Are Craft Fairs Driving an Economic Resurgence or Way of Life?

“This is how I choose to make my living, doing what I love and selling my work. I am able to meet interesting people, set my own schedule, and look forward to going to work!” said Albert Tanko, who makes art from nuts and owns Creative Nutworks. