10 Tips for Starting a Local Maker Fair

Ever year, Greenville, South Carolina hosts Indie Craft Parade—a weekend spent celebrating and showcasing the South’s most talented makers. The fair has helped to launch small businesses, bring local artists to a broader audience and strengthen Greenville’s creative community. It all started in 2010, when Erin Godbey and Lib Ramos gathered a group of committed makers and volunteers to launch their first craft show. Seven years in, they’ve learned a lot, and they’ve graciously agreed to share their best advice with anyone thinking of organizing their own local maker fair.

1. Do your research.

We wanted Indie Craft Parade to be a high quality Southern show, so we researched the most well-known craft festivals in our area. The list was much smaller back in 2010, and we found most people via google searches. We emailed every craft show director we could track down and dug through festival websites to compare venue types, booth sizes, exhibitor costs, application processes, attendee stats and admission fees. Today, Unanimous Craft and The Crafter’s Market are great directories of craft producers and shows. Looking at other shows helped us create the right one for Greenville. Once we settled on some basics, we asked a few local artists for feedback. Since makers are our main audience, we needed to be sure we were building Indie Craft Parade to meet their needs.

2. Be ready to work hard.

We knew creating the festival would be hard work, but (a bit naively), we still had an underlying feeling of ‘how hard could it be?’ This was probably for the best, in hindsight… if we had known how all-consuming the work would be we might not have attempted it in the first place! One surprise was the number of applications that came in, and how long it took to organize the information for our jury. The first year, applications were all handled via email, but now there are great application systems available that do a lot of this organization for you! We also didn’t expect that 99% of the work would be boring, behind-the-scenes stuff that no one sees: spreadsheets and emails upon emails. Staying organized is not always fun, but having a clear purpose and vision for your event makes all the difference!

3. Get help.

Erin Godbey (our Event Director) and Lib Ramos (our Creative Director) began working on the idea together. Very quickly, we learned that we couldn’t do it all ourselves. We rely heavily on volunteers, whether that’s our families, friends, or local folks who want to help with the show. The Greenville creative community is very generous, and people have been eager to be part of what we’re doing. A perfect example of this is the colorful garland that decorates our venue each year. It’s an iconic part of Indie Craft Parade and was made by a small group of artists in my 400 square foot loft. Hundreds of felt triangles were cut by hand and sewn together because friends believed in our idea. We’ve made over one mile of this garland, thanks to many helping hands! Over the years, our ‘official’ team has grown from two directors to three, and we’ve added part-time staff and interns as needed. Volunteers still play a major role in the festival and we couldn’t do it without them!

4. Find financial partners.

The first year, we invested some of our own money to pull everything off. Our shoestring budget was a fraction of what we work with now, but we pulled it off and it was a raging success! We broke even the second year, and became (moderately) profitable by year three. Indie Craft Parade relies on sponsorships and grants; we keep exhibitor fees low so that the event is profitable for our makers. For sponsors, we’ve found it works best to partner with companies who care about the same things we do. Figure out what you have to offer a potential sponsor (connections with the artists, visibility in your community) that would be valuable to them, and don’t be afraid to start the conversation.

For grants, it’s best to begin locally. You can find a full list of art organizations by state at arts.gov. Our local library keeps a database of grant programs, and even offers classes on how to find grants for your organization. It’s important to note that most grants require you to be a 501(c)3 organization to qualify, which is an entirely separate process that you may or may not want to pursue.

5. Don’t rush it.

Designers are always told when estimating a project to figure out how much time you think you’ll need, then double it. That formula has proven true for planning a craft fair. Our thoroughness has paid off, and we reuse as much as we can from year to year, whether that’s felt garland or documents for exhibitors. While our show has expanded and grown, there are many foundational pieces from our first year that have stood the test of time. We tell people starting a new event to give themselves 9-12 months to plan and execute. Our show began as a side project, which meant many weekend and evening hours. Now, it has become a part-time job for the three of us, but we all still have additional side projects or careers.

6. Figure out your focus.

For us, the goal was always quality and it shows up in two ways: the work featured at Indie Craft Parade and the way we take care of our makers. To keep the quality high and as unbiased as possible, applications are juried anonymously by a panel of artists that rotates every year. No one is given special treatment or preference, which encourages previous exhibitors to keep making new work and refining what they do, while at the same time giving equal opportunity to emerging artists.

