Archives For Value

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.…

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….

The Velvet Cage

John Davis —  June 27, 2013 — 2 Comments

Editor’s note: This week we have a post by our friend John Davis. He’s one of many friends who have utilized their festival experience to build other exciting careers. His motivational speeches are highly sought after in the corporate world, and we are very happy to have him as part of the Festival Prose team.

Often times in life we find ourselves wanting more. Recently I was talking to several festival friends about where they are in their lives and each one, while considered quite successful in their industry, was in the place of wanting more. Every so often we each take stock of where we are in life and dream of where we would like to be. Many times we find ourselves getting by, but not really living.

 

Cages come in all sizes and shapes.

Performers at Renaissance festivals often fall into this trap. They want more. Often that “more” involves financial security, health care, and a home to live in. The main problems arise when they trap themselves in what I call “The Velvet Cage.” If someone finds a place to make a living they can fall into the trap of fear. They become very comfortable in the fact that they can make money performing at the festivals and put themselves in the mindset of “this is what I do.” “Velvet cage” is not meant to be a remark about Renaissance Festival costuming, but more a comment on comfort and perceived luxury within the confines of a small space. These performers become very confident and/or comfortable in this situation but still feel trapped. It’s the risk of failing that keeps them trapped in their velvet cage.

 

I know man who became very successful performer. Over the years, his show was highly sought after by many festivals and he was able to create a product line that sold very well. The problem was he hated the show. He was a very talented Shakespearean actor who loved acting, but the show he created was living his life instead of he living it. When a bird is not allowed to fly, their wings become weak. The only way for the wings to become strong again is to fly. This performer needs to open the door and jump.

 

A dear friend is a very talented artist. Her work consistently takes my breath away. She should be famous and well known, but has fallen into trap of her own velvet cage. Several of her friends have been pushing her to open her door and jump, but her door has been locked. The lock that holds velvet cages closed is our own self-doubt. Self-doubt is just fear, and fear is a choice. To choose a new path is to release an old one. When you know a path we feel very comfortable there. When you step out on a new path, you have to learn the wildlife that lives there to safely make it to your desired end goal. This artist has stepped to the door and is unlocking it now. She will fly to greater heights after she jumps.

 

In my life I have always felt compelled to help people. It has been my driving force. My show became very popular and we used the show to do a lot of good for a lot of people with our charity and USO work. I wanted more. I wanted to share with people how to reach their goals and coach them through that process and I wanted financial security, healthcare, and a nice home while I did it. My “velvet cage” was my show and Renaissance festivals. It wasn’t until I was willing to open my own door and jump that I saw real change begin to happen.

 

I now travel all over the world showing people how to set and reach their potential. I feel fulfilled every time I step off the stage after delivering another keynote. I keep in flight towards my goals, my wings getting ever stronger. I know I will reach my destination. When I do, I will open the door of that cage and jump towards another. Life is motion and new experiences. Trapping yourself in a cage will slowly sap your strength and lead to a comfortably unhappy life. Open that door and JUMP!!

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.

Profitability Through Play

Al Craig —  April 18, 2013 — 5 Comments

 

The cast of Rawhide.

The other night I was channel surfing and paused briefly on ‘Rawhide’, an old black & white weekly western series.  Wishbone was servin’ up the grub.  Rowdy, Scarlet, Mister Favor, the whole gang was sitting around the campfire, eating beans off of metal plates and soaking up the sunset.  I was there with them, out on the ol’ lone prairie enjoying the various shades of gray of the setting sun when I saw a boom mike hanging over Mister Favor’s head.

   Gone was the sunset, gone were the drovers eating their beans, gone was the story line—all I could see was that boom mike.  It didn’t fit; it stuck out like sneakers on Shakespeare.  It was such a small thing, but it had a such a huge effect—it turned Rowdy Yates into Clint Eastwood, Gil Favor into Eric Flemming, and the ol’ lone prairie into a back lot at CBS…it destroyed the illusion, and instantly brought me back from the wide open spaces to the closed confines of my living room.

 For those of you who are new to the business, a themed festival is theater.   It is not a theater in the traditional sense, but it is a theater, just the same.  It is a 3-D, or ‘Interactive Theater’.  In traditional theater the audience sits in a fixed position passively observing the action which also occurs in a fixed position (The stage or screen).  The two are separated by what is known as “the fourth wall” an invisible, mutually agreed upon plane that will not be penetrated by either side.

