The realities of trading at model shows
This blog post isn’t an extensive review of trading at shows and only represents our experience and discussions. This is an open letter to all who attend or are involved in scale model shows.
As lockdown lifts and the country tries to claw its way to normality after the pandemic, scale model shows are the topic of conversation for modellers and traders alike. We are a relatively new business in the long and varied history of scale modelling and have only attend a few shows during our short 7 years of business, so this blog reflects our limited small business experience. We do not claim to be authorities on trading at shows. However, we have noticed trends that are common across the industry which are detrimental to businesses, which may negatively impact the longevity of the hobby, and some which are just plain rude.
Our first model show attendance was a great learning experience for us. We were approached by the organisers who heard of our new venture into the business and asked if we’d like to attend. Overall, the organisers were really helpful, provided some good information and some detailed (6 pages long) instructions for how things were done on the day(s). We packed up our stock, hired a van, booked a hotel room, arranged time off work (yes, many small model businesses are part time ventures with a “real” job paying the bills), found babysitters, and made our way to the show. We had a busy weekend selling stock, paid our table fees, meet lots of great new people (one of which later went on to become our very own henchman Stew) and came away with a renewed purpose after feedback from many modellers who were excited that Colourcoats had been saved from the scrap heap.
Once we had taken stock on return to HQ (literally and figuratively), we found our weekend had two distinct impacts. Firstly, we had met some brilliant people and had great feedback for the paint range (mostly – some folk did not like the first version of our labels, but I don’t blame you!) which cemented our continuation of the range. Secondly, we made a financial loss. We came out in a worse financial position than we entered. This is the continuing theme for model shows in our business.
Over the next few shows and with our expanded stock range – Pontos Model, Infini Model, Tetra Modelworks, White Ensign Models, Ultracast etc, we continued to work on sales to counter the unique costs associated with attending each show. These costs are dependent on location, time off the day job, how big a van we needed to hire, how many hotel rooms and nights, food, drink and fuel. We simply couldn’t manage some of the show days with just the two of us running the stand.
The biggest show we have attended involved 3 nights in 2 hotel rooms (we needed our helper with us), a large van hire plus fuel for a 900-mile round trip, food for 4 days and nearly £800 in table fees for the show. All in, our costs came to just shy of £2,000 to attend the show. Naturally it’s not too difficult to achieve over £2,000 in sales over a weekend at a large show, but many people who have never run a business fail to understand the difference between sales revenue and margin. Contrary to the fantasies and fancies of the public at large, model businesses do not operate on high margins. In the entertainment industry markup on alcoholic bottled drinks can be several hundred percent. Selling modelling products usually results in low double-digit gross margins on the product, meaning net margin for the business is usually single digit percentage. We physically cannot carry enough stock in the van to turn a profit that covers those costs, so these weekends have continued to be a financial net loss for us. However, as newbies to the industry we felt we maybe were missing the reason for how many other businesses can and do trade regularly at shows.
On average at shows we turn over the same amount in 2 days that we would online in 2-3 weeks (maybe 4 in September as the annual lull kicks in) but with the additional show costs of doing business which ranges from £400 to £2000 depending on the show and location.
We appreciate the community we have met on the road, putting faces to the names and addresses of our regulars is almost always a pleasant experience. We love being able to connect with our fellow small business/self-employed counterparts and have come into this business with a view that there is plenty space for us all to trade alongside happily. The biggest positives from trading at shows have definitely come from the connections we have made with modellers and fellow business owners (plus of course our own henchman Stew, without whom we would be lost).
I would like to end here but there are big drawbacks to model shows that we’re not sure are particularly well known, or if it is known – it is dismissed as unimportant.
Trading at shows is hard. Whilst the traders and sponsors finance the majority of the show since IPMS clubs and members usually attend for free and walk-in ticket purchases are proportionately small compared to trade table monies, traders often have to compete with “under the table sales” which in recent years have become common to the point that some of us in the industry joke together about starting a “Traders SIG” so we can sell our stock under a free club table and avoiding the PL Insurance requirement.
