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The Start of Calgary Expo 2019

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you already know that the Calgary Expo has been my biggest undertaking of the year for the past six years. For people who do trade or gift shows on a regular basis, this sort of thing is routine, so the big deal I make about it each year seems like nothing to them. If I did these sort of shows a lot, I would easily see it from their perspective, but it’s not just the show that’s a challenge, it’s getting away FOR the show.

As half of my business is editorial cartooning, which requires following the news for  a living and producing satirical illustrated commentary almost every day, taking five days away to focus on this show is more difficult than getting away for a vacation. My newspapers still have to be covered and when I get home exhausted late Sunday night, I’ll still be up at 5am on Monday morning drawing cartoons.

Managing the logistics to prep for this show is a lot of work because I also have to keep my papers supplied with cartoons while I’m away, which means drawing more in the week before and hoping no news of great importance breaks while I’m gone, because I can’t just abandon my booth or drive back to Canmore to get a cartoon done in between the show hours.

I’m also an introvert who spends most of time working alone in the comfort of my home, so this event takes a lot out of me, having to be ON for five days, surrounded by a lot of people.

That being said, it’s usually a fun show. Once I’m there, I really do enjoy it, even though Sunday will be a very long slog of a day. I rarely encounter somebody at this show who doesn’t want to be there and few who aren’t having a good time. Each year, my booth gets better, I learn something new for the next go ’round and streamline the process.

I recorded a video this past weekend which showed the booth set up in my garage, offered some thoughts on why I set things up the way I do, and shared it with my newsletter audience. You can watch it here if you like.

Here are some images of the prep this week. Beginning with the two sides of the booth set up in the garage, this is something I do every year to make things easier when I’m on site. With no time pressure, I’m free to leave it set up for a couple of days, nitpicking print placement and trying different things. Then I take photos of the setup and refer to it when I’m on site.


Once I’m happy with it, I pack it all up, go over the checklist and have it all together in one pile, ready to load. The snowshoes stay home.

My trusty Pontiac Vibe may not be the most flashy or cool car around, but you can sure put a lot into it. The cargo capacity on this thing is impressive. There are two six foot tables in here, four 2′ X 6′ pieces of gridwall, two 1′ X 6′ pieces of gridwall and everything you see above. That being said, there is no room for anything else.

“Is there a problem, Officer?”

Once on site Wednesday, I set it all up, made everything nice and tidy, ensured the lights were working, in order to leave as little work for myself as possible when I returned on Thursday.

All that remained was to hang the canvas and aluminum, put the prints in the bins, the magnets on the board, the floor down and turn on the lights. It took about an hour yesterday to finish getting it show ready, the result below.

As I’m writing this in my hotel room Friday morning after the first evening, I was pleased with the first day’s sales, all things considered.

On the positive side of things, quite a few of my repeat customers I’ve gotten to know over the years came by to add to their collections and just to chat and catch up. That really is my favorite part of this show. Some of these people have been buying my work since my first year and I’m always grateful for their support. When more than a few customers greet you with a hug, you’re doing something right.

That being said, there is initially a different feel this year, confirmed by my fellow vendors and some attendees I know pretty well. It doesn’t appear that they sold out of exhibitor space this year which is a bad sign. Usually this show is FULL early on. There used to be a long waiting list.

This year, there’s actual empty space between some booths, you can see that in my above photo. When I arrived on Thursday, my neighbour on the right side of the pic had moved closer to me and said I could take advantage of it as well. I moved my far wall another two feet.

Having extra space at Expo is bizarre. We’re usually fighting for every inch. I know a couple of other vendors in the hall who had the same luxury.

Fan Expo bought the Calgary Expo a couple of years back and while changes were evident last year, the old familiar faces were still around and on the team. I haven’t seen anyone in administration that I recognize this year, so clearly they were obligated to be part of last year’s transition. In my opinion, it was those hardworking folks who made this con what it is and set the tone for the culture.

While clearly a commercial venture on all sides, there was always a feeling that we were all in this together, vendors and organizers. I’ve seen no evidence that exists any longer. Even the announcers sound bored.

Fan Expo (a subsidiary of Informa Exhibitions) doesn’t seem to be popular with the fans. At one time, I had considered doing the Edmonton, Regina and Vancouver Expos, but vendors talk with each other and there’s no incentive for me to give that any more thought. Many have become dissatisfied with those experiences and are abandoning them.

While my sales Thursday night were good, comparable with last year, I credit that to my great location on a main thoroughfare near an entrance, because there were noticeably fewer people in attendance. Thursday is usually quieter anyway, but this was the quietest I’ve ever seen.

Rumblings among the vendors is that the best days of the Calgary Expo might be behind us. One of my close friends, Michelle, a loyal Expo attendee, decided to skip this year. I’ve heard a couple of my neighbouring vendors say that this is their last year and depending on how the weekend goes, we’ll see how I feel about rebooking when Sunday comes.

If this good thing does come to an end and I bid farewell to the Calgary Expo, I’ll be disappointed, just as I was when I stopped attending Photoshop World for very similar reasons. But hanging on, expecting it to become what it used to be would be myopic, foolish and just bad business.

That being said, I still plan to have a good time this weekend, try my best to help others do the same, and I look forward to meeting and greeting my customers, both old and new.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Showing Up

eaglepat At this weekend’s Calgary Expo Holiday Market, a neighbouring vendor mentioned that it’s probably healthy for us to get out of our own orbits, to network with new people, actually talk face to face with customers. While my instinct is to shy away from that, I know she was right.

She added, “Besides, it’s nice to listen to people tell you how much they like your stuff for an entire weekend.”

Over the course of this weekend, I found myself questioning the value of trade shows, mostly because I’ve gone from doing only the one each year, adding another and am considering more.

