What I Learned by Participating in an Art Festival | Part 3 – Selling

Last week, I shared my experience planning to participate in an outdoor art festival and getting set up for the event. The planning and setup were intense but not half so fierce as working the event itself.

The visitors arrive!

The moment the gates opened, people began flooding into the orchard where the festival was held. Never having participated in a festival like this myself, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Through nearly three decades of gallery experience, I felt pretty confident in my sales abilities. Still, I wasn’t sure what the dynamic would be like working with large crowds in a limited space and a venue full of other vendors.

Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to fret. Once people started walking into our booth, my sales muscle memory kicked in, and I began engaging with potential clients just as I would in the gallery. I would introduce myself and the gallery and ask the clients if they were familiar with us. I would then talk a little about the artists we represent. I would then let the client look around before I would further engage with them by telling stories about the art and artists as the clients stopped to admire a particular piece. I would ask questions to get the clients talking about themselves. In other words, I engaged in sales.

The display space worked out much as I had hoped. The angles of the walls invited people into the booth and encouraged exploration and engagement. Very quickly, Parker (my son, who was helping me man the booth) and I discovered that if we stood inside the booth, passers-by were likely to take a glance but keep walking. If we stood outside, either off to the side or across the walkway, in the shade of an apple tree, we would get many more visitors to enter the booth and engage with the art.

The first few hours of the event were busy but didn’t result in any sales. Over the event’s three days, we were to discover that this would be a pattern. Visitors would arrive early, look through the booth, and wander on. As the day progressed, visitors would return and begin making purchases. Very few visitors bought during an initial engagement.

Despite the initial lack of sales, we were on our feet and engaging with every visitor we could. This engagement and activity would pay off in returning visitors and sales. I was surprised to observe that while some other vendors were likewise engaging with customers, many were sitting in chairs, barely engaging with visitors. While it was taxing, I couldn’t imagine having gone to all the work to set up for the event and then missing the opportunity to encourage sales by sitting on the sidelines waiting for sales. In my experience, a “let me know if you have any questions” doesn’t cut it when trying to maximize sales.

The first big hiccup

It was about 11:30 on the first day of the event that we had our first sale, and it was then that we discovered what would turn out to be the biggest glitch for the event – our internet connection. I had planned to use our Shopify point of sale system to process sales. My cell phone data connection had other ideas. It turned out that the venue was located in a spot where my phone, which usually has at least a decent connection in Pinetop, struggled to maintain an internet connection.

Shopify wouldn’t load at all. I called the gallery and had Mikell process sales over the phone for our first few sales. Workable, but not at all ideal. As the day progressed, I remembered I had PayPal and Square apps to process credit cards. While they were slow to load and process transactions, they had the advantage over Shopify in that they would, at least, load.

For the second day, I had a Square tap and pay terminal I was able to use to process transactions. I learned that the terminal would fall asleep, and my phone would lose a connection to the internet after about four minutes of disuse. Which meant I had to beg patience from our customers as I woke up the terminal and cycled my phone through airplane mode to reestablish my internet connection. While checkout could have been smoother, we were at least able to get the sales done.

The second big hiccup

Rain.

Rain.

RAIN.

When you think of Arizona, you likely think it’s pretty dry. This is certainly true of much of the state throughout most of the year. June and July, however, welcome our monsoon season. Pinetop is at about 6800 feet and is located in an area that draws frequent thunderstorms during the monsoon.

By early afternoon on Friday, the first clouds rolled in, and it wasn’t long before the first showers arrived. The rain was light at first but soon became heavier. Parker and I scrambled to attach the side walls of our canopy by velcro to keep the art and walls from getting wet. We flew to pull our checkout table back into the booth.

The rain would let up just as we had everything covered and protected. Parker and I looked at each other and sighed, then moved everything back into place and took down the side walls. While visitors had scrambled for cover when the rain started, they quickly returned once it stopped.

Unfortunately, the rain didn’t stop for long. After only a few minutes back in business, the rain started again, and once again, we scrambled to get everything into the canopy and the walls back up. It would rain for a few minutes, then stop, and we would repeat the entire process. For a couple of hours, it rained off and on several times. We were certainly getting a workout.

By three on Friday, the sky opened up in earnest, and the rest of the afternoon was rained out.

Saturday saw lighter, intermittent showers, but we could stay open for the entire day. Sunday only brought one small storm.

Arizona and much of the west are in a drought. We need as much precipitation as possible, but I admit, I wouldn’t have minded if it had rained in the evenings instead or even waited until the show was over.

Do you know where it never rains? In a gallery🤣

My admiration for artists who do many shows each year rose dramatically as I discovered how much work these events are.

Fortunately, our guests are accustomed to the mountain rain patterns, and many brought umbrellas. They continued to visit between rainclouds throughout the show.

What we did right during the event

Engagement

As described above, our pleasant interactions with visitors helped drive sales. I cannot overemphasize how critical engagement is in these kinds of events.

No judgment or prejudice

I learned long ago that you never know who might end up being a buyer and who might not. I am very careful not to prejudge visitors to our gallery, and I applied this same policy to the outdoor festival. Anyone who stopped to look at art was warmly greeted. Many of our buyers weren’t wearing fancy clothes or exhibiting other accouterments of wealth. Some buyers only made small purchases, but those small purchases added up.

Backup inventory

As work began selling, having backup inventory on-site and access to additional stock at the gallery was hugely important. We kept our walls and pedestals well-stocked throughout the event. There was always a lot to see in the booth.

Professional attire (and comfortable shoes)

I struggled a bit thinking about how to dress for the show. I wear a buttoned shirt and dress slacks in the gallery – I think of this as my uniform. I was concerned, however, that this uniform wouldn’t lend itself to an outdoor venue. Ultimately, I decided I would feel more confident dressed as I usually am in the gallery. A few other vendors dressed as we were; most wore jeans. I’m not sure it made a huge difference to visitors, but I didn’t regret dressing up. Fortunately, my daily dress shoes are both comfortable and supportive – critical for an event like this where we spent so much time on our feet.

Bags and boxes

I ensured we bought plenty of large art bags to wrap sold artwork and paper bags and boxes for smaller items. We had Xanadu stickers to place on the bags and boxes.

Postcards

I brought a large stack of postcards with gallery information and was able to hand them out to many visitors who hadn’t been to the gallery before. I also brought contact cards so I could capture clients’ addresses. We always try to capture as much contact information as possible, but with the flood of visitors to the event, it was challenging to capture as many email addresses as I would have liked. The postcards meant that we had an easy way to send visitors on their way with images of our artwork and our website and address.

What we could have done better during the event

Credit card processing

I’m not sure I could have done much to ensure a better internet connection, but I learned that Square has a swipe card reader that can take credit card transactions offline and process them when you regain an internet connection. My phone doesn’t have an earphone jack, which the reader uses, but I think I can get an adapter that will allow the reader to work.

I heard some vendors encouraging cash sales. I understand the appeal of cash; no one likes paying credit card fees, especially when getting an internet connection is challenging. I’m confident that a willingness to accept credit cards encourages more sales and sales of higher-priced items.

Side wall clamps

Our canopy’s side walls didn’t provide any easy way to hold them in place when rolled up. This meant that each time we wanted to remove them, we had to take them off the canopy, and each time we needed to put them back up, it took several minutes to replace them. I noticed other vendors using woodworking clamps to hold the walls when rolled. Brilliant! I will definitely invest in these clamps for future events.

 

How do you interact with customers and manage sales at outdoor art festivals?

Do you participate in outdoor art festivals? What tips and tricks can you share to help other artists increase sales at these events? What advice would you give an artist getting ready to sell at their first outdoor art show? If you consider offering your art at a festival, what questions about daily operations would you ask artists with many of these events under their belts? Leave your thoughts, comments, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments below.

Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on the results and the tear-down for this event.

 

 

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

43 Comments

  1. I actually participated in my first outdoor festival 2 weeks ago, and had a similar experience, even though ours was accompanied by strong winds, so I laughed while reading your story! You make some great points that I sure will take into consideration if and when I do this again!

