Last weekend I headed over to Madison, WI for the Geek Craft Expo‘s Midwest market. I had heard of the show from crafters I met at the Made in Nerdwaukee event, and it hit all of my buttons, vending wise. Geek Craft Expo is a series of craft fairs around North America which focus on handmade geekery. It’s the sort of craft fair where you find crocheted Yoda ears, dice boxes, fandom inspired bath bombs, and jewelry made out of circuit boards.
This was one of the best planned and run events I’ve ever attended. There was a score of volunteers who helped vendors unload. The background music that ran the whole gamut of fandom musical tastes: from “Real Folk Blues” to the Quantum Leap theme music. The room was decorated with standard Halloween fare, there was a scavenger hunt for the kids who came by, as well as trick-or-treating, a make and take, and costume parade. More importantly, for me, was the well-stocked vendor lounge with snacks and bottled water.
The last bit was important because I managed to lose my voice for the entire weekend. I had been sick for the week leading up to Geek Craft, yet still managed to drag myself out to vend. I spent most of the weekend behind my table, communicating with customers through notes and pantomime.
As well-run as the event was, traffic and sales were disappointing. I don’t blame the event runners at all; their March expo was a huge success. This time around, however, they ran afoul of football season. I estimate that the total crowd over the weekend was a little under 1,000. By contrast, the crowd at their March event was somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000. On the one hand that meant I didn’t have to interact with as many people while sick and speechless, but that also meant lower sales than I had expected. As my booth neighbor, Moira, pointed out: “The conversion from browser to buyer is right where I expected it, but there just aren’t enough bodies coming through.”
And to their credit, the people in charge acknowledged the low attendance. When the show closed and people started packing up they made the announcement that future shows would be scheduled well outside of football season. I appreciated their candor.
I barely made booth, which means I lost money once I took gas and expenses into account. I am honestly not as upset as I otherwise would be about the low sales. Everything else was so nice about the event, that it sort of washes out in the end. If I end up being in the area when the next expo is planned, I will definitely be signing up to vend.
There are many things I like: the color purple, unicorns, turtles, wine, fuzzy socks, working in my pjs. Over the past few months I’ve added two new items to that list: the way women’s faces light up when I tell them the skirts I make have pockets, and when a woman pulls on a skirt, hands me cash, and dances out of the booth, headed for adventure. I got to experience those Christmas morning grins and twirling happiness many times over this past weekend at the Midwest Gaming Classic.
Held outside of Milwaukee, MGC encompasses a spectrum of gaming: from arcade to console to tabletop. My booth was in the outdoor tent they erect in the parking lot of the hotel. That plus the corner stage that saw a rotation of various bands, and the whole event had a flea market, county fair feel where cosplay, jazz renditions of the Mario Brothers theme, and air hockey all came together. It attracts around 10,000 attendees, and hosts various rooms with arcade games free to play.
The stage part was equal parts fun and annoying. The booth was right across from the stage and every hour for an hour there was an act. Most of the time it was loud to the point of headache inducing. It also made it hard to talk with customers.
And there were lots of customers. The foot traffic was steady for all of Saturday and most of Sunday. Men with backpacks, ball caps and shuffled the aisles, their mouths pulled into frowns of concentration as they scanned the boxes of game cartridges, computer parts and vintage ephemera. Kids and teens skipped from one booth to another, touching everything, all thrown limbs and tripping feet. The women strolled, weaving their way through the crowd, here dipping into a booth and then lighting out, carrying a plushy, a signed print, or some other prize of geekery.
I shared the booth with Moira of Memento Moria. By our crafty powers combined we are Awesome Geek Girl Wearables! Splitting a booth with someone not only helps with keeping costs down, but it means you both will have back up for bathroom breaks and food runs. I was reminded why this is so important by our booth neighbor: a sweet guy selling anime fan staples like Pocky, along with candy, drinks and bookmarks. He did steady business, and was on his own for the entire weekend. We helped out when we could, keeping an eye on things so he could run to the restroom. By the second day my anxiety was triggered by worry that someone would walk off with something. Thankfully I had medication with me and I have gotten much better at taking it when I need it, rather than trying to tough the anxiety out.
The only low part came in the morning of Sunday while I was watching our neighbor’s booth. A man looking at the bookmarks caught my eye, pointed at me, and then beckoned me with his finger. The gesture was so dismissive, so patronizing, I had the instant urge to bite the digit off. Instead I just told him curtly that it wasn’t my booth and the owner would be back soon. Finger Man slithered his way down the aisle, never to be seen again.
Over all, it was a really good convention. I made a little more than my goal*, handed out lots of business cards, and even had someone follow me on Instagram as we talked in the booth.
And now I am back. I took Monday off to recuperate, because working conventions is hard work, no matter what my Jerk Brain would have me believe. And now I am ready to head back into the workshop to work on the commissions I took at the show and to get ready for the next event which will likely be in June.
As for Midwest Gaming Classic, I’ve already made plans to return next year.