So you don’t mistake the following mixed feelings with a misconception that this here hermit artist just doesn’t know how to talk with people, I’ve worked more years in customer service than I have as an artist. I know how to play the sales game.

I was in retail and hotels for years before I became self-employed. I managed a waterslide facility full of screaming children and worked a hotel front desk over multiple Christmas holidays and sold out summers in one of the busiest tourist towns in the world. I’ve smiled through a guest check-in while they’ve told me everything had better be perfect, and again during their check-out when it wasn’t.

I didn’t sit down while in my trade show booth, not once through the entire weekend. Sitting down tells people they’re bothering you and most will just move on. I wasn’t on my phone all the time, or sketching, or standing with my arms crossed. When somebody walked by the booth, I smiled, said Hello, engaged them in conversation, made small talk. If I noticed people looking, but they hadn’t approached, I invited them over to take a look. They most often did and often bought as a result. No sales pressure, just being friendly.

I tell you this not to sound like a martyr. Most people who work customer service know they must do the exact same thing, or at least the successful ones do.

As this Holiday show was put on by the same people who do the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo in the spring, they marketed it to their regular attendees. From this vendor’s perspective, that was great as I’ve gotten to know a number of customers over the four years I’ve been doing Expo. Many have purchased more than once and have become collectors of my work. I do look forward to Expo each year, because prior to being a vendor, I was an attendee. It’s an event I enjoy.

There were a number of familiar faces that approached me, asked what was new and bought some more prints. One gentleman, who owns a few of my prints already, bought his first canvas print. A couple of my Facebook followers came by to visit and both bought prints. Up until now, they’ve been names I recognize from likes/comments. It was a real pleasure to talk to them in person and I was flattered that they made the time to come down and see me.

I was able to chit chat with my neighbour in the next booth and as she’s a regular Expo vendor and sells at many other shows, her insight was valuable.

These are the benefits that are hard to quantify. There is no specific dollar value, nothing that can be put on a balance sheet, but the information and connections you gain from networking will most definitely contribute to the bottom line in the future.

As for the cons, those are more personal. I’m a results oriented person, which often isn’t associated with people in the arts. If I’m not using my time well, then I view that time as wasted.

When I go for a hike, it’s because I know that my senior years will be painful and difficult if I don’t stay fit. Most days, I’d rather just stay in and work, but I force myself to get out and walk those 6-10km, often with a 20 pound backpack which includes a couple of cameras. If I see a squirrel, bird, or something larger, I can take a photo that might end up being used for reference. I also come up with cartoon ideas on my walks. I’ll walk downtown on an errand, rather than drive, not because I’m being environmentally conscious, it’s just multi-tasking.

I don’t do idle well. So while I’m standing in the booth in a slow period, saying Hi to people that walk by, just looking ready to engage, I’m thinking that I could be writing on my iPad, or drawing a cartoon in my sketch book, or perusing the news on my phone. But that would make me look unapproachable and that’s bad for sales.

While some can relax for days on end while on vacation, lying on a beach doing nothing for longer than an hour is torture for me. Let’s go tour a ruin, learn something new or have a new experience. Thankfully, my wife has the same outlook.

boothThe trade show experience, as a result, feels like I’m wasting a lot of time that could be spent producing more work. It took me almost four hours to set up my booth on Friday and two hours to tear it down and pack the car Sunday evening. There was also the drive time to and from, which amounted to three hours total for Calgary.

I could have gotten a lot of painting done in that time, a blog post, or a few editorial cartoons.

The idea of doing multiple Christmas shows fills me with dread. I don’t set foot in a shopping mall between now and January to avoid the madness and festival frenzy. The idea of going on tour to different cities to experience that very thing seems horrific to me. Luckily the weather was great this weekend, but I thought about what it would be like doing this sort of thing when there’s a whiteout on icy roads in a packed car, sharing the road with aggressive Alberta drivers looking at their phones. Sugar plums dancing? More like animal prints littering the ditch.

We canceled our Thanksgiving plans this year because the roads were treacherous. Canceling a booth with all of the associated costs would be pricey.

A period of evaluation lies ahead of me. How much of this do I want to do? How much of my best energy (the stuff I rely on to create!) do I spend on this sort of thing, especially at a time of year when that energy is in shortest supply? Psychologically, winter is when I struggle most, when I am much closer to the bottom than the top, for months at a time.

There is a certain amount of self-doubt about this where I think, “Am I just shying away from this because it’s different, out of my comfort zone, or a foreign experience?” But then there is also the confidence that comes with age where you also know who you are and that what works for one person might not work for you. I’m an atheist, but the serenity prayer comes to mind.

Living your life by somebody else’s playbook, especially in a profession where being unique is the ideal, doesn’t make any sense.

On the surface, sales were decent, but if I factor in everything from my print costs, hotel, food, parking, booth rental and power, then my end profit amounted to less than a minimum hourly wage for all of the prep, setup, time on site, tear down and post-work at home.  When I looked at that final number after calculating all of the expense, I thought, “That’s it? For all of that work?”

I don’t feel that way when I get my payments for editorial cartoons, licensing royalties, commissions from the galleries or payments from the zoos. Because when somebody else is selling my work, I’m producing more work.

I’ll be overthinking this for some time. It will factor into whether or not I add more shows or commit to a season of the Canmore Market next spring, summer and fall. I lost money on the first Expo I did and barely made any money on the second, but if not for those first two, I wouldn’t have made money on the next two and this past spring Expo was a really great year. But I also like doing that show, and that matters, too.

As with most decisions in self-employment, there are no easy answers. There’s no map. Most of the time, it’s just feeling around in a dark room looking for a light switch. And when you finally find one, it illuminates a very small area and you’re once again squinting into the dark, looking for the next light switch.
beaverpat