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Everywhere I’ve gone this month, the conversation seems to be about the intersection of Entertainment and Commerce in the Festival or Theme Park world.

Permanent parks and themed environments are not entry-level venues, whether speaking of crafts, services, or food & beverage sales. Too often participants leap into an investment in a park or festival with no thought to Proof of Concept. Vendors enter the themed milieu without an appreciation for the experience that the customer is seeking by attending such a venue.

Buy-in can mean so many things … in permanent parks it can refer to the cost involved in procuring a building from which to vend. However there is also the cultural buy-in that includes the joy of wearing a costume and interacting with festival attendees in a way that enhances the escape they purchased upon entry of the park’s front gate.

To quote Ben Franklin: “Diligence is the mother of good luck” 

It is wise to work for a while in any industry before deciding one is ready to own a business there. The restaurant business is a glaringly obvious example of how wrong people can be about their own understanding of a business model when they decide to launch their dream restaurants with no prior foodservice experience. In the festival business, the mistake manifests more often with unproven crafts concepts. Lack of sales is most often blamed on a Vendor Coordinator’s influence on booth placement, or a PR team “not bringing in the right people”. The truth is often that the craft hasn’t sold remarkably in ANY venue, but due diligence was never exercised before building a business around it.

If you’ve spent years in any industry, you’ll have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Themed events are such a blend of entertainment and commerce; they can be a difficult place to attempt a trial run of a product. However, if that item itself is a mixture of these elements … if there is an experience connected to the purchase … then that product has a better chance of working in that realm. But for goodness sake, take the time to make at least a rudimentary business plan.

No Evil

Proof of Concept can be worked out in real-time, inside an event. But the money invested has a higher level of risk. Also, bigger parks sometimes require proof that you’ve spent serious time researching your project. Fifteen years ago, an application to the Texas Renaissance Festival was not a form one filled out. It was a multi-page presentation, which included all of the following points:

 Legend:

Mission:

Creed:

Motto:

Theme:

 Demeanor:

 Costumes:

 Strategies:

 Heraldic Symbol:

 Income Projections:

 Festival Compensation:

 Expense Budget:

 3yr Expansion Plan:

 Details and dimensions of workspace:

 How did we get here? (Business/Personal Biography)

 Breakdown and description of items for sale:

 

In Eleanor Whitney’s book GROW, How to take your D.I.Y. project and passion to the next level & quit your job! She coaches a similar set of questions. (She has other great advice as well.)

Innovative shows are going to ask you to continue thinking about your business or businesses within their venue(s). Some recent homework I’ve completed would include reports on ongoing research in my field, and a two page paper on our company philosophy on Food and Entertainment.

As someone who is often asked for business consultations within the festival industry, I have to say that I think many missteps would be avoided if this type of esoteric questioning became more common in the festival world.

Just as writing an interesting application helps you land good summer employees, engaging in the right types of internal questions can save us from grief when we try to sell either an unproven product, or sell it in an unproven venue.

 

Those of you already in the industry, what are some of the questions you wished you had asked before starting your business? What questions do you think should be asked of show applicants? Let us know … we’re looking forward to the conversation.

If you have a lot to say on the matter … you might consider being a Guest Blogger with us.

Ok, let’s see, …..where were we? ….poker…matchsticks…20 pounds of quarters….profit/patron, cost/patron and patron/vendor ratios…big pies…..and little pieces. Remember? If not, you can refresh your memory by reading ‘playing by the numbers, part 1’

It’s a funny thing about numbers. When you ask someone the time of day, a baseball score, or the age of their children, the answers are straight forward….no qualifiers, no agenda, and no spin. “Two forty five”, Eight to Five, Cubs”, and “Little Jimmy is seven”. However, ask the same person “How much money did you make this week?” and a new dynamic kicks in and your question will be answered with a shocked look, another question “What?” or a declarative statement “That’s none of your @$##$ business!” My own answer to this question has always been “Not enough”, but I digress….

photo by AoLun1680 on Flickr

People and business concerns are guarded with their numbers not because of the numbers themselves. There are two basic reasons that we guard our actual numbers. The first is fear. If we are ‘successful’ we don’t want others to know of the level of our success for fear of inducing competition. If our day or year has been less than stellar we don’t want others to know for fear of being judged as incompetent or ‘unsuccessful’.
The second reason is…..it’s none of your @$##$ business! And yet, in all my years as an entertainer, craftsperson, and crafts coordinator, I have participated in the daily dance of trying to find out how others were doing numerically as they tried to find out the same from me.

