Specialty Imprinting On The Road

written by:  Larry Cohn, April 2004


Introduction - So you want to go on the road, huh?

Section 1: Be prepared for everyday emergencies

1) Power provided by event? Don't bet on it

2) Generator(s)

-OSHA requirements
-Noise level
-"Clean" power signal

3) Power backup unit

4) Surge Protectors

5) Emergency Bag of Hardware Goodies

6) Spare computer and press equipment

7) Personal emergency bag

Section 2: Getting organized and set up to go mobile vending

1) Lighting

2) Canopy, Trailer or both


3) Setup

-Physical considerations
-Ventilation and comfort
-Preserving the mystery
-Curb appeal
-Do they "get it" as they hurry by?
-Do you project a "Low-key vibe" or a "Trap-a-customer vibe"?
-The human touch

4) Equipment

Keep your stuff on the leading edge.....
.... But not on the "bleeding edge"

5) Stock

6) Where are we going, anyway?


7) Contacts, Agreements, Politics... What's your gig?

-Expect to get "jerked around"
-Put on your happy face to the powers that be
-The carnival option
-Events with multiple vending options

8) Employees

Section 3: Pulling it all together, and pulling yourself together

1) Paperwork

2) Competitors

-"Battle" scenario
-"Ignoring" scenario:
-"Friendly" scenario:
-Reality check... a competitor is still a competitor

3) "Bad Guys"

-Is your "big mouth" tipping off the "bad guys"?
-Does your routine make you an easy mark for a robbery?
-Are you an easy mark for passing counterfeit money?
-The worst thieves can be the ones you hire
-Things that go bump in the night...
-Being neighborly can pay off
-Check out your motel/hotel surroundings

4) Operating plan

-Perfection or Profit?
-Assembly line operation or "We'll do anything you want, right now"?
-Other options for keeping a difficult or delayed sale

5) Lifestyle decisions

Conclusion: Going on the road... is it for you?


Section 2: Getting organized and set up to go mobile vending

1) Lighting

Proper lighting can be the difference between being open for business, being an exciting place to do business, or essentially being un-noticed. It is critical, and needs to be planned out carefully if you ever plan to be doing business in the dark. Funny thing is, it's often the most overlooked need.

You can spend lots of money on the newer more energy efficient coiled florescent type bulbs and lighting; setup up your space with lots of traditional florescent, fixtures; or spend extra money on lots of extra generator power for traditional halogen or incandescent lighting. For a typical concession trailer setup you can easily have 3000 watts of lighting, and I know of some bigger setups that ran 7000-8000 watts just in lighting. Lighting of course is not going to require clean sine-wave power sources, surge protectors, or power backups, so you can run it with your cheapest type of generator IF you can get away with the noise levels.

Another lighting issue is in getting the proper lighting for shooting good pictures. It's much easier to set up acceptable lighting for digital cameras compared to video cameras, since a good pro flash unit for your digicam goes a long way. But good lighting in various outdoor ambient lighting situations still requires knowledge and work on your part.

If you are taking live digital photos, plan your setup to avoid direct sunlight or it will be next to impossible to get good results. Since you don't often have the luxury of setting up in the best spot for lighting, you have to be prepared ahead of time with several alternate booth layouts to choose from once you get settled into your space and analyze the sun's path. You might even have 2 alternate areas in your booth to take pictures in the am and the pm, if needed. It can get very tricky to balance the best photo shot layout with having the maximum retail exposure to people passing by. For example, you're in trouble if you have to drape off your "frontage" display area in order to block the sun for photos!

2) Canopy, Trailer or both

Are you planning on using a canopy to sell your goods in and just go to local street fairs and events?

Are you planning to start out with a canopy and later perhaps grow into using a trailer?