  Early experimental theater groups tried removing the fourth wall by having actors enter from the audience, or by delivering lines from the audience, who still sat in a fixed position and passively observed. 

Interactive theater, which is at the cutting edge of experimental theater, invites the audience onto the stage, invites them to participate, and entices them to play like children; to touch, talk, move and explore the stage with their own creativity and rediscover the child within themselves. Think of your own childhood.  If you ever had tea time with teddy bears, or made the winning basket for the NBA championship in your own back yard, you were involved in creative play. 

 If you’ve ever seen a patron with a beer in one hand, a turkey leg in the other, wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, a  Blake Shelton T- shirt, and a just purchased Jester’s hat hollering “HUZZAH!” instead of “HOT DAMN!” then, you have seen the effects of playfulness as well.  At a themed festival the entire site is the stage, and all of those who work within its boundaries are the cast.

 

 “Yeah, Yeah, so what does this have to do with me?, I’m trying to make a living here”  OK, fair enough question….I’ll answer it with another question—If you give a child $10 and turn him loose in a toy store for the day, how much money will he return with?  How about $20?  How about $50 or $100?  A child will always return with empty pockets—and so will an adult if they are wholly involved in creative play.  The economic restraints and controls that we as adults place upon ourselves lose much of their strength when we are focused upon play.  If you are not familiar with this concept, I would be happy to explain it over a few hands of poker at a casino of your choosing.

 Now, back to the back lot at CBS…. as bad as that boom mike was, imagine instead that the drovers are sitting around the campfire, watching the sunset over the herd, eating beans with white plastic sporks off of Styrofoam plates, and drinking out of paper cups that say  “Pepsi”.

 When a Patron stands in front of a Renaissance Booth, manned by a person in costume in their minds they are looking at the stage.  If you have styro cups and plates, if you are eating with a spork, you have destroyed the illusion that you and every other business owner has spent thousands of dollars to create and the public has paid the price of an admission to experience. If the person in costume is eating out of a Styrofoam container it has the same effect as putting truck tires on Charlton Heston’s chariot in the big race scene in ‘Ben-Hur’.  “Yeah, sure Al, but why, after spending all that money, why would they put truck tires on a chariot?”

My point exactly….

 Maintaining the illusion is vital.  Not only is it the ‘Prime Directive”, if you will, of theater, It is also the essential ingredient that nurtures the necessary trust needed for adults to allow themselves to enter into creative play. And the mindset of creative play, as we earlier observed, makes a person more than willing to spend money they wouldn’t normally be more than willing to spend in pursuit of the pleasure of playful creation…..

  The illusion is not created for the cast; it is created for the audience.  It is also created, in part, by the audience through their ability to skillfully suspend their disbelief.

 Suspension of disbelief (another arcane theatrical term) occurs when one lays aside their analytical mind so they might be entertained.  For example, if I was watching Rawhide, and did not suspend my disbelief my internal dialogue would sound something like this “Everything is black white and gray, grass is green in the real world, I see the fire, but I don’t smell the smoke, how can it be dark already, it was noon five minutes ago, where is that music coming from, is there an orchestra in the chuck wagon?” etc. 

 We are all adept at suspending our disbelief.  We can turn it off at the first sign of a commercial, make a sandwich, go to the bathroom, be back in the lazy-boy and turn it back on before the last commercial ends. To you, the flush toilets and Faire food containers are an anachronism; to the patron it’s a trip to the bathroom and kitchen during a commercial.

 Let’s assume for a second that it’s OK to eat out of Styrofoam, it’s such a small thing, it really shouldn’t make that much difference (except to those craftspeople who sell eating & drinking utensils).  How about jewelry, that’s small stuff, why not let everybody start wearing Wal-mart jewelry? That’s no big deal (except to those people who sell jewelry).  And what about costumes, you can find stuff in stores that could pass for costumes.  Same with foot wear, not a big deal (except to costumers and cobblers).

  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all the craftspeople and all the entertainers are outfitted with items that cannot be purchased at the show.   Will sales go up or down?  Will a patron purchase a velvet period hat if the participants are wearing baseball hats? Will a patron buy a pair of hand-crafted footwear if the participants are wearing tennis shoes? 

 When a patron feels safe enough to play, they will first try to look the part. By in large, they pattern themselves after the participants…it’s the only reference point they have.  Even though it might be quick, clean, and easy to eat out of Styrofoam, every time you do so you are inadvertently telling patrons that it’s OK to do so and still be part of ‘the act’.    Is it any wonder that a potter can’t sell a dinner set when his friends around him are eating out of air-injected petro-chemical bowls and shoveling food into their mouths with a schizophrenic utensil made from the rotting flesh of dinosaurs?!?  

