Preparing for an Open Studio Tour

ACVtrainetworksign2.161141This past December was my third official Holiday Open Studio Tour with the O Shenandoah County Artisan Trail  As we enter a new year, I would like to do a post about how I prepare for the semi-annual events that both the Tourism of Shenandoah County and the Artisans Center of Virginia sponsor  to bring customers to me and other trail sites in our county. This Spring our county will host an annual event called Gardens, Galleries and Grapes. This is coming up and this post should help give a checklist to other trail sites in my county and others about how to get things going.

  • Find Trail Sites that you can partner with. In the past three years, I have partnered with Kary Haun and the two of us have added other artists over the years. The first and second years we had three artists and this past year we had five. We are all clay artists so that is how we chose to plan our event. I am sure that it could also be done with a variety of different mediums and artists but we did ours with ceramic artists.
  • Set the date of the event…. this is sometimes done by the county. The Holiday Open Studio Tour was set by the artists that are participating and has usually been the first weekend in the month of December. Gardens, Galleries, and Grapes, the county Spring event, is set by the Tourism folks in the county.
  • Put together an invitation.  If you have someone in your group that is familiar with building the graphic for the card that will be helpful. Kary and I  worked together, utilizing Photoshop, to assemble a postcard that will get mailed to the individual mailing lists. Our way of getting group consensus was to utilize the Messenger app in Facebook to send the invitation back and forth to the group to get feedback. You may also get a mailing list to the county so that they can mail out your cards, if you don’t want to deal with this yourself.  Then we had ours printed through VistaPrint, a large online printing source that lets you upload the design to them and then they mail you the finished cards. Having an advertising budget is helpful and divide up the advertising between the artists makes it easier to afford. Each artist benefits from the other artists in this aspect. Try and get the mailing out at least 4-6 weeks before the event.
  • Spend some time keeping your mailing list up to date. I try to do this as an ongoing maintenance project but some years it has been a scramble to make sure that I don’t have a list with bad addresses in it which can cost you time and money. I know stamps are inexpensive but if you have several bad addresses and those cards come back, that is money wasted. I always put a return address on my cards for this reason. I don’t want to waste postage year to year.
  • Make sure you have enough inventory or are planning to have plenty of inventory. Make lists, if you have to, so that you know how many items you need to have on hand to allow enough selection for your customers. Because I use a Square reader, it will tell me at the end of the year what the most sellable item was. Usually it is mugs so I make sure that I have plenty of those on hand.
  • Set up, if you haven’t already, a business Facebook account, so that you can post works in process to build interest in the event. We set up a separate business Facebook page just for the event in addition to our individual business pages. This makes for more posting but it also gives the event more eyes. In the end, you will post to the event page, your individual Facebook page and possibly your personal Facebook page too, if you like. Some of us have felt it necessary to not mix our personal pages with our business pages for different reasons.
  • Contact an additional food trail site, to provide you with the snacks for the event. Try to give them plenty of notice… or make special foods yourself and promote those too. Wine from the local vineyards  or apple cider from a local farmer’s market promotes the local sites too. There are many food sites on the trail and part of the deal for them is to provide food when there is an event. These can include trays of cookies, apples, apple cider or finger foods. Last Spring, I chose to make a special shortbread cookie with fresh flowers10996068_787091418049559_1913959248896130799_n decorated on top and it made the event fun to also share a recipe or new food to the customers.
  • Send a newsletter out prior to the event. newsletterI use Mailchimp. I don’t  send enough of these and need to spend more time doing more of this but I love the way that it has some automation and templates to use. Your newsletter can show a featured item, the invitation to those who are not on your mailing list but opt to only get emails from you. Or if your postcard list makes your mailing too expensive, you could try to go paperless and only use email but I like to combine this due to still enjoying the reminder to be placed on someone’s refrigerator. Combining these may still be a good idea.
  • If you blog, do a blog post about the event. This year I blogged our event in such a way that I started at the upper most site and wrote about the stops along the way, all the way to the lower part of the county with a paragraph about each of the artists. This gives each artist a shoutout and also shows your followers that they have options in addition to your place. The ACV also does a blog and used my posting to put on their blog which goes out to travel writers to possibly be picked up and read by people outside our region.
  • Offer a new item each year and promote that item heavily in the newsletter. This year, I offered Christmas Ornaments and salt cellars and Christmas Frog Mug and Saucer sets and promoted these heavily on social media. The ornaments were so popular that I had time before the actual holiday to make another batch. All but one of the Christmas Mug sets sold.
  • Decorate your house or the gallery where the work is displayed and make things pleasing. I have the kind of house that I can set up a flow where the work is viewed first, then the snacks and then the checkout and packaging can happen in my living room but you will want to figure out a way that your customer can move through your space in a logical way to avoid frustration on everyone’s part and unnecessary waiting.
  • Clean your house or studio in preparation of the event. I am not sure how you feel but I just feel better if I have a clean work space to show off when customers come in. I also try and make the house as clean as possible. And when the event is over, you can breathe a sigh of relief that you are done, sort of, for the season, and can get on with your family festivities.
