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You need to know about Fresh Rag

Rhonni —  August 14, 2014 — 1 Comment

I’ve promised to share the tools and tidbits of a successful life at festivals. Al Craig has had some great advice for crafters when at festivals, but we haven’t delivered a lot of info for Makers that applies outside our world.
My own art form is management (although I admit to being better-than-passable at building design). But I wanted to let you Crafter/Maker/Vendor-type folks know about a website and podcast that delivers business information for folks in the business of creating. Dave Conrey’s Fresh Rag site has a variety of gifts. The podcasts alone are full of great, practical information for people selling their work anywhere, and I’m currently awaiting delivery of his book Selling Art Online.

 

The photo of Dave I snagged from Facebook.

The photo of Dave I snagged from Facebook.

Here is a sample of his writing, and I promise you that anyone trying to make a living selling stuff they create will find a lot of value in his podcasts.

Let us know if you have any helpful resources for folks in this wacky industry we all call home. Podcasts? Blogs? Books? Share in the comments!

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in Al’s series that uses metrics to determine the financial relationship between vendors and festivals.Following articles will end up with internal links here (Part 2). It’s high-season in the outdoor festival business, but we’ll get them to you eventually.

I love to play poker.  When I was a kid, we would play for matchsticks. After the game was over, we would put our matchsticks back in the box, go outside, and play something else.  In poker for matchsticks there was no winner or loser, nothing ventured, and nothing gained.  We played for the fun of it, and a good time was had by all.

photo by Ibrahim Sariahmetoglu

In High School, and then College, we played for cash.  Usually nickel, dime, quarter games with a three raise limit.  It doesn’t seem like much, but after five or six hours and twice as many beers, you could win or lose a months’ rent.  Suddenly the good time was no longer guaranteed.  It was great when you could go home with 20 pounds of quarters in your pockets, but not so much when your solvency had dissolved in a brew of bad luck, bad beer, and bad play.  Poker had become what poker is…..a gamble.

Not being much of a gambler, I sought to improve my odds and remove as much of the ‘gamble’ as I could.  Or, to put it another way, to treat it like a business. Or, to put it yet another way, to understand and then manage the risk of playing poker to improve my profit.  Big surprise…..it all came down to numbers.

I’m assuming for the sake of this article that you are no longer playing for matchsticks.  You know the numbers that one must know to exist and survive as a private business in the 21st century.  You know the numbers of operating your business.  The numbers that I will offer are those relating to the environment in which you do your business, i.e. the relationship between your business and the festival itself.  These numbers are a key metric for you as a craftsperson in determining the return from festivals that you are considering, or in which you are already invested. They also are essential to a festival should it be concerned or curious about the health of the internal economy that it has created.

There are 3 ratios that serve as the main indicators of the potential economic success or failure of a single business and, if left unattended over time, of the entire internal craft economy. These are the cost/patron ratio, the profit/patron ratio, and the patron/vendor ratio.  

For the purpose of this article, I will address the patron/vendor ratio.  It is the leading indicator on which all others are dependent.  It is the numeric expression of the two primary concerns that you, as a craftsperson should have about a show that is asking for your investment.  

The first number, the number of patrons, is an indication of how successful the festival is in bringing money through the gates.  The second number, the number of crafts people who have been juried into the show, is an indicator of the festivals level of understanding or concern for the financial health and wellbeing of those who have invested in their show.  In short, the patron/vendor ratio simply put is; “How big a pie did they bake, and how many pieces did they cut it into.”  To determine the patron/vendor ratio you simply divide the number of patrons by the number of vendors.

A festival is obviously going to be concerned with the size of the pie.  It is the metric which, from their point of view, is the primary gauge of their success.  It is from this number that all others judged.  It is only natural, therefore, that they assume that the same would hold true for the individual businesses inside the gates.  “If we’re doing well, then the vendors also must be doing well.”  This is true only if the festival has either frozen the number of vendors or juried in a smaller percentage of new vendors than the percentage increase of the gate.

 For a vendor at a show it’s not so much the size of the pie as it is the size of the piece.  A show that has 200,000 patrons coming through the gate sounds like a great place to build a booth, right?   It would be a great show to invest in if there were only 100 vendors.  It would be if there were 150 vendors.  It would be ok even if there were 200 vendors…..but that would be the cut-off point for me.

  Over the thirty-some years of observing festivals and businesses I’ve come to a rule of thumb which has held true over the years.  A patron/vendor ratio of 1,000 patrons per vendor for an eight weekend Renaissance festival, or 125 patrons per vendor per day is the minimum amount to justify doing a show with the expectations of an acceptable return on investment.  When the ratio falls below this, money becomes tighter for each business and they have a tendency to start trying to extract what they need for the return on their investment in a more aggressive manner.  They also have a tendency to increase the size and display of lower dollar, bread and butter items in an effort to insure that they can meet the payroll and cover the booth fee.  

This is not a healthy financial environment for you nor is it healthy for the festival.  The patrons will start to withdraw, they will walk down the middle of the lane to avoid the shops.  Some shops, in turn, hire lane hawkers.  Soon there is nowhere for a patron to feel safe from the continuous pressure of being sold something. The experience is akin to paying twenty bucks to spend a day hearing life insurance salesmen and telemarketers trying to sell you their product.

If you are a vendor and you find that, at certain shows, you are having to compete harder for fewer returns, check the patron/vendor ratio.

 If you work at a festival and can’t understand why the lack of investment in booths and landscaping, why the lack of concern from the crafts community for the patron experience, check your patron/vendor ratio. 

If you are a patron and you find at the end of the day, on the way home in the car, or through conversations with friends,  the feeling that you’ve invested your weekend and your money in an experience that was tainted by aggressive sales techniques and low quality crafted products, check the patron/vendor ratio.

Next time—How to guesstimate what the actual gate count is so you can find the patron/vendor ratio….

Worth a Thousand Words

Rhonni —  May 30, 2013 — 6 Comments

We had some difficulty finding imagery that would communicate the unique mix of festival and business that is the purpose and personality of this site. Just as the experts in the field found no sites asking for articles on their expertise, there were no stock images available that blended the world of performers, vendors, travel, and business.

So we called our friends at Brent Walker Creative, and connected them with our very talented friends from Circus Stella for the first round of images:

The bid.

You’ve seen some of these, we use them as newsletter headers, and on our Facebook page. What you don’t know is that even though they were truly juggling office items, it was next to impossible to find a photo where the tape dispenser and stapler did not look as though they’d been Photoshopped into the image.

 

Many of the static trapeze images had the same problem. I think the incongruity of the combinations (which was absolutely our intention), was part of the problem when trying to choose which images looked the most real.

 

This week we’ve scheduled another shoot. Planned shots include contract negotiations inside a brass and bronze sculpture studio, sales space design inside a shop, while holding blueprints, and a business meeting while standing in/on a mud pit stage. We still haven’t managed the business desk inside a vintage carnival tent, but we’ll try to photograph one inside a craft shop tomorrow.

 

Just yesterday we attempted to show work and travel combined like this:

Blueprints, calculator, reports, maps, and desks built out of luggage.

 

But we all know that it can easily look a lot more like this:

Closing one show, driving to open another.

What images can you imagine that communicate the weird world of business inside outdoor festivals? How many of us make our vehicle selections based upon how many Rubbermaid tubs fit in cargo, and how well tent poles can strap to the roof? Let us know your ideas for future photo shoots in the comment section.

While I believe it differs little from a shopping mall lease agreement, the agreement between Vendors and Renaissance Festival Management involves the Vendor building and maintaining a structure on the Festival’s property, then paying a show fee to vend from that building during the event. (Mall leases involve Lessors paying for their own “build-out”; then paying rent for that space.)

This makes for an interesting dynamic, where the vendors who “own” their buildings share the responsibility of park maintenance where their buildings are concerned. Part of their agreement with the Festival is that they will maintain the building according to park wishes. However, Vendors are expected to take initiative in building maintenance for the betterment of the park.

In the vendor mix are shops referred to as Temporaries, or Temp Booths. These vendors are commonly dissed by shop owners as folks who don’t make real investments in the parks. However, some businesses not only fit better conceptually in a tent, they add a theatrical element to the lanes that is necessary for the park theme. It is difficult to tell the difference between a tent-user who is in a tent because it works best for the theme, and a tent-user who doesn’t want to sink money into someone else’s real estate.

Landscaping by the carnival company at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo 2013

Part of the disquiet that building owners have toward tent users, is related to the shared responsibility of park maintenance. How can Festival Management share the park beautification responsibilities with tent users, so that building owners do not feel unfairly targeted when told to repaint or landscape their booths? We can look to State Fairs for guidance. They are making entertainment spaces out of parking lots and roads, managing to import enough large plants to create lavish break spaces that only last a few weeks. I strongly doubt that the carnival company chooses to buy all of those lush plants on their own. They buy the plants because they want to land the contract with the state fair next year.

There is another way to get value for the building owners. (Let’s call them co-investors.) Temporary booths are most often located as a 360*. In other words, they are not on a booth line, but out in the middle of a lane somewhere. These temporary booths can and should be used as bumpers. Think of a pinball game. Now think of permanent shops as the targets where points are earned. Placement of temporary booths should benefit the folks who are sharing the responsibilities of park maintenance. Park layouts with cul-de-sacs necessitate bumpers, but they have value in other situations as well.  

When a group of neighboring shops communicate that their income or traffic is diminished (or their numbers reflect it to management in the case of shows with a percentage-based fee), relocation of the pinball bumpers can be used to try and redirect traffic to that underserved area. (As an aside, for Vendor Coordinators who might have to deal with push-back from 360* vendors who could get moved around a lot … those Vendors could always choose to invest in the show and have a permanent location.)

Carrying the pinball metaphor further, if everyone is doing their job correctly, Guests (the pinballs) are so entertained that they are bounced from park element to park element without realizing that park design and entertainment are steering their path. Perhaps we can consider the entertainment schedule as the flippers.

What are other pinball machine metaphors we can claim? Give us your suggestions in the comments for this post. We’d love to carry this discussion further.

AKA, The Harsh Conversation I had with a Young Carpenter.

A building I designed for a corset maker.

The dynamics of the Vendor/Builder/Festival Management matrix are complex, and there are many places where the deal can go wrong for one or more of the parties. All three legs must be considered for this table to stand. On the one hand, talented carpenters get to design and build whimsical structures. I’ve met architects who have many more years of study, be insanely jealous that my imaginative designs have actually been built, rather than collecting dust in a pile of drawings. Vendors, be they artists or service providers, need to have Builders who understand the Renaissance Faire aesthetic, comprehend traffic flow patterns necessary for sales, and can build to meet local codes. Festival Management needs for the dealings between the Vendor and the Builder to proceed smoothly, and on a time frame that ensures that the shop will be completed to code, and open, with an approved Vendor in place, when the festival is open to the public.

I think it will just be easier if I list some of the things that can go wrong here.

1) Builder runs out of money. This is often because of a misquote or mistake on the bid, but sometimes a permitting process throws extra expenses into a project. It is the Builder’s responsibility to draft a contract that allows for alterations in the price when governmental agencies are involved. Requiring complete drawings lowers this risk tremendously. With a complete set of drawings, a Builder can count every board necessary in the construction of the building prior to bidding the job. Also, by reviewing the drawings, a knowledgeable person, whether a Vendor or a Building Coordinator, or a Building Inspector, can tell quickly whether or not the Builder knows what he is doing.

2) Vendor runs out of money. This may be due to the above-mentioned governmental agencies involvement, but unfortunately it is often due to poor planning, or an attempt to use any loopholes in the contract with the Builder to pay for the building with revenues generated in the building to be built. (Say that 5 times fast; I dare you.) Builders are quite often banking the business growth of vendors due to their own mistakes in contract design. These loopholes have been exploited by Vendors for decades, and unfortunately, due to the presentation needs of the Festival Management … it is sometimes considered business as usual. Some Builders are writing contracts specifically allowing this practice, because it is considered the industry standard.

3) Water gets into the booth after completion. This can happen either because the Builder does not have a familiarity with the specific roofing materials required at a Renaissance Festival, or more often; it is a grade elevation issue. Grade elevations are usually agreed upon between the builder and the Site Manager. Maximum Exterior dimensions are sometimes set by the Site Manager as well, to control roof run-off from one shop to another. (Builders have to remember to include this work in the bid, often with an explanation, because it is almost always an invisible cost to the Vendor/Buyer.) Some of the biggest arguments I was involved in as Building Coordinator involved water, and the fact that a Builder was in the process of wasting a great deal of a Vendor’s money building something that was not in any way able to stay dry. In one case I lost a friend; in another, I made a friend for life when he realized I was saving him at least $50,000.

4) These building designs are each 100% unique. Getting a solid estimate is impossible without an investment of time and energy into the design process. Builders with solid reputations can usually negotiate a change in costs as it is discovered during construction, but it is very difficult for new Builders to adequately cover the risks of designing original buildings in these venues. Again, extensive drawing requirements can alleviate some of this risk, or at least give a clear discussion point with the often absentee Vendor/Buyer.

5) The Builder is such an artist that he designs more than the Vendor can actually afford, and leapfrogs his cashflow from project to project to fund his own artistic expression requirements. It’s hard to see who loses here, other than the Builder/Artist himself, whose standard of living is probably taking a hit. But the festival building market gets skewed to where Builders who do charge a reasonable wage for their time are priced out of the market; and that poor artistic soul cannot afford the help he needs to finish that last job onsite. Unfortunately neither can he afford the therapy he’ll need when his customers are still not appreciative of his work.