 You want sales to go up?  Maintain the illusion.  Put your product on as many participants and in as many shops as you possibly can.  Trade, discount, or  barter. 

 Every participant that has your product is a walking advertisement to every paying playing patron that doesn’t and, if they see it on another playful soul, they will seek you out and, with a smile on their face, give you their money so that they might play….and you might prosper.

 

 So…..is it worth the time, effort, and expense to outfit yourself with appropriate utensils and costumes.  Is it worth the extra washing of dishes and transferring of food from styro/cardboard containers?  How about discounts to participants to get your item out there?  Does any of this make sense??  If so, great!  Feel free to share a story in the comments.  If not, even better!!  Let me know in a comment below what a lackey of the Corporate Overlords needs to hear to make your life simpler.  

 

Some of the worst Customer Service failures occur when a worker isn’t able to recognize who their customer is. In a well-run commercial kitchen, each station has a different customer. Yes, the Guest is everyone’s customer, but in order for that Guest to have an optimum experience, the entire team has to function at its best, and there is a trick for that, a hack or cheat if you will.

The trick is this. Distinguish the face of your customer. While I’ve already stated that the Guest is everyone’s customer; that is in the abstract. The concrete is the face you see over and over as you do your job. When it’s done right, the Sous Chef’s customer is the Line Cook, the Line Cook’s customer is the Expediter, the Expediter’s customer is the Server, the Server’s customer is the Guest, and the Kitchen Manager’s customer is the staff.

It would seem that a Kitchen Manager would be serving the Guest. But the best way for her to do that is to serve her team so that they will function at *their* best.

I am the Kitchen Manager in my own bakery. It happens to be open for only 2 months of the year, inside the largest Renaissance Festival in America. We serve food that we’ve made from scratch to thousands of people a day, for eight consecutive weekends each fall season. I have a staff of about 20 people, and I am approached regularly by people that want to join the team. It’s not that I offer bigger compensation packages or fringe benefits (although our crew T-shirts *are* pretty cool). But I am clear that my job is to make all of their jobs easier, while getting the best product possible out the door to the Guest. I ask my crew for input often, and they know I listen to them. By listening to my immediate customer, I create a better product and experience for my abstract customer.

Bevan’s promo photo for my bakery “Queen’s Pantry” at the Texas Renaissance Festival

How does this translate for folks who are not running a high-volume kitchen? Are you running (or wanting to run) a high-volume anything? Learn to recognize the face of your immediate customer and serve them to your best ability. If you are managing an operation of any sort, help your subordinates understand who their immediate customer is, and ask them to list how they can best serve that person. We all work best when we see the face of who we are serving, but it doesn’t have to be an abstraction. 

The best management teams use this model. Festival Management is traditionally broken down into Food Program Coordinators, Crafts Coordinators, Wedding Coordinators, Entertainment Directors, etc. All of these people have the park Guest as their abstract and ultimate customer, but their titles explain who their immediate customers actually are. In venues where there are not as many staff members as there are titles, that staff has to be able to shift their customer focus as often as they change departments in order to be effective. If they make the assumption that they are only serving the end customer, the members of the team will not be served in a way that allows them to do their best in regards to the final product being presented to that Guest, and the overall quality of the event deteriorates.

There is another very important key to this process. Do not make any of your business associate’s jobs more difficult. Do not “make work” for another department simply because their immediate customer is different from your own. Some of the volunteers at the Music Festival where you vend might have inadvertently done something annoying, but the Hospitality Program that feeds and otherwise cares for the Talent and the grounds at the show cannot function without them. It is easier to gently inform them of the way things work than to snap at them. You will wish they were in your neighborhood when the garbage cans start filling up around your space.

Denigrating the immediate customers of your associates makes work for your associates. They have to work to overcome the implication that they don’t matter to your overall team. It takes a lot of different departments to make a festival work well. It is essential to keep all of the players in these departments satisfied with their situations, and the easiest way to do that is to treat them like they matter. Optimum Customer Service really is the goal of this process in finding the face of your immediate customer. It can in no way eliminate your responsibilities to the entire team. Trying to limit your obligations to only your immediate customer and the abstract customer or Guest is shortsighted and ultimately foolish; as the end product delivered to the Guest deteriorates with the weakening of the team. Customer Service has to be a consideration at all stages and in all departments of the operation if the event  (or product / service being sold) is to succeed.

