For many years I have been an exhibitor and guest to comic conventions, book fairs and other adventures. I have had some incredible experiences and very blessed opportunities to allow the shows to help keep my career afloat. Many of you have seen my reviews about several of the cons I have exhibited at. These reviews are filled with ways to improve a show and what hurts a show. I try to stay as open-minded as possible
What makes a show though successful is not just the con’s responsibility but the exhibitors/guests and the fans as well. It’s easy to praise a show when an exhibitor sells well and it is equally easy to blame the show when the exhibitor does poorly. Now the con adds to that atmosphere, usually with placement and such, but at the end of the day the exhibitor has the power to make the show successful or not.
As an exhibitor/freelancer I know I need to cover my expenses and enough to help cover next year. So generating income at a show is important, yet it is not the end game and when I learned a few things on how change my game, I found my shows getting better and better. I also learned the power of adapting. Conventions are not just about comic books anymore. Regardless of the show you go to, you find an explosion of pop-culture there. This is actually good for creators that have figured that out. It is more opportunities for you to have a good show and up your game.
As I talk other creators, and we do chat, I listen to what works and what does not. I also listen to their attitudes. I find it interesting that there are people out there that always have a miserable show, always complaining about the con, and always seem frustrated about why there table is not moving product. It seems very easy for people to lash out at the show organizers, who gave them booth space or approved them the opportunity to sell and brought people in the door, now do they need to man your booth and sell product as well. That is your responsibility to do that.
Maybe this is where you sit back and ask yourself what I can do as an exhibitor to change and up my game? How do I make it profitable? or maybe the true question is asking yourself how do I make it better for the attendees and continue to build the tribe.
I know there are creators out there, like myself that always have a good show. They might not all be money makers, but their experiences make the show good and because of how they look at show they become successful. I’m not here to tell you how to run your booth, I am though going to offer a few pointers on how to improve your experience and maybe help increase your profit at a show.
1. It’s not about you. One of the biggest mistakes creators, artist and exhibitors make is that they believe it is all about them. They are a guest, they paid for their spot or it was given to them. They feel they are above the con organizers, other creators and even more sadly then the fans (the very people that buy your works). They walk around with a chip on their shoulder and feel that they need to be treated in a certain way. If they don’t sell they blame everyone else but themselves and people see that, they hear and read the rants and they eventually stop coming by the table. You are literally sabotaging your own show.
So who is the experience about… well it’s for the fans, the cos-players, the families and anyone that walks through those con doors, that is a potential contact. These are the people that will keep your career alive. By making the show experience about them and ensuring that they have a fun time you sow the seeds for new fan bases, new friendships and support for your works.
I have seen several artist and/or exhibitors ridicule fans from their tables, or show no interest in those that walk by because they are talking to their neighbors the whole time. That actually alienates you.
Yet I have also seen artists – extend a hand, offer a free sketch, talk to people by actually looking at them, and making themselves very available. Their tables are usually packed. They understand the value that it is not about them – but about others. People feel that vibe and they gravitate towards that.
I do free sketches as well. To anyone that asks. It’s a two minute sketch, but in that two minutes we have a great conversation and they bring their friends back. This converts, they walk away with a piece of paper with my website on it and I have a great experience. I have met some of the most incredible people over the years. I’ve been told I am crazy for offering free sketches, but my table is always packed… how crazy am I to do a 2 minute sketch for a total stranger.
Also many times before a show starts, exhibitors usually get in an hour so early to set up, as my crew and I sit and watch, we have seen a few exhibitors chew out security for not letting them in even earlier. My favorite phrase is “do you know who i am? or I am guest?” when they are still denied entrance, they sulk back to other exhibitors and 90% of the time badmouth the show. Which is a shame, because most of the time, the show itself does not control this but convention security.
As more and more movies come out, and as the fantasy, sci-fi, superhero and anime worlds are embraced by more and more people. Cons will grow. Yup they are not what they used to be. No longer the big sprawling rooms of the comic boxes and artists, but huge mash-ups of creators, artists, publishers, studios, retailers and more. Each fighting for the fan that walks by the booth to stop and hopefully make a purchase. It’s easy to blame the show, to want to go back when the artist or the indy was new and had a stronger voice, yet to me that’s not upping your game. It’s making excuses. I know several indy’s that are flourishing and growing. It’s not because we were lucky… it’s because we are adapting to the change and taking chances. We are branding and building on our worlds. So how do we do that?
* Always have something new on the table. I exhibit at about 12 to 14 shows a year. At every show there is something new on the table. A book, a print, a puzzle, something. My inventory grows and that is important. Create a reason for people to come back to your table and visit. Fans want to see your stories continue, they bought your books and prints because they were interested in what you were creating. If you don’t have anything new, they will come back for a little bit, but eventually they move on.
* Make your work marketable. This is understanding who you are selling to. I have talked to creators who show me their children’s book, which they sit next to another of their book full of images that are offensive to be people and they wonder why parents won’t buy their children’s book. Even when they explain it’s not like their other books. If you want to sell to kids or all ages… than make sure your table or booth represents that. Kids are the browsers – parents are the one’s that make the buying choices. I’m not talking censorship… i am talking about learning how to market. Learn what to have on your booth and table and what your audience is.
* Step up your booth presentation. Appearance is everything. A table with a few stapled ashcans or zines, will not have the same success as someone who printed a book semi-professionally. Even print on demand offers opportunities for you to have a good professional looking product. Also make the booth or table inviting, you need to be approachable, which means that you need to become approachable.
* Stop hiding behind your sketchbook or sketch pad. Yes people like seeing you draw but when you hide and do not interact you are creating exhibitor suicide. Start asking questions when people come by your booth. One of the most influential people I have ever seen, will always shake hands and asks them their names. He makes them feel important. He creates an experience for them.
