She's Crafty: Navigating the World of Food, Craft and Trade Shows

She's Crafty, she's just my type. She's Crafty. - beastie boys

I absolutely love attending- and back in my day- partaking in craft and trade shows. The energy and excitement buzzing, the delighted shoppers would give me a high I'd coast on for weeks after. I always tell my clients how important it is to put a face on your brand. Ottawa is unique in the sense that people here LOVE to know the owner. This isn't a bad thing, it builds brand loyalty and lets you know who your customers are. In theory, appearing at a craft/trade show should be win-win. 

Sadly, that's not always the case.

I remember doing one of my first really big shows, a large environment based “green washing” type event that was popular in 2009. I let a cold caller to the bakery talk me into it, and I had the money, the attendance looked promising, so I figured why not. I signed and paid. About a week before the event, the representative called me back as I hadn't signed the “Aramark agreement” stipulated in the original contract as mandatory for all food vendors. I was baffled. Upon further inspection, I realized what this meant, and my heart sunk. 

A lot of big venues, (the one I was at happened to be on Carleton campus), have a big business food supplier for day to day needs. These cafeteria style corporate food companies are the big kids on the playground, and they're not into sharing- not even for a day. This “agreement” I was being forced to sign stipulated that my samples could not be larger than 1 ounce, and that I was not permitted to sell anything that could be consumed on site. (The restaurants at this event ended up in the same boat as me and were obviously pissed). This meant everything would have to be packaged in multiples, because as outlined in my agreement- single items would be considered an on site consumable. If I disobeyed, I could ejected from the show and my business subject to a fine.

I was incensed at the extra cost for new packaging, a higher price point, and the fact I had missed this. But I learned an important lesson that day. 

Just so you don't learn the hard way too, here in Ottawa - the RA Center, any university venue, the Shaw Center and Landsdowne all have these or similar  policies in place. 

Here are some other questionable practices that should not be part of any community supportive food event: 

Fines for running out of food and/or free samples. I disagree with this for so many reasons, the main one being that outside of being psychic, you have no idea what attendance will be. There are always people who will help themselves to multiple samples. The last thing a vendor needs is a financial penalty for something out of their control. As an organizer, have minimum par levels for your vendors. Don't punish them financially. 

A percentage of your sales at the event paid to the organizer. If you've already paid a table fee, that's enough. This is a blatant cash grab. So many of these show transactions are fast paced and mostly cash. How can you and the organizer agree on a suitable amount when there's no proof or paper trail? 

Being asked to provide free meals or beverages to other vendors. Discounted is fine, but never free. If that's important to the organizer, they can do it themselves. 

Free-for-all selection. Proper shows will be curated, juried and have a selection process to ensure that there won't be-for example- all bakeries, or all jewellery folks. Be wary of a show that takes anyone who applies. As a food business with perishables, you can't afford to have an oversaturated show. 

Okay, so we’ve talked about the organizers- let's talk about you! Here's some best practices for you partaking. 

Bring a lunch, snacks and lots of water. It's easy to forget about yourself on show day, but you'll be a way better representative of your brand if you're fed and hydrated. No getting hangry! Make sure to delegate the table to someone for 10 minutes or so to eat. Your body will thank you for it. 

Punctual. If the show is 10-3, show up with enough time to load in set up, and be ready for your first sale for when the doors open at 10. The attendees and organizers are counting on you for it. If you run out of food early, DO NOT pack up and leave. This is the rudest thing you can do to an organizer. Empty tables at a still running show looks bad for everyone. Sit at your still set up table and tell passers-by that your product was so good that you ran out! Then hand them a card.

Treat your organizers with the utmost respect. This is a big day for them, and there's going to be nerves. Pitching a tantrum (I've seen it) because you don't feel your table is in a good spot is obnoxious and unnecessary. Offer your organizer a free product, and offer to help tidy up after. They worked hard to give you a platform, and you should be happy to pitch in when asked. (Within reason)

Share. Be sure to do your part by sharing the event listing and promo via your personal channels. You're responsible for attendance too, so do your part.

Be friends. Fellow vendors and networking are a side perk of doing shows. Make eye contact, smile and say hello to all vendors, whether you know them or not. The cross marketing and info sharing that happens at these shows are priceless. The best craft show curators in Ottawa- Krista and Robin of the late, legendary Urban Craft would actually hold vendor only parties a few weeks before the event, which was one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen. It created a fun summer- camp -type atmosphere the day of.

Walk up to the business most similar to yours in the room and buy something. It's all about collaboration, not competition. No being snarky in the corner- you can't hate someone who has a similar vision to yours. You already have so much in common! 

If you take away nothing else today, just remember that a proper organizer will respect you, and will do everything in their power to ensure you have a successful and profitable show. It's just like choosing a partner- don't settle for anything less.

Xo M. 


Mandi Lunan