Are you thinking of getting a concession trailer? You still might wind up with a canopy as well, to add extra selling space to your setup. This is especially important if you are not really allowed to get very close to the main stream of customer traffic due to the space requirement of your trailer. If the trailer has to be kind of in the background, at least with a canopy you can try and extend your selling area closer to the mainstream.

So in most cases, if you are planning on going on the road you are probably going to wind up with a canopy.


Make sure you buy a canopy that is intended for professional use, not one of these "back yard" type canopies. You want it to be made with heavy-duty materials and to be able to withstand the typical rain and wind you'll likely see at some point in your travels. You have 2 basic choices: a pre-made type that is easy to setup or a traditional type.

The traditional canopy types need to be put together every time you use it, but give you much more flexibility in terms of configurations and can save you considerable amounts of money compared to the pre-made types if you are going to go larger than 10' x 10'. They can be much stronger and more resistant to the elements. The thicker the tubing you choose to go with, the stronger your canopy will be, but so will be the difficulty of setting up and of storing the heavier, thicker poles. 2 people are required to set up this type of canopy, or at least to hoist it. My current canopy supplier of choice is Jenkins Crafted Canopies, http://jccshade.com/aboutus.html, but you can find these types of suppliers all across the country.

The most common brand of pre-made canopy is EZ-UP, http://ezup.com/ They have some good vendor models. There are many other brands out there now including one I often see at Costco. A good quality model can start at $150 to $200 for a 10' x 10' with straight, not sloping sides. These types of canopies are designed for quick and easy setup and teardown.

The best designs I've seen are the ones that keep the top (roof) tarp on at all times, even while folded up. If you have a chance, go take a visit to your local swap meet and start asking questions and looking at the various canopies that the vendors are using. You'll quickly find the best one, and find users that swear by it. Choosing the proper canopy can be an emotional issue, believe me. Choose the wrong one and your setups and teardowns will take too long and be too difficult, and you may have to do that perhaps on a daily basis!

Make sure that your tarp is properly weighted down or it can go flying. I've seen a lady die at an event from a flying tarp. The winds were about 50mph, and the tarp went flying, concrete tie-down blocks and all. One of the blocks hit the lady in the head. It took 5 passers-by helping me to keep my tarp from flying away as well.


Well, you've done some trial shows and you're feeling good enough about them to take the next step....buy or build a concession trailer. The first question you have to answer is how big. The size of your trailer is going to be dependent on many things:

1) Your vehicle's towing capacity

2) How wide you go, up to the legal width, is partly dependent on how much clearance you want to have on the road. Do you feel comfortable with the minimum legal clearance?

3) What size of space are you generally shooting for at your events or shows? The length of the trailer can make an astronomical difference in your rent, and sometimes they'll charge you for the tongue length as well. Sometimes you can only get in to an event with a smaller trailer. Ask your trailer dealer if it is possible to get a removable tongue... although common wisdom seems to be that the bigger and heavier a trailer is, the less viable and safe a removable tongue actually is. One more weak link, one more variable. Typical show space is rented out in increments of 10 feet, so if you have a 6' tongue to work with, and want to keep your space rentals down to a 20' space, you don't want your actual trailer body to be longer than 14'.

4) Do you want to use a trailer for storage only, and set up a canopy to vend from? Do you perhaps want to do some production work inside of it? Do you want to actually sell from inside of it, or do you want to live in it too? There are "toy box" trailers that allow you to pack it full of goods, then once it's unloaded, a bed can be lowered from the wall, there is a small bathroom, and other furniture such as a dining room table is also swung down from the wall, so that you have a living quarters while the trailer is unpacked or partially unpacked.

Many people have the misconception that having a trailer custom-built is going to cost much more than a stock trailer but the truth is, in many cases, you can build a custom trailer for the same price as a comparable stock trailer, especially if you live in close proximity to places that make them and can therefore avoid shipping charges. One of the reasons, as I was told by a salesperson, is that if they offer a stock model for sale it has to go through lots of time and money getting approved by the various government regulators, whereas a custom build is not subject to those extra costs and delays.


For example, Mighty Mover Trailers (in Corona, CA) http://www.mightymovertrailers.com has various "stock" plans that you can choose from as a starting point to make your own custom trailer, and they have all the parts needed to build the concession trailer to your specs. They normally take a couple months to build it depending on how busy they are at the time.

One of the most widely known trailer brands is Wells Cargo, http://www.wellscargo.com  . Even stock models will usually take a couple months for build and delivery times, unless you happen to see one that you like on a lot somewhere. As you can see on their concession trailer page, http://www.wellscargo.com/models/conc_fr.html  , they can be set up pretty much any way that you want.

You need to have a workable plan, a workable design for how you wish to do business PRIOR to ordering your trailer. Add on features are often going to cost you much more than if you had those features included at the time of the build. Just because you are planning to vend with your trailer doesn't mean that in your case you need a "concession trailer". You may be better off with an "In-line" trailer or just a straight "Cargo" trailer depending on how you plan to use it as part of your setup. Another consideration is whether to get a swing-down rear ramp door or a traditional set of side-swinging doors. I found it interesting that the swing-down ramp door is a much less expensive option while at the same time much more useful as far as I'm concerned.

Of course the best possible deal to be had might be to find a local used one that meets your needs, if they are willing to sell it for a fair price. I personally found, though, that the resale value of the trailers I was looking at were pretty high, so I never found any real bargains when I was looking.

There is one really nice side benefit of having a trailer and/or a motorhome. You can have a retractable awning installed on the side, which can take the place of a canopy but is much easier to set up. Look at the picture called "awnings" on this page: http://www.wellscargo.com/models/conc_fr.html

If you aren't going to live in a toy box trailer or in a motorhome, then I guess you are going to be spending some serious bucks on the road just to get a good night's sleep and a hot shower. That is, unless you are going to camp out... or wear out your welcome at every college buddy's or long-lost relative's home across the U.S.A.. In any case, it would probably be better at some point to get set up in a trailer or motorhome. Paying for one motel after another can get old, and roughing it can get even older. Even if you have a toy box trailer you are still going to be looking for motels during the time you are traveling between shows, since you can only use the trailer for living space once it's been at least partially unloaded for a show.

3) Setup

Physical considerations

Always plan your setup to be ELEVATED FROM THE GROUND, in case of rain, spilled drinks, etc. by building up your setup on something like rolling carts or wood planks. Make sure that all cords are off the ground (in case of rain). One of the advantages of vending from a trailer is that you don't have as much to worry about in this regard, but you still need to make sure that electrical connections, as well as other items that can be damaged by water, are kept dry.

Ask yourself how quickly you can save your supplies, products, samples and equipment from water damage in case it starts to rain. Have an "avoid rain damage" strategy. Have your tarps ready, have your displays set in such a way as to easily cover them up or pull them in, have all your supplies in drawers and cabinets, and be ready to tarp over the cabinets. It's a good idea to have a "rain drill". Have your employees and yourselves pretend that it is raining, and then time yourself as you prepare for the "rain".

Displays and fixtures need to be rugged as well, if you plan on returning home with them intact after rolling them all over the place. If it's raining you might want to roll your tables, fixtures, displays etc to a safer area within your selling space. The bigger the wheels are the better, even if you have to retrofit your rolling tables and cabinets with bigger wheels than what they came with. That gives you a higher clearance and easier mobility.

Another point: pay careful thought to whether you would be willing to set up on the grass instead of on asphalt. If there is any chance of rain I personally would not set up on the grass. And if you get asphalt, is it flat? You can go nuts trying to operate out of a slanted booth area, such as if you are set up very close to one side of a deeply sloped street.

Ventilation and comfort

You'll want to set up your work area so as to have as much ventilation as possible. Remember all the hazards we've talked about on the DSSI forum concerning fumes from the press. In a small work area in a canopy or trailer, this can present an even more serious concern, both for you and for your customers..

Along with ventilation you need to try and keep your vending areas comfortable. If it's freezing or sweltering, your customers may not want to hang around long enough to buy something, and your employees may not feel motivated to work. Don't skimp on fans, small portable heaters, whatever you need to keep some comfort in your area. But watch out for those heaters, they draw power like crazy!

Preserving the mystery

If possible you may want to "hide" most of the aspects of your process so that it remains somewhat of a mystery to the customer. That way you keep your perceived value, as opposed to them thinking you are doing something their teenager can do on their home computer (which may very well be true!!!). So if you have a trailer, put the printers and press in the back and have a little partition or drape separating you from their prying eyes as you work, if you have the luxury to do that. If you are set up totally in a canopy, or if you have no helpers, perhaps you can hide most of your work area behind tall displays. If you tell your customer that the order will be ready in 20-30 minutes, they are less likely to hang around and watch you than if you tell them 5 minutes.


Regardless, however, of privacy concerns for our process, you need to be as efficient as practical layout allows you to be. You need to set up your process as much as you can like an assembly line, in which perhaps 2 or 3 people can be working on various production aspects without interfering with or bumping into each other.

Curb appeal

Now after all these practical considerations you need to concentrate on the most important aspect of your booth layout...to make it enticing for the customer! You are there to sell! You will want your selling area to be as appealing as possible in order to present your products in the best possible light. (There is an exception to this: you may not want to have the best quality work on those samples, as I'll mention later, but more of a "safe and repeatable" level of quality). You'll want to make the atmosphere inviting and friendly, and to conduct yourself in a manner conducive to doing business.

Do they "get it" as they hurry by?

Be aware that in most selling situations, you only have a fraction of a second to convey your message.. in general your potential customers are going to give your booth at most a quick glance as they hurry on their way. Stand back and look long and hard at your setup from a glancer's standpoint. Do you "get it" in one glance? Do you understand what products and services are being offered, do you see some compelling reason to stop and check it out further, is there something: grabbing you, ie. price, selection, unique products...?

You'll want to pay particular attention to how inviting your "frontage area" is; the area in your space that has the most customer exposure. Save your most compelling samples and signage for this frontage area.

It's easy to fall into the trap of being so familiar with what you are trying to sell that you don't really see it from the customer's perspective. If you are making custom products, do people glance at your booth and think you are offering stock items? If your custom product message comes through, do people know that you can make them while they wait or shop (if that's the case) ? If you can take live pictures on the spot, do people know that or do they think they have to bring a pic to scan? In terms of bringing your message to potential customers, signage and displays are (almost) everything.

Do you have such a "cute" name or "cute" display that people think you are selling one thing when you are in fact selling something entirely different? Make sure that your marketing ideas don't get the best of you. for example, I know one person who was in the business of selling a product that was geared mostly to kids. Therefore she overpopulated her booth with plush animal toys "to attract the kids". But everyone thought she was in the business of selling plush animal toys, and nobody knew what her real product was since it was visually overwhelmed by the plush.

Do you project a "Low-key vibe" or a "Trap-a-customer vibe"?

You'll probably want to have plenty of free entry/exit space so that the customer feels invited to come in for a closer look inside your booth. If you are like me (as a customer myself), the last thing you want is to set things up to where the customer feels "trapped", that once they get in they can't easily make an escape. I like to provide an easy friendly come and go, no commitment, no pressure environment.

Of course, not everyone is like me. Which brings us to the idea that no two vendors are alike, no two markets are alike, and what works for one person may not work for the next. Only you know the selling environment that you are trying to create, that works best for you and your product, for a given crowd. The important thing is to be aware of what kind of selling atmosphere, what kind of "vibe", you are trying to create, and then try and maximize it to the fullest extent possible. Have people give you their honest opinions of your booth's "vibe".

