Harvest Festival is listed among the top 200 craft shows in the United States, which is an honor since we are in competition with tens of thousands of shows in our country.
We host nine annual events: eight of them in central California and one in Las Vegas. Each show offers discriminating shoppers buying choices from among thousands of hand-made products created by a host of artists and artisans including pottery, turned wood, leather, cast metal, gold, silver, fine jewelry, art, photographs, and many others. Unusual and particularly interesting products include such things as wine barrel furniture, unique shoes, purses, and apparel of many types. One vendor who sells blown glass is a sufficiently accomplished artist to have pieces on display in museums. People sometimes wait in line on opening day to spend up to $2,500 to purchase one of the amazing and life-like Santa Claus figures that are hand-made by one of our vendors. Our Harvest Festival business has been growing through the increasing variety, quality, and number of products offered for sale. A particular show might have 300 exhibiters coming from as far away as Arizona. A number of them will come to more than one show in a year. A central core of nomadic-type venders, whom we sometimes refer to as “our glorified gypsies,” will show up at every one of our nine shows. Our shows are so profitable and well produced that 75% of the vendors at a particular show are returns from the year before. In one case, an exhibitor has been selling through Harvest Festival since the first show, 44 years ago.
Our attendees are not only growing more numerous but are increasingly more diverse. In the past, 80 percent of our customers were women but the amazing range and quality of our products is attracting men in increasing numbers.
The secret to success in running a business like ours is developing and maintaining personal relationships with the vendors. From their point of view, our artists and artisans aren’t dealing with an organization; they are dealing with us. We invest time, energy, and money in communicating with them as individuals. We develop friendships with them. We know their names, often the names of their kids, and sometimes their pets. When they have issues, they can call us. We usually answer the phone and always respond to phone messages and texts in a timely manner.
While a show is going on, we treat attendees as if they were guests at our home. We give them a warm and personal welcome when they arrive. If the day is rainy we will hand them paper towels.
I’ve been in the show circuit business for over 40 years. My first job was writing advertising copy for a California-based trade show featuring men’s and boys’ clothing. We hosted five annual events in San Francisco. I loved the work and the people. I brought passion and natural abilities to the job, so I rose to the position of Executive Director. In 1991 I went to work for Western Exhibitors, which owned the largest gift shows in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. My two sons became involved in the business with me as soon as they were able to pick up trash and help set up chairs and tables. As they grew more capable, they moved up to higher end tasks such as filing and typing badges. However, after graduating from college, they moved on to other professions. Chad lived in L.A. and managed a division of Oakley Sunglasses. Tony worked as general contractor for a decorating company.
In 2005 Western Exhibiters acquired Harvest Festival.
The Harvest Festival story goes back to 1972 when a man & wife from Petaluma started it as a mom & pop business focusing on folk art. That was a good time to be “folksy” and before long they were attracting as many as 40,000 attendees per show. Ownership subsequently passed through a few families and then it was sold to DMG Events whose core business was industrial trade shows.
DMG’s commercial event organizing expertise didn’t translate well to the Arts & Crafts industry because our artists and crafters are a special set of people whose lives, both personally and in business, tend to revolve around relationships and service rather than around business plans and spreadsheets. They focus upon creating personal transactions with people rather than associating with them through legally binding contracts. When DMG took over Harvest Festival, they had no idea of who the vendors were or who bought their products, so the enterprise lost its way, business slumped, and they sold Harvest Festival to Western Exhibitors for a fire sale price.
I actually brought the business to the Western Exhibitors brass and told them I was sure we could make a go of it. They agreed on the condition that I would take over management. Our initial motivation for buying the business was as much about keeping some long-time employees gainfully employed as it was about turning a profit. However, I was prepared to return the company to solid footing because concentrating on personal connections was my strong suit. It didn’t take long for our vendors to get the idea that they were no longer dealing with a faceless corporation.
Under our management, the business revived and last January we bought the Festival business. My two sons immediately joined with me to make this a family business. Tony is now our Vice President of Sales, Chad is Vice President of Operations, and my beautiful daughter-in-law, Jordana, is Vice President of IT & Social Media. Actually, the titles are for fun. We don’t need a vice president of anything because Harvest Festival is mostly just the four of us. However, as someone recently told me, if you work for your mom, you don’t have a job, you have a position, so they might as well be vice presidents.
We are planning eventually to expand the number of Harvest Festival shows, possibly moving up into the Northwest or down into Orange County. We might also move into related fields, including such things as street fairs and farmers markets. Event planning is another potential market area since our web master and media person, Jordana, already does professional level flower arrangement and graphic design.
Harvest Festival has three shows this month — November 11–13 in San Mateo, 18–20 in Sacramento, and 25–27 in San Jose. Come by and see us. I’m Nancy; find me and say hello. We’ll be glad to meet you because that’s the kind of people we are; that’s the kind of business we run.