Why free is not always a good thing


I am learning a lot of things in this process of building a business and the learning curve is sometimes challenging. But one of the first real lessons is that free is not always free, or for that matter free is not always worth your time and talent. Free is not always Good!

Now I am not speaking of give aways of products or merchandise… we love free goods. All of us love free giveaways, samples, and those little offers to sample products. I am speaking of being invited to a show where there is no charge.

I have begun to think of booth fees/show fees/jurying fees as a measure of the worth of the show… and it seems as though the higher the price paid up front the greater the revenue return. Is the correlation between price of a show versus return via sales something that can be calculated?  Does it hold true to every show?  Can this be quantified? In fact there seems to be a formula that correlates with this theory, although i must be honest in saying that just as I begin to think there is a formula to this art market, i am surprised that the formula does not always equate to reality.

Well, I have been reading and researching this question for a while and I think i may have several reasons for why free events are not always good events:
1. The price of entry filters out the applicants – The more costly the show, the more aptly afordable the applicant. There are shows I would love to participate in, but at $400-$600 per show the cost is prohibitive for my current business budget.
2. The price of entry shows a respect for the applicant’s trade or art – Charging a fee is a professional transaction, that validates the worthyness of the art or craft that is done.
3. A fee shows artists that the show is a business and it is run in a way to cover expenses of operation.

4. Art fairs are distinct venues, filtered through the jury process, and to earn the right to be in that space there is a cost.  It helps the artist realize that their work is serious business, and in our case, it has helped us to develop our presentation as a serious one, with an image and a brand.

So now that this is said, charging no fees may seem like a courtesy to the vendors, but to me it signals a warning that the pool of vendors is opened to everyone and anyone, and not just those of us who make our livelihood on the arts. It is also a signal that there is little to no work done to market the event, and even less effort to organize it well.  Truthfully there are surprises in these free events – i have done a few that were very successful – startling, wonderful. However the majority of the free shows were painful, poorly marketed, poorly attended and a big fat waste of time.

Here are some tips of what to ask the promoter:

  • Is this a first time you are holding this event?
  • If you have done this event before, can you give me a reference of one or two artists that participated?
  • What is your expected attendance?
  • Do those attending understand this is an art fair?
  • Who do you think will be coming out – is it young families, older women? (What is the demographic?)
  • Will this be restricted to only artists or will there be direct sales folks there also (such as pampered chef, sensi candles, etc)
  • Where and how are you advertising the event?
  • If it is a fund raiser for a church or organization, are you inviting people outside of the organization to attend?

Free can be good – if you do your homework and invest time in knowing what you are entering into.  Sometimes you honestly cant know.

The answers can quickly tell you if the promoter has thought through the event, or worked to publicize it.  Word of mouth alone is never enough to bring crowds… Events do so much better when there has been a media blitz, invitations, emails, facebook invites and whatever it takes.

When there are direct sales representatives present the atmosphere of an art fair fades into that of a craft show… and honestly its hard to compete with manufactured goods… Handcrafted is so different from manufactured.  I will be honest in telling you i love Pampered Chef, and in fact once sold it myself… but at an event I dont want to be set up next to them because it alters the market.

Knowing the demographic is an important one… we know who buys our products, and try to put ourselves in those spaces.  Yes, soap sells no matter where, but we do better when we are in our demographic profile.  That sounds like another post…. i will have to write.

Some of the questions seem odd, but honestly we have done a few events where they were an aside to another event, and the participants knew nothing of the art market, and did not bring any money nor did they make plans to spend money.  That left a room full of vendors looking at each other, and pennies in sales.

For our particular niche of the market one thing that is a killer is events focused on an open bar, wine festival, beer festival, etc.  because people come not to buy art, but to enjoy alcoholic beverages.  And some become sloppy drunks that bring new meanings to business insurance when they crash into tents, art, and other people.

If you are an artist think carefully about where you set up shop. Make each opportunity count.