do: First thing was to grab one of the free ACC brochures lying out in the general entrance area and look for a general overview of the show floor. Score: I found a fold-out map in the back of the brochure. Even though I am fairly digitally-literate, I am still somewhat of a paper person and prefer an easy-to-access printed map I can refold to my liking and scribble on. Thank you, ACC for providing one.
On the map, booths falling into the home decor segment were marked yellow, those in the fashion/jewelry segment were dark green. That general distinction immediately helped me focus on the part of the show I wanted to look at first, the green segment. Thumbing through the brochure, I then circled artist names and their booth locations, noted last-minute cancellations and additions, and marked off the area for the ACC info booth (blue), the “Style Slam”, and the “Let’s Make” sections. Ready, go.
Honed over many years of attending craft shows, I intended to follow my personal, tried-and-true system of walking a craft show floor: left-to-right and strictly aisle-by-aisle. Good plan. Never fails. Um, well... Knowing what I know now after attending the ACC show in Baltimore on February 19-20, 2016, I will freely admit that my prized procedure isn’t as fool-proof as I had thought. There you have it. Yes, I had been warned the show would be huuuge, and I had laughed. I had been warned I’d be overwhelmed, and I had shrugged. I had been told to bring comfortable shoes ... and, thank goodness, that was the one piece of advice that did not fall on my deaf ears. Whoever the saintly person was suggesting it: I owe you.
Why did my system not work? Let’s retrace the steps.
Map in hand, I came to the show floor through the Pratt St. entrance, presented my pre-paid ticket and was admitted. And that’s when I had my first inclination of what I had gotten myself into: I was staring at what appeared to be endless rows of 10x10 feet booths in front of me, to the left, and to the right. Large white flags with row numbers loomed high above the show floor, numbers 100-1200 designating the retail section, numbers 1300 and above signaling the combined wholesale/retail sections. Still confident in my navigating abilities, I turned right and began to roll up the show from that side, aiming to eventually weave my way over to the left side. (My sharp-minded and eagle-eyed readers already noticed that I just confessed to having abandoned my typical show floor-walking pattern from the get-go. Honestly, in the end it didn’t make a difference. More shortly.)
(Image: Beverly Tadeu in her booth)
I began at the outer perimeter, walking the show row-by-row and checking off previously marked booths as I went along. I am proud to report that I was disciplined in this approach ... for about two hours. At some point shortly after the 2-hour-mark, something must have snapped in my brain and made me loose track. It could have been the excitement of encountering so many artists I knew and handling work I loved, but a more likely reason for my veering off-course probably was the repeated sighting of never-ending rows of yet-even-more-booths filled to the rim with craft work, the sheer inexhaustible variety of it all and the dawning realization that I couldn’t possibly get to all the fashion/jewelry booths I had planned to see, not even close. Instead of sticking to my aisle-by-aisle plan, I was actually doing what every other reasonable person in my situation would have done: Fluttering about like a deranged butterfly, stopping at almost every single opportunity, chatting as if there was no tomorrow, and crossing aisles indiscriminately into all general directions. The visual onslaught of glitz and colors had gotten to me. Something bright and shiny over there? Here I come! Exactly what people had warned me about.
After realizing that I had lost my route several times despite the handy floor map, I concluded that this haphazard way of collecting impressions wasn’t going to get me anywhere close to a good result. I decided to check-in with some of my artist friends, hoping to find an explanation for my seemingly erratic behavior. What had their customers told them about their experiences walking this mega show, could I alone be so spellbound and out-of-control?
Turned out that visitors ambling about somewhat aimlessly was a well-known dilemma for many artists exhibiting at large-scale shows. Despite being designed in chronologically-numbered rows that should be easy to navigate, like me, many customers seem to lose their way at some point during the day, and subsequently fail to return to an artist’s booth they had intended to revisit (“I’ll be back.”). Artists told me it was therefore one of their prime goals at a craft show to attract customers into buying their wares the very first time they walked into their booths. Chances are, hardly anybody ever makes it back around a second time. “There is just so much to see at these big shows,” one artist said. “Customers are worried about getting “stuck” at a booth making a purchase early, then running out of money when they find something they like even more later on.” (Apologies to all you commitment-phobes I used to make fun of, I get you now.)
