Mar 072015
Most of the booth is out

Most of the booth is out

Have you ever wondered what goes into setting up a booth for an outdoor show – or any show, for that matter? Whether indoors or out, the booth usually looks the same. However, there are some challenges inherent in outdoor shows that make them much more difficult and stressful than indoor shows.

For starters, the vast majority of outdoor shows require setup the morning of the show itself, whereas indoor shows typically allow for setup the day before. So, for an outdoor show that starts at 10:00 a.m., a vendor ideally would be set up by 9:30 because many folks arrive early. The early shoppers tend to be serious shoppers, so if you snooze, you lose.

So – if you have a complicated setup like I do – there you are – it is 5:00 a.m. and because you are early, you have a better chance of getting right to your spot. If you are a bit later, you may have to wait, adding stress to an already stressful situation. There are other complications to arriving late, such as having to navigate past booths, bins in the driving lane, other vehicles and other vendors unpacking. Since booths are typically setup back to back down the middle of the street, you have less than the average car lane’s width to navigate past booths, vehicles and vendors – and if you are driving a larger vehicle like a van, it is even more treacherous. Without a copilot in the passenger seat, the stress gets amplified even more.

Depending on the time of year, it may be dark at 5:00 a.m., which adds challenge to the effort.

So you arrive at or hopefully close to your spot and take everything out – usually onto the sidewalk across from your booth so that you have room to move around in your 10’ x 10’ space. Then, it is time to move the vehicle. Depending on how far away vendor parking is, this could take up to an hour to get there, secure parking and walk back. Without a helper …  you just lost an hour of your setup time.  And heaven help you if you accidently leave something behind in the van.

Now, setup begins. First the canopy goes up, then the canopy sidewalls, then the booth walls, shelving and any portable lighting you have. Each item is walked from the sidewalk to your space, dodging other vendors and their vehicles as they try to find their space and unpack. I’ve often had to walk a few car lengths to find an opening between vehicles that was large enough for me to carry items to my space.

Once the basic structure of the booth is in place, you can assess how hurried you have to be as you put out your work. If you had a helper and were right on time, chances are only 1 hour has passed, and your helper is back from moving/parking the vehicle. If you are by yourself, up to 2 hours may have passed. If you have a portable light system like mine, there goes another 25 minutes setting that up.

Finished! About 50 mosaics on display

Finished! About 50 mosaics on display

So you open your bins (I usually have 8), put out your artwork, your tool box, your bags and bubblewrap. You set up your desk, put your price tags out and get ready to open shop.  And since this isn’t your first show, you have a strategy in place for handling your empty bins – mine all nest into each other, and they get hidden either in a closet in the back of the booth or under my desk. You also have a strategy for accessing extra inventory to replenish your display as sales occur, or in case a customer is looking for something you have that isn’t out. All that is in place by 9:30 if everything has gone smoothly.

Now, you can have your coffee and breakfast!

So you got it done – it is 9:30 a.m., your work is out and priced, your extra inventory is readily available, lights are on, credit card processing is up, you’ve had your coffee and you feel good!

Some years were not so good:

  • The 2011 Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival was cancelled due to rain. There are no refunds, so artists lost their $475 space fee, $15 jury fee, $6 bridge toll, $60 in gas to get there and back, and maybe even $250 for your hotel, which at that point was nonrefundable. That’s a $806 loss, and you never even opened your doors. I was lucky – I hadn’t applied for that festival that year.
  • Rainy Day in Lafayette

    Rainy Day in Lafayette

    At the Lafayette Art and Wine Festival in 2013, I finished my setup on time by myself, and it started to rain really, really hard. So I sat in my booth and watched the water in the gutter rush by. The streets were empty. I was lucky that day – my canopy and canopy sidewalls kept the water out for the two hours it rained. A few folks started showing up about 2:00, so it was a very slow day. I did feel good about the booth holding the water out that day.  However, the next day, the vendor next door had a sagging canopy because water had collected in a puddle on each side of his canopy. So there we were, with glorious sunshine, and right before we opened, the vendor next door decided to deal with his sagging canopy water puddles by pushing a broom stick up to get the water to roll off. It worked – the water rushed off his canopy, into my booth and down into one of my largest, most expensive pieces.

  • At the 2011 Capitola Art & Wine Festival, it was about 11:30 a.m. when I finish setting up because of one artist who decided to do a middle-of-the-road unload. When he was told that he couldn’t do that, he stopped and asked the volunteer, “Well, can I finish?” The volunteer walked away, and there the artist stood, half unpacked in the middle of the road, asking the question over and over, to the air: “Can I finish?” Meanwhile, there we sat, within sight of our space but no way to unpack.  It was over a half hour before he finally moved his vehicle. When I arrived at my space, I found the artist next to me had utilized my space to unload his work so he could setup more comfortably. When I asked him if the stuff in my space was his, he responded, “Do you mind? I’m trying to unpack here.” I lost it. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do mind. This is my space and unless you move your stuff, it will be blocked by my stuff and you will have to wait until I am done setting to access it. So you might want to move it right now!” Once everything was out, the van had to be moved to a site so far off that my boyfriend had to take the shuttle to get back. He was gone for more than an hour.
  • At yet another outdoor event that I will refrain from naming, I found myself breaking down in a park in the dark with one other artist. The event promoters left long before most artists were done unpacking.

You do evolve as you do more shows and learn the ropes. My first outdoor show took over 12 hours to setup. It was in a park, and everything had to be carted a considerable distance over lawn. Luckily, for that show vendors could set up the day before. This is a blessing, and it can be a curse: if you setup later in the day, you could be in direct sunlight. That happened to me on a few occasions – talk about miserable.

So after all this, the thing you know is going to happen does happen. It is inevitable. A well-intentioned patron comes into your booth and asks the magic question: “How long did it take to make this?” And you want to say, “Well, we packed yesterday for 2 hours and left my house at 3:00 a.m. this morning ….”

My wonderful boyfriend has been able to help me setup on so many occasions because his work had slowed with the economy. Now that both his work and the economy have picked up, he is too busy and tired to devote a weekend to an outdoor event. As a result, in 2015 I didn’t apply for any outdoor shows. Things may change in 2016 – time will tell.

Until next time,


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