The human touch

You and your employees are just as much a part of the atmosphere as is the booth setup. Therefore everything from your selling technique to your personal grooming and dressing, to your attitude, to your posture, become another matter of choice as to the atmosphere you are trying to create. For some people, the aggressive hard sell seems to work, while others are low key. Whatever your style is, you need to evaluate it in terms of your particular event, your particular situation. Is it more of a county fair atmosphere? Then maybe you'll want to go for the carney yell 'em in and hook 'em in approach, if you are good at that or if you can hire people who are good at that. Is it more of a higher class professional atmosphere? Then you smile, make sincere compliments when appropriate, let the customers have more latitude to come to you while you are more low-key.

Sometimes having a booth uniform can be a very effective selling technique. A friend of mine dressed up every one of his employees in a tuxedo, because that worked for the customer environment and employee attitudes he was trying to maintain. Silly, frilly, serious, country...the decision is yours, but it's an important part of your overall sales strategy.

Whatever you do, make active, not passive decisions as to how you wish to sell. What suits one event may very well be the wrong approach for the next event down the road, and if you are stuck with only one approach due to your personality you may seriously need to hire people who can sell the way you can't. Believe me, I say this from experience. I am about as low-key as they come, and in most cases I consider that a liability. My best years doing the fairs were when I had a super-aggressive yet outgoing and friendly saleslady working for me. I didn't know how good I had it until we parted ways, and then my personal sales approach caused me to lose over half the business I had grown accustomed to.

4) Equipment

Keep your stuff on the leading edge.....

The equipment that you bring on the road has to be totally up to the task. You can't be trying to nurse some old worn out printer back to life, or be messing around with some slow computer, or messing up the alignment on shirts because your press is too small or hard to work with. You need to be ready to do production work because crowds, if you are lucky enough, can hit you all at once. You have to be a pro and you need to have pro equipment to back you up.

In other words, if you can possibly afford it, go for the higher capacity, more robust, faster and more efficient model or technique of whatever equipment or process you are going to be offering. If you have a choice of processes, go for the one with a higher production capability and less variables. Things like die-cutters or professionally-made circle cutters that specifically cut out the shapes of prints you need, as opposed to cutting them out with scissors, can make a huge difference in efficiency and can be well worth the cost even if they cost hundreds of dollars each.

A few other examples are: make sure that you have a printer with a large ink capacity or else have it hooked up to a bulk ink system.

Make sure that all the major bugs have been worked out of your computer and that you have set up macros everywhere you can, in order to gain efficiency. And of course make sure that you've got the most up-to-date computer that you can justify within your budget, along with an identical backup system as I 've discussed elsewhere in this article.

Make sure that you have a good monitor that can be calibrated accurately for lighting conditions at night and for various times in the day. At any given time you should be able to see the correct colors on your screen, or at least know how to approximate the right colors based on experience with the lighting at that time. (Proper placement and shading of your screen outdoors is also a critical part of achieving this.) If possible, have and be familiar with a good monitor calibration package which may include hardware sensors as well as software calibration routines, in order to profile your monitor to match your live or scanned images as closely as possible.

.... But not on the "bleeding edge"

But never take a chance on the road with the latest and greatest equipment, software and/or supplies without first giving it a thorough workout and testing phase. The last thing you need to be doing when you have a line of customers is to be scratching your head trying to figure out how to get some brand new latest-technology gismo to work! Once at a fair I decided to try out a new printing technology on the spot, because it was supposed to be capable of making much better photo quality prints. The problem was, I hadn't become familiar with it yet nor had I thought through all the system changes that would be involved in switching over to that printing technology. Boy did I pay a steep price for trying to bypass the learning curve and get a jump on my competition. I lost thousands of dollars in business that week because I got too excited about new technology but was not properly prepared to use it.

5) Stock

Don't let yourself run out of crucial products or supplies just when you're on a roll. Take much more than you could imagine selling; it's not going to spoil like food! You can use it later! It's just cheap insurance. (This is a good reason to keep it simple. You can go crazy trying to bring tons of stock for too many items.)

On the other hand, if you are wanting to sell some pre-made products, those with images already pressed onto them, you have to be careful not to "overstock" yourself on the pressed items. According to Nancy Bahnsen in her article "Don't Make the Pre-make Mistake" in the DSSI newsletter (posted on the www.dyesub.org site), if you have products that can be made up ahead of time, you need to be very careful to strike a reasonable balance between 1)having stock on hand for quick sales and 2) getting stuck with product that may be of little value after the event is over.

One of the considerations you'll need to make, as far as what products you'll want to offer on the road, is the weight and bulk of that item compared to it's profitability. For example, if you decide to sell mugs on the road, you are going to have to lug around a fair amount of heavy bulky fragile mugs and hope that you can get them shipped to you as needed, at high shipping cost due to the weight. If you have reject mugs then you also need to lug those around until you get around to returning them.

You need to come up with a method of keeping your new stock looking new. This is a critical yet difficult part of being mobile. You may be setting up in various windy, dusty locations. You may be tired and in a hurry to pack away your goods at night and/or after a gig. You may be cramped for space and therefore tempted to squeeze 10 pounds of merchandise into a 5 pound box. Some of your stock might have to be accessible to the public, for example, if you want them to pick out a blank shirt to be decorated... in that case, your stock may start to look shopworn from the various people touching it and from it being out and exposed to the elements. You need to come up with a good solution to keeping the bulk of your goods in new condition, such as storing them in waterproof heavy duty bins.

You also need to be extremely organized and have some kind of system to know instantly how much of what you have, and where. This is important not only in order to make a quick customer sale without tearing into half your inventory to find one item, but also so that you can easily do a timely inventory and know when to re-order any stock that is running low.

6) Where are we going, anyway?

The country has so many events going on especially during the warmer periods, that it's really a challenge to pin down a circuit of interest to you. The first question to ask yourself is, do you want to stay relatively close to home, minimize traveling, and just grab whatever shows might be viable for you? Or do you want to focus on a more defined type of show or event, and therefore more than likely do much more traveling in order to do a "circuit" of those types of shows across the country?

If you want to do specific types of shows then what is your desired focus? Are you wanting to go to dog shows, cat shows, horse shows, car shows, gem and mineral shows, Harley events, county fairs, street fairs, home shows, art shows, the list goes on and on. Hopefully you have come up with a niche that interests you, or a target market. For example, in years past, my main target market for my products was the Latino community. If you are following your interest, things always seem to go easier and are more enjoyable. If you identify and seek out your target market, you can be successful just for that reason and that reason alone assuming that you offer what they want, and assuming that not too many other people do.

Now that you've identified your niche interest, and/or hopefully a target market for your goods, then you'll need to do your homework to come up with the lists of events and shows that fit your goals. There are lists on the internet that you can subscribe to that list all the shows in a given area of the country. One example, for the southwest, is "Bob's List" http://www.bobslists.com

You have to be a bit skeptical about shows and events. Sometimes if they are new, they will claim to have a high attendance but have nothing but optimism to back up their figures. Sometimes the show booth prices are sky high with no justification except that they are somehow able to attract corporate sponsors with money, and they inflate the booth prices accordingly. Depending on your desired market and your products, some shows, even if well attended, might be a total bust for you. Customers might be looking for non-breakable souvenirs since they are going on rides all day; if everything you sell is breakable you might be wasting your time at that event. Of course you can offer to hold the item for them until they leave, and you can offer to ship fragile items to their home if you are selling something expensive enough to go to the bother of doing so. Or maybe they are looking for items that commemorate that particular event and you don't have it. Or they are not going to buy anything over $9.99 and all your stuff starts at $14.95 and up. On the other hand I've had a booth at shows that were so successful for me, I didn't even have time to go to the restroom all day, but after it was over all my gross sales went to the rent. I was "successful" in being busy but since the rent was too high, and I was limited by how much I could produce per hour, it turned out in fact to be a net loser.