  • Price the work. Go through all the inventory and make sure that all the work is priced. I like to do this ahead of time because I don’t want to have to be in a position to look like I don’t know what to ask for the piece and I don’t want to have to haggle. It just makes it easier and less stressful on everyone if these are in place ahead of time.
  • Figure out your checkout program ahead of time. We use the Square reader and have been very pleased with how this set up works so that it is tied to our bank account for Laughing Orange. You want to familiarize yourself again with any upgrades before the event so that you aren’t spending time with your customer learning a new section of the program and avoid any frustrations there.
  • Add ideas of use of your products. You know your work better than anyone and you can come up with ways that they can see your work in a usable way. I offered ideas of things to pair with the work to create a special gift for someone. Examples: a baby bowl might be paired with a receiving blanket and a pair of socks or a spoon, a large pasta dish with a recipe or the ingredients for the recipe, a mug with a homemade cocoa mix or teas or coffees. I actually printed up little ideas in a nice font and put beside the items to nudge the customer to see that the work could be put with other items to create a more thoughtful gift for someone.
  • Talk to Your Customers…sell the work! making a mug instructionsThis one is huge! Many customers come to my studio or gallery and think that the work is something that is just cranked out like in a factory. I ask if they are interested in actually seeing the studio and then if they do, I explain the entire process to them so that they understand that this isn’t Walmart. Many times I have had customers tell me that my prices are too high and that they can get the same items at Walmart. I usually let them find the door. But, it can also be a learning experience for them if you can help them understand some of the process. One year, I actually put tags on the mugs with the steps involved in making a mug. If the person buying the mug already understands the efforts of a handmade item, the recipient may not so the tag helps to explain the specialty of the gift they just received.
  • Explain the trail as they enter the house or studio This is to help our fellow trail sites. You can be assured that if you partner with me, I am going to promote you too. I realize that my work doesn’t appeal to everyone and that is okay. I also realize that there are some really fine artists in our county that also are working just as hard as I am and need to have the local population to know about them too. I usually give out a trail brochure and then a map and tell them all about the food that I am offering, if it came from a trail site. This is selling our county. This is bringing in economics to our area, which grows our area and adds interest for the future.
  • Offer a giveaway as a way to capture emails. This is optional of course. I had purchased a cookbook during the year in 2015 and kept it back as a gift option for someone in the family. I had forgotten about it and found it when I began getting the space ready for inventory. The idea came to me to offer it as a giveaway but to be sure to let those know that are registering for it that my purpose was to capture their addresses for future events. I scored with a lot of new people for my database and the winner was pleased as punch to get the book in the mail.
  • Offer a discount to returning customers. This is also optional. I have decided to do this for several years now and most people don’t remember it or ask about it but when I say to them, “Hey, you have bought from me before”, it shows them that I remember them, I appreciate their returning for another item and many of them are grateful. Some of them refuse it, or try to because they recognize that it is taking money away that I could make. But, I see it as a way to building a customer base that is loyal about coming back year after year. I offer 10%. It isn’t much but it is a nice way to tell your customer that they are appreciated.
  • Have a special wrapping or package to send the work away in. stickerBecause I am Laughing Orange Studio, I found some very cheap orange, as in the fruit, bags to put the wrapped work in. I also had tags printed from Moo.com that tell the customers  that the bags are reusable and that they are filled with shredded junk mail. This shows the customer that I am trying to be as sustainable to the planet as possible. I could do an entire posting about this. In this age of consumerism, why would you pay for extra packaging unless it could be reused in some way. This year, I also took all the clay bags that had accumulated in the studio, which are very strong plastic, and ran them through my washing machine. I ordered a sticker to put on the bag saying thank you and adding my logo and contact information on them. I was able to reuse the bags and the customer was told about where the bag came from. I actually had a customer come with her own bags this year, which pleased me to no end. I have also had customers bring back the orange bags and the packaging from their previous purchases.
  • Thank your customer and begin to recognize them. This is important. Sometimes I don’t always remember a customer’s name. I am terrible at that. But if you start to recognize your customers, it makes a huge difference. Recently, I had a customer that hadn’t been here since 2013 and I vaguely remember her. But she purchased some nice things and I added her to my database and in the note section added what she purchased. I will use that information to remember her because, many times, I can remember the work better than a name.
  • Remind them of the other trail sites that are open today and let them know of the wonderful offerings that are still out there for the weekend of the event. As I stated earlier, I always promote the other trail sites that I know are having their event on the same weekend as ours or are partnering with us on our event.
  • Offer maps to the other trail sites. This was the first map I created for the three of the artists at our event.This is where ACV and the Tourism for Shenandoah County has been a huge help. They have printed the maps and got them to us so that we have them to give out. In addition to this map, we have printed maps onto the backs of our invitations for the past two years. I think that has been a big help although I feel that it was a bit confusing to the post office and we may decide to redesign that idea somehow for next year. The map shown at the right is the map I created for the first Holiday Open Studio Tour that we did. It is a simple assembly from Google earth placed in approximation to where each artist was located. I had them on hand to give to people when they came  in or when I saw them about to leave.

