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On Being an Event Merchant: Setup

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

This week, I had planned on talking about the process of packing, the ultimate game of Tetris in the back of a truck or trailer, the joy of tiedown patterns that may or may not work. That was mainly because it was in my original outline, but there just isn't a lot of interesting things to say about it. It's tiring, it's challenging, especially when the weather is against you, and that's about it.

Setting up is the most physically and mentally exhausting part of the adventure. Once you have arrived at the event location, you may or may not be able to offload all of your equipment at the spot where you’re setting up. Sometimes, it involves many trips with a hand truck, cart, or dolly between the parking lot and into a building. Sometimes, you may have to stop unloading or setting up to move your vehicle to allow other merchants to get closer as well. Flexibility (and a hand truck, cart, or dolly) is key.

Plans are often in flux during this time as well. We’ve done a few shows where the spaces are perfectly lined up and marked, everyone knows the orientation and traffic pattern, and load-in and setup are smooth. We’ve also done shows where the site owners did not forewarn the event organizers that the layout or space had changed, and the event organizers had to remap the entire event on the fly. There have even been events where the event organizers didn’t show up at setup, so the merchants were left to decide the layout amongst themselves so they could set up in time for the gates to open.

This stage is also where people make their first impression. Patience, flexibility, cooperation, and a sense of humor. These are the most important virtues during this time. If you are impatient, rude, and demanding, this sets the whole tone for the event, and for some, that can make for a very long weekend. I have also seen one or two vendors ejected or not invited for their behavior during setup.

Laying out a booth is a completely different kind of Tetris. You can think of it as a combination of Tetris and Feng Shui. What separates a boring craft display into an immersive customer experience? We agonize over what to feature where in the booth to catch the most attention based on projected traffic patterns.

It's also important to hide the "junk." Floor-length table covers to hide bins and other nonessentials under tables is important, especially at a reenactment event.

Environmental factors like wind and rain can also ratchet the stress levels to astronomical proportions at this point. Many of us get very creative in our ways to secure tents and displays in windstorms.

The show must go on!

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