  2. Very informative posts. Nice that each vendor tent was spaced far apart to allow easy access and viewing from all directions. Many shows have every tent lined up with access for viewing only from front. Thanks for posting

  3. As I’ve participated in many shows, both in and outdoors, I feel I can add a few items to your excellent list. First, I’m in the Midwest and wind can really be an issue. So, investing in weights or tie downs for the tent would be something to look into. Lighting to me is very important. Even though we’re outdoors, many days can be dark and lighting for the art is really helpful. We use a track system that hangs and allows me to point the lights where I wish. I’ve also had white covers made for my grid system where I hang my artwork. That reflects the light and it’s amazing how much brighter it makes my tent. I do more of an open layout and use a rug underfoot to make it seem more like my own personal gallery. For added display room, I bring some large floor easels and set those out around the tent pointed at where people will see them walking by from various directions. I use them, or not, as space allows.

    I agree that one must engage the people, however, I cannot stand the entire day, so I’m one who sits. That doesn’t mean I don’t talk with anyone who’s even passing by. Even a friendly smile and hello go a long way. Since my fractal art is unknown to many folks, I often ask if they’re familiar with it. That gives me a way to launch into an explanation of what it is and how it’s created. I invite everyone to come in and take a closer look at the art.

    Like you, I’ve found the Square to be the easiest to use device, but always welcome cash. I have also, on occasion, taken checks and have never had a problem with them. Oh, another good idea is to have a banner made to hang outside/above so people can see what you are from a distance. I also bring many packing materials for sales and in case of rain, keep a supply of large black garbage bags. They aren’t elegant, but they do protect the art. The few times I’ve had to use them, we joke about them, but the customers are grateful to have something sturdy to protect their purchases. Finally, I also bring a digital picture frame. Having movement in the tent is a surefire way to attract interest. Since I literally have hundreds of fractal designs, it’s nice to showcase them this way and gives people another place to stop and contemplate.

    1. The digital picture frame is a great idea and one I have not used. Your other suggestions are great as well. Thank you for sharing them.

      I have a banner … and will be making an extra to use so there’s no doubt where I am. Will add a QR code with my web address as well. Some artists add QR codes to their artwork labels. That could take them to that piece’s page on my website for additional background on the piece and something easy to share with their friend’s or partners, etc.

      I just got home from an incredibly successful art festival this past weekend. So much work but wonderful results and conversations.

  4. Thank you Jason for the post. I have always been sceptical about showing at an outdoor venue. Now less so after reading your blog. Thanks for walking us through it.

  5. Super post Jason! I have never participated in an outdoor art festival and don’t know what to expect. Your post filled in a lot of the missing gap for me. Thanks.

  6. Very nice account of a day in the life of an art festival artist (or gallerist). I have been doing outdoor art festivals for several years, and I have to say, the biggest deterrent is the weather. Having a sturdy, waterproof tent is recommended, as wind can also become a factor, especially here in the Northeast. Beyond the weather aspect, engaging with people and talking about the artwork is the most rewarding part, along with sales of course.

  7. Ha! so glad you had an experience of the good stuff as well as the bad stuff. With a solid tent top you can withstand most types of precipitation (done everything but snow myself) but our enemy is w**d. So much so that we try not to use that word so as not to invoke it. It only takes being blown out of existence once to learn WEIGHTING**.
    I also recommend backup power block to re-feed the phone, and a handful of those credit card papers we used to use in the ‘knucklebusters’ for when all else fails. Or sometimes people can Paypal/Zelle/Venmo you directly from their phone and show you the transaction, and you’re good to go.