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.)

How to Grow a Festival, Part Two

Rhonni —  February 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

In part one of this conversation, I mentioned that because a festival is an experience, it is the responsibility of the participants at a festival to help create real growth. But what about those shows where the participants are doing everything they can, but the Festival Management drops the ball?

It happens. Someone doesn’t order enough port-o-lets or ATM machines. The parking crew is oblivious to a guest leaving their headlights on and no one is available at the end of their visit to jump the car to get the guest home. Someone forgets to trim the weeds under the benches in front of a stage, or the trash cans overflow. These are basic customer service mistakes, and if they are not addressed, the show cannot grow.

Whovians are everywhere.

 

Maybe the number of port-o-lets and ATMs was “just enough” to still allow guests a pleasant visit. Then the Artists and the Entertainers provided such an amazing experience that the guest experiencing it decides she is definitely coming back. But is she going to bring more people with them if she thinks larger numbers of visitors will impact her own experience? No. She is going to keep it a secret.

It will be her secret club. She may attend every weekend possible, and she may enjoy herself immensely, but she will not work to help grow the venue. Show management has to demonstrate they are able to not only deal with their current numbers of guests with exemplary customer service; but convince everyone that they can show the same professionalism to more visitors when they arrive. The event has to look like it is ready for more.

The statement “These customers don’t mind lines” might work when management is justifying their small number of ATM machines, but a guest willing to stand in a line 20 people deep, may very well *not* be willing to stand in a line 40 people deep. Remember that “Word of Mouth” campaign we said was essential for festival growth? It. Is. Not. Happening.

So now the PR team has more of a challenge in getting their job done. They have to bring out new people (who don’t mind standing in line for an ATM) to make up for attrition; yet they have to accomplish this without the aid of a Word of Mouth campaign. You see, some of the people that came last year did *not* have a great time. The port-o-lets were too dirty, or their car battery was dead, or this festival simply wasn’t a good fit for their personality. The PR guy is working his tail off to keep the boat afloat, while someone in parking or grounds crew is drilling holes in the hull.

As I said, sometimes the Artists and Entertainers are doing a fabulous job, and it is Festival Management standing in the way of festival growth. Unfortunately apathy can be contagious, and the very people who are holding a festival afloat can succumb to the illness. Sometimes, in an act of self-preservation, the most energetic participants will leave that festival for another in the same time slot, leaving the apathetic to sink or swim.

Best case scenario for a show like this is steady attendance. This is only achievable with a hardworking Public Relations team and a collection of enthusiastic participants, who are either happy with their festival at its current size, or praying that someone in Management wakes up soon.

Why is the term “Lifestyle Business” spoken with derision? Is it because “real businesspeople” discount the value of them, or is it because the Lifestyle business owners themselves belittle the amount of income generated by their businesses?

One of my favorite office spaces.

In a world so full of people that *don’t * like the things they do to make a living, it seems counter-intuitive to be belittling a situation that allows people to make a living doing exactly what they want to do. Admittedly, I’m in a strange place to be hosting this conversation. I live amongst artists and entertainers who make their livings in “Lifestyle Businesses” whether or not they use that moniker. Folks who make a living on their own creativity, who get to spend more hours of the day with their children, who get to travel and manage to make their businesses pay for it … these people surely have Lifestyle Businesses, even if the term is more often used for expat importers who can happily justify their second home in Bali; or folks who create automated business via the internet.

Believe me when I tell you that there were “Lifestyle Businesses” before there was an internet.

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Don’t think for a second that I am dissing the opportunity to have a second home in another country. Quite the opposite … I’m wondering why this ability to craft a business that allows someone the life they want most to be living, is dismissed as “less than” the person whose business makes an initial public offering on Wall Street.

It takes more than dollar signs to establish the value something has for our lives. I think we need to remember this when comparing ourselves to the lives of the people we see in the media.  The real goal, the brass ring, is living an abundant life. Living an abundant life has more to do with the intangibles than with the financial balance sheet.

If you want to live your best life; make a balance sheet that includes things like time with your kids, creative outlets, travel, self-determination … and see just how valuable that Lifestyle Business is against the cubicle job that allows more stability and less risk. I know which one I choose.

For the last 5 summers I’ve booked a show near here, simply to give myself a week with this as my office & contemplative space.