On the morning of June 4 jeweler Michele Judge packed her suitcases, hugged her three-year-old daughter, and flew from her home in Philadelphia to Las Vegas to exhibit at her very first trade show. She chose the American Craft Retailers Expo (ACRE) because of its reputation as the largest wholesale tradeshow for fine craft in the United States and had hopes that the experience would take her business to a whole new level.

ACRE takes place twice a year, in Philadelphia and Las Vegas. Founded by WholesaleCrafts, an online wholesale fine craft marketplace that connects artists with retailers, the show is now in its 11th year. WholesaleCrafts rebranded as IndieMe last year and, in December, sold ACRE to Emerald Expositions, the largest operator of business-to-business trade shows in the United States. Emerald also owns New York Now, the National Stationary Show, and over 50 trade other shows in various sectors.

Judge’s expectations were high. With a long history behind it, and new expert leadership at the helm, she expected the show would lead to enough business to support her for the coming year. But things didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped.

Jewelry handcrafted by Michele Judge.

“I had invested $3,000, everything I had and more, in my very first trade show only to see that it was all going to a very wealthy corporation who just robbed all of us,” Judge wrote in an email. “If I had to guess, I would say there was a total of about 20 buyers who attended the show at all.” Her booth of handcrafted pendants and rings made from silver and leather got little attention. “I spoke to a total of four buyers the entire time. I made my one and only order on the first day of $310, about 10% of my total costs.”

According to Allison Garafalo, sales director at Emerald Expositions, there were 130 exhibiting companies at the show and Judge was not the only one to be disappointed. Many vendors felt the show was too small to attract enough quality buyers and wasn’t marketed aggressively enough. By the end of the third day tempers were high.

“The third day – zero interaction with any buyers, zero orders,” Judge wrote. Emerald Expositions staff decided to hold a meeting for vendors to hear their pleas. “There were several [vendors] who were crying during the meeting and it was heartbreaking,” says Garafalo. “No one wants to sit up front in front of these people and realize, ‘Oh my goodness, what happened here.’”

Video recap of ACRE Philadelphia 2015

Garafalo, who also oversees the handmade collection at NY Now, acknowledges that the tight the timeline from the sale by IndieMe in December and the show opening in June led to a less than stellar marketing effort. “Our data team was working with IndieMe. We initially got all the data over and then it was corrupt. It took a while to clean it up and then get everyone processed in our system so that we could send them emails. By the time all of this happened we only had six weeks to target all of these buyers,” she explains. “During that lapse we did the best we could to hit the handmade markets, contacting the NY Now companies and National Stationary Show companies. So we were promoting it to new buyers, there was just a lapse in being able to promote it to previous buyers that IndieMe had promoted to in the past.”

Still, she says, they did market the show by sending direct mail, email blasts, and promoting an American Express gift card deal to potential buyers. “We definitely did marketing throughout that time, but not to the extent that we wish we could have. We’re not standing here saying that we did an amazing job. We were there. We saw that it was quiet.”

ACRE is the only wholesale show for fine craft in the western part of the US, but the show had struggled in the years leading up to the Emerald acquisition. One vendor explained, “As I remember it, very few people have been happy with the Vegas show long before new management stepped in. It is unreasonable to expect the show to suddenly be fantastic.”

Still, many vendors point to concrete choices made by Emerald that resulted in a particularly week turnout in Las Vegas this year. Rather taking place over a weekend as it had in the past, the show ran Monday through Wednesday, a less than ideal schedule for retailers to accommodate. In addition it was held in the same room as two consumer jewelry shows creating a confusing shopping environment.

Emerald Expositions also allowed a retailer who has a reputation for not paying her bills to walk the floor placing orders for two days before finally taking vendor complaints to heart and banning her from the show. “I was not familiar with this buyer until this market,” says Garafalo. “We had an exhibitor bring it to our attention that he had issues with her previously. Based on one exhibitor’s experience we were not able to ask a buyer to leave, however as more companies came forward indicating similar experiences we made the decision to have the buyer removed from the floor. She has since been flagged in our system and will not be allowed access to any of our future shows.”

Overall, Garafalo says there’s work to be done to make the show live up to its potential. “As a company looking back and knowing what we know now there’s a lot of work we have to do and we’re committed to it. This is not a one and done,” she says. “We have a full year ahead of us. We have our full marketing team working on it now. All systems have been transitioned. So we’re confident that going forward we’ll be able to grow this show.”

A post-show survey was sent to all vendors, although some reported never receiving it leading to suspicion that those who complained at the show were not being invited to give additional feedback. Garafalo says this was not the case. “Due to the survey going out through Survey Gizmo it’s possible that some of the emails went to spam,” she says.  “We wouldn’t want to eliminate anyone as it’s their feedback that’s going to allow us to improve upon the show…I assure you, everyone who exhibited with us along with all attendees, received a post show survey link.”

Next week vendors will receive an email offering what Garafalo describes as “a very nice incentive” which she says will be “a significant amount” exceeding anything the company has ever offered before. The incentive will go to all vendors regardless of how they fared at the show.

ACRE 2018 will return to a weekend schedule and Garafalo says they’re reevaluating whether to continue to co-locate with consumer jewelry shows.

For Garafalo the experience also points to a larger issue beyond marketing the show more effectively to buyers. “In a way it taught me a lot that okay, this is a lesson for you going forward. For new artists in the company you have to prepare them better about what to expect. And now we’re putting together a document and a webinar that will go to these companies…so they’re not signing up for a show and putting all their eggs in one basket or people who can’t afford the show are not signing up for it thinking they’re going to write all these orders because it takes time.”

ACRE is the only tradeshow for fine craft in the western part of the United States and for many artists and retailers it’s an important presence. Garafalo is hoping that both groups will hang in there and try the show again in a year’s time. “I try to put myself in their position. A big corporation takes over and you’re scared on one end, but on the other end you’re like, ‘Oh but they’re going to be able to do all this,’” she says. “We certainly are not just poopooing this show. We do see the need for handmade wholesale shows across the United States.”

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