The 9 Most Common Problems in the Renaissance Faire Building Industry

Rhonni —  March 7, 2013 — 12 Comments

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.)

Rhonni

Rhonni is a blissciplined serial entrepreneur, who has crafted a life in which she is surrounded by people who do what they love. She curates http://festivalprose.com and you can see the internet version of her business card at fools-cap.com.

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12 responses to The 9 Most Common Problems in the Renaissance Faire Building Industry

  1. Kerry Kelly

    Not in the business or market for a new renaissance booth, but a well written and excellent article. (Does Rhonni do ANYTHING not excellent?)

    • Gee, thanks!
      You say the sweetest things Kerry.
      It’s the longest post to date, but I simply could not find a way to shorten it.

  2. Such great information! And what a joy to see that beautiful shop in it’s first (and still most lovely) incarnation!

  3. All very informative. Thanks, good luck and keep it coming.

  4. Well I just learned a lot. Thanks for sharing, I hope everyone is doing good!

  5. Both my son, an aspiring artist designing computer game environments, and myself, a lowly “playtron” of A few faires, near and far, found your article interesting. Grateful that you are sharing your insights.

  6. Eleanor Larsen March 9, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Excellent article. Comprehensive discussion and still leaves the door open for further input. Were I a vendor, especially a new vendor this would be a must read for my planning. this is an article that every fest manager should be presenting to vendors to protect all concerned. Congratulations.

  7. Rhonni,I feel very fortunate to have found your blog, beginning to enter a new odyssey at 51 in working the fair and festival market as an entertainer. Your blog is highly educational and an enjoyable read. Will be a frequent reader hear. From telecom manager to carny in the blink of an eye.

    • Tom,
      I’m glad you found us. Please feel free to send any ideas you have for articles, or things you want to know (Just use the guest-blogger form). The goal is for this to be a collection of information from many different people in many different aspects of the business. I’ve been making my living on-circuit for over 20 years, but I have my specialties. I know who to ask for just about any question though!

  8. Very well written. An important and often overlooked building design is handicap accessibility. Our booth floor is flush to the ground, often encouraging wheelchairs, parents with strollers, and crutch/cane walkers to enter. Our neighbor has steps, and I imagine they lose a good bit of business because it would be difficult for the aforementioned group of patrons to browse. Looking forward to reading more!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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