First Time At A Festival, 10 days and counting...

Written by:  Steven M. Roehlk

My wife and I have been doing dye sublimation for a couple of years but decided that we need to make more money so this can be more than an expensive hobby.  I think we are like a lot of people doing dye sublimation, not sure where we are going with the business and are trying a few different options.  I don't have a lot of money to spend and have already spent a lot of money.  Not a real smart way to do business but that's what has happened and I would like to see if there is a way to get some of the money I have spent back. So off to our first festival we did go...


Day 1

Today was the first day of a 10 day "Covered Bridge Festival". 

We are selling pre-made items but think in this particular situation it will work.  We are at the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival in Rockville, Indiana.  It is about 1.5 hour drive from us in Indianapolis.  There are 30 some covered bridges in the area and the festival attracts over 2 million people in 10 days time.  Since there is a particular reason for the festival we feel safe producing pre-made product with pictures of the covered bridges.  I took the photos myself, over the last year (or so) so we are sure there are no copyright issues with the images we are using.

We paid a premium for a 8' space under a tent located in the Court House area.  To be included in the festival at this location we had to submit an application, with photos and descriptions of every item we wanted to sell.  They did not approve any apparel.  We did get ok's for 4" tiles, 6" tiles and tile murals.  Coffee mugs were also approved as long as they did not say "Covered Bridge Festival".  



Some of the costs:

$70 per foot for the booth

$25 for electricity

$10 application fee

$50 transient merchants license (this one was a surprise.  We got a letter about 10 days before the show.)

Plus we have to dress in period clothing.  1850's to 1920 or so.  Easy enough, I guess.  Men have to wear suspenders and jeans or overalls.  Women have to wear a long dress.  This was another surprise.  Not one mention of this until we received our "vendor package". 

It was a fun day overall, other vendors that have been doing this festival for 20+ years giving us their opinions of how to best work this show.  They have been very nice, which kind of surprised us since we are all competing for the same dollar.  We sold a couple of hundred dollars worth of product today and framed tiles was our best seller. We are hoping this was a slow day. :) 

9 more days to go.

Day 2

Today we had very nice weather, warm actually.  Not really good for a fall festival.  Mugs were selling today. 

A lot of people!!  Lots of comments on our product but sales were flat.  A lot of ups and downs already.  We are already second guessing a lot of our decisions to make certain items, and whether we chose the right area.  This festival has 2 main areas that are about 20 miles apart.  The other area is more flea market type stuff and the area we are in, is more craft items.  But still most of the stuff is the same you would see at any outdoor craft fair/festival.  The other area gets more foot traffic.

There are 33 or so covered bridges, we have over half on our items but of course it seems like everyone wants the ones we don't have.  I think we should have all of them now but almost impossible to guess what would be popular.  Our original plan was to have some on hand and if one was a good seller we would make more of that item in the evenings. 


We did get several inquiries about doing custom murals for people.  We gave them business cards.  Not going to get too excited about that, I would imagine you have to have 50 inquiries to get one good sale.  Will see how that goes.

We had a publisher ask us if we would be interested in putting together a covered bridge book using our photos.  My wife, Jamie talked to him, not sure how that would work but might be worth looking into later.

We have 4, 6 and 12 tile murals but haven't sold any of them yet.

We were trying to get a good mix of product with a range of price points.  A lot of the other vendors have items that cost a dollar but I personally don't like selling too cheap of an item.

Here are some of our items and prices:

11 oz. mugs  $8.00  (pre-made or they would be more)

15 oz mugs  $10.00

4.25 photo tile, spacerless in stained frame  $15.00

4.25 tile,  in oak frame  $20.00

4.25 photo tile on easel  $10  (6" easel)

6" tile, in stained frame $20.00

6" tile, in oak frame $25.00

6" tile on easel $15.00  (6" easel)

4" tile in keyholder frame $25.00

6" tile in keyholder frame $35.00

Cutting board 9x12 $25.00

Did not make as much money as yesterday but sold more pieces. 


Day 3

Chilly morning.  We arrive at 8:00am and open for business. 

Made a sign out of gold sublimation metal to put up behind us.  A lot of people don't see what we are offering if people are standing in front of our table.  It has black lettering and a picture of a covered bridge.  The gold sign looks a lot better than I thought it would, the white area looks white even though it is gold.  I notice a lot of people looking up at it.

Coffee mugs seem to be the item right now.