*I reworked how I calculated my sales goals this year. Before I would take the number of expected attendees and multiply that by the amount per person I usually make at similar events. The problem, though, is that different kinds of events have wildly different amount per person: Anime conventions, for example, tend to bring in a little under a dollar per person, whereas general science fiction conventions is more in the .25-.50 cent range. This difference made for lots of variation and guesswork, and if an anime convention had a bad year, it cast doubt on the numbers.
Instead, I decided to figure out the number of hours I would be at an event and multiply that by how much per hour I charge for labor. The resulting number is lower than the previous calculation, however I have hit that goal and exceeded it each time. At this point I will take a more realistic, if lower, sales goal.
I headed back to Salt Lake City this last weekend for the Salt Lake Comic Con. It was me, Stephan, our kids, two checked duffel bags of inventory, and a determination to sell handmade geekery to the masses.
So how did that work out?
Let’s start with the good. Despite a mishap that saw myself, the kids and luggage on the train to the hotel and Stephan left behind at the station, the trip there was relatively uneventful*. Ben managed to keep his chaotic energy to a minimum while Charlotte played numerous games of Solitaire on her phone.
We got to our spot in the Salt Palace Convention Center with little difficulty and got set up in record time. Stephan provided extra lung power to get Johanns Rex inflated and ready for his convention debut. I forgot to pack clothes pins so I had to improvise a hanging solution for the skirts with binder clips. All in all, I think the set up was good. Especially later when I raided the empty space next to me for another table for the dice bags.
The good came in many different forms: Several friends stopped by the booth to offer support via food runs, helping to hock wares, and entertaining children. Charlotte spent a lot of time in the booth drawing and running the Square. Everyone who heard the refrain, “All the skirts have pockets” squealed with joy. At least three men picked up a business card because their wives weren’t at the convention but they were certain to be interested in the skirts. At one point, a woman pulled a skirt on over her leggings, paid and then twirled out of the booth.
The bad, though, was pretty bad. At the end of the con I joked with myself that the awesome thing about capitalism is that it could enumerate just how much of a failure a person is in dollars and cents. I had come out to the convention with the optimistic goal of $10,000 in sales. That number would be really hard to make, but I had twelve grand in inventory, plus I expected to get lots of commissions for the skirts. Based on what I made at SLC FanX in March (almost $1,500 with half the number of attendees) I could reasonably expect to make $3,000.
Readers, I pulled in a whopping $915.
Saturday night, as I broke down the booth, I had a hard time keeping Jerk Brain at bay. Every single horrible thing he has ever said to me felt true. I was a worthless loser, a dumbass who chose the wrong thing every time. I was stupid and irresponsible and lazy and a burden to my family. Why did I keep deluding myself into thinking I could support myself and my family by sewing? If anyone could do it we wouldn’t be buying cheap T-shirts from sweatshops.
Sunday wasn’t much better. I became intimately acquainted with the hotel bed while Stephan and the kids spent time with friends. I deactivated my Facebook account because I couldn’t face people with the weight of my failure. Monday we flew back to Chicago with me dragging behind my family every step of the way.
I kept thinking about how I had proven myself a failure, how I would have to give up the sewing and the idea that I could make a living from home. I was convinced that the only thing I was good for was taking up space. Back home, once I was sure that Trixie still loved me, we had unpacked and gotten the kids off to bed, Stephan poured me a glass of wine and we talked. And he pointed out that really, all I proved was that I shouldn’t do conventions right now. The benefit of a host of potential customers in a small space wasn’t actually manifesting. I handed out a lot of business cards and got people signed up to my mailing list, but that was something I could do from home.
You would think making a tenth of what I was expecting would fall under the category “Ugly” and, yet, this isn’t the case. One of the things that I like about Salt Lake City is that people are very nice. When the train fiasco happened people were kind to help me get luggage off the train at the next station to wait for Stephan. A man stopped by and checked up on us when he saw me and the kids sitting out on our own late at night. That friendliness was in attendance for the most part at the convention. The flip side, however, was a level of bad behavior I’ve never experienced at another convention.
I learned when I started vending not to use the line “Everything here is meant to be touched.” While most people would understand that I meant the stock in my booth, there was always one or more men who would cock an eyebrow and say “Anything?” in that gross aren’t-I-so-clever way. On Friday, I learned that the behavior cannot be stopped by using the right words, or is even limited to just men. My friend Kyra was helping a lady and said “You are welcome to touch things in the booth.”
The woman reached out and touched Kyra’s face!
This … this is not appropriate behavior for life, let alone a convention. I didn’t see it happen, else there would have been a body shoved under the table. The woman fled when Kyra told her firmly, “Not me!” Good thing I’m not going to do conventions for a while, else I’d have to make up a sign that read, “Please do not pet the staff.”
Poor Kyra bore the brunt of the bad behavior that weekend. At one point a guy walking past yelled at her, “I’m in the need of some discipline, will you discipline me?” Again, something that won’t be an issue if I don’t vend at conventions, however I am now imagining how I can weaponize my belly fat so I can just start whapping such dude bros.
