As you may know, last weekend was the third year of Kirstie Allsopp’s Handmade Fair, and my first year of exhibiting there. The complexities of such a large show, from the logistics of travel, setting up a bespoke exhibition stand, working within budgets, to building up enough stock, months of self-promotion, and long hours, were far removed from my usual craft-fair experience. As a new artist in my sixth month of trading, I really could have used some friendly but realistic advice before signing a contract for what essentially is a corporate gig.
I’ve therefore decided to share with you my honest experience, the good and the bad, with the hope that this may be useful for someone considering their first large show, whether it it be the Handmade Fair or another.
Why to be cautious:
Let’s start from the beginning: Being invited to exhibit.
Personally, I was jumping for joy when I received an email from the Handmade Fair’s promotional team who had found my work online and had hand-selected me to exhibit. At the time, I had gone self-employed just one month prior, and I was thrilled that someone would find my work at all, let alone invite me to partake in a huge event. Yes it is lovely to be approached and offered opportunities, but don’t let it cloud your judgement as to whether it is the right time to commit to a large event and steep financial costs…
Expensive stall holder fees:
For the smallest exhibition space, 1.5m by 1.5m, I paid £522.00 + VAT (£650). For anything over 2m I would be charged over a grand. I thought it would be good for me and my business to take the opportunity to partake in a celebrity-endorsed handmade show, but I also thought I was being sensible by opting for the smallest space at the smallest cost. I was very upset to find that the event would actually cost me a lot more….
After I had paid my last monthly installment of £250.00, I received an email with a link to the “exhibitors manual”. I naively thought this was going to be full of information about vehicle access, loading times, and exhibitor passes. Instead, it was a huge list of documents for “additional extras”. This included a laughable cost of over £100 for ONE PLUG SOCKET, and £55 for the wi-fi code. £55 for the wi-fi code?!?!
I had to have electricity, I personalise my wooden gifts which is how I get most of my customers. I needed wi-fi to run my card machine. 16,000 people plus exhibitors trying to access 4G did not seem reliable, and for £650 for less than 2m I expected internet access at the very least. At no point in the months of communications leading up to the event were these fees even mentioned. I asked if I could have electricity, and they said yes. Not “yes but it will be charged”, just “yes”. Suddenly, the costs of the show started creeping up to almost £1000, costs that either resulted in me withdrawing and losing £650 OR I had to keep plowing in money to try and make it worth it. The only way I could minimize my expenses was to commute the 1.5 hours to and from the event, adding 3 hours onto already long demanding days. So that’s what we did, and it almost killed me.
It is always tough to put yourself out there, but three consecutive days of selling was really tiring. On the saturday evening I came down with a migraine that knocked me for six, and getting up at 6am to do it all again the next day was really hard. I just wanted half an hour to sit with my partner for lunch, but we always had to have one of us at the stand. It was difficult being surrounded by thousands of people, I missed my quiet studio with my dog on the farm.
One of the deal breakers for me, when I initially agreed to exhibit, was the promotion of the event and the guarantee of thousands of visitors. What I didn’t realise is that the entire event was advertised to people who wanted to “try out new crafts” or “have a go”. The first day was really bizarre because so many people were asking me how I create my artwork, how much my tools cost, and why I was charging for something they could do at home. Err…excuse me? It was only when we were issued a copy of the event magazine that I realised why. There was a two double-page spread about pyrography, with the tag line “doodling on wood”, cute right? Immediately the pyrography art form was trivialised and my skills were disregarded. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of insult when my work was compared to that of the work in the magazine-it was really really really bad pyrography.
On the flip side though, those people who had tried their hand at pyrography really appreciated the time, skill, and dedication that has gone into all my work. Plus, those who took a genuine interest in the artform, were delightful to speak with. I am all for sharing tips and advice, but only if you’re nice to me-not if you insult my work.
My advice, make sure you really research the promotion of a large event before taking part. At the end of the day, big shows are corporate events that are designed to make the organisers money, not you. I understand this, but I do think that the lack of transparency in hidden fees, and disregard to how show material would impact exhibitors trade, was immoral.
Despite my advice above, no amount of research into the Handmade fair would have prepared me for the biggest thing of note at this event: the high number of imported goods. This was meant to be a craft fair celebrating British Craft, or at the very least HANDMADE. We found heaps of imported jewelry selling for a fraction of the price of the handmade exhibitors, we found ornaments “handmade in china”…really?! And the icing on the cake for me, was the “handmade here in Britain….in our factory”. What?! Not exactly what we signed up for.
A huge positive for me was the opportunity to meet many other exhibitors, and veterans of large shows. The advice and the friendships I made were invaluable, and it was incredibly humbling to be a part of the handmade community. I was given advice on how best to entice people into my stand, how to present myself and sell my work without coming across like a sales person, and I was given loads of advice on different fairs that my work would be well suited to. I left with a long list of the improvements I can make and other opportunities available to me.
Ingenuity with little space:
At first I thought this was a negative, because even though you pay £650-it’s just for the space. No table, no chair, nothing. But I am really pleased, because for the first time it made me think outside of the box as to how I can exhibit my work in an attractive yet space saving way. We created a beautiful stand display that I can now use again and again. It was so nice to see all my work on display as it should be, rather than crammed into boxes or laid flat on a table. Use this opportunity to be creative, and show you don’t need vast amounts of space to look professional and impressive.
My social media and website traffic increased throughout the event. I handed out over 500 business cards, many of which were to people who I genuinely believe to be strong leads for commissions or Christmas orders. And many people were very interested in my original artworks and so bought prints instead whilst they went away to think about my originals, business card in hand. I also had people sign onto my mailing list, and many took photos to show their spouses before they made a decision to invest in art. That was hugely important for me to hear. It was refreshing to hear visitors recognize that art is an investment, that it is something that holds and increases in value. It is not necessarily something you would buy on a whim, particularly when the piece costs up to £1000 and would take two people to carry home. Yet it was a great opportunity to show my work, to meet potential clients, and put myself on people’s art-radar. This could potentially prove to have been invaluable.
Meeting customers and social media followers:
The biggest positive for me personally, was meeting exhibitors and visitors who have been following my work on social media or my website. Half the time I didn’t know what to say because I was totally overwhelmed by people who knew of my work. It’s easy to forget that all those “likes” and comments on instagram and facebook are made by real people with a genuine interest in what you do. That to me was what kept me going when it got to 4pm and I was tired and hungry and worried about sales figures and worried about all the work I needed to be catching up on…to know you positively impact someone in even a small way, that someone admires what you do, is really the most lovely rewarding feeling. As artists, it is why we do what we do.
So…Would I do the Handmade Fair again?
No, probably not. Primarily that is because it is not the right fair for me and what I do. I am not looking to impart my knowledge to people to “give it a go”, I am looking to make a living. I also wouldn’t do this fair again because of the sheer quantity of imported goods. It became very clear very quickly that we were simply a cog in a money making machine, which gave no respect for the time and skill of local artists and small businesses.
Would I do other large craft/art shows again?
Most definitely yes. Now I know what to expect, I can assess the type of show more carefully. For example, I am really looking forward to showcasing my work in an environment better suited to my art. My aim is to stop creating small pieces (home decor, kitchenware, and gifts), and instead only make artwork that I am truly passionate about. That’s the dream. The biggest lesson I leaned at the Handmade Fair was that people were more interested in my art than my smaller affordable items- but people hadn’t set out to invest in art at that event so they went away to think about it. I’m positive that a large event like the Handmade Fair, but focussed on art, would be ideal for me.