We check with a seller in a different town than we are and they say sales are way off from the last couple of years.  The booths around us say they did about the same as the day before, but slower than past years.  I see people carrying a lot of bags full of something.  I need to discover what it is that attracts people to an item and then buy it.  We hear what the people are saying while looking at our stuff and they think it is beautiful, great, and they still don't buy.  We have had several people that will pick up something but won't be able to decide which picture  they want then don't buy anything.  I am considering telling them they can exchange it later if they change their mind...  We have had several people agonize over whether they should or shouldn't buy an $8 mug, some of their hesitation comes from what covered bridge they want. 



We have become overnight "experts" on the bridges in the area.  People ask us all kinds of questions about them.  We now have maps and cheat sheets so we can answer the questions.  We spend a lot of time as tour directors. :)  It can be fun but most of these people don't buy anything. 

I had an owner of a bed and breakfast in the area buy several mugs with a covered bridge that is closest to her, to resell to her customers.  I am going to follow up with other bed and breakfast owners and her to see if their might be more interest in mugs or other items.  Thinking they could put a picture of their bed and breakfast and sell or give to their customers.  Maybe a good way for the B&B to promote return trips and good fit  for the dye sublimation process.. 

I think the 2" tile magnets would have been a good idea.  Wish I would have thought of it, and thought of it 3 months ago, but I really did not want to mess with a lower cost product, only sell higher end items.  I did not think of it attracting people in to look closer at other products.  A question in my mind is, do the cheaper items take away from a more expensive items?  If they are going to buy something and the least expensive item I have is $8 will they buy it or walk away?  If I have a $2 there then will that person buy the $2 item instead of the $8 item?  Now I think it would have been a good item to have.

People seem to buy the cheaper frames even though the oak frames are only $5 more.  If I was buying and saw oak, I would buy it instead of a cheap stained wood frame.

Sales are slow and we end up doing about the same as day 2. 

Its late and I am rambling, have to start early again tomorrow.  This is like boot camp!


Day 4

Another beautiful day, a little chilly early but very nice.

Mugs continue to sell.  Starting to run out of some images on the mugs.  We sold a large cutting board today and a couple key hangers.

We had several people requesting certain images.  We also had requests for some other projects.  People coming up to us and asking if we can do certain things.  Don't know if any will pan out but it does make us think about different projects and new things we hadn't thought of yet.  This may be another benefit of getting out in the public. 

The days seem to go fast but we have an 1.5 hour drive to get home.  Three hours a day is just about too much.  We are also taking our 1 yr old son with us every day.  Part of the plan with sublimation is to be able to do it as a family.  Some days are better than others with our son, today was excellent.  Yesterday wasn't.

Jamie lowered the price on our postcard thermometers to $10, from $15.  Nobody even picked up one at $15.  We have sold one now.

Even though we lowered the one item we are resisting the urge to lower our prices on everything else.  If we can't sell things at these prices then it won't be worth all the trouble.

Our best day yet, but only by about $50.  We have a lot of local people looking for bridges that they grew up near.

Still having mixed thoughts about this way of selling but one good day could wipe out those feelings I think. 

Until tomorrow....

Day ...

Day ? I can't remember they all seem the same.

Rainy and cold, strong winds.  Several of the stand alone tent/displays blew over.  They closed them early.

We are starting to run out of some images on our mugs.  We are making a limited number to replace them.  Although I had to order another case of 11oz. mugs.  Laser Reproductions gets them to me in one day with normal shipping charges.  I guess we are close enough to Chicago for that to happen.

We also ran out of 6" tiles that we were displaying by themselves sitting on an easel.  No frame, but comes with an easel.  We are making about 6 more tonight. 

The Indiana Department of Revenue came through and checked to make sure we had the proper papers.  Tax collections and tax id's.  We did.  I guess it is not a good idea to try and get by without the tax id numbers, we would have been shut down without it.

Sold another cutting board.  Seems like the people that like them like the higher quality stuff.  They would not even look at some stuff across the aisle.  That kind of stuff was not for them, so they said.  Our cutting boards are $25 for the small one.  Getting a lot of looks, but not many buyers on them.  I wonder if there is a magic price to shoot for, or under.  Like, festival buyers will spend $15 all day but at $17 they won't buy.   Just curious.  Would like to know if we need to keep most items under a certain price, although have higher and lower priced items.

Changed placement on some items.  That seemed to help, we will start rotating items around at different times during the day.

