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 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
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
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.
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.
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.