Because this kind of thing always happens in threes, I overheard a man yelling that he only wanted the two hottest girls from a group cosplay in his photo. Chalk one more person up for a hit a run by my thunder thighs.
So now it is back home time. Ben is now in full day kindergarten, which means I now have dedicated hours to sew. And that’s what I’m going to do. I have a few commissions from SLCC to work on. That should also mean there will be more posting here. First up, I’ll get a tutorial for the skirts posted in the next few days.
*We flew from Chicago to SLC. The train I mention was from the SLC airport to the hotel. At $10 for a one way trip for four people, it was well worth the late night Griswold-esque adventure.
Last week we headed up to Milwaukee for the Midwinter Gaming Convention. We had a booth there, and had plans to get some gaming in. This is Midwinter’s fifteenth year, and our third, and it has grown larger and better every year we’ve been. This was the first year both Stephan and I had wares to peddle, and the first year I had so many booth helpers. It all added up to a lot of fun.
What made the biggest difference, I think, is that I had two booth helpers throughout the convention. Our friends Denis and Chrissy came along, and with them on hand, we had four adults to cover the booth the entire weekend. That meant Stephan wasn’t stuck on Ben patrol the entire time. It meant we both got to go to lunch together one day. It meant I got to spend time with my son outside of the vendor’s hall for the first time ever. I can’t thank the two of them enough for their help the entire weekend.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed gaming cons. Midwinter’s focus is on LARP, but it has programming dedicated to board and video games, as well as a strong reenactment presence thanks to the SCA. So while there is a costuming contingent, it isn’t a costume heavy convention. And the convention has a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere. I found myself joking and laughing, things I hadn’t done in a long time. I managed to deal with the little anxiety that cropped up throughout the weekend, which means that medication and therapy is working for my mental health issues.
The Milwaukee Hilton is a beautiful hotel, with lots of ornate staircases and decor, as well as hallways and seating areas for hangouts. I spent most of my time in the vendor hall, which was placed in a baroque fantasy of a ballroom with chandeliers and gold molding on the ceiling. The hotel staff was super friendly and helpful, a big plus when you are attending a convention where there can be tension between fans and non-fans.
That same weekend there was a girl’s volleyball conference in the hotel. This led to lots of interactions with non-gaming people. I witnessed an abundance of stares and whispered comments, but I was never the target of them. In fact I had several women approach me to ask about what was going on. I think the pink hair establishes me as part of the “weird people” but that my size and gender makes me non-threatening enough to be approachable. This isn’t the first time I’ve played ambassador for the geek community. Back in 2002 at ConJose in San Jose, I fielded questions from people on the street who saw me wearing a badge, but not a costume (no pink hair back in those days). And the fan side of things gave as good as they got on the passive aggressive front. I overheard one LARPer bragging about having invented “Trolling: the LARP” where he and his friends paraded past groups of volleyball players and parents in their costumes and played their characters to an exaggerated degree.
I only ran into one instance of bad customer behavior: a woman incredulously demanding to know if “that ruffle thing” truly was $75. When I confirmed that, yes, I do charge $75 for my bustles, she huffed off. I know that prior to her asking she had snapped a shot of the bustle (the flash is a dead giveaway) and suspect she’ll show the picture to a sewing friend and ask if said friend will make one for her. I wish her good luck with that.
I did overhear another customer ask the vendor next to me if they would get a discount on a $20 item if they carried it around the convention and told people where they would get it from. There seems to be this belief among a certain set of attendees that vendors are starving for marketing and will give away their wares for word of mouth advertising. I have never once met a vendor who has done such. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is one or two who have, I just have never encountered them.
The only other annoyance was the number of times people congregated in front of my booth and blocked access to it. That is easily dealt with. I whip out my phone and ask the people if they could move because I want to get a shot of my set up. Nine times out of ten the people realize they were blocking the way and move on apologetically. The tenth time, the people move, but with resentment at having been asked to move. Either way, it’s not skin off my nose, I got them to clear the way.
The final attendance count was just shy of 1100 members. Not a bad showing. I made just over 50 cents per attendee (which is about what I plan on making at any convention). It was less than I had hoped, but I didn’t have any big items with me this time around. There’s time before the next convention to get plenty of coats made up for off the rack purchases.
According to those we talked to, Midwinter has seen an average of 10 percent growth in attendance each year. It’s clear that they do a lot of work not only in planning great programming, but also in advertising their presence. They do a lot of social media work, have a strong Facebook page, and got the convention covered by local TV press. It is a lot of work, but it is paying off for them.
I mention this because over the course of the weekend I was approached by two different conventions about vending. Both are brand new, both are asking for $200 for booth space. One mentioned on its website that they expect anywhere between 350 to 2,400 attendees at their first con. Think about that for a moment. Presuming that they reach their minimum number, and that I make 50 cents per attendee, I will lose money attending that convention. The other is one could see slightly better numbers, but it is still the first year, still untested, and still not worth paying that much for a space. When conventions charge that much for a space, with such low numbers, it is clear they are looking to cover their costs on the backs of their vendors rather than through ticket sales.