As a business we pay Corporation tax, VAT, business rates, insurance, must file auditable accounts to all to be able to trade legally and ethically. We don’t take money from this business for ourselves. Indeed we’ve yet to repay our own initial investment. We have sacrificed parts of our home to the stock, supplies and office space. We do all this happily to continue Colourcoats but at certain points it starts to grate.
Traders (but not clubs) have to provide evidence of public liability insurance, follow safety guidelines, invest in extra equipment (his-vis jackets for traders but not anyone else during set up is a particularly sore point for one show), pay the table fees. In return for all this hoop-jumping and expense we have the privilege of being allowed to trade at their club day out. At least it feels that way with how traders are treated at some shows.
Communication from some show organisers can be blunt and at times has been rude to the point of being inflammatory. We are told repeatedly that we must adhere to strict rules as traders when other attendees flaunt the rules. One particular show had instructions including a section that we were told we would be met with “short shrift” should we move the tables a single inch. This was within the multipage document written in a defensive and accusatory manner warning traders to obey or be banned from attending including the promise that they had banned traders before and would again. I wonder if we all stood up and walked away how they would finance the show that is entirely funded by traders’ tables…
As a business, we are more than happy to prove insurance cover, adhere to safety rules - many of which we extend further as we handle dangerous goods, buy the extra equipment to provide a safe and secure stand for our customers. We encourage this behaviour throughout the show and are always willing to help out or amend our procedures as requested. As a trader though, we get tired of these standards only applying to those putting up the money to make the show possible. We get tired of orders being barked at us whilst we fund the club day out. We got tired and stopped attending that particular show.
Other pertinent issues that arise in all shows includes an imbalance in types of traders, attendees trying to beat the rush and get at the stock during setup, unauthorised/unlicenced sales of copyrighted goods, sexist attitudes, derogatory comments, expectations of discounts, requests to donate to raffle/tombola on top of table fees, lack of security, theft, and most importantly – no one brings a tea trolley round to the traders. (Okay, maybe that last one isn’t high on the list). Theft is though. Unfortunately, most shows result in at least one trader suffering theft of some magnitude. Please refer back to comments on sales volumes versus margins. One theft can easily wipe out the financial progress of ten previous sales – it’s absolutely not a case of sell one, have one stolen equals break even.
I will not tar all shows this brush though. There have been some wonderful organisers involved in shows, those looking to change how shows are created, who take on board on the traders’ feedback and even seek them out to help them form their plans for future years. Those who come and speak to us in person, who introduce themselves, are polite and encouraging, are open and honest about free-attending club versus paying attendee footfall figures throughout the day(s), take security and theft seriously, and they want to understand how we’re doing. In return we are eager to commit to these shows, to abide by the rules, to help out behind the scenes with set ups and break downs, be open and honest about our trading footfall, our future and ability to commit.
We love the atmosphere when fellow modellers come for a natter, we love sharing what we know about paint and painting, encouraging newbies into the hobby and younger generations to join in. We enjoy getting involved with demonstrations, talks and workshops. We love sharing our research and advice for paint schemes, I even love helping pick the paint you want to paint your model even is it isn’t accurate. We are all about personal choice.
Saying all this, I understand how difficult it is to organise a large event, to get a date that doesn’t clash, to get enough interest from traders and clubs alike, to find the footfall, to get people involved, to attract muggles (non-modellers), to cater for all the different needs, desires and whims of each attendee, to find a venue, insurances and not to mention the volunteer time it takes to arrange these shows. We understand that a show only provides a platform and does not guarantee us sales – but if stuff is available to exchange for money there it’s trading and traders are legally registered for tax purposes, have insurance and pay table fees.
I think what I’m trying to say here is we can be less them and us and work together more. We are a business but we’re also a community and this is our olive branch to help.
The future of shows for us will very much depend on a few factors. Costs are always going to be one of them as we cannot attend every show, or we’ll be filing for bankruptcy in months. Personal time is another. If those are fulfilled - the biggest influence is the show itself. The shows who take the care to think beyond a club day out and appreciate everyone’s involvement, the shows who care about the future of scale modelling, make room for accessibility, diversity, and inclusivity. The shows who are consistent, fair and the shows who provide cups of tea.