ACC Baltimore Retail Craft Show 2012 — Review

Posted by on May 1, 2012 in art in tents, art whore | No Comments
ACC Baltimore Retail Craft Show 2012 — Review

The American Craft Council show in Baltimore was my first indoor fine craft fair. It’s a long trip for me, but this show is rumored to be one where its high participation cost can be more than compensated by high sales. That didn’t turn out to be true in my case, or for many of the artists in the section I was in. In fact, that doesn’t turn out to be true for a lot of exceptional artists of my acquaintance, who have found that the ACC flagship show, despite its prestige, just doesn’t cut it for them in the sales department.

This is a long post. It’s a long show. And a big one. And I’m just that kind of person. There are lots of places you can go for soundbites if that’s your preference.

baltimore booth 300x225 ACC Baltimore Retail Craft Show 2012     Review

My booth in Baltimore, where I displayed both jewelry and wall work

More on my thoughts about why Baltimore is a mixed blessing for so many artists later. For now, let’s just break down exactly how much money a person needs to make in order to make doing Baltimore worthwhile.

It’s a 20 hour drive from Marengo to Baltimore. Normally I would do that in two days, but this year a snow storm threatened and I decided to head out a day earlier. Add an extra night in a hotel to the total cost and completely change the itinerary, making the hotel stays themselves more expensive, since I had to take whatever was on offer wherever I happened to land and with no advanced booking discount.

As luck would have it, a full-blown blizzard made its way through Wisconsin on the day I drove back too, forcing road closures throughout the area. Luckily I was able to beat that blizzard, otherwise even more hotel expenses would have been added to the tally. And the key word here is “luckily.” After five years of doing art fairs it’s my distinct impression that many of my fellow travelers indulge far too much “best case scenario” thinking when calculating the costs of doing art fairs. The fact is, bad luck, bad weather, bad sales, bad roads, bad timing, and bad decisions aren’t anomalies — they’re the realities of our business. They MUST be included in calculating costs, or you’re not being honest with yourself.

It’s also my observation that artists often fail to account for incidentals. For example, clothing you would only buy for a show, or you only ruined because of a show, may well be expenses that you’d have to deal with regardless of whether you were self-employed or not (after all, most jobs don’t let you run around naked). But I know that I, for example, had to spend a couple hundred bucks on a wardrobe update in order to meet the standards of dress required by this level of show, and I wouldn’t have bought the stuff otherwise. Likewise, on this trip the CD player in the truck died. Two days of driving cross country without something to listen to wasn’t a matter of convenience, it was a matter of safety. Replacing that broken CD player with a portable unit I could plug into the cigarette lighter was a necessary expense, an expense I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been at the show. All these things, and many more like them, represent credit card debt that causes me the same amount of stress as the cost of paying for booth electrical.  Someone has to pay for it, and that someone is me. Which means I have to make enough profit at a show to do so.

My Goals

I signed up to do three highly regarded indoor craft shows this year in the full knowledge that I’d probably make a steamy, stinking pile of it by the time all was said and done, and in that, at least, I was not disappointed. I know myself too well to believe there’s much chance that I’m going to get it right the first time, so when, sure enough, I didn’t, it didn’t come as an unbearable blow to my ego. In doing these three shows I hoped to accomplish the following:

1. Not lose too much money. Ideally, make money. Preferably, make lots of money.  (Grade: D.    I lost more money than I can comfortably absorb, alas, but it could have been worse. It was, in fact, for some of my show neighbors.)

2. Discover whether indoor craft shows are a good venue for me. Til now I’ve only done outdoor art fairs.  (Grade: C.    I learned too much to rank this a complete fail, but ultimately think my sampling was too small to draw sweeping conclusions. I think indoor shows are definitely easier to do than the outdoor ones. But I don’t necessarily like them better. I am not unwilling to ever do them again, but I’m in no big hurry either.)