Because we are all aware of the sanctity of our numbers we couch our inquiries into others’ numbers in non-specifics. Instead of “how much did you make?” we ask “How was your day?” The answers (both gotten and given) can range from “Grim” to “Great!” but usually are given in relative terms as well “Half of what we did yesterday” or “Not as well as we should have for the number of people”. Which is fine because, truth be known, it isn’t the actual number that is important, it is the relationship of that number to past numbers.

Was today up or down relative to last week? Was this year up or down from last year? Without these numbers I couldn’t effectively do my job as a crafts coordinator. How can a festival know how many potters is too many potters? You can’t ask the potters. As far as they’re concerned there are already too many potters unless, of course, they are the only potter, in which case the festival has the perfect number of potters.

Without these relative numbers, I, as a craftsperson, would have nothing outside of my own previous numbers by which to judge my current performance. Do I need to change my display? Develop a new product line? Change my prices? Have they juried in too many shops in my medium? It’s all guess work without having an idea if my fiscal variance is at odds with what others at the show are experiencing. Therefore on any given day you will hear amongst crafters, entertainers and management the veiled repartee of fiscal exploration “How was your day?” in an attempt to figure out if their own day was on track.

The fact that no numbers are discussed is, in most cases fine. It really isn’t any of my business how many turkey legs a festival sells. If they are kind enough to give me a relational statement great, if not no harm done, because, again, it’s none of my @#$# business. This holds true with all of the numbers a festival has save one….the actual gate count.

It is my business to know the accurate gate count of a festival if I’m going to invest in a booth on their grounds. It is also my business as a vendor of crafts or food to know how many people came through the gate on any given day, week, or year. A vendor cannot run their business efficiently without actual gate numbers. The more accurate the numbers supplied, the better they can carry on business, the more successful they will be, and the more they will invest in their booth and their business at that festival.

The need for past gate counts is especially true for food vendors and live flower businesses, who deal in perishable products. With past gate counts, a weather forecast, and current gate counts for preceding weeks, it becomes easier to place your order for the upcoming weekend, with less of a chance for having to throw part of your profits in the garbage on Sunday night. Imagine, if you are a potter, that at the end of the weekend you had to throw away all the pots that you didn’t sell……welcome to the world of food.

However, even though a craftsperson doesn’t have to throw away product, without an idea of the gate, there is no reference point to determine how well they are doing with price points, display, and the overall demand curve for their product, nor the necessary data for an accurate supply curve for that festival. In addition, not only do vendors pay a fee (or in some cases several fees) to be at a show, but they also invest a large chunk of their capital in the show once they’ve decided to do it. To ask a vendor to do this without supplying them with data that would improve their business (and therefore increase their investment) is contrary not only to their best interest, but also to the festivals best interest.

So, assuming that festivals want the best for their vendors so they will further invest and expand, how can you as a current vendor or potential investor get these numbers? The first step would be to ask them. But be forewarned that there is a good chance that they won’t give them to you, or, worse, will give you the attendance numbers. “But why would they do that? And what’s the difference between the gate and the attendance?” That will have to wait until next time, even though that’s what I said last time.

Let me know, via a comment below, your thoughts or own experiences with gathering or sharing your numbers…..or anything else that might generate more comments! (Yes….I’m fishing for more comments.)

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

really…no kidding…

I meant to do it this time, but it was too wordy.…

This week we just cannot seem to talk about anything other than This Post over at The Year of Living Fabulously …

How to Talk to Artists at Art Festivals- The Do’s and Don’ts (Warning: You’ve probably been guilty of at least one of the don’ts…)

Those who commented there are obviously a blend of pros and customers, which means that the comment reading is almost as good as the post itself … which is epic.

Enjoy!

Summer Job Lady

Rhonni —  May 23, 2013 — 6 Comments

This post originally appeared on my personal blog, but just this week I was having a conversation with a Crafter about hiring good help, and the choice to become a mentor. Many many people have their first job experience at an outdoor festival or theme park. It is something we need to remember as the people doing the hiring.

I’ve been the “Summer Job Lady” for 23 summers now. Before we had our own businesses there, I managed all of the personnel and payroll for the man that owned 75% of the food program at the New York Renaissance Faire. With an attrition rate of 10%, and 85 positions to fill, some summers I’d hire 135 kids during the 8 week run of the festival.
These days, for our own operation, we need about 25 people. We have a more generous pay scale, and the fact that The Hubby and I work in the kitchens with our employees, rather than just counting the money in an office combine to give us a lower rate of attrition. We now hire the younger siblings and even the children of some of my former summer hires. We have a solid and reliable crew in New York, and I’m looking forward to establishing the same type of team in the shows where I have less tenure.

