Craft Fair Tycoon

Want to turn your artistic hobby into a biz? Here's how to sell your handicrafts at art shows and craft fairs.

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By Rosalind Resnick • Apr 14, 2005

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When Terry Speer was a struggling art student in the 60s, he puthimself through college by selling his prints and paintings atlocal art shows. In 1979, after eight years as an art professor,Speer left academia to do the show circuit full time with his wife,Deborah Banyas, a fellow artist and quilt maker.

"I had tenure and benefits," Speer recalls, "butI was miserable. I thought, 'Why am I torturing myself as aprofessor when I can have more fun doing this and make moremoney?'"

Speer hasn't looked back once. Today, he and Banyas run ahomebased business selling their whimsical mixed-media sculpturesat art festivals and craft shows around the country, including therecent Coconut Grove Arts Festival in Miami where they rang upsales of several thousand dollars over the three-dayPresidents' Day weekend. Despite an estimated $3,000 in traveland other miscellaneous costs, Speer and Banyas ended up making atidy profit. Then they packed up their truck and headed home toOberlin, Ohio, where they stayed for less than a day beforetraveling to another show in Baltimore.

"This isn't an easy way to make a living," saysBanyas, who estimates that the couple exhibits at 12 shows a year."You've got to be willing to drive a truck and get up atfour in the morning."

Still, Speer and Banyas can't see themselves doing anythingelse. And they're not the only ones who feel that way. Thoughit's impossible to know how many artists and craftspeople selltheir wares full or part time at shows and festivals, their numbersappear to be growing as crowds turn out by the thousands to buypaintings, sculptures, woodwork, metalwork, glasswork and jewelryand to meet the artists and craftsmen who make them. And as Speerand Banyas have discovered, there's real money to be made. Lastyear, the Coconut Grove festival drew more than 150,000 visitorswho purchased approximately $4 million in artwork from more than330 exhibitors over the course of the three-day show. (Figures forthis year's show were not available at press time.)

"I think it's a great opportunity for the public toconnect with artists," says Lisa Remeny, a Miami artist whosepainting was picked to be the official poster art of thisyear's Coconut Grove show. "You don't have that in agallery where people buy from dealers."

For homebased artists and craftsmen, selling at fairs and showsprovides an opportunity to ring up sales and find new customers atlittle cost and no overhead. Typically, shows charge just a fewhundred dollars for a booth and allow artists to enjoy big markupson the work they create--profits they don't have to share witha gallery or store owner. But making money at fairs and showsisn't as easy as it seems. It requires research, planning andthe ability to keep a smile on your face while standing on yourfeet for long hours. And that's not for everyone.

"To be successful at shows, you need to have a retailpersonality and that's not me," says Debra Sachs, whocreates fanciful wooden canes with her partner, Marilyn Keating, attheir company, The South Jersey Museum of Curiosities LLP inGloucester City, New Jersey. Even though Sachs says she and Keatingmade a profit at every show they attended, the shows took them awayfrom doing what they really loved--creating art. "We'redoing public art projects now," Sachs says.

Think selling your work at shows and fairs might be for you?Follow these 10 road-tested tips to success:

1. Walk the show. Just because your Mom used to tack upyour drawings on the refrigerator doesn't mean your work isprofessional enough for people who aren't related to you to buyit. First, attend a few shows to see if your stuff is good enoughto pass muster. Some shows are juried, which means that judgesreview your work and select you; others are open to everyone.

It's also important to find the right venue for your work.While an indoor art show may be beyond your grasp, a craft show orRenaissance fair may fit the bill just right. You can find out alot of information about the shows by talking to artists andcraftsmen you meet there. "The best way is to ask othervendors where the best shows are," says Christopher Spelman ofWax Creations in Oceanside, New York. "They'll tell youwhich fairs to not even bother with."

2. Do your homework. Find out who typically attends theshow, what kind of turnout you can expect and how much it will costto exhibit there. Even though booth space typically costs just $200to $300--the Coconut Grove festival charges $550--you need tofactor in travel costs, shipping costs and the cost of a table,banner and the booth itself. And don't forget the materialscosts; for jewelry or sculptures made of precious metals, thosecosts can add up. And depending on the city or state the show isin, you may also need a license or permit to sell there. It'sbest to figure out your breakeven point--that is, how many itemsyou need to sell in order to make a profit--before you decide topack up and go.

3. Start small. Most established artists and craftspeoplesell to repeat customers who frequent the same shows every year andoften collect their pieces. While you're establishing yourreputation and building a following, keep your expenses to aminimum. Speer suggests renting or borrowing a booth from anotherartist instead of buying your own. Another option is to share abooth with another artist or craftsperson. "Don't invest alot of money until you're sure it's going to work," hesays.