There wouldn’t be a show without the makers, so we do lots of little things to make life easier for them. We have plenty of volunteers on hand to help unload vehicles, give the artists a quick booth break, and even make change. We provide miscellaneous tools during setup: aspirin, mints, reusable water bottles, and an artist lounge complete with a PB&J bar and fresh fruit. At the end of the festival, we have a Maker Meet & Greet, where we all have a chance to relax and connect over food, drink and special giveaways. These little extras aren’t complicated or expensive, but they go a long way toward showing our artists how much we value them.

7. Nail the first impression.

Make sure you present a professional front online and in person from the very beginning. This is especially important for first time events; you’ve got to fake it until you make it. If an artist or attendee doesn’t have a good experience, they probably won’t come back. With branding, consistency is key. Indie Craft Parade has a Creative Director that focuses on creating a polished, unified brand. Before we approached our first sponsor or gave our first press interview, we had a logo, website, and social media accounts. We felt that strong visuals would help set expectations of quality, which we’ve done our best to follow through with at the event.

In communicating with our makers, we make all information readily available (for both their convenience and ours). All of our show policies, instructions, and layouts are documented in a PDF so that it can be referenced easily. If an artist still has questions, we try to be very responsive via email. And while it’s great to respond promptly to emails, it’s even more important to make sure you’re communicating clearly. Simple things like spelling errors or quickly composed emails can send the wrong message – literally.

8. Establish an online presence.

Our naming process included a look at available URLs. A polished website felt necessary in 2010, and it’s even more so now. Because the internet is much more crowded these days, take time to do your homework and make sure the name you’re considering is available as a web address as well as on any social media channels you want to use, and isn’t too close to another craft show’s name. If you’re starting something brand new, we recommend Squarespace for setting up a website. This is the platform we use, and it’s very user friendly. A full website adds a lot of credibility and validity to your event, especially if you’re going to be asking for donations and courting well-known artists.

Hashtags are extremely valuable, so make sure you have a unique one (ours is #indiecraftparade). A hashtag makes it simple for participants to share their roles on social media and gives people an easy way to view a stream of photos from your event. Be sure to display your event hashtag somewhere prominent at the event, so that people remember to use it.

9. Spread the word with free and paid advertising.

Each year, we print thousands of postcards and distribute them across the South with our community’s help. Every artist receives a stack of postcards to disperse, and we canvas Greenville and surrounding cities with postcards and posters. If it’s your first show, this is a great opportunity to reach out to your local news media. The press usually loves to share something new with their readers or viewers!

In our first year, we spent 1/3 of our small budget on a few billboards. It was a valuable way to reach our city and establish our presence initially. We’ve continued to use billboard advertising, along with radio ads, online advertising, and print ads. We also supplement with a lot of free social media advertising. This includes creating a Facebook event, using the event hashtag consistently, and posting to online event calendars. None of these cost money, just (more) time. Word of mouth is one of the most effective forms of advertising, and social media can help magnify that exponentially. We also provide images for our artists to post. You don’t want to be the only one talking about your event!

10. Celebrate your hard work.

Thanks to our volunteers and temporary staff, Indie Craft Parade runs like a well-oiled machine, though there’s always the occasional fire to put out. We make sure to give ourselves time to shop, chat with makers, and enjoy the show! Sometimes we joke that we really do all this work just so we can shop for ourselves. It’s hard not to buy something at every single booth! We also give the artists time to celebrate with a special brunch on the last day of the festival. By this point, we’re into the home stretch of the show and everyone can take a deep breath. The party is completely optional, but it creates opportunities for the artists to meet each other without the chaos of the crowds. During the brunch, we award cash prizes for the best booth displays and do some fun giveaways. A few weeks after the festival is over, the organizers and staff treat ourselves to a celebration dinner. It’s a milestone to mark: another year under our belts, all our hard work come to fruition, and that we’re all still friends!

Thanks to Indie Craft Parade and Lib Ramos for sharing! Learn more at makerscollective.org/indiecraftparade.

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Are you a maker, designer or small business owner? What do you want to know about building your brand? Email your inquiries with the subject line ‘Maker Question’ to blog@westelm.com.