Haley Hylia at Auckland Armageddon (aka Wintergeddon) in June 2022. (haleyhylia.com)

5 Top Tips from an Artist for Tabling at Your First Convention

Every year since I started selling my work at media events in 2019, I get asked for advice and tips for tabling at conventions by artists looking to get into it themselves. It can be intimidating to plan for and the scale of some cons can be wild! I was pretty anxious when I started and I probably could have done a bit more to educate myself beforehand. To help other artists avoid some of the same pitfalls I had, I’ve put together this article addressing my biggest tips for tabling at conventions, especially if you’re a newbie!

Tip #1 ~ Ask the other artists about their tabling experiences!

Darya Karty and Nayu Illustrations having a blast at Auckland Wintergeddon (June 2022)
Fabulously talented New Zealand artists Darya Karty and Nayu Illustrations having a blast at Auckland Wintergeddon (June 2022)

It is my greatest hope that my article might inspire or reassure a budding salesperson. But there is no one better to ask for tips on tabling at conventions than the artists at the specific event(s) you want to be at! If you’re planning far ahead enough to attend the events as a patron, make it a reconnaissance mission. Find some artists – especially those that have similar works to your own – and ask, ask, ask questions! If you can’t see them in-person, reach out on social media.

Ask about what makes the tabling experience awesome. But also ask about what makes it suck. Generally, I find most artists want to help other artists however they can. So don’t be afraid to be bold and ask for the answers you want to know. They will more than likely tell you.

Every event has its own unique idiosyncrasies, rules, and expectations. Some of these may be wholly unwritten, impossible to determine ahead of time. The venue might be difficult to navigate. On-site event staff might be ultra strict about health and safety. Maybe there is terrible cell phone reception in the building. As a patron, you might never notice these things. Asking those already tabling is the best way to educate yourself.

Tip #2 ~ Start small and work your way up

Illustrator Roger Mason, Haley Hylia, and artist Zephir at Auckland Armageddon (October 2019)
Although I overspent and overstressed at my first con, I still had a great time sharing my stall with my good friend illustrator Roger Mason and my now-husband, Zephir!

One of the biggest mistakes I see newbies make is to go all-out in every regard at their first con. They’ve brought their entire mixed portfolio from the last decade, the good, bad, and ugly. Their table setup is jam-packed with prints, pillows, buttons, and other merch to the point it’s difficult to navigate. Business cards? What business cards?

I know it happens because I did it myself! And every con I attend, I run into someone else who has done pretty much the exact same thing.

It can be tempting to try to emulate other big artists you admire when you start out. You want that “wow factor” and to make a splash on the scene as a newcomer. But do yourself a favour as you gear up for the event. Keep it simple, keep it small. Don’t stress too much about creating a gorgeous stall design. Curate what you bring vs displaying every art piece you’ve ever created. Remember that it’s perfectly OK to just sell prints. You don’t need to have heaps of other product. Let your work – and your presence! – speak for you.

Your first convention, market, fair, or festival will be the ultimate testing ground. You’ll see what sells and what doesn’t. How your setup excelled and where it failed. You have to expect this and work with that. If you keep things to a reduced size, it will be much easier and less stressful all around.

Tip #3 ~ Make a budget and stick to it (as best as you can)

In my first year of tabling, I overspent and overstuffed my display. I brought almost everything I'd made instead of focusing on my best works.
In my first year of tabling (2019), I overspent and overstuffed my display trying to impress customers. I brought almost everything I’d made instead of focusing on my best works.

Determining the economic feasibility of attending cons is a big challenge. If you’re getting into tabling for the first time, budgeting may be a tricky feat but let me impress upon you. It is very important. Budgeting vs not budgeting to attend a con – especially your very first one – can mean “make or break”.

If you overspend, you may not be able to recoup those costs if things aren’t as profitable as you hope. On the other hand, if you underspend you might not make enough profit to attend the next con. It’s crucial to ask yourself what your goals are and examine how much profit you’re looking to make. Are you aiming to make this a true for-profit business endeavour? Or are you just doing cons for the great experience? Depending on what you want to achieve, it will affect your initial budget a lot.