My Summer Job Application

Still, I’ve learned a few things over the years about summer jobs.
1. 8 weeks is a “lot” of someone’s summer to give up. I talk about it being 17 days when asking them for a commitment. We’re open on weekends only, for high-volume sales. There is no room for extra bodies, and consequently no real way to hire extra people … (except …)
2. There are people that simply cannot give up all of these weekends. I take their info, and enlist them as backup. If they are former employees who cannot make the full commitment, I go ahead and hire them for the busiest weekend, or a holiday weekend … “someone” is going to flake, and you’ll still be ready for your biggest day, as well as maintaining a relationship with that employee as she’s moving off to college or whatever.
3. This is often someone’s FIRST JOB. Any incorrect assumptions they make are the manager’s fault for improper training. For example: We are now hiring a generation of people who have never been away from their cell phones. Getting peeved when you find the 16 year old texting between customers is absurd. It’s the management’s fault for not explaining that there is no phone use while on the clock. Reprogramming a young person to ignore a ring or buzz of his phone is harder than you might think. Instead, provide a secure lock-up near the time clock. Let employees know they can check their phones for messages when off the clock; otherwise the number of bathroom breaks required appears to be related to their text and voicemail frequency.
4. When hiring people under 16 (Yes, it’s legal for some positions.), It’s their parents that have to acknowledge the commitment to punctuality and attendance required of the job. I *have* made arrangements with parents of school-age kids that if the student’s grades dropped, he or she would lose their permission to work. I’ve always been fine with this, and it allows me to establish a partnership with the parent that has always worked in my favor over consecutive summers.
5. This is simply a personal theory, but I have hired in Texas, Colorado, New York, Maryland, and Georgia. In my opinion, the likelihood of an employee being a no-call, no-show is directly related to the rate of unemployment in their parent’s experience. Areas that have known double-digit unemployment any time in the last 30 years seem to instill in the younger generation an awareness that jobs require a level of responsibility that at least requires a well-crafted excuse and a phone call. This level of consideration is not as common in states where the unemployment rate stayed low.
6. Ask questions that will help you decipher a personality and match a potential employee with the proper manager. On my application, I ask the following:
a) What was the last book you read?
This one often tells me more about the local school’s curriculum than it does the interviewee, but often we have these books in common, and it eases some of the tension of what might be his or her first job interview.
b) What is your MySpace or FaceBook URL?
I probably don’t need to explain why this is of value. You can really learn a lot about someone with this information.
c) What was the last music you bought for yourself?
In a time when file-swapping is the norm, knowing what music she assigns value, tells me a great deal, and again, gives me a conversation point in the interview process.
d) What Team Sports / Athletics experience do you have?
This is key. You see, The Hubby communicates like a basketball coach … mid-mistake corrections, short sentences, an expectation of follow-through on whatever “play” he’s just called for. It can be disastrous for me to place someone with no team sports experience in his shop, especially if they have any self-confidence issues, because they have no point of reference for his management style and tend to go directly to “He doesn’t like me.”.
e) What Music or Theatre experience do you have?
We’re vending in an entertainment venue. If I’m staffing for a Front-of-House position, I’m asking them to wear silly clothes and fake an accent. Theatre geeks live for this … it makes job placement very easy.
f) Do you believe that life is a set of circumstances one makes the best of, or that life is a result of choices one has made? (Please circle your selection.)
a) Circumstances b) Choices

This is my favorite question. I have had several applicants draw in an option c) “Combination of Both”. They gets props for creativity with that one. While I would officially say that there is not a right or wrong answer to this question, we all know that’s not entirely true. Answers to this question have never kept me from hiring a person, and folks 17 and under will have a tendency towards selection ‘A’ because their parents are making the choices. I’ve watched with interest as people’s answers change over several years of summer returns. However, as a manager I need to know that it’s risky to place a selection ‘A’ person in a position with a high level of responsibility. This is  the person who could have a flat tire on the way to work, and not recognize that his choice of buying cigarettes instead of new tires affected his day, and then his lack of a job. If I’ve invested a lot of training in a choice ‘A’ person, I may just have to do it all over again with another hire before the summer season is over. However, if he truly makes the best of his circumstance, he still comes up with a ride to work … hence my not holding to a right or wrong answer for that question.