Another sentiment artists brought up was that the location of their booth seemed to be critically related to their overall sales results. Some were worried about being overlooked by incoming visitors because their booth was in close proximity to an entrance area (for the previously described reasons,) whereas artists situated farther away from the entrance reported encountering bleary-eyed customers, too overwhelmed by what they had seen to concentrate on anything further. Some artists preferred a booth location at the end of a row and corner booths were almost universally described as highly desirable, though harder to afford financially.
I asked what the artists’s suggestions were for improvement and all admitted that making a craft show perfect for every last seller was all but impossible. There’s always someone who is going to be located in the entrance area, and someone, by definition, will naturally always find himself on the far end of a show. The best idea people came up with was to institute more than one main entrance at a show. That way, presumably, more booths would be located in the desired sweet spot where sales happen. It was noted with sincere appreciation all around that the second show entrance opened by the ACC this year had most definitely resulted in improved visitor flow for more exhibitors.
The size of the show (as I mentioned before: 670 + booths) was considered by many artists a simultaneous blessing and a curse. One artist said to me that he doesn’t mind the number of exhibiting artists, he’s only interested in customer volume. “We just ask one thing of the ACC and that is to bring in the customers in droves,” he said. “We are perfectly happy to take care of the rest.” On the other hand, quite a few of his jewelry peers were not fully sharing that sentiment. Even though all were extremely pleased with the overall quality and diversity of the work offered (which, of course, reflected rather well on them too,) their impression was that the jewelry category was crowded, which resulted, in their opinion, in fewer sales to go around for all.
If you speak with artists whose sales are not as stellar as they had hoped, the latter argument often pops up. I am hesitant to fully agree with it though, because I believe it shifts the burden of responsibility squarely on someone other than the artist when, in reality, it is the artists themselves who are mostly in charge of their own success.
From what I observed within the jewelry segment at Baltimore, many artists seemed to be doing rather well at the show despite being there in large numbers. In all my years of visiting craft shows, I have actually never encountered a craft show where the majority of the work on display was not jewelry, so this so called “crowding situation” is nothing new. Fact is, there simply are tons of jewelry makers out there (“She’s making jewelry now.”) so one might as well face reality and proceed from there. Also, from my personal experience running a brick-and-mortar gallery in the past, jewelry is a much easier sell than a lot of other craft work because it is, with few exceptions, a cash-and-carry, let-me-wear-this-now, instant-gratification affair. (Let the record reflect that I splurged on a Laura Jaklitsch ring and a Lauren Blais necklace at the ACC event. I totally deserved gifting myself, but I digress.)
As an example: I noticed a number of same-category booths huddled closely in rows 500/600, all next to each other or facing across the aisle. One of the artists in that group was doing exceptionally well, raking in one sale after the other, while the immediately neighboring booths were not as busy or passed-by. If there’s a close-proximity grouping of same-category booths and one artist in that group manages to attract a lot of business when their customers could just as easily have shifted their attention to a next-door booth, what factors are at play for craft show success other than booth location and the often-cited competition?
Looking forward to the answer: "If ... one artist .... attract a lot of business when their customers could just as easily have shifted their attention to a next-door booth, what other factors are at play for craft show success other than booth location and the often-cited competition?"
P.S. I went to an antique show this weekend, and their were way to many jewelry sellers most dealing in vintage, antique and estate jewelry. It seems jewelry is the easy carry bandwagon.
My mother and I had such a good laugh at your description of walking the ACC fair. Having done it 3 times, and a visitor once, I know how big that show is and how it doesn't always make sense. It was tricky finding my craft friends time to time when I was an exhibitor. I found the sheer scale of the show was bad for my profits, but at least I did it. I remember one time, a very tired buyer slowly ambling by my booth, with her shoes in her hands. She gave me a weary smile. It is an overwhelming show to navigate but you survived.
Thanks for sharing your insight and your humor.
Thank you, Harriete and Joy! Thanks for the shoe story, Joy. That's funny!