  8. Thank you so very much. I’m doing my very first outdoor art show this Saturday and I was quite nervous about it. It was reassuring to read a few tips and be aware of the pitfalls. My worry is that I won’t have much room under the canopy for my art which is fairly large. And not sure how many art pieces I should try to bring. This will be a good learning curve for future shows

  9. Fantastic post! As I mentioned before I have participated in many good festivals and a few not so positive experience ones. I found myself smiling as I heard and read comments you were referring to. I was laughing with you not at you. Outdoor events are whole different ballgame. A LOT of WORK. They can be very rewarding but compacted into a small time frame. Thanks for sharing…enjoyed very much. Darryl

  10. Very good post about outdoor festivals. I usually do 2 or 3 a year. Glad to hear you had help. Doing it alone is very difficult. I would always advise having 1 or 2 helpers. The other element to be prepared for is wind. The last event I did here in the desert was a disaster for several artists who did not have significant weight holding their tent down.

  11. For those wondering about weights for the corners of booths, I made unobtrusive weights out of white thick wall PVC pipe about 4 in around and 24 inches long. I glued a cap on one end, filled it with wet concrete and capped the other end with another cap that has an eye bolt inserted in it. To this eye bolt I snapped a hefty chain that reaches up to the top corners of my booth so I can chain the weight at any height. Each weight will weigh over 40 lb and provide significant resistance to movement to your canopy. And, it is also a good idea to screw a handle on the side before you fill it with wet concrete so that you can move the weight easily during setup and take down. I love these because they look nice and don’t get in the way of people going in and out of the booth.

      1. Various weights are available through Walmart online at very reasonable costs. They are delivered directly to your home address.
        Also like the idea of the chain going to the upper supports.
        I have done many outdoor displays here in California we usually have very good weather.
        I do many venues that are not art festivals but related to my animal subjects.
        At my last event I didn’t make any sales yet I did over $20,000 in sales to one client when he contacted me 2 months after the event ! So you never know.

  12. Great post, Jason. I participate in quite a few fine art festivals each year and enjoy doing them despite all the hard work they require. I responded to Deb Lutz with a few suggestions of my own. I am freshly returned from a very successful show in Rhode Island. Your suggestions are spot on and thank you for the list of what you did well/not so well. My husband handles all the logistics, sales processing, packing (good puzzle solver) and manages putting up the booth with my help. I select the paintings, create a layout, label (with stories) and hang them, and do the majority of the talking, asking questions and selling. We are quite the team.

    I love the relationships built with collectors, fellow artists, organizers, and fans. It is so great to hear feedback on my art and to have people decide to bring it into their homes. It is extremely rewarding. I’ve gotten to know one family over the years through the RI show. One sister went home with two of my paintings and had her wish list of 5 more if money was no object. I had asked in advance of the show whether there were specific pieces she would like to see there and she provided a list. That meant she spent a long time viewing work on my website (which she does regularly) and came prepared to make a decision there. She didn’t purchase what she thought — but that also saves that piece for next time.

    These festivals aren’t for the faint of heart. Lots of planning. Lots of work. And, hopefully Mother Nature behaves fairly well or you are resourceful enough to manage.

    Another nice occurrence at the show was being approached by multiple galleries. We’ll see what happens.

    Thanks again, Jason.

  13. Good for you for giving this a shot! I respect that extra effort. Well done.
    Re: payments: I try to give my collectors options. I happily accept cash, credit cards, PayPal, Zelle, and Venmo. I also use Square for offsite processing. While it means I have to stay up to date on several different apps, it makes life easier for buyers.

  14. Since I do a lot of plein air painting, I usually stand off to the side painting. I make sure to wear a name tag that says ARTIST under my name. I only bring a couple of BIG paintings, with mostly smaller (8 x 10 or 5 x 7). At our festivals, the people don’t seem to buy the large things, but they really draw the attention in. My banner also has some of my large art. I have cards/prints and giclees since most people want a cheaper price point. Most of our festivals here in middle TN are mixed arts/crafts, so we are competing with pottery and jewelry!

  15. Square sells/gives? it’s pos gizmo with a lightning connection – it’s on their website. (I only learned that the night before I needed one, but now I know.)