6) The Builder and the Vendor disagree on the balance owed. This is usually when the Builder/Vendor contract is unclear on change-orders. Making alterations in a building once it has started involves time and materials, which customers rarely understand. In most cases, the structure is the first time a Vendor has hired a contractor to build them a structure from scratch, and understandably, they may not have been able to picture the structure in its reality. Moving a door or a window is never cheaper than the original bid, often to the dismay of a customer.

7) The Builder runs out of time. Now, this is a somewhat grey area. Again, the contract should state a delivery date, and 1 hour before the festival opens does not give the Vendor (who in his mind may have just spent more on his business than ever before in his career) adequate time to move his product and displays into the new structure. Some festivals avoid this by having cut-off dates for construction that are months in advance of the event opening, but other climates do not have as many months of suitable weather, and thus festivals in these locations cannot use this safeguard.

8) Festival Management does not approve of the design. Okay, hopefully this issue is dealt with before construction begins, as most festivals have to approve a building design before it can be started. However, it has happened that a builder built something other than the drawing that was turned in for approval. In the situation I speak of, the Builder was a full-time employee of the Vendor for whom he was building, and they thought Festival Management wouldn’t notice if they eliminated the two tower portions of their structure. Fortunately this issue usually manifests as a simple request to repaint a structure, because the color that was described in the drawing was not the color that ended up on the wall or the trim. (I recommend paint color chips with all building applications provided to Festival Management. It saves a lot of grief in the long run.)

9) Builder doesn’t get paid, and there is no opportunity for an actual “Contractor’s Lien”. Okay, this is one of the biggest problems to be faced in this industry. All three players must get their needs met. I don’t know of anyone who has been able to get a business loan for a Renaissance Festival structure. Banks are not too keen on loaning money for a building when no Real Estate is attached. That being said, it is not an excuse to enter a contract with a Builder for a product that the small business cannot afford. By the same token, the Builder’s inability to meet the delivery date cannot be held against him if timed payments were not met. He very well may have needed that payment to buy the next round of materials for the structure. But testosterone-laden threats of “Husqvarna Collection Agency” action on the part of the stiffed Builder will not and cannot ever be supported by Festival Management. Festival Management’s first responsibility is to the event itself. Management has to ensure the paying guest has a complete experience of a finished and perfect park. While some festivals have been known to place a label of “Plague House” on a closed up structure due to incompletion or contested ownership; it is a last-ditch resort. Festival Management also has to balance the needs of the talented Builders, and the Artists who have hired them. If that does not sound like an easy task; it is because it is NOT an easy task.

The best contract I know of in the industry is that of a Designer/Builder who is also a furniture maker that has been accepted into several highly juried art shows. His contract (which Festival Management has to sign as well), states that if the customer does not finish paying for the structure, the Festival gets a new furniture maker as a Vendor, and all payments up until that point are forfeit by the Vendor with whom he originally contracted. If all of the Builders on the Renaissance Faire circuit had crafts that would pass a jury, this would be the solution. With this, everyone in the Builder/Vendor/Management Matrix gets their needs met. Unfortunately, most of the Builders express their art solely in the fanciful structures they design for Vendors.

 

There are surely some other problems, but these are the most common. I’m interested in what the best solutions might be. I know of one Festival General Manager who set up an escrow account through the festival office. Thus the Vendor had to have proven his ability to pay for the entirety before the building commenced, yet the final payment check was not cut to the Builder until all three parties sat together and agreed they were happy. Not every festival will want to be this involved. Some have referred to it as micro-managing, but I can assure you that during the tenure of that General Manager, more than half of these issues were eliminated from the list. He required a Delivery Date early enough that the sit-down meeting would not impact his own time requirements in opening the show, so it was at least two weeks before the opening date.

Some Festivals have a list of approved builders, and while I applaud the attempt to create some regulation in the industry, the reality is often that the Vendor audience for that list makes assumptions about the Builder’s abilities based upon their appearance on the list, when in fact the Builder may have no more skills than those necessary in buying Liability Insurance.

There are things to be said about absentee Vendor customers, and oversight of construction projects, but I will leave that for another article. Requests for a handbook on Festival Building Practices are being seriously considered, as all of my articles on this subject seem to lead to other questions and answers. Instead of answering in extensive phone calls, I’m going to start answering the questions here in this website.

Please, if you know of some “Best Practices” on this issue, mention them or the Festivals that utilize them, in the comments below. (Horror stories are welcome as well, but please do not mention names in those, thanks.)

Planting the seeds for future roundtables about the Pinball Metaphor for park design and guest movement management …

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