* BRANDING – and I am not talking about tattoos. I am talking about learning to create an image of you. Something people will always remember about you. What is the experience that you will create for the fan that comes by. Branding does not have to be expensive either. A simple table cloth, a couple of nice banners and a fun experience. Some people like 19xx, little vampires, Steam Crow have this down to a tee.
* Be your own artist… meaning start selling your own work, rather than superhero head shots. Seriously if you can stand and be apart be different you will do better than the artist that draws like everyone else.
* You can’t hide anymore. Understand that due to the internet, kickstarter and webcomics fans have much more personal interaction with creators. Some creators cannot handle this. You can’t hide behind your publisher like before. So learning a few interactive social skills will go a long way.
* TREAT IT LIKE BUSINESS AND NOT A HOBBY! Indy’s, artist, creators if you want to be successful at a show, treat it like a business because that is what it is. If you treat it like a hobby, you will never be able to put your full attention towards your dreams.
* Broaden you shows Ok this important- In AZ Phoenix alone there are over 30+ shows and events a year this is way too much. Though I would love to go to all of them- I personally only hit 3. I find when you saturate your own neighborhood, you stop growing. You need to travel a little. You need to hit shows you can drive too out of state. Stay with family or friends, cut your expenses as you can, but get out of your hometown at times. Your audience will grow. The first show or two will be tough in new cities but as you return and you return with NEW STUFF your audience grows. This is important. It allows you to find new clients and sell material that your neighborhood has already seen for the last 5 years.
* THE WINGMAN Take someone to work the show with you. Pay them in food and lodging. It makes travel easier. They sell for you and you can be the artist/creator that you need to be. The wingman takes a lot of stress off you as they help with setup. If they are talker as well it will help with sales. Just remind them they are there to help you. Plus it is great to have a second pair of eyes on your booth.
One of the saddest things to watch, is creators ignoring kids or people that cannot afford to buy. Parents pick up on this right away. They are literally pushing away their future fans. I remember an experience I had with an artist I admired. I just wanted to thank him for his work. I was a supporter of his books and had bought many of them. He must have been having a bad day… but the negative experience was enough that I stopped buying his works and even stopped visiting his table. His attitude completely turned me off. These kids might not have money, but they will one day. Treat them well and always be friendly and they will return and eventually they starting collecting your works. You don’t have to give things away… you just show interest in them. Appreciate them and you will influence them.
Since I give away free sketches… I see kids come back to my table each year. I am usually one of the first places they go to. They have thought about an idea all year long. Some of these kids I have been doing sketches for for the last 15 years now have kids of their own and are adding my works to their children’s rooms.
Because we make the experience about them, they in return support us. I am grateful for those opportunities, those simple interactions and the lasting friendships that have been created.
4. Everyone is important that stops by the booth.
Notice a trend… it’s about putting others first before you. It is amazing how a little kindness, a little interaction will go a long way in making a show successful for an exhibitor. Even the comic stores and retailers could learn from this.
Todd Nauck (Nightcrawler, Teen Titans) taught me this. He loves them and enjoys them… takes photos with them. The cos-players bring the convention to life. They add a little element that is very needed. They are artist in their own right and they have really made my shows a lot more fun. Think about it – the cos-players bring your favorite characters to life and they help create a buzz for the show.
6. Remember it’s still not about you.
When exhibiting just remember you are there not just to create income (that is still important but if it’s the sole reason you are there it can make for a miserable show). If you create an experience for the attendee’s, if you reach out to them, and make them feel important… they will support you. When you make it all about you… when you put yourself above everyone else and start demanding, it just shows how shallow you are and you miss out. To some this might not be important for. It’s a choice they make, yet I have found that by putting others first my show experiences have become incredible.
7. Understand the con organizers are people just like you…
The con is not out to get you, I promise. Those that run the con cannot always take your personal call. THAT IS OK, they have enough to worry about (city policies, attendee/exhibitor safety, high-profile guest, logistics, etc…) your personal phone call to complain why your booth doesn’t have an extra chair, needs to be handled with the people in charge of that. The con has responsibilities to make sure that you have the info and resources you need to exhibit. Yet at the end of the day… you are in-charge of making your booth successful.
Con-organizers try to do just that, organize a show. They try create an infrastructure that is effective for both attendees and exhibitors. Sometimes it does not always work right. But it doesn’t help your cause as an exhibitor when you yell, name drop or treat these volunteers like garbage. In fact it just makes the experience bad all around. You just need to take a deep breath and let them figure it out. They usually do. The kinder you are – the more likely you will get your issue solved and rather quickly.
To badmouth a show right there and not give them a chance to improve during the day doesn’t help the cause. Now the volunteers need to make sure they have the information available as well. Yet at the end of the day we are all just human beings trying to do our best.
Problems arise – but most problems will not ruin your show. Your personal attitude will ruin a show.
Honestly you are in-control of how you react at show to the experiences that are thrown your way. You make it fun or not. If you put the attendees first, if you make the show enjoyable for them – they make it enjoyable for you. They best shows have been because of this mentality.
There is so much more to talk about for exhibitors. I’ve only scratched the surface, but the goal is that exhibitors have a successful show, that conventions organize a successful show and that attendees have an incredible time.
So the next con you exhibit at… change your thought process and make the show about them. If you make about the attendees you will almost always have a successful show. Find ways to interact and get out of your comfort zone. Be mindful that you are one of many exhibitors all trying to do the same thing… grow your business. What will make it work for you is how you will be able to stand apart and make the experience incredible for someone else.