We had a slow day, slowest yet.  Sent the wife and kid home early.  I could not walk around with our son, too cold and wet.  That is how I have been keeping him entertained during the slow times.

 That's all for today


Day 6

It is Wednesday.  The weather is nice fall temperatures.  It was in the middle 60's and mostly sunny.

But... it was Wednesday.  Worst day yet.  We were warned that Wednesday would be slow but thought yesterday would be the worst day with all the rain and wind.  We did not even sell $100 worth of products today. 

We still had people requesting certain images on mugs, but wrote them down and asked that they check back on Friday.  Most people we have requests from are either local or here for the week. 

Mugs are the only thing we sold today. 

To make things worse we found damage to almost 20 oak key hangers.  I put the hangers on the back before putting the tile in.  We had to put them in a box to get to the show.  Somehow the stuff we put in between them fell down and allowed the hangers to scratch the frame and tile of the one in front of it.  At $11.00 per frame and $1 something for the tile not to mention the time, paper and ink.  I bought some sandpaper and polyurethane from a variety store on the square.  I will be able to fix the frames but most of the tiles will have to be remade.    I have been using Novus scratch removal products to remove the really light scratches.  Novus has a spray and and liquid almost like a really light rubbing compound.  After I use the Novus stuff, I use a heat gun (Milwaukee industrial model) to get the rest out.  The combination of the 3 things gets almost all scratches out except if the image is damaged.  The printing industry uses the Novus stuff on offset plates to remove scratches.  Luckily I used only a small amount of liquid nails in 4 spots so I can punch out the tile.  It comes out hard but doable.  LESSON LEARNED!!!!


Day 7

We can see the end now.

Sold a 12 - 4" tile mural of a one room school house with a covered bridge in the background.  The person that bought it attended the school.  She just loved the mural.  (It was a relative of my wife, but she really did like it)

Had a person request a mouse pad with a certain covered bridge yesterday, said she would pick it up today.  We did not make her pay for it.  She was our first customer today.  We might have broke the rules, but since she "ordered" it, I think we are ok.

We realize the display could be better, even a lot better.  As I said before this was somewhat of a last minute decision.  I know that is not a good way to do things but I think if we have a good product at a decent price we will sell.  We are still selling stuff despite ourselves.  I think it is important sometimes to just get out and try.  You will learn something.  I really don't want to spend hundreds of dollars in displays, lights etc. until I know if I want to do this type of thing occasionally.  I am still not sure if I like the idea of festival selling.  I don't know if I want to invest a lot of money in displays or if I am only going to do this once. 

We have made back what we put into the show.  The next 3 days will determine any profit.  A long hard way to make a few bucks if that is how it turns out. 

Coffee mugs continue to be our best seller.  We have sold some framed tile, and only a few key hangers. 

Best day yet.  Don't know why, but it was, and we will take it.

Day 8

Day 8, nice weather

Slow day!  Oh, did I mention it was a sloooow day.

Mugs sold today.  Found out someone else in another town close by must be selling mugs with "The Covered Bridge Festival".  We were not allowed to use those words on our mugs.  We have been approached by many people looking for a souvenir mug with some type of wording.  They come up and say, "Oh, is this the place with the "covered bridge festival mugs"?" and they are disappointed when I don't have them.  They (the festival committee) reserve mugs with that saying and all apparel for themselves.  They have an official embroidery place doing shirts etc.  I am going to find out if I could have been their official mug supplier.

Another vendor came over to talk.  He is selling a "throw" with all the bridges pictured.  He said he is never coming back.  Another vendor with a poster that has all the bridges on it isn't doing very well.  I am not sure what market he was going after.  It is a high end poster, $20.  But it is still a poster.  I think he might have had a few 8x10 photo's of the bridges for sale too.  I wonder if I should have printed some archival pictures of the bridges suitable for framing for a decent price.  I am already setup for it.  Maybe postcard size, 4x5 and 8x10's.  Something to consider next time around.

I took a trip to one of the other towns that host a covered bridge festival, Bridgeton Indiana.  Boy, what a crowd.  Tents, pole barns and booths everywhere.  Only thing is that I noticed anyplace with nice stuff like artists' painting etc where completely empty.  The flea market type stuff was packed with people.  Looked for the mugs, spying on the competition! :) But did not find any.

There is one more town called Mansfield that is also a large flea market type of setup.  I probably won't be able to make it there with only 2 days left. 

