Article by Kate Schwab
After a challenging first year of preparations, our budding art and crafts design company was looking for a chance to make a local splash. But with modest income, outstanding student loans and no steady supplemental work, we couldn’t afford to spend much on promotions. It didn’t help that we’d recently lost a partner and happened to live in a sparsely populated rural area. Since our business is home based, we really don’t get out much.
So obviously we were excited to receive a last-minute opportunity to set up shop at a local fair. We knew it wouldn’t be a huge event, as these things go, but we would have a chance to meet potential clients from several counties in our target market.
Extra supplies, the booth rental and advertising were going to cost us several hundred dollars that we didn’t have in our budget. It was time to get creative. All that work paid off, too, both in the short-term and with several invitations to vend at future shows.
Here’s what we learned:
Make your booth memorable.
It so happens that close friends of mine own the number one tipi pole production business in the U.S. Tipis are kind of our thing, and they are kid magnets. Thanks to the generosity of family and friends, we were able to borrow an 18-foot tipi and set it up on site at no cost to us, other than a little sweat equity. We hung artwork and handmade dreamcatchers inside, and used scrap carpet and pillows to create an inviting, shaded spot for children to play and adults to rest. We hung a banner advertising our company outside, and, taking a chance on the weather, added a couple of outside display tables to attract passersby.
Nobody can resist the urge to step inside a tipi at least once! We gave out a stack of our own cards to parents and tourists who wanted information on how to buy one, simply adding contact information for the tipi business [http://www.manta.com/c/mmg93yl/whispering-pines-pole-co] on the back. Just taking a little time to create an unusual booth display resulted in countless new contacts for that business as well as ours — and it made our company memorable.
Offer something for kids.
We run a fine art and handcrafts gallery, traditionally not the most kid-friendly business in the world. But we knew the tipi was sure to bring in the children, and we knew that kids would definitely be looking for something to do. Providing an artistic activity or two seemed like a logical addition.
We went shopping. Not only did I make sure I had lots of jewelry designed just for kids in stock, but I also invested in supplies for beadwork. We set up a craft table and charged a nominal fee to have kids come make their own jewelry.
Then I hired one of my gallery designers, a college student interested in making extra money for the upcoming school year, to do face-painting. After covering the initial paint and stencil costs, we gave her the lion’s share of the profits, and we slashed our usual commission rate on all of the work we sold for her that week. She made out well! A professional clown would have cost us hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, up front. Our method saved money, thrilled parents, and allowed us to keep the price low. A simple posterboard sign taped to the tipi and a few painted children strolling the grounds proved to be all the advertising we needed.
Who says you have to go it alone? Not us, that’s for sure.
The trick to selecting a temporary partner is to make certain it’s either a complementary industry or a business in which you are fully confident. In our case, it was the latter. A small sustainable forestry company wanted our PR service to gauge the effectiveness of its ad campaign in that region. We wrote up a marketing survey for the company and agreed to conduct it for them, display a promotional sign and distribute cards and brochures from our booth. In exchange, the business purchased a painting from our gallery collections for use in a prize drawing. We used the market survey as a free drawing entry form.
This team effort helped us pay for our booth and promoted one of our artists, but it also generated several solid client leads and provided valuable insights for the company we worked with.
Call in the recruits.
So you’re stuck at the fairgrounds while all your customers are across town watching a parade, taking in a horse show or grabbing lunch? You’re not going to let that stop you, are you? We hired a teenager (my 17-year-old brother) to walk up and down the main roads handing out flyers and talking up our booth. We only needed him for a couple hours, so he made about 20 bucks. Did it work? Well, several people who stopped by made a point to tell us that they had heard all about our booth and our offerings before they arrived. So you tell us.
Incidentally, this hire-a-kid thing has other advantages, since a capable teenager can easily assist with setup, fetch meals or spell you for a few moments while you grab a drink or a restroom break.
Skip the price-gouging.
Far too many vendors see fairs and craft shows as opportunities to jack up their prices to unreal highs. Believe me, if you stick to offering quality products at reasonable prices, your booth will stand out, in a good way. It’s your chance to show customers that you care about them and can be consistent.
At our little show, we were among about half a dozen booths offering jewelry. But after a cursory spying mission, it was clear to us that we definitely had not only the most reasonable pricing but also the best products. One lady was hawking products from a multilevel sales catalog. Another was trying to sell costume jewelry at sky-high markups. We spotted only one competitor that we deemed worth taking seriously, but when one of my artists broke the ring she purchased from him within the first 10 minutes, it became quite evident that his quality was subpar. (She got her money back, and I tossed his business card.)
Provide real service.
I can’t stress this one enough. Often the most important service you’ll provide will have nothing to do with what you’re peddling that day. Since I design jewelry for clients with metal allergies, we made a point to let potential customers know that we would help them with custom requests, regardless of whether they bought that day. We referred undecided customers to our web site for more options and offered sampler sizes of a best-selling bath product visitors could try at home. I lost track of the number of people to whom we gave directions for the restroom facilities, information about evening events or random snippets about tipis, Rocky Mountain wildlife or downtown businesses.
Successful marketing at a show isn’t about how much you spend. You’ll be judged on your display, knowledge, product quality, selection, pricing and customer service. Sure, you may not be able to afford a tipi or know a qualified face-painter. But with hard work and practice, you can develop your own style and brand identity — and make it one worth remembering.
About the Author
Kate Schwab is owner of The Desiderio Gallery [http://www.desideriogallery.com], a Web-based Montana design business providing sales opportunities and public relations assistance for artists and designers.