For my first con experience in 2019 – which was actually two within 30 days – I overspent. Way too much. I made every mistake listed earlier and then some. All together, I spent around $1,900 (NZD) in preparation but only made $2,000. In the end, after completing two cons all I had to show was about $100 in profit. It was pretty disappointing to say the least and I felt like a complete idiot. I felt like people mustn’t have liked my art enough, so I contemplated giving up on cons altogether.

Luckily, I decided not to give up and instead focused on slashing my costs and curating my product more. Budgeting became a vital pre-con exercise and one that has ensured great profitability ever since.

Tip #4 ~ Prioritise comfort over style

Cosplay and generally looking cool is a major part of most any con! Patrons and vendors alike can be seen in full character getups sometimes and it’s heaps of fun to dress up. However, if you’re taking the plunge into tabling for the first time, it’s definitely best to be comfortable even if it requires ditching your elaborate cosplay.

Vendor stalls in artist alleys and collector areas are small. Really small. You’ll most likely have a helper to assist you, chairs to sit in, extra stock, and personal items all squashed behind your table. Perhaps your table setup itself might be somewhat precarious to navigate from the vendor side. But above all else? You’re going to be there for a long time. All day, potentially multiple days, with very little room to stretch out or relax.

Comfortable clothing, especially shoes, can make your con experience a whole lot more pleasant no matter who you are. Especially for a vendor standing in one place for most of the event, you’ll thank yourself profusely for wearing loose, comfy clothing and supportive footwear. Make sure to bring layers, even at summer events: air conditioning can be cranked in places and might freeze you!

Comfort doesn’t stop at clothing. Bring a pillow to cushion the less-than-awesome folding chair you might be provided. Consider investing in an anti-fatigue mat to stand on. Bring your favourite throw blanket to fold over your legs if it gets cold in the evening. You might not look the most fashionable, but others will envy your obvious comfort!

Tip #5 ~ Make. Sure. To. Have. Fun!

Moment of honesty about myself: I can be a really stress-y person and I tend to overthink and overcomplicate things when I’m stressed. Which…makes me more stressed! To combat this, I’ve tried to follow a simple piece of advice: “If it starts to stress you out too much, stop.”

That phrase can be interpreted in a lot of ways, but I find it’s a really effective one to remember regardless. Doing cons is, and should be, about having an awesome time no matter how much money you bring in. If your stress levels are soaring beyond what brings you joy at these events? Stop, take some time, and reevaluate. That doesn’t mean stop doing cons. It just means you need to take a break – for an hour, a week, a year – and collect your thoughts in order to get your groove back.

It’s more than likely you’ve put a lot of pressure on yourself to be a roaring success. But that’s not really fair, is it? Have a look at your expectations and standards for yourself to ensure you can meet them. Take note of the things that stress you out the most. Even if it’s too late to remedy them for your first con, it might be avoidable next time.

Nothing is worth extreme stress! Having a blast is, without doubt, the most valuable thing you want to get out of any event. If that is starting to look unattainable? Slow down, stop, and take the time to help yourself have the amazing experience you want and deserve. You might have to sacrifice a few things, but it will be so very worth it.

Haley Hylia, complete with elf ears and crushed velvet gown, ready for another great day at Auckland Wintergeddon '22!
Haley Hylia, complete with elf ears and crushed velvet gown, ready for another great day at Auckland Wintergeddon ’22!

Want more tips for tabling at conventions? Feel free to ask!

These are only five of the many, many tips for tabling at conventions I could possibly share. I chose these five because, to me, they are crucial but also ones I wish people gave me when I was starting out! If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to comment on this post to ask! Similarly, you can contact me directly via my contact page. I am more than happy to answer anything you might want to know. If I can help prepare you even a little bit, I want to. Tabling is an amazing, confidence-building experience and I highly recommend people try it, at least once. Take the dive and give it a go!

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