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Online vs In-Person: Finding the Right Mix as a Small Business Owner

This is the second post in a series I'm working on as I build my business. I want to share things I've learned and review things I've done to try and help others who might be doing the same thing.

Since the last post, we've done a couple shows and had some very different experiences at those shows. I'll also be comparing the best day online with sales vs the worst day at an in-person event and talking about why I think in-person is going to be far better in the future.

Let's start by talking about our booth setup at events and how that has changed.

A set of tables underneath a canopy tent with candles, photos and books sitting on the tables.
Our setup at the very first event we went to.

The first event we went to was in early May in Mount Vernon, Ohio. It was first of a series of events, run on the first Sunday of every month from May-December known as "Sundays on the Square". It's supposed to be an artisan market, and most of the vendors there fit that bill, but the vendors haven't been the problem in the 2 events we've attended there.

Foot traffic at the first event, in early May, was slow to say the least. This wasn't completely unexpected, but kind of put a damper on our day. The explanation provided for this slow start was that people had most likely forgotten the event was taking place, as it hadn't been going on over the winter, and once word of mouth spread it would pick up.

Tables with photos, candles and books sitting under a canopy tent.
Progress in our setup for the second Sundays on the Square event.

By the second month of Sundays on the Square, we had upgraded our setup a bit. We'd learned from the first event that sidewalls would look better than the tarp we had up, and adding another table helped things look a little more professional.

As happy as we were with the upgraded setup, the plague of low foot traffic carried over into June. There just wasn't hardly anyone coming by, and we weren't the only ones unhappy. Sales were much lower than expected for everyone, and some vendors didn't even make back the $50 vendor fee for the month. We were lucky enough to make our money back, but just barely.

The next event on the schedule was one I'd been looking forward to since I'd first heard about it. First Fridays is an event that runs the first Friday of each month in the summer, also in Mount Vernon. We didn't have the best placement, since we'd signed up really late, but just being at the event was what I was happy about. And we saw a huge increase in the number of people coming by our booth!

That's not to say the event was perfect. For instance, the wind was horrendous and we were unable to keep the canopy up. Without the canopy, and the walls, the photo prints I had couldn't be stood up, and the big print of the eclipse blew off the table on several occasions. I also couldn't put the books or banner up like normal, making them even harder for people to see.

All of this combined to make things a little more difficult than we expected, but we still made really good sales for the short, 3-hour event and we learned a valuable lesson about weight.

Up to that point, we'd had four 20-pound weights on the legs of the tent, meant to hold it down. That was not nearly enough to keep it on the ground in 30 mph winds, and we needed a lot more. I looked around, but a lot of the official weighted bags for tents were selling for more than I wanted to pay. The lowest price I found was a set of 4 bags for ~$20 and that didn't include the sand. Not to mention the reviews said they didn't hold as much as advertised.

I wound up going with actual sandbags, found at Menards for $.97 each, and they held a lot more sand. In the end we were able to put nearly 300 lbs. of weight on for the next show.

Vendor tents set up outside the community theatre in Logan, Ohio for the 2024 Washboard Festival.
Our tent in Logan for the 2024 Washboard Fest.

And that brings us to the dumpster fire that was the Logan Washboard Art and Music Festival, 2024 edition. I was really excited when we got into this one, because it was billed as a great place for artists. I had very high expectations, based on what I knew about attendance and how other photographers, painters and the like did in prior years.

This was our first multi-day show as well, so it was the first time we'd be setting up on one day and tearing down on another. Setup was Thursday, from 8 AM until 4 PM, and it went great. We got there around lunch time. The vendor coordinator was there and made sure we had everything we needed, and we were set up and ready to sell by 1 PM.

Most of the day after that was spent sitting around, waiting on the official start to the event. I didn't expect a lot of traffic or any sales on the first day, but we did sell a little bit and had a few people stop by. All-in-all it was a promising start.