cold frame issuu

I happened to notice that this PDF was no longer on my blog. This was created several years ago when I first had read Eliot Coleman’s book and decided that if he could grow vegetables in Maine in the winter that I could do it here in VA. I think that WordPress has upgraded their ability to handle an ISSUU document so I am pleased that it is not just a link anymore. I know that several folks have asked for this document and now I can direct them here.

 

My Apprentice, Kara Bowman

 

Kara

Kara, working on her dad’s Father’s Day gift.

 

For the past several months, I have had a wonderful helper to help with all my fairy garden items. Kara Bowman is 14 and will be a freshman at Strasburg High School this fall. Kara loves history and is an avid Disney fan. She also is a crafter of wonderful duct tape items, wallets, flower pens and tri-fold wallets. She lives with her family in Maurertown, VA and lives on the Shenandoah River. Kara LOVES everything JMU (James Madison University) and hopes to attend school there in 2019 studying as a  physician’s assistant. She just finished a medical camp at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital learning CPR, dissecting a human eyeball, and touring the operating room. You can read more about this camp here. Kara loves getting paid with Dairy Queen blizzards but has been a real asset to helping my fairy garden inventory grow.

In the photo above, Kara is decorating a bowl that we made for her dad for Father’s Day. He is a big Baltimore Orioles fan.


 

I put the above text in my newsletter about Kara but, I want to add a full posting about her in my blog. Kara is a very kind and caring individual and during the past 6 months that I have been dealing with the grief of my son John’s death, she has been a wonderful companion to have and to sit with me in the studio. Kara’s mom, Cathy knew that this would be good for me, and also for Kara, to work with me, as an assistant, of sorts.