3. Get a feel for the East Coast art/craft fair scene. Fred and I are thinking of moving out that way and I wanted to get an idea how viable the whole show thing would be for me in that part of the world. (Grade: B-.    There are shows out East. They seem okay. But really, the inside of one convention center is much like the inside of any other. You could have kidnapped us all and dropped us on the moon and we never would have known. The patrons sometimes talked funny, especially in Boston, but that’s all that distinguished them from patrons anywhere else. This was disappointing, but at least now I know. There is much discussion on the interwebs about certain shows having “educated” or “well informed” or “knowledgeable” shoppers. Baltimore is supposed to be one of these. But I saw no evidence that Baltimore patrons were any more knowledgeable, collectively, than those in the Midwest. The key here seems less regional than show-specific. Shows with schlock get schlocky patrons.)

The Numbers

I left home on Monday, February 20, and got back on Tuesday the 28th, making for a total of nine days on the road. The drive is about 1,130 miles which I did myself in Fred’s F250. On the way out I stayed in Holiday Inns because it was what I could find. On the way back, Microtels which I had booked in advance for a lower rate.

At the show I stayed at one of the walking-distance hotels using the the artists group discount arranged by the ACC. I parked my car at the hotel and never moved it. I purchased bulk food and drink in advance for both the road and the show, but not enough to live on. My expenses were as follows:

Who Took The Money

How Much They Got

What It Was For

acc

$1425

booth fee

acc

$60

application fees for two media

acc

$25

membership fee divided between two shows (Balt and St P)

electrical services

$106

electrical for the booth (not optional) here’s a copy of the show services pricelist to give you something to think about

lodging, parking

$1221.47

 

tolls

$124.80

 

gas

$610.48

 

food

$306.77

 

 

 

TOTAL

$3,879.52

 

Not included: The replacement CD player ($105), the fancy clothes and comfortable shoes I needed to not look like a slob ($300), the haircut and brow wax I probably should’ve gotten anyway but know damn well I wouldn’t have bothered if not for the show ($40), makeup (I could barely bring myself to wear it but what I had was at least seven years old), all the booth supplies that an artist doesn’t need who doesn’t do fairs, including all the track lighting I had to buy specifically to do these indoor shows, and too many other incidentals to remember, all of which have to come out of whatever profit I can make at these events.

Also not included, standard costs of doing business: overhead, materials, taxes, consumables, labor, depreciation on tools, office supplies, insurance, etc. etc. etc. etc. I also got a Galaxy Tab specifically for these shows because manual credit card processing has become too expensive and people won’t shop without their plastic. Not only would I not have bought the thing otherwise, doing it literally made me sick. I don’t even own a cell phone other than a prepaid and I don’t have TV. I did not want a tablet computer, but a dedicated credit card terminal was too expensive. That means $700 for the gadget and $30 a month to keep it juiced. Still, now that I’ve got the thing, and this blog is finally official, I can use it to take more photos on site.

baltimore display 300x225 ACC Baltimore Retail Craft Show 2012     Review

One of the challenges at Baltimore was balancing the jewelry display with the wall work. Combining them was tricky, and I won't be doing it for summer shows.

I heard people who came from my neck of the woods saying they needed to make $3,000 in sales to “break even.” If they were sleeping with friends, begging for food, hitchhiking, going without insurance, and only using found objects as materials, maybe. And that’s after taxes. And that’s assuming no credit card fees, cash sales only. (The majority of my sales, by a substantial margin, are on plastic, and unlike Target I don’t qualify for a great rate.) And that’s assuming no bad luck and no surprises.

By my calculations, this show needs to pull in more like $10,000 in retail sales to be viable for an out-of towner, and that’s merely viable. Something resembling a profit would have to look more like $15,000. Which, interestingly, brings us to that old chestnut about shows needing to make ten times the booth fee in sales to be considered worthwhile. I’d say the chestnut holds in this case.

So how did I actually do? My pre-sales-tax net was $3,098.02 for a clear loss of $781.50. The real loss, of course, is greater. Just adding lost labor, assuming I worked a mere 40 hours a week and that my lofty education could garner me at least $15 an hour, would bring that loss up another $600 or so, putting me into a $1300 hole. And I wouldn’t have had to eat breakfast at Dunkin Donuts the whole time I was there.