4. Price it right. While cheaper work is easier to sell,you've got to sell a lot more items to cover your costs andmake a profit. At the same, an artist selling $10,000 paintings maygo home empty-handed. That's why many art show veterans offer arange of price points to potential customers. Biba Schutz, a NewYork City jewelry artist, sells her work for anywhere from $150 to$900 but offers one-of-a-kind pieces for up to $5,000. "Ifyour material costs you $10 and you double it, you've got a $10profit," says Schutz, who works in silver, bronze, copper andgold. "If the material costs you $200 and you double that,it's $400. You need to sell less to make thosenumbers."

5. Bring your credit card machine. Credit cards are thecommon currency of shows and fairs, and if you don't acceptthem, you're going to lose sales to vendors who do. You alsoface the risks of dealing with bounced checks from strangers whomay be hard to track down after the show. Especially if you'reselling work priced in the hundreds of dollars, credit cards are amust. To find out more about obtaining merchant credit, see our"Resources" section.

6. Don't go it alone. While shows can be exciting andprofitable, they can also be physically and emotionally exhausting.That's why it's important to bring along someone to helpyou work the booth and deal with customers. This will also give youa chance to get up and go to the bathroom and grab a hotdog orsomething to drink without losing sales. Spelman of Wax Creationsworks the fairs with his wife. "You need a lot of good friendsand family willing to help you," he says.

7. Pack your stuff. Make sure you bring enough work tosell but not so much that you'll have to carry most of it back.Besides your artwork, you'll also need to pack your booth,several chairs, a small table, a calculator, a credit card machine,bags for customers to carry your products home in and any brochuresor marketing materials you might have.

8. Put your best foot forward. People like to see acraftsperson creating artwork in his booth, not just selling it.While this isn't always possible, it's a crowd-pleasingidea that works well for jewelry makers, woodworkers, quilters andother craftspeople. At the very least, make sure your display tableis clean and attractive and that your products are well displayedwith prices clearly marked. Some artists, like jewelry makerSchutz, string lights in their booths and display color photos oftheir work to spice things up a bit.

9. Build a mailing list. Shows are a great way to developyour customer database. Try putting a fishbowl on your table andoffering people a chance to win a piece of artwork in return forgiving you their contact information or business cards. Giving awaypromotional items with your company's name and logo works, too.This way, you can send out postcards inviting prospects to yournext show. Don't forget to collect e-mail addresses, too!It's a lot cheaper to send out 100 e-mail messages than it isto pay for paper and postage. "I have some customerswho've bought from me every year for 10 years," Schutzsays. "These days, I send more e-mails than postcards, andwith my wholesale customers, I actually call them."

10. Count your money. Before you move on to the nextshow, sit down and figure out how much you made on the last one.For example, if you spend $1,000 on this show, did you make $1,000back? Remember, we're talking about profits, not sales!Don't forget to include the cost of your materials, the boothspace, travel, shipping and cleanup. This kind of breakevenanalysis will help you figure out if you should exhibit at the sameshow next year.

Don't be disappointed if you don't make a fortune yourfirst time out--or ever. Except for artists like Speer and Banyas,who sell exclusively through shows and fairs, most artists andcraftspeople also sell through galleries, wholesalers, the Internetand other marketing channels. "My best year ever I made$18,000," says Spelman of Wax Creations, who does most of hisbusiness at parties and events. "I'd consider making$2,000 in a weekend to be a success. Some people live off theseshows; other people use it to market their business."

Helpful Resources

Looking to break into the world of fairs and shows? Check outthe web links below to jump-start your business today.

  • Festival Network Online. This searchable database of17,000-plus festivals, arts and crafts shows and other events alsooffers information on products, services and resources for artistsand other vendors. Membership starts at $49 a year. Free demoavailable.
  • Artand Craft Shows. Browse this searchable database of 2,000-plusopen-entry craft shows and art festivals by date, city, state andregion.
  • TheCrafts Fair Online. This website offers links to thousands ofcrafters' websites plus listings of craft shows and informationabout suppliers, publications, newsgroups, classes, software andmore.
  • National Craft Association. This trade organizationfor the crafts industry offers homebased and online craftbusinesses the ability to accept major credit and debit cards.

Rosalind Resnick is president and CEO of Axxess BusinessCenters Inc., a boutique consulting firm for startups and smallbusinesses. She can be reached via her website.

Rosalind Resnick

Rosalind Resnick is a New York-based freelance writer, entrepreneur, investor and author of The Vest Pocket Consultant's Secrets of Small Business Success.

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