Founding a fall festival: Tips from organizers who've been there, done that

By their very nature, fall festivals and craft shows are grassroots events.

A group of crafters might need an outlet to sell their handwork, so they hold a show to make a little spending cash. A nonprofit needs to supplement its budget - a craft show/fine-art show is the answer.

But after that first year, what gives a show staying power? How do you find vendors, then keep them coming back?

In the past five years, a half-dozen new fairs and festivals have launched in the tri-state area, and they continue to grow stronger each year. They are among 125 listings in today's annual Fall Festival Guide.

We asked founders of three of them - Deborah Lofton of Sunflower Stables Barn Sale; Hailey Johnston of Bird & Barn; and Robert McGavock of the Red Bank Artisans Sale - what worked, what didn't when they founded their events. Also included is advice from Michael "Mikey" Sims, director of Prater's Mill Country Fair, which is marking its 47th event this October.

Their tips are good advice for founders of events that will be the new additions in next fall's guide.

1. How did you get word out about your new event?

-Sims: Exhibitors were invited in person. Each exhibitor was hand-picked.

-McGavock: Newspaper, magazine calendars, community notices, social media, registering the event on several websites ( and Craftmasters.) My favorite was recruiting visits to other regional art/craft shows.

-Lofton: Went to craft shows around the area and personally invited vendors who sold the type of merchandise we were interested in having. Reached out to them through email and Facebook messages to invite them.

-Johnston: Started in our circle of who we knew and who would fit the requirements for the type vendors we were looking for.

2. What incentives, if any, did you use to get vendors to sign up?

-Lofton: We offer an early-bird discount of 10 percent each year for vendors who sign up by July 1.

-Sims: We offer booth sitters, a secluded rest area with water and coffee. We have options for those who want paper (applications) mailed to them where they can return or drop them off with payment, as well as a complete digital process.

-McGavock: No incentive necessary except a fair vendor fee and a cordial rapport established with the host.

3. Why did you choose a craft show?

-McGavock: It is an event that does not require much capital outlay or capital investment, particularly if you don't have to pay for a venue.

-Johnston: Being a creative nonprofit (Bird & Barn is a fundraiser for Project Free2Fly), it was a way to fund-raise for our organization while highlighting our handmade products.

-Lofton: We chose a barn sale because we had been to them as consumers and liked the combination of crafts, antiques, jewelry and boutique items that were sold We decided if we would drive three hours there and three hours back to attend one, surely people would drive 30 minutes to come to one we could host.

4. What worked, what didn't?

-Lofton: One of the best things we have done is send postcards to guests we've had each year to remind them of the upcoming sale. We post heavily on Facebook, and that seems to get word out to the community.

-Johnston: Putting a new spin on the craft market and making our event a different experience (a barn sale) from what attendees had ever experienced before worked.

-McGavock: Never close down a festival under the stated time. Avoid having two jewelry artisans or any two similar craft mediums assigned to adjoining booths. They don't like that.

-Sims: We tried name tags but the organizations that mostly handle the food booths have many more people working in shifts and don't know in advance who is going to be there. We added deadlines, fees and late fees so we could better plan who was coming and who we needed to replace.

5. Things you know now that you wish you'd known then?

-Sims: Change with the times. As we reached the digital age, we failed to adjust our marketing outlets and time lines. It took us awhile to pinpoint the areas needing change through trial and error.

-Lofton: I would have picked a location that you could see from the road or that was more centrally located. (This year Sunflower Stables is moving to the Collegedale Commons.)

-Johnston: It took two years of the event to realize we needed a committee to organize and execute the event to the best of our ability. Our board of directors worked tirelessly to make Bird & Barn happen the first two years, and after (those shows) we were exhausted and knew we couldn't handle it by ourselves anymore.

-McGavock: Sponsorship is an important part of holding a festival. We did not attempt to obtain sponsors the first year. It's a good way to get businesses in the community involved and openly associated with a positive and wholesome event.

Contact Susan Pierce at or 423-757-6284.