Kara is good about doing what I ask of her and is a quick learner and has a good eye for detail. She has really enjoyed doing the butterfly chairs and has looked up wonderful butterflies on her phone to replicate the colors and really enjoyed doing birdbaths. This was her first assignment and was very attentive to the different birds that she could add to the birdbaths. After the birdbaths were done, you could definitely pick out the orioles from the cardinals because she wanted them to look like the real birds.

I have introduced Kara to some new forms of music and movies and she has introduced me to everything Disney…. sometimes a bit too much Disney… but we try to share and enjoy each others tastes.

I would like to personally thank Kara, for being independent enough to be trusted and to know that it is okay to ask for something to eat or drink. I am not sure that she will come away from this experience wanting to pursue a career in ceramics but I hope this has added some depth to her education and the understanding of crafting as a business.

Kara has agreed to help me out with the Empty Bowls this year. I plan on teaching her how to make the frogs so that we can pledge a larger amount of bowls this year. The Alliance for Shelter in Shenandoah County lost a vital piece of their real estate to fire earlier in the Spring and hopefully our bowls that we contribute will help the homeless to have better shelter in the future. Kara has a caring heart and that is an organization that she holds dear so together we will do our part to help others.

Shipping Materials…

Image

I have been a full time potter now for about 3 years and while I have had some friends donate shipping materials to me, I have found that I have not had to purchase these materials. First, I can’t imagine doing that because I just don’t have the funds for it and second, there are items in all of our houses that will cushion fragile items without spending pennies on that kind of thing. I thought it would be helpful to other potters to showcase the way that I ship an item, or more to the point, what I use to ship an item.

  1. If your house is like mine, there is lots of junk mail that gets delivered to your house every day. What do you do with it? Do you recycle it? Do you just pitch it and it ends up in the landfill, ultimately causing your county taxes to rise? Do you compost it? My solution to packing material is to shred the junk mail and store it for packing. I bought a small shredder at Target for about $40 and each day, or when the pile gets too large, I shred it and store it as packing materials. If you don’t have a need to ship something to use it in this way, you could also compost it. Many printers now use a soy based ink that would be fine in the compost pile and it can line planter boxes to use as a mulch. You could cover it with a wood mulch so that it doesn’t blow away but, I have used it as a weed barrier in my cold frames.
  2. Plastic bags are something that I have eliminated from my local grocery store but that doesn’t mean that other food substances don’t make it into my house in some kind of plastic bag. Think apples, potatoes, onion, oranges, granola, coffee, the list can go on and on. So, I reuse those bags and stuff the shredded paper into those and they work just like those air filled bubble pillows that sometimes come in a package. My paper stuffed bags may be a bit heavier than the air filled pillows when I have to figure the cost of the package but that cost is offset with not having to purchase a shipping product.
  3. And wrapping paper. I have a great source for my wrapping paper. My old employer just so happens to toss a wonderful brown and white paper and I occasionally can connect with them and pick up a large batch of this to have a substance to wrap a package with.
  4. My clay boxes are great to ship in so those get used a lot to send out wares. There always seems to be boxes here as well so I have not reached a point in three years that there has not been a box somewhere in my house that I can ship an item, both large and small. There might come a time that I might consider purchasing some nice gift boxes but so far there has not been a need for that either. Make do with what you have is always been my motto, as many of you know.
  5. Clay comes in a really heavy plastic bag and if you go through a lot of clay, as I do, you have lots of those bags lying around the studio. I will take those bags and run them through the washing machine. As the washer is filling up, I catch some of the water in each bag so that they get good and wet and then I hang them up to dry and they make awesome packing material or transporting wares inside the shredded paper.