Friday afternoon was slow as well, though we figured this was mostly due to people still being at work, and the assumption was that things would pick up that evening. By 6 PM or so, it was starting to look like what I expected to see at the show. The streets were starting to actually look a little full and we had more foot traffic passing the booth and looking at things.

Looking down the not-too-crowded street in Logan Ohio shortly after the sun has set.
Main Street in Logan, Ohio for the 2024 Washboard Fest during a beautiful sunset.

Then the weather turned on us. A severe storm popped up just to the north, aiming right at Logan. We battened down the hatches, throwing up our tarp on the opening and hoping we'd got enough weight to hold us in place in the 60 mph winds the storm had been producing.

The storm only lasted for maybe half an hour, and our setup held up rather well all things considered. A little water dripped in from the heavy rain, and we found ourselves standing in a river at one point, but nothing was ruined. We were definitely luckier than some others, who had merchandise and setups destroyed.

The crowds didn't return once the storm had passed, but I still had hope for Saturday.

The final day of the festival was supposed to be the busiest. I'd seen pictures of prior years where you could barely walk through the streets, and I fully expected to sell most, if not all, of what we had in inventory.

But, by early evening, the crowds still hadn't shown up.

As closing time drew near, I started wondering what had happened. It was supposed to be the biggest event we'd done so far, and we'd barely made back the vendor fee. I started talking to the vendor that had been next to us all weekend, and I discovered she was part of the committee for the event and had heard a lot of vendors were upset because the crowds hadn't shown up.

Knowing it wasn't just us was a little bit of a relief, but the question quickly turned to "why didn't the expected crowds show up?" The answer was most likely very complicated, but it appeared to boil down to something I hadn't even been aware of.

See, as an art and music festival, you expected there to be a lot of artists and musicians. While there were several, extremely talented musicians, the number of artists there seemed kind of low. It turned out, they had made the decision to allow political booths for the 2024 event, and there had been a lot of controversy and threats of potential violence involved.

Had I known that ahead of time, I never would have attended. We had one of the political party tents near us, but the party tents weren't nearly as bad as the 2 huge Trump tents that had been erected along the strip.

Now, I can't stand Donald Trump for a million reasons, but I still believe in freedom of speech and those people are just as entitled to sell their merchandise as we are. That being said, I think the decision to allow any political tents at an ART and MUSIC festival was stupid. People go to these kinds of events to escape that kind of stuff. If they want more political stuff, they can turn on the news or go to a political event.

I'm not about to turn this post into something overly political, but it was extremely disappointing to see how bad the turnout was and know that it was more likely than not due to the decision to allow political vendors in.

We'd seen more traffic at Sundays on the Square than the Washboard Fest, and Sundays on the Square is a much smaller, newer event. The Washboard fest has been going on for decades and has been an annual tradition where thousands of people usually attend on Father's Day weekend. To say we were upset would be putting it lightly.

Even with that, we've at least learned from each event and keep getting better as we go. If nothing else, the Washboard Fest taught us to be a little more diligent about these events and dig deeper before scheduling them.

I mentioned that I'd talk a bit about sales and why I think in-person events are going to outdo online sales every time. Book sales are really the only point of reference I have at the moment, as we haven't really sold anything else here on the website. Looking back over the past year and a half, since launching my debut novel, I've sold 13 books total online (6 print and 7 e-books). And online sales can happen 24/7/365, with nearly global availability.

Compare that to the in-person sales, over the course of 6 total days (39 hours), I've sold 15 books, signing most of them and getting the chance to talk to and interact with the people who are interested in reading them.

And that's the biggest factor for me. I love interacting with people, getting to talk about the books and see their faces as they check them out. There's just something about seeing people in person that online could never match. Not to mention one of those sales was someone buying all 3 of my books at once!

There're more events coming up this year, and I'll be posting about those as well. I think it's important, and ultimately helpful to be transparent about this experience and talk about the events as we see them. Comment any questions you have below, and I'd be happy to expand on things in future blogs.

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