  16. Thank you for all this valuable information. It has made my decision to not participate in outdoor fairs so much easier! This is definitely not for me😳😂

  17. Great article. FYI square has a cordless module for those with no phone jack. A huge benefit for me of participating in a juried art show is building relationships with other vendors. It creates positive energy for a show as well as has many spin-offs later. I look forward to reading your comments on the post show impacts of your participation. I was in a show last weekend and already had a customer come to visit and have special orders to fill. Annual participation in the show I just did is like visiting family and customers like to stop and chat and say how much they enjoy previous purchases. Some also make a point of wearing my pieces. It feeds my soul and creates anticipation for creating.

    1. Thanks Wendy. I have the Square wireless model, and it’s great when you have a connection. However, it won’t process sales when you are offline like the swipe reader will – something to do with the chip and tap technology needing a connection to work 🙁

      You are right about the value of relationships. I didn’t get a lot of time to visit with other vendors, but I did have some time, and enjoyed talking to them.

  18. A Marine Battery is really a life saver. Some shows seem to run my phone down trying to make sales. I’ve found plugging both the phone and Square into it makes connection easier and sales go smoother.
    Do not bring extra chairs or you’ll end up with someone telling you all their woes. No negativity allowed in the booth!

  19. I’m always ready for customers an hour before the official start because the serious people come out early to scope things out and come back to buy before the browsers are even getting started. Engaging with people is my favorite part and I make sure every single person gets a hello and smile at minimum, by the time many leave we are at the hug phase.
    Something that is not mentioned here or by anyone is branding yourself at a show, How to get people in your booth and make sure they remember you. My work is touchable and I play that up. I have signs all over that say Go Ahead, Touch Me next to the art, it works like a charm, because so much art is not touchable and being humans we love to touch things. it also gets people close enough to realize that they are not looking at a painting but glass beads. its a great conversation starter too, both in my booth and at other booths. My packaging solution is allows unique and saves tons of time and materials. Each piece has a custom made Sherpa wool bag that goes with it. the bag is signed with name of the piece and my signature. This protects the art during transport to various shows, keeps me from wasting bubble wrap, tape and Saran Wrap and best of all looks very professional for the customer. They love showing off the packaging and reusing it for something after they get home. It’s the Tiffany concept, i have many clients that say they jokingly that they buy the art as much for the package as the bag. It’s part of my brand and something each artist should think more about. It also cuts down tear down time since all we do is slide the piece in the correct bag and place in the tote until next time. I never worry about scratch’s or damage either. Costs me about $5 per piece and I do this for works $300 and up.

    1. Where do you find a Sherpa wool bag for $5. This is just a fabulous idea, one I’ve never seen before! I applaud your creativity!
      MarleneLouise

  20. Regarding internet processing, don’t let the buyer walk away until the spinning stops! I lost connection in the middle of processing and didn’t realize it. She was in a hurry and walked off as soon as I handed her the card. When I looked down it was still spinning then said processing failed! Hard lesson. Hold the card until you get to the receipt screen before handing back!

    1. Oh no! I hope it wasn’t a large/valuable piece. Thank you for sharing your story – that must have been really frustrating! In general, it’s always a good idea to make sure that the transaction is fully processed before handing the card back to the customer, but also not a bad idea to make sure you are getting contact information just in case. Live and learn, but ouch!

  21. I have a small bin of handmade collaged abstract bookmarks in vinyl sleeves, while I fiddle with PayPal and phone I ask client to pick out a free bookmark, it keeps them occupied while I pull up my connection. Plus I like giving tiny gift with purchase.

  22. We always offer a 10% discount if they pay in cash. We have a small sign that says this at the front of the booth. Also we no longer use PayPal after a customer basically stole a 500$ piece . She bought the piece, took it home. Contacted PayPal the next day, said her daughter used her credit card without permission. PayPal refunded her money and she kept the artwork.. We filed protest after protest to no avail.

    1. Sorry to hear about the lost sale – it’s unfortunate. There’s a special place in hell for someone who would steal an artwork like this. It’s not just the lost $, it’s all the time and frustration she caused. Fortunately it wasn’t a $5,000 sale 🙂

  23. Great advice from everyone! I just participated in a weekend art festival and my square reader would not work! Luckily I shared a tent with a friend and ended up using their square! Phew! We have shared a tent for three years and while this year was a bit quieter than other years it was still successful.

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