I will admit that the only item that I have purchased for my wares has been “orange bags”. I found an online source to purchase a net bag that looks like an orange bag as a branding tool given that my company name is Laughing Orange. I promote the bags at shows by hanging them from my tent and give each customer my speech about the importance of recycling, explaining the shredded paper in the bag and ask them to use the bag at the market for their produce and to reuse the bag. Because the bags are red, they draw customers in and they are curious about what their purpose is.

Tape is the only material that I am having to purchase at this time and I wish I could find an alternative to that but I don’t see that happening for a while.

So, if you are a fellow potter and are curious about how you can use what you have to pack your wares or are just looking for ways to avoid having excess junk mail in your house, I hope you find these tips helpful when you are packing or shipping a box of something to someone else.

Dave the Potter, a Google + chat

pottery jugs similar to Dave’s

Herb teaches elementary school in Strasburg, VA at Sandy Hook Elementary. He is the librarian there. He absolutely LOVES the children and is always looking for new ways to interact with them and engage them with books and learning. For about a year now, we have been using Google Plus to communicate with our boys and their new wives and Herb had the idea that maybe he could combine this technology in his classroom. He had gotten a book in the library about an African-American potter named Dave that lived in the 1800’s during slave times. Dave is known for the poems that he would carve into the pots that he made and many of Dave’s pots are still around today.

So, this is where I come in. Herb wanted to use the technology to let the kids learn about what Dave did by doing the Google Chat with me while I was demonstrating to them how to throw a pot. We did this for seven days straight and each day we learned a different aspect of the process in order to allow the children the best viewpoint for seeing into my basement through my laptop and Herb’s smart board in the library.

In order to do a chat with someone you first need:

  • to be in each other’s “circle” in Google. This requires that you have a gmail account and then find the other person and put that person in your circle.
  • then there is an entire menu of options on your Google page at the top offering links/tabs to
  • Once you set up a Google Plus Profile Page, which is similar to a Facebook Page, then you have the option of starting a hangout
  • There will be a hangout link on the right hand side of the page in Yellow
  • Clicking that link takes you to a page that allows you to invite others to your hangout. You will notice that a person is online if there is a green dot in the bottom of their thumbnail or if there is a video camera icon by their name in the list of names on the left hand side of your screen.
  • If you are planning on publishing your video to Youtube as we did for Dave the Potter, you will need to get code from Youtube site and register with them, otherwise this box can be left unchecked as can naming your hangout.
  • At this point, you will be taken to a screen that will activate the call to the other friends and they will come online and join you in the hangout.
The children were really into the chat they did with me and if I couldn’t hear their questions, Herb would re-ask it for them. They were not always close enough to the microphone for me to hear them properly. The nice thing about this is that because kids are so used to this technology, they didn’t see it as a technology advantage as much as a way that they could instantly see and talk to someone that was doing what the character in the storybook was also doing. Instantly, they could ask me what the clay felt like, why it didn’t fall over, when do I “paint” the pot or how many pots do I make a day?. They didn’t care that they were talking to a screen. They didn’t even see it that way. My generation is still amazed at the “technology” because we can remember a time when only the Jetsons were doing what we can now do today.
I have made some screen shots of the screens to get a hangout of your own started so you can know ahead of time what to look for and I’ve also included our final video with the children so you can see how they interacted with me. It was really a fun project to do with Herb but I was really glad when the 8 days came to an end.

 

 

Additional information on this topic:

Building Community

Claudia has been busy making sauerkraut using the cabbages from her garden. She refers to a video that she found four years ago to learn how to make sauerkraut.The little girl in the video is adorable and you will enjoy learning how to make your own sauerkraut, just like Claudia did. What is your absolute favorite food and can you make it for yourself or is it a food that you can only get at the grocery store? Building a community around our love of a special memory or food is something we all can share and enjoy. I hope you enjoy Claudia’s letter about Sauerkraut as much as I did and I wish I could’ve seen the look on Franz’s face when he tried the kraut that she took him when hers was finished. I think she made a new friend in her community.