Opening an art retreat was a long-held dream for Kristin Williams, who made her dream come true on the cusp of her 50th birthday, when she unveiled Ephemera Paducah in Kentucky.
Kristin Williams had long fantasized about opening an art retreat. Approaching her 50th birthday and feeling burned out as an economic development consultant, she decided to make that dream a birthday present to herself.
“That gift to myself was completely life-changing,” she says.
But dreams don’t come true overnight, and it took a year before she opened Ephemera Paducah, an art retreat and retail space in Paducah, Kentucky, where classes range from mixed media and art journaling to fiber arts, and where chocolate is considered an art supply.
A decade later, approaching another milestone birthday, Williams is winding up her Ephemera Paducah sojourn, but is reveling in what she built, and sharing some lessons learned.
Finding Something to Be Excited About
Williams grew up in Tennessee, daughter of a mother who never met a craft she didn’t like, and a father who was a university chancellor. After graduating college with a psychology degree, Williams took an unfulfilling job at a credit union, returned to school for a master’s in planning, and worked in economic development helping communities develop and enhance local business.
Meanwhile, her creative soul found solace in making cards and occasionally attending art retreats. “Rubber stamps were my gateway drugs,” she says with a laugh.
Two years away from her 50th birthday, tired of the job and the traveling, her epiphany came while on the road. “I was lonely, feeling bad about everything. I was feeling ugly and fat and old and uninspired about turning 50. I wrote, on a big pad of paper, ‘You have got to get excited about something.’” And she did.
She cut back her consulting business and spent a year researching her idea, talking to shop owners, teachers, anyone who could tell her how to find instructors, create contracts, find customers, bill, organize classes, find suppliers, etc. The creative community, she says, “is very giving; people want to see each other succeed.”
The two-story, 5,000-square-feet space is located in Paducah’s Lower Town Arts District. The downstairs accommodates workshops and a small retail store, while the upstairs eventually became The Loft, a B&B-type space that can sleep eight friends in six beds.
For instance, Andrea Chebeleu of A Work of Heart Studio in San Jose, Calif., “was the kindest most giving, person. She propelled me ahead maybe six to eight months, talking about suppliers, points of sales, how she ran classes, overhead, all these things I would have had to stumble through and figure out. Finding someone like her was amazing.”
Then she found the perfect building to house her dream: two-stories, 5,000-square-feet, located in Paducah’s Lower Town Arts District. Downstairs accommodates workshops and a small retail store, while the upstairs eventually became The Loft, a B&B-type space that can sleep eight friends in six beds.
The Start of Ephemera Paducah
June 2012 was her last consulting gig, and in April 2013 she opened Ephemera Paducah. “Finding the name was my big ‘Eureka!’ moment,” she says. “Ephemera is such an odd word to people who are not into mixed media, and I loved how it sounded with Paducah.”
Her community development background and entrepreneurial insights “made me a little cocky,” Williams admits, and the first two to three years were rough, with plenty of missteps.
“We weren’t making any money and I was sobbing to my husband, who reminded me that ‘the path to failure and the path to success is the same path.’ So we kicked into overdrive and worked really hard.” Finally, in year three, with a few changes, the business began to see a profit.
Her first mistake, she realized, was not defining her customer, trying to be “everything to everyone.” When she opened, she offered short, less expensive workshops that attracted those wanting to make a one-off project. She soon realized that her true customer is someone who takes a workshop then “goes home and makes art,” so she started focusing on longer, pricier weekend commitments with classes geared to “my tribe.”
When people sign up for weekend classes, “it’s a conscious decision,” she explains. Not only do they come for workshops, but they also shop in her store, which has an eclectic mix of supplies aligned with her classes.
Refining the Process
Taking a lesson from the university events her parents hosted, Williams also created a “concierge” environment, such as sending detailed emails about what to expect, what to bring, where to stay, dine, park, and more. Plus, she often provides lunch, snacks and drinks. And chocolate. Always chocolate.
In pricing her workshops, which range from $79 for three-hour classes to around $500 for a three-day experience, Williams also became better at factoring in hidden overhead, such as the costs of lights, heating, water, and impact on the building.
She upped her social media engagement, especially on her Facebook page, asked members for a teacher wish-list, and reached out to those instructors with large followings.
Workshops at Ephemera Paducah range from mixed media and art journaling to fiber arts. Williams spent about a year researching before she opened.
Williams also realized that she was advertising her classes too close to the actual class date. For instance, those spending $500+ for a weekend class, plus travel and housing expenses, plan ahead.
“It took me too long to know how far out I have to market and plan.” But once she figured it out, she posted a year’s worth of classes, taking non-refundable deposits and adding an installment payment plan.
For instance, around September/October, she posted next year’s schedule, with classes beginning in March.
“That was good timing,” she notes. “We’d get a bump at Christmas when people would either get classes as holiday gifts or would book classes with money they got as Christmas gifts.”
Another mistake, she says, was being afraid to spend money on things that would have made her more efficient, such as hiring experts to help with social media and build and manage her website, as well as advertising in magazines that reached her particular customers.
“I was terrified to spend money on big magazines, such as Somerset Studio and Art Journaling. But those are the magazines that mixed media people love. I should have spent that money earlier.”
She also found the right website designer, someone who understood her business, who recognized, for example, that she needed a way for people to pay deposits and installments, and who can keep the website “healthy and working.”
“Don’t skimp on that,” Williams says. “You need a solid website.”
Pivoting During the Pandemic
Like others, Williams had to pivot during the pandemic. Two things helped get her through: sussies and bundles. Sussies are small, inexpensive, unexpected gifts, given for no particular reason, but relevant to the recipient. Williams’ sussies, inspired by her mother’s gifts when Williams was feeling down, might include customized packets of paper ephemera (naturally), trinkets, ribbon, stencils, paints, and more.
Selling bundles of crafty items was pure happenstance. With no workshops or customers, Williams had plenty of stock, so she periodically held Facebook lives, showing baskets of goodies she put together. With bundles, she explains, she could sell merchandise without having to scan an overwhelming number of items, and she could sell product she didn’t want sitting around too long, such as paint.
“Selling sussies and bundles got me through Covid and helped keep the lights on,” she says. “Everybody likes a pretty box of stuff. We sold an inordinate amount of sussies.”
As Williams faces another big birthday, she is again changing her trajectory, and will be closing her doors in December, listing the building for sale, and seeking new adventures. She’s not quite sure what that adventure will bring, but whatever it is, she’s up for it.
Roberta G. Wax
Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. www.creativeunblock.com
Really great article. The business information provided is valuable and the details make this sound like a great place I wish I could have visited! Thanks for all the tips. I need to get my own somewhat similar biz back on track and this has inspired me!
Great article! Having watched the journey of Ephemera Paducah through the years, Kristin has made it a destination art getaway. I always look forward to her fabulous workshops—she truly makes it a pampered trip. So sad to see the end of this journey but I’m so excited to see what she has in store in her next chapter.
Kristin really has created a wonderful space with Ephemera Paducah and I am so sorry to see her go. Hopefully, someone else will give continuity to what she built with so much love and care. The lessons learned in this post are interesting to me and am glad that she shared them. I am sure the next phase of her life will be interesting and gratifying for her and thank her for all the community building she has done in Paducah so far.