People who have been on the road for years started with whatever info they could get, but have refined their personal list of events after having years of both good and bad experiences. So the "real" list of good shows is more than likely tucked safely deep down in the skulls of the veterans of the road. If you ask them they might mention a good show or two or they might throw a couple of real losers at you, just for fun. Some people really hold information like that close to their heart since they've had to pay such a dear price for it in terms of time and trouble. You just can't go on one person's word when gathering information.

Another way to find out about things like dog shows, besides asking the vendors, would be to ask customers or event workers or volunteers who are really "into that". They can at least tell you which magazines track the upcoming shows, or which person or organization you'd need to talk to to get involved in a circuit of that kind of show. Visit, for example, a local dog show and just start asking people (with show dogs) questions until you come up with the info you need or the names of people you need to contact. You can't get too much information, the more research you do the better. The more people you talk to in your area of interest, the better.

Ultimately you will need to analyze the potential events with a keen eye towards matching the right events to your needs. Nobody else will really be able to make that call. For example, last year I did quite a few "street fairs". Given the product I was trying to sell I found out that I made most of my sales after dark, which in the California summer meant after 8pm or so. I found that the day time street fairs, the ones that went from, say, 8am to 5pm, were a waste of time for me. I needed the type of street fair that started about 2pm, had a band and went on until at least 11pm, so that I could have at least 3 hours of prime selling time. Just as important as the ending time is just how seriously the end time is enforced. If I have a line of people at 11pm and suddenly I have to close and send 10 customers away, that's bad news for both me and my customers.

7) Contacts, Agreements, Politics... What's your gig?

Expect to get "jerked around"

The fact that your entire selling opportunity for the next set of days or even weeks is going to be in the hands of perhaps one person (the event organizer or one of the helpers) that you've generally not met (at least not your first year at that event) is one of the most scary parts of this whole process of vending on the road. If you were simply told things on the phone, you have no proof if said person were to change his/her mind or just not remember. Ideally, you have something on paper prior to rolling into town, but that's not always possible. At a minimum, take good notes of your phone conversations including date and time, person talked to, and all pertinent facts and agreements. Even then you are often times relying on the subjective descriptions of the promoter as to which spot you should be in, and sometimes that just doesn't work out once you physically see the spot.

To complicate things, there seems to be an unwritten rule among event organizers that the great spot you thought you were getting does not really exist (it's for the band or something), or you've been moved at the last minute due to someone else of higher priority, like a big money corporate sponsor, being promised the same spot, or due to someone who is close to your spot complaining that you are competing with them, or simply that "they just forgot to map you in", or whatever.

Just go to the event with the mindset that part of the drill is to get there, be offered a crummy spot or no spot, spend hours trying to find the right person who has the power to move you (and probably doesn't care about you), spend another hour convincing said person to get you moved, and then move, or not. Well, during this time you still need to be setting up "just in case". If and when you finally get permission to move, you have to be able to roll your stuff around quickly or you lose, especially if the actual event has already started.

I can't stress how important it is to, prior to the event, find out the name of the PERSON IN CHARGE of your setup problems or questions, and how and where to reach said person. Then get a BACKUP PERSON'S name and info.

If you are going to have any chance of effectively dealing with the above issues, you need to get to your event as early as is practical, claim your spot before someone else does, and scope it all out. Remember, "possession is 9/10ths of the law". Once you are well on your way to being set up in the spot of your choice, it's very doubtful that anyone can come around later on and bump you.

