Should I or Shouldn't I? - 10x20 Vendor Booths
I recently returned home from a whirlwind two weeks, exhibiting at my first ever 10ft x 20ft vendor booth at both AwesomeCon and C2E2. I know a lot of artists like myself have debated whether it is financially worth it to upgrade out of Artist Alley and move into larger more expensive vendor booths. I hope my recent experience can give fellow artists some insight into the pros and cons of such a move.
A plan begins to Form
I had two shows circled on my calendar. AwesomeCon in Washington DC, and C2E2 in Chicago. Both shows I have exhibited at before and found success, both shows I have family living in the city that I can crash with (free hotel is amazing!), and both shows starting in 2018 do not allow the purchase of two artist alley tables. Both shows are also back to back. Both shows are within a days drive from my apartment in NJ. I started to think about the idea of purchasing vendor space at both and renting a car for two weeks and hitting both conventions.
I immediatly started looking up vendor space, thinking of trying out a 10x10 corner. However there was a voice in the back of my head saying, “But Steve, last year you had 16 feet, that 10x10 is smaller?” I know other artists that have found success with larger 10x20 booths, so just give it a shot. I then said a silent prayer to myself and I slowly checked the 10x20 box on both applications.
These vendor booth are EXPENSIVE. A 10x20 booth at AwesomeCon was $2,400 and my booth at C2E2 was $2,300. When I do a show in Artist Alley the amount I need to make to break even in terms of all of my costs (the table, airfare/bus travel, costs of goods sold, sales tax, food, act...) is about $2,000. Including the rental car to travel to these shows and all of the other expenses that figure balloons up to about $4,500!
I started to think I made a horrible mistake, that I am going to make little to no money, or worse lose money. I then told myself, “You gotta spend money to make money.” I also knew that I was in a position to take some risks and wouldn't be ruined if one or two didn't pan out, so in the words of Shila Labeouf, “just do it!”
Months of Planning and it all Comes Down to this...
...How Did the Shows Go?
First up was AwesomeCon. Last year, I exhibited there in artist alley with two 8ft tables. So I had a good idea going in what to reasonably expect, and something to compare to. I lucked out with an awesome (get it) booth location. I was towards the back of the convention hall, but I was adjacent to a wide isle for people to walk through; because of this people could see my booth 40/50 feet away. The isle was also a high traffic walkway that people were using to get around the show. When the show floor opened on Friday afternoon, within the first 20 minutes a previous customer from last year came up to my booth, purchased multiple items including a framed canvas print. That one customer in about 15 minutes spent more at my booth than half of what I made all of Friday last year. I think this is a perfect example of the benefit of the larger vendor booth. Because of the larger size, and the fact that I drove down instead of flying or riding a bus I was able to bring all my higher ticket and higher priced items for people to purchase.
Print sales throughout the weekend were okay, not as high as I was hoping for considering the size of the booth and how I did last year. However, other vendors throughout the weekend said they were way down from last year, some doing less than half. With my upgraded booth (and a few original sales) I came close to doubling my gross sales from the previous year. So if this was a down year, then sign me up for a good/regular year!
This show was a little harder to compare to. I skipped out on this show last year to exhibit at another con that same weekend, so it had been two years since I've been back. That year I was in artist alley with a 6ft table. At this show I also struck gold with an amazing spot, again adjacent to a main walkway isle, in between two giant food courts. This time I was closer to artist alley, which I prefer.
Sales at C2E2 weren't exactly what I was hoping for considering the costs. I had a target number that I felt I needed to hit to make the show worth doing, and I did hit that, but I was hoping to do even better. Due to several of the high ticket sales the previous weekend, I did not have as many big ticket items for C2E2. This very likely effected overall sales, but it was still a good show.
The positives of moving into the vendor hall was the ease of selling high ticket items and getting a lot more eyes on my work from attendees. At the two conventions I sold at least 8 canvas prints along with several original paintings, without the larger vendor space those sales just would not have happened. Getting out of artist alley also gets you out of that race to the bottom, 4 for $20 fan art print deals, and puts you in a more premium location with better foot traffic. Both shows had the option to keep the same spot for next year. That means no shuffling around the show floor, so people will be able to find me easily knowing exactly where I will be from now on.
That $4,500 break even point can feel like an insurmountable mountain to climb. Also, these booths are a ton of work, so much more than an artist alley table, because of the amount of work and the high costs, a small profit at the end of the day may feel like it just isn't worth all the extra work.
Right now I am going to say yes, but it is not the enthusiastic yes I was hoping I would be saying when I booked. I did well enough that I decided to rebook for next year. At both shows, the artists and vendors I talked to complained about lower than expected sales. I actually sold 40 less prints this year at AwesomeCon than I did last year. Both shows seemed to have their own logistical and scheduling issues that negatively affected overall sales: like changing dates; easter weekend; and increased vendors. If these issues can be fixed (some already are) I think that could really help improve attendance and sales going forward. Although my sales weren't what I was hoping for I still made more profit in the vendor hall than I would have with just a single artist alley table at both shows, so even though I am not blow away by my numbers it was still worth doing.
Things to Consider
If you are going to do a large vendor booth make sure you have someone to help in your booth that is also there to talk to customers and sell. 20ft of space is way too big to cover alone. I had friends and family help out at both shows and without them I definitely would not have made as much money. There were times I had to package up canvases or talk and sell to customers, and I physically could not engage with everyone. It was especially hard when it got busy. I did pay my help for the weekend at AwesomeCon, and felt I got way more back in sales than what I paid. Paying good money for experienced help is totally worth it.
Back to Back Shows Suuuuuuck!
I thought having the two shows back to back would be easier. I could pack everything up at once and travel to both shows. Instead it was draining. It was hard figuring out the right inventory for both shows and I am really happy that next year these conventions will be about a month apart. Plenty of time for me to plan and order inventory as needed.
Should I or shouldn't I
Having gone through this experience I would say if you are an artist looking to expand your booth - first start slow. Start by getting 2 tables in artist alley whenever and wherever you can. If you start to fill that space and outgrow it, that is probably the time to start thinking of larger vendor booths. If you do move to the vendor hall make sure you have some higher ticket items, selling just $20 to $30 prints may not cut it, but $400 hand embellished canvas prints and original art are a big help. I would also recommend going in assuming you need to be able to clear $5,000 to cover all of your expenses. Make sure you have some cash in your bank set aside just in case the show doesn't pan out. You dont want to put all of your eggs in one basket hoping for a $10,000 show and only get $4 or $6K.
I hope this was a help to you, and I hope to see you at some future shows
Stephen Najarian is a fantasy Illustrator living in New York. He grew up drawing dragons and castles for fun in sketchbooks and school notebooks. He attended Pratt Institute from 2004-2008 and graduated with a BFA in Illustration. Since that time he has been working in the industry for companies like AEG, Fantasy Flight Games, and Legendary Games; while also completing personal work and traveling selling his work at various conventions.