Some people argue that there are intangibles in this business that can’t be easily accounted for, and they’re not wrong. For example, I made a contact with a small gallery owner who is interested in carrying my jewelry. That might turn out to be profitable, but it might turn out to be not. The artist across the aisle from me said she hasn’t made a profit at Baltimore in five years, but she keeps doing it as a kind of marketing — to keep her name in circulation and to keep her reputation up. This might, in fact, be good for something. It might not. Unless someone comes along and hands you a massive commission based on seeing you at a given show, it’s impossible to say. Another comment you’ll frequently hear is that many shoppers won’t buy from you unless they’ve seen you at the show before. Which contrasts nicely with the equally common observation that shoppers prefer to see new artists at these things.

It strikes me as distinctly possible that some of these shows may exist merely as prestige events. Just getting into a show like ACC Baltimore is something many artists attempt to do for years without success, and there’s a sense in some quarters that mere acceptance is something for which one should be grateful, if not giddy. Given that art fair applications have risen rapidly (and, perversely, concurrently to art fair sales dropping precipitously) the ACC — and Craft Boston, The Philadelpia Museum, The Smithsonian, et al — will feel no pressure to change, well, anything. Meanwhile art fairs are inching ever closer to the status of a lottery, not a viable business plan: Cross your fingers and hope you win big. Which you might. But probably not.

The Reality on the Ground:

This was my first year doing the ACC Baltimore show, so I can’t compare it to previous experience. But I do know the size of the show doubled from previous years. This makes this show officially way too fracking big. With over 700 “exhibitors” to slog through,  if a shopper came on the longest day (Friday, 10 hours) and shopped from gates open to gates closed, never stopped to eat, rest, chat, tie a shoe, or pee, (much less buy something) that shopper would have had about 48 seconds to devote to each booth, including the time it took to walk between them and around the corners. Assuming they didn’t get lost or sidetracked.

Which they were bound to, because the layout of the place was one of those cluster jobs designed to artificially create corner booths. The corner booth is one of those magic nostrums for which many artists are willing to pay a higher fee, on the notion that traffic can approach from two directions and therefore exposure will be higher. But with artificial corners there’s really no reason for traffic to flow in multiple directions, other than sheer, dazed confusion. What cluster formations create is a confused maze of crossing hallways with no clear path along the booths. This is a bad idea, and, frankly, kind of crass.

The show was supposed to have booth sitters available, but I never saw one and neither did anyone I spoke to in my cluster. This hardly sets ACC apart, booth sitters never show up. Maybe it’s time to quit pretending they exist. And if they do exist, artists with helpers should be forbidden from even speaking to them.

My total sales were not just bad, they were based on such low price points that it managed to surprise even me. I mostly sold some old, underpriced earrings that I was clearing out at below cost to make room the new direction my work is taking. There are those who will tell you that having cheap crap in your booth diminishes your credibility in the eyes of the buyers, but they are wrong. Of the seven artists I talked to (6 in my cluster, one in my section but along the wall) THREE didn’t even make their booth fee, one didn’t make expenses, the other two were vague, and one was happy (had at least two big sales). My vague but happy neighbor had lots of cheap crap. The washouts didn’t have anything under $200 in their booths.

One of the jewelers in my cluster is also employed as a bench jeweler for another “exhibitor” (I wouldn’t call him an art jeweler, definitely a mini-factory, very conservative, predictable style-wise) He was on the other side of the building. She told me her boss had over $40,000 in sales that weekend. All production work, most of it done by her but sold by him. At least one well-known furniture guy had sales of — I heard this third-hand, so take it for what’s it’s worth — $50,000. Another third-hand report had an outdoor sculpture guy getting a big public commission and sales in the high five figures.

I sold nothing over $150, and as I mentioned, two of the artists who didn’t make their booth fee didn’t even have anything in that price range (one started at about $200, the other at about $350) The third, though,  had only stuff under $100. She said shows were not working out for her and that she was going to go back to putting her energy into online sales, where she’s done well. These various artists were a jeweler, a fiber artist, and a paper artist. Two were newbies, one had done the show for years. The one happy camper was a mixed media newbie. The one who, like me, didn’t make expenses, was a top-of-heap wood turner  well known in the field who said she makes her money teaching and giving workshops (showing other people, in other words, how to make more stuff they won’t be able to sell either.)

Finally,  I had a pair of earrings shoplifted. That makes my first ever shoplifting victimization, which, I suppose, is actually kind of amazing, because I don’t use cases. The next day there was a big announcement, right in the middle of the show, about guarding your booths. So evidently it wasn’t just me.