I might lower my prices on 2 items, not sure yet. 

Some of our mug images

Day 9

It's almost over. 

Good day today.  Sold a 6 tile mural of a bridge.  Mugs are still selling good.

As this comes to an end we will be evaluating whether this was worth it.  10 days is a long time.  Our little guy is starting to dread the drive. 

I talked to several more vendors today. One makes pottery, real nice stuff.  Some priced over $1000.00.  A real artist type.  He has been on HGTV 32 times.  Just ask him.  No one seems happy with the way things are going at this show.   


Day 10

The show is over.  Looks like we made a profit, sort of....   as long as we don't count labor hours.  I know, we can't make a living like that, but thank goodness, we don't have to, I still have my day job.  It was good to get out in public and see how things would go.  I think with some work we could double our sales at this event.  

Today was excellent as far as sales go, we had close to $500 in sales.  We do not have a total for the 10 days yet. 

We had several orders, and did not make them pay upfront.  If they would have been larger orders we would want money upfront.  But the way it turned out they all came back and picked up the orders.   We got orders for mouse pads, several custom mugs, and some tile with cork backing.

We did do some dealing, there were several mugs that just were not selling.  The graphic did not go over like we hoped.  We dropped the price on those mugs by $2.  From $9.99 to $7.99, sold most of them.  They were 15oz. mugs.

We ended up selling about 3 cases with about 1 case of mugs left over.  We will use the left over mugs at a weekend Christmas show later this year if we decide to be there, or for Christmas gifts for family members! :)  Otherwise we can use them next year if we decide to do this again.  We even think they could be sold in ones and twos at other types of shows.  There is a country festival in one of the towns next spring and I think this stuff might draw some interest.

The biggest thing we did wrong was our display.  We need lights and a place to hang the hanging things.  It would help if the people had to "walk in" to the display.  Part of the display is ease of setting up and tearing down.  It took us about 15 minutes. 

I think the best thing we did was to get out and try.  We did not know what to expect.  Now we do. 

The guy across the aisle from me sold 1000 $1 wooden ornaments.  The country sign type.  I don't know if he makes money on them but it brought in a lot of traffic.  BTW: They, the people across the aisle, were cited today for "promoting a flea market atmosphere" after lowering their prices and creating a sale. But their walls were almost bare! So the next time I will have a less expensive item like the 2" ceramic magnets.  Maybe different shapes of small magnets.  I saw several vendors get sales from a less expensive item placed out front that brought people in to the display.  They sold a lot of $2 items without anything else but it did bring in the traffic.  When people stop, more people stop.

I think Christmas ornaments would be another good seller.  That was the number one requested item other than something with "The covered bridge festival, 2003"

I think on site production is an idea worth thinking about.

We would look into another location.  The tent was really nice during bad weather but we had a lot of restrictions.  We had requests for "The covered bridge festival, 2003" on the mugs.  We were not allowed to use that phrase because the people who rent the space reserve that phrase.  If we were down the street we could have used that phrase. 

We did not know what the depth of the booth would be, never could get that answered.  We started this late in the game, about 2 months before the festival we decided to try and get a both.  Don't make the same mistake I did and wait until it is almost show time to make the phone call.  And when you get someone on the phone before you send the money ask all the questions.

I think the people running this show just assume everyone has done this before.

Questions to ask:

What are the dimensions of the booth?  Cost per foot per day, one price covers all etc.?

Is electricity available, what does it cost? 

Any special permits required?

What are the vendor rules?

When can we start setting up, can we drive to the booth or do we have to walk from a parking lot?  (This way you know if you need a 2 wheel cart or wagon etc.)

What bathroom facilities are close?

Anyone else selling the same thing I am?

Are any of the vendors from the past shows coming back?

One thing that I suspected, and think I was right,  was that people did not come for the covered bridges.  I would say maybe 25% were really interested in the bridges, the rest for the shopping, food, etc.  But I am still thinking about putting together some sort of book covering the covered bridges.  I have begun research and found several "books" or guides that already exist, but are not main stream during the festival.  Is that because people don't buy, since they are not there for the bridges anyway.  So that is a question.  I think that will limit the resources I put in producing a guide. 

We have mixed feelings about doing this show again.  10 days is a long long show.  We are worn out.  And so is our little guy, Skyler.    All in all it was a great learning experience.

Steve, Jamie and Skyler

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