Turnout won’t sway Baltimore organizers

Latest addition to Fine Furnishings shows wasn’t well-attended, but exhibitors hope for better numbers in spring 2010

Despite a strategic marketing campaign, turnout for the first Baltimore Fine Furnishings Show was dramatically low. The two-day show, held at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in downtown Baltimore the weekend of May 2, featured 50 exhibitors — primarily furniture makers — and an estimated 750 attendees.

Show director Karla Little was hoping for at least 1,000 attendees, but says the results will not deter her from hosting a second show at the same venue next spring.

“Most people would think that we are crazy launching a show in this economy with things that are going on, but you’ve got to start somewhere and we’ve got nowhere to go but up,” says Little.

Little created this show in response to requests from a core group of her regular exhibitors who wanted an invitational show in the mid-Atlantic region. She holds other annual shows in Milwaukee and Providence, R.I., in the fall.

Little, along with several loyal exhibitors from this show and others, says the low turnout had to do with a combination of unfortunate events. They point to the economy and surmise that people didn’t want to be tempted to spend. They also cited the recent swine flu outbreak (the Baltimore mayor issued a warning against going out in public).

“We had a great marketing campaign,” says Little, referring to advertisements, ticket giveaways and the like. “It was very well-rounded, very direct and we had great marketing partners. We gave our exhibitors unlimited comp tickets for their guests. Traditionally, when exhibitors give out guest tickets, the return rate is really high. The return was painfully low.”

Exhibitors passed out almost 1,500 comp tickets that were each worth two admissions and only 98 were redeemed.

Arnold d’Epagnier, a chairmaker in Mission Evolution in Colesville, Md., says he was anticipating the show for weeks, thinking it would help him get more local work and contacts. He made a few leads and ended up covering his costs, but still wished the show had been better attended.

“It was everything — not just the economy. There was a big announcement about the swine flu that did not help. I think that sealed the deal for a lot of people. There were other things going on in Baltimore outdoors, so I think it’s a bad time of year for an indoor show,” says d’Epagnier, who still plans to return.

“If this were someone new doing a show, I would never go back. But [Little] is always good at this — I know she did her marketing — so it wasn’t her. It was something else that happened, and it must have been a combination of things.”

Robert Ortiz, a furniture maker from Baltimore, decided he needed to get people to the show who already knew his work. He used the opportunity to send out the free show tickets to his regular clients within the region.

“I sent about 50 free tickets to clients on my e-mail list that lived in the Baltimore/Washington area. About 20 percent of those came, and about half of them purchased, or will soon purchase, several pieces each from me,” said Ortiz. “In the past, I used to think that when you attended a show the real work began after the show was finished as you pursue leads and cement new contacts. I am now of the opinion that success or failure will be the result of how much work I do before a show.”

Furniture maker Gary Keener of Keener and Co. in New Carlisle, Ohio, a regular exhibitor at all of the Fine Furnishings shows, echoed d’Epagnier’s comments.

“Karla always works so hard to put together a great show. She covers myriad marketing angles and spends a great deal of time working with different contacts to get people to the shows. The new Baltimore show was in a beautiful location, there were wonderful high-quality artists and the publicity for the show was done well. It seemed like the perfect storm for a great show, but unfortunately the attendance was very low.”

Contact: Fine Furnishings & Fine Craft Shows, 80 Main Road, Suite 203, Tiverton, RI 02878. Tel: 401-816-0963. www.finefurnishingsshows.com

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.