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The Conundrum of Shows

I’ve lost count of the number of shows I’ve been at over the years either visiting, helping setting up or filming at, but it’s been a fair few now.

This year alone I’ve been to Collect, some London Craft Week events, Craft Festival in Bovey, Ceramic Wales, Pot Fest at Compton Verney, Crafts Alive at Rodmarton Manor, Decorex at Olympia, The Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in Manchester, Made London, Lustre in Nottingham and Art in Clay in Farnham. Each one has a different vibe and audience.

I’ve enjoyed helping Design Nation and my friend Lucy Baxendale set up their stands at certain shows over the past couple of years. There’s nothing like sitting on a concrete floor cutting foam board signage or drilling holes in shell schemes to put up shelves. All good fun!

I remember when my sister was starting out and first got into a show, she was really excited, like she’d made it. I asked ‘what have you won?’. ‘I’ve got a stand at a show’ she said. Then I found out that obviously she had to pay for the privilege, make lots of work, book accommodation and work out travel plans which all mounted up.

You have to pay out a lot of money in the hope you’d make more back or get some good leads in return. As one person said to me recently, ‘the Makers are the last people to see any money’.

In business you have to speculate to accumulate, right?

Someone recently asked me if I’d done a show where I’m selling and I said no. But thinking more about it I remembered that many years ago I did a photography fair at Spitalfields as part of Photomonth in London. If my memory serves me correctly it was crap, no sales and barely any interest.

I know when I’ve been at shows over the years I’m on the other side, but I see, hear and feel how they are for people. It’s hard not to feel things when you ask how someone you care about is doing and you either get a look, or a tentative ‘it’s OK’. Obviously it's great if someone is having a good one but it's not always the case.

The honest truth is they are massive gambles for makers. Some shows work better than others and then only for some people and not necessarily consistently from one year to the next. That is the conundrum of shows!

They are emotional roller coasters! You are pleased to be selected. Some shows definitely make you feel good because you are obviously doing well and at the right level to be selected. Then the realisation of time kicks in as you have to get ready and make work. This often goes down to the wire especially at certain times of the year if there are multiple things going on to make for. Then you are physically and emotionally spent just in time to then present yourself to the public, yay!

Travelling and arriving to unload often at an unfamiliar location can be stressful. Lots of people will be arriving at the same time and then there's a battle for a parking space. Some places are easier than others but then you are on the clock to unload and then set up your stand. It’s nice when shows have helpers to aid you in the unloading especially if you are on your own. Then once you are set up it’s usually private view time. Look presentable, get a coffee down you, stay awake!!

The ebb and flow of visitors can vary so much and it is affected by external factors such as the weather, traffic or another event in town. You are reliant on getting the right kinds of people through the door during a small window of time. It’s small margins, it’s precarious!

Obviously when it does work and you have great conversations and feedback and someone really connects with your work it’s amazing and leaves you feeling a real buzz. Even better if it leads to a good sale!

But these things have their ups and downs and equally you could be dealt a series of random comments quite often referred to as Craft Show Bingo!, things like ‘do you actually make money from this?’, ‘did you make this?’ or ‘that looks a bit odd, you must have strange dreams?’.

These types of comments can be a kick in the teeth and be taken personally especially if it’s a bit slow or the end of the day. I’m not sure why people feel compelled to say these things? Who knows the psychology going on here, maybe they are genuinely interested but it's just the way they say it?

The social side of shows is one of the best elements of being at them, you get to catch up with friends you might not have seen for ages, enjoy the camaraderie and support and go for meals afterwards. That bit is fun!

But come time to pack up its heads down, wrap work (hopefully less than you brought), unscrew shelves, pack boxes and reload your suitcase, car, van or Belingo!

I know a lot of people then have to drive halfway across the country immediately afterwards which in itself is knackering let alone off the back of standing on your feet chatting for several days. Hopefully you get a rest day afterwards to recover. Until the next one, which maybe is just days away at certain times of the year.

I know for lots of people once you’ve found a show that works it's frustrating when you then don’t get selected the following year and it's hard not to take that personally. It’s hard I know, but the shows have selection panels and they have to, curate a mix of disciplines (always lots of Jewellers) and keep it fresh and give different makers a chance to exhibit so there’s constantly something new for visitors to see.

Then there are the Big shows like Collect, Decorex etc which are a whole different beast. More expensive to do with a totally different audience and expectation. You're not really there selling your work on site as with the Craft Fairs, it's a showcase and about conversations with trade, galleries and interior designers and building relationships with those people there but also afterwards. Often this won’t give you instant results, sometimes none at all but sometimes it could come sometime afterwards, a commission, or a large order etc.

This can come with its own issues. Can you actually fulfil this order depending on its scale and what is the dynamic going to be like working with a company or agency as although it seems good on paper it may end up being a whole lot of stress? But that’s a entirely different avenue!

A different model to the usual Craft Fair that I’ve seen is Crafts Alive run by the Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen at Rodmarton Manor in the Cotswolds. Set in an Arts and Crafts house and gardens with the maker's work shown amongst the exhibits in the place. This had the double whammy of people visiting the house and gardens plus viewing the craft. Footfall was good as were the sales. I know some of the Potfest shows are set up at big houses too and so there are multiple things to see for a visitor. It could be a model that works well elsewhere too?

Other variations are being a Crafts person at another type of event such as a garden show, cooking show or interior design show like Grand Designs. I don’t know how well these scenarios work for makers but being something different in that environment might benefit? I’m not sure, I do know some people who have had good experiences.

Certainly some of the smaller one day Craft or Design markets and shows can be significantly more profitable as the cost to do them is much lower and if they are local there's no need for the added cost of accommodation and travel. There’s less riding on them! Maybe they work better for lower price points but you may get lucky with some bigger work.

I started writing a paragraph but reread it and it sounded like I was telling people what to do which is not what I wanted this to be. So I think I’m going to conclude by asking some questions rather than trying to give answers.

  • Are Craft Fairs still working for people?

  • Do we need a new type of model for shows?

  • Can you rely on them as an income stream?

  • Has the internet and social media changed things?

  • How successful are the big shows that we aspired to be at?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these particular questions, all I do know is that it is tough out there at the moment. The world is all topsy turvy (still!) and many people haven’t got so much disposable income to spend. We’ve all got to ride these times through, support each other and remain hopeful!

I know a lot of time and effort goes into these shows both in organising them and in the making and showing at them, so well done to you all!

What does and what doesn’t work and why? I certainly don’t have the answers as after 12 years of being at and visiting shows I am none the wiser. Most importantly this is in no way a criticism but hopefully part of a debate.

Arh, the Conundrum of shows!

Thanks for reading my ponderings, until next time, mind how you go 🧡

21 Nov 23

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Additional potential exposure are the trade fairs. Artisan made in Skipton for example: a cheaper way of doing things or the free meet-thy-maker website where you get seen by gallery owners and they approach you from the comfort of your computer chair. Consider other types of places where large groups of people, willing to spend, come together in a happy atmosphere eg, festivals, county shows etc


So much to unpack here Richard. If you ever put together a forum on this subject I’d be very happy to contribute

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