The most important thing I’ve learned in the 20 years of being the Summer Job Lady is that hiring kids for their first jobs is an honor. We have the opportunity to be mentors and a role models for an upcoming generation. Recognizing this privilege and living up to its responsibilities help create the future we are all hoping to see.

What are some of your experiences in hiring or in being hired at events? What do you think could have been done better? Please let us know in the comment section.

Compostables

Rhonni —  May 15, 2013 — 2 Comments

I’ve been in conversations recently about zero-waste goals for outdoor events. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, and there are multiple benefits … but there is a learning curve. This article first appeared in my personal blog. I’m bringing it out here, as it will have a greater probabilility of reaching those who need it.

The Hubby and I do two music festivals in NY, mostly selling Chocolate Dipped Strawberries, Frozen Bananas, and Cheesecake. The festivals are Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival and the Fingerlakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance. Both have well-organized composting programs. As a vendor,  I’m required to distribute only compostable disposables. This means that everything I give away has to be able to break down in a compost pile. Plates are paper, paper pulp, or bamboo. Cups are sometimes made of paper. Sometimes they are made of corn or sugar cane. The latter two options still look like clear poly cups. There are a few differences in handling. The cups are designed to start breaking down at compost temperatures, so the corn cups start mis-shaping at about 100 degrees. This can be a problem. One errant sunbeam on a hot day, and an entire sleeve of cups has become a useless lump. Costs are much higher than foam, but I believe that if one took into account the costs of an event’s garbage fees, the costs might align more closely. It’s hard to say, because those costs are dealt with by different groups of people. Festival Management pays for disposal costs, and Festival Vendors pay for their disposables.

Grassroots Festival provides these signs for all of the food vendors.

These composting programs look like this: a volunteer provides my food shop with a 5-gallon bucket, half-full of straw. All of my waste goes into this, unless it is utter trash, for example, a plastic sleeve from a stack of paper plates. Hourly, a volunteer comes around with a wheelbarrow, dumps my 5 gallon bucket into said vessel, and provides me with another bucket half full of straw. On my end, as a vendor, I am charged with assuring my customers that their disposables are in fact compostable, and should go into the designated containers at the refuse stations. The festival management has accepted a lot of the educational responsibility as well. They’ve staffed refuse stations with educators, who explain the three categories at each station: Compost / Recycling / Utter Trash. The compost from these stations, as well as from the vendors, goes into large roll-off dumpsters, which will be sent or sold to a local municipality that has an industrial composting program. Compost educators maintain an education center, which also functions as the headquarters for all of the volunteers involved in the composting process at the festivals. It always seems to me that much of what they’re doing is teaching people that there’s no such place as “away” when it comes to garbage. Amazingly, children seem to “get it” faster than adults. Maybe it’s because they are not having to relearn it after years of apathy in regards to our waste-full ways.

Awhile back, I was in Anaheim for the Healthy Baking Seminar and the Natural Products Expo West. During a breakout session entitled “Greening Your Bakery”, disposables were a subject of our discussion. Interestingly enough for an event being held in California, I was the only person in the group that had had any experience actually composting compostable servicewear. A representative of a California bread bakery asked the question: “Are we deluding ourselves about being greener when we pay so much more for compostables over foam, yet our customers are taking these products home and throwing them into their standard garbage cans?” I offered for consideration that there is value in beginning the conversation on compostables and landfills with our guests. Also, as the comparison had been made with styrofoam, I presented my paper cup of tea for study (Starbucks had provided tea and coffee for all of us at the seminar.) I said “Let’s talk about perceived value. I believe that the perceived value of whatever is in this 12oz cup is easily 50% greater than the same fluid in a 12oz foam cup. That is without the logo. A plain paper cup with a neutral sleeve would still have that much more perceived value.” Nods around the table, although some disagreement that I was underestimating at 50%. If combined with a Fair-Trade, Organic label or product, the value doubled.

Which brought us to education as a green strategy. A baker out of northern Arizona gets twice as much as any neighboring shops for her coffee, but she saw that her role in greening her community had to include becoming as much an educator as a baker. She uses organics whenever available, Fair Trade, Organic coffees, and all compostable servicewear. The servicewear has a separate trash receptacle in her retail space. It is composted within her community, by individuals rather than by any municipal organization.

In the end, both the Arizona baker and I told the Californian that he might consider by-passing his garbage service, and looking to local Master Gardener’s organizations as well as his county extension agents or nearby universities for someone doing composting on an industrial scale. It would be a lot of work, but the PR benefits were certainly something to consider, especially when he’d admitted to wanting to do a cleaner and greener job at his bakery.

