Why I Spent Thousands of Dollars on a Convention Booth
This weekend, I rented a 20 foot by 10 foot slab of concrete for 3 days at a cost of $4000. Let’s take a walk through that choice and I’ll let you know how it turned out.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve been readdressing the way I sell my work at conventions. After about 10 years of doing them as cheaply as possible, I started to realize that I had been doing a poor job at getting the most out of my time. I decided to scrap my old setup and rebuild it from scratch, doing my best to emulate the way the top performing artists were displaying their work rather than relying on what seemed to be the most popular approaches. This yielded a year where I first doubled my average sales and then doubled them again, leading to sales figures that were previously impossible for me.
Watching my sales quadruple in a very short period of time led me to believe that my the way artwork is branded and displayed at a convention is more important for sales than the quality of my paintings. While that outlook might cause you to immediately wrinkle your nose, I recommend seeing for yourself before discounting it as a possibility. I decided to experiment with this myself by purchasing my way up to the front of C2E2's main show floor in a double wide double corner booth normally reserved for large brands and publishers.
The question I wanted to answer is whether or not investing in larger and more prominent booth space is worth the money. It’s easy to assume that the people who buy these spaces have a plan for making their investment back, but would an artist selling mostly prints get enough benefit from the space to justify its significant cost?
Finding the Right Space
As an attendee, you try to see everything at a show and evaluate it carefully in order to spend your money wisely. As an exhibitor, you want to believe that every choice that attendees are making are measured choices that will benefit you if they like your work, regardless of what part of the con you are selling it in. But the reality is that there are 80,000 distracted and sensory overloaded people wandering random patterns through a confusing space. Those vendors that are easier to stumble into are going to make more sales than the ones that are further afield. The convention organizers know this and purposefully monetize it by charging more for booths that are more likely to see traffic.
My experience with buying more expensive tables last year had its ups and downs. At Planet Comicon, I purchased a dealer’s booth only to get stuck in a tight alley that was difficult to find, while artists in the Artist’s Alley were given equal amounts of space on the main thoroughfare for a fraction the price. Opposite to that experience, my move from Artist’s Alley to the Dealer’s Hall at Dragoncon caused my traffic and sales to spike to unprecedented levels. I’ve found that the difference in sales between sections of a convention can vary by many multiples and will often not correlate to the prices of the booths. This means that finding the ideal space is often a matter of getting first hand information about how well artists are selling in different locations. Knowing how the space is split up, what it's like to move through it and why people are going to which areas is essential to making an educated space rental. To map this out, you need to look past any single person’s anecdotes, and try to hear from a number of different vendors, preferably seeing the space for yourself as well.
In the case of C2E2, I was comparing my lackluster 2015 experience against another company I knew who had sold extremely well the same year. Hearing that their booth at the front of the show floor had completely sold out of inventory convinced me that my negative feelings about being in the back were justified. Investigating the traffic throughout different parts of the con first hand illustrated the difference to me quite clearly. Moving from a spot in the back to a double corner booth up front meant investing $2700 more than the previous year, which is a significant cost because I would be selling very similar items. Though, in the moment I committed to purchasing the space, I felt that it was a sure thing. However, as the cost sunk in I admittedly got very nervous.
How it Went for Me
The end result was a doubling in sales from the previous year and a significant profit for the show as a whole. Considering that the larger booth was both more expensive to rent and costly to operate meant that my profit was still lower at this event than at some smaller shows last year. It was a measured success that left me with an eye to repeating and refining the process next year with some changes to better control the costs. Had this not been a local show for me, it was close enough to the line that I might not have felt the same way.
There was clearly a threshold that I crossed this weekend where I started to experience some diminishing returns. For me and most artists, there is probably a more efficient place to rent space that won’t push back as hard against the profits. However, finding that space is more likely to happen by over investing and rolling back rather than timidly making small steps forward. Treating an art business like any other investment is emotionally difficult but absolutely worth doing if you are really committing to doing this sort of thing as part of your primary income.
A well branded and attractive booth can make extraordinary amounts of money at large events. If you are able to control your other costs, spending a few thousand on the right booth can be a very profitable investment. If this is something you are interested in doing yourself, I recommend experimenting with your sales setup and comparing notes with people. Personally, I wouldn't have been able to get this far without generous amounts of information from peers opening up to me about sales figures.
Thanks for reading!