One of the first “Industry Truths” I was taught about Renaissance Festivals was this:
There are 3 types of people who travel and work Renaissance Festivals.
- People who have a business that works at Renaissance Festivals. (This includes artists who lean toward costume elements, or pewter figurines, or astrolabes; and service providers who have created a business that works within the theme, as well as Entertainers.)
- People who live here for the traveling lifestyle, but could work elsewhere if they wanted. They land side-jobs or “week-work” whenever possible. (This includes good managers, henna artists, Renaissance carpenters, facepainters … many of these people are building their own businesses “on the side”, or are apprenticing to a craft or crafts business. Some entertainers are in this group.)
- People who can’t keep it together to work more than 2 days per week.
These different groups are all engaged in completely different competitions. Many think they are trying to “level up”. Whether or not they are actually working toward that is debatable. Each track is different. Each competition has different requirements, different goals, and different rewards.
I’m a person of the first sort at this point in my career … we own several businesses at multiple permanent Renaissance Festivals. The race I am running is a start-up race. I need to be the next person with a new idea or a new product, and present it to Festival Management in hopes that they agree upon my gamble, and let me in to their event. If they already have saturation in a particular segment of their market, and I really want to do their show, I need to come up with a new product line, or develop a new service that works in their venue. I only have competitors if I am copying ideas. My race is to find and present something the Management hasn’t seen yet, in a way that fits it into their theme. An example would be a pedi-cab business. Thematically it is a challenge, but human-powered rickshaws work, or I could import bamboo bicycles. I have to come across to Management as a professional, with the funding to back my idea and do a top-notch job. When Henna body art first started trending, I called a festival where I had an existing business; to ask if they had already contracted with someone for the service. I was told that I was the third person that week to call on the subject, but that they were very much looking forward to my presentation. I’m pretty sure I landed that concession simply by being the most professional person who applied.
Training for this race includes attending trade shows and art festivals whenever possible. Food items are quite regional, but some ideas travel well. I also attend business events, and take classes whenever I can. You never know where the next great idea might come from. (I take photos of menus almost everywhere I go.)
I started out in the industry as a person of the second sort, and I’ve always surrounded myself with people of the first and second categories on this list. Truthfully, I just work so many hours during the few calendar months of my work season … I don’t have time to see anyone who isn’t coming to work. If I’ve got time to hang-out, I’m more likely to field a brainstorming session amongst my peers. Many of us only cross schedules for 2 months of the year. This means clever co-conspirators can flesh-out ideas, with the easy non-compete agreement that they will apply to separate shows. Sometimes regions of the country are fleshed out early in a discussion if the idea seems hot enough.
But the race that people in the second category run *does* have competitors. Because these people are paying their bills (and possibly working to build their own businesses) with the funds from an on-circuit employer, they are pitching their skill-set and their reputation against folks who want that same good job. Their employer has chosen which shows to invest in, so they don’t have complete control of their own yearly schedule, although truly, some don’t care as long as they get to travel. Some folks mix up who they work for at different times of year, in order to choose their schedule themselves.
The smartest people in this race are in school. They are either apprenticing to a craft, or learning the finer points of a business while managing it for someone else and getting paid. It’s how I learned the most important elements of festival food management (and my deep abiding love of MS Excel). I’m currently honing my inventory manager to be able to buy me out in 15 years or so since I don’t have any heirs. I know some artists in the same situation. They have built successful businesses and it’s a shame to close them just because they’ve aged-out of the ability to do the work, so they’ve taken on paid sales help who are also apprentices.
Training for this race involves fine-tuning your skill-set to make yourself too appealing to pass up. The folks I think of first are my head baker (who is amazingly talented), and my friend Heather who has a retail design and management background. She is always employed, while also launching her own multiple businesses. When The Husband and I were still building shops for the majority of our income, I learned 4 different building codes, and became proficient (enough) with a CAD program to draw for permits in the several different states where we built. There is plenty of work for people who want to work.
Which brings us to the third group of people … I don’t really know very much about this group. I like my work too much to be avoiding it.
The race in which the third group of people are involved (discounting the real possibility of mental illness), is a race against complacence and a victim mentality. Their strongest competitors are themselves and the other crabs in the bucket. We all like to surround ourselves with people who think like we do. It is human nature. But sitting around, talking about why the world doesn’t work for you only brings into being a world that doesn’t work for you. “There’s no week-work available” is an irresponsible person’s translation for “I lost my chance at week-work to a more reliable worker.” It is relatively inexpensive to live “on circuit”, depending on your comfort level. Consequently, folks who can only keep it together to work a couple of days a week can be “on circuit”. Unfortunately for some, this gives them more time to represent the industry to the local townspeople. This can be embarrassing at best, and detrimental to the festival’s reputation at worst.
The fact that there are professional business people working at Renaissance Festivals appears to be a well-kept secret.