In my experience, taking a holistic approach to greening your operation allows you to optimize benefits on all levels – ecological, community building, and bottom line/branding. Whether done as a comprehensive program, or initialized with baby-steps … it’s all forward movement.

We very much intend to stay as jargon-free as possible on this site. If you’ve back-linked to this page, it means we couldn’t avoid the use of a word that has come to have a particular meaning in our industry. We fully expect this page to evolve. Hopefully it will never be very long.

 

360s Shops that are not in a booth line. They are visible to the audience from all sides, and consequently do not have a “backstage”
Backstage  Any space where park or festival guests are not allowed. Simply getting out of the line of view of guests does not count. All character actors must remain in character, unless backstage.
Boondocking A Recreational Vehicle or RV term for camping somewhere without utilities, also known as “Primitive Camping”
Busking Performing for voluntary donations, usually in the street.
Garb  Specific to the Renaissance Festival industry, work clothes, considered costume to festival guests, but required of all workers within sight of faire patrons. Rules about costume help shape the guest’s experience of another time.
Grab shack  A food shop or restaurant with no public seating, a snack bar; applies to most if not all food at festivals.
Hat pass A time during or after a performance when gratuities are collected by the performer (or a designee)
Hawker A person who vocally advertises performances, goods, or services to be seen or purchased. May or may not handle money.
On the Road  Refers to living and working a series of shows or festivals. The term is used throughout the outdoor festival industry. (see On-Circuit)
On-circuit  Refers to living and working a series of shows or festivals. The term is used throughout the outdoor festival industry. (see On the Road)
Primitive Camping Camping somewhere without utilities, sometimes referred to as “Boondocking”
School Night Any evening before a day when the event will be open.
Stick Joint  a tent with poles used as a shop. The term comes from circuses and carnivals, but is used to discern between trailers and tents in the food vendor realm of all festivals, and is sometimes used to refer to folks that haven’t made an investment, yet vend in permanent parks.  (See Temporaries)
Temps or Temporaries In a permanent venue, these terms refer to shops that can be carried away by their owners at the end of the event.
Week-work Used primarily at events that are open on weekends only, this refers to the jobs that happen in-between weekends. Kitchen prep, art production, and construction are 3 good examples.

 

 

 

How to Grow a Festival (part one)

Rhonni —  February 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

What is it that makes festivals work? We like to throw the responsibility onto the Promotions and Marketing Departments, but a festival is an experience. Real growth in a festival is the responsibility of everyone involved.

86th Annual Feast of San Gennaro

A couple of business truisms should be considered here:

1. It is easier to sell to existing customers. However … if they don’t have a stellar experience at the festival, they are not coming back.

2. Word of Mouth is your most powerful line of advertisement. Again … the quality of the experience is what folks will be talking about, so a failure in creating an enchanting festival experience for an individual is a failure at enlisting that person’s network into her Word of Mouth campaign. Worse, if she has a negative experience, her entire network might hear about it.

So everyone at the festival is accountable. This is not just an issue of how well the garbage crew maintains the cleanliness of the park. If an artist is unhappy with his fee structure or the balance of the craft mix, he may not be as jovial to a customer who is “just looking right now” as he passes through that shop. If an entertainer thinks his responsibilities to the audience end with his hat pass, audience members may be soured to the rest of their day.

Maid Marion takes a moment to dish with a guest.

Yes, Promotions and Marketing hold the weight of the responsibility in getting new customers to the venue, but everyone else has to make them want to come back. Every festival has its own personality, and some of those new visitors might not be “feeling it” at your event. Maybe they’ll try a Bluegrass Festival next time rather than your Roots Music Event; but they won’t know until they come and experience the venue themselves whether or not it is a good time. There is an opportunity here to close that sale, and give the customer a grand enough experience that he comes back ready be entertained, to buy art and services, and perhaps buy more than one meal in their festival day. If the festival is a rich enough experience, then the new visitor might overlook the parts of the event that don’t work for him, in order to get to the parts that are more his style.

By the same token, participants might find that what they offer for sale works better with some audiences than with others. Shopping for the right event for your product is part of the program for being successful at outdoor events. The ability to make alterations in product lines to match the style and personality of a local clientele is a hallmark of the most successful merchants in the festival and event business.

At every step, every participant is either building or shrinking the future of the festival. As a participant, when you choose to shrink a festival; you are wasting everyone’s time, most especially your own.

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

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