Put on your happy face to the powers that be

Now that you are in, be a good customer to this contact person. Don't complain about stuff unless you absolutely have to, and just do whatever it takes to curry favor with this person and stay on his/her good side. Why? Because this person "has your success/failure in his/her hands". Curry favor and you might get a better spot, even perhaps a better space price next year. Perhaps this person can be used as a reference if needed to get into another spot down the road. Perhaps you'll have an advocate if things at your event happen to turn against you, such as if you wind up getting vandalized or robbed. When you are on the road you need advocates, friends, good people much more than they need you. It's very important to pick your battles, and avoid all battles if at all possible.

Sometimes an event is actually several events wrapped up in one, each with it's own set of people in charge and it's own political system. You might be assured by the event organizer, for example, that you are the only "mug person", or "photo-t-shirt person" or "computer portrait person", whatever they call you, but then you find out that there is indeed an almost identical setup right in the midway of the carnival area. The people who travel with the carnival, travel with the carnival, no matter what. If they happen to have a photo-t-shirt person there's nothing your event organizer can do about it; indeed, he or she probably wouldn't even know. That's all under the control of the carnival owner or manager.

The carnival option

What about getting set up with the carnival itself? Well, there are people who do it, but it can be a pretty tough tradeoff with your freedom and sense of business independence. For starters, they'll probably want a piece of the action; usually a BIG piece, up to 50% of the gross revenue depending on who you are trying to deal with. They have to evaluate the idea that if they give you a spot, that you are hopefully going to generate more revenue for them than if they place another ride or amusement in your spot instead. So you have to open your books to them. You run the risk of eventually being copied and then tossed out if you make too much money, since they'll want to make the whole profit for themselves. But of course you'll also get tossed if you make too little money. Bribes? Favoritism? Mandatory socializing and drinking? There's little you can do in that world other than to play along, whatever the game happens to be. Some in this biz refer to it as the decision to "sell your soul". The upside is that as long as the carnival has a gig, you have a gig, while you last. You don't have to go scraping around on your own.

Events with multiple vending options

Some events are not tightly organized, but are more traditional, and in that case you may have your choice of dealing with several different promoters for space in the same event. Maybe across the street from your gig is another promoter's gig, and maybe 1/2 mile down the road are a couple of other promotors' gigs. To the public it may seem to be one big event but it is made up of clusters being controlled by different promoters. Some biker rallies, events surrounding spring break hangouts, some gem and mineral fairs, even some large street fairs are examples of where there may be multiple people to talk to about space. In that case you need to decide who has your best offer. And if one guy says that the event is sold out, that may not be true for the entire event, only for his spaces. Don't just assume that the first organizer you talk to is "the" organizer. And be creative. If you are locked out of the official event, consider striking up a deal with the Mom and Pop store across the street to rent part of their parking lot space to you for your booth.

8) Employees

To hire or not to hire employees is always a tough dilemma when on the road. It's emotionally satisfying to feel that you did it yourself, or with a spouse or other family member or friend. But how much in extra sales did you let slip through your fingers when you were too busy to even notice?

If you have 2 extra employees you didn't need, that you hired for a reasonable rate at the event, you might have to pay $100 or $150 a day for nothing. Money down the drain. But now look at the risk vs. reward scenario. Suppose that by
having those 2 extra employees you were able to grab 20 extra customers per hour for 3 busy hours. 60 extra customers, maybe, assuming an average profit of $10 a head, you'd wind up with $600 extra profit - $100 or $150 pay = $450 or $500 extra profit per day. You've got a much better chance at this bet than Vegas, assuming that you see the potential in that given event.

On a side note, this is another reason to be keeping your offerings "lean and mean". Keeping it simple makes it much easier to hire and train extra help on location, thus avoiding all the extra expenses involved in bringing your help with you.

On the other hand hiring people you don't know, in areas you are just passing through, is kind of scary and risky. And as I'll mention later, there are real risks of getting ripped off in various ways by bad employees.

Continue to:  Part III Section 3: Pulling it all together, and pulling yourself together & Conclusion: Going on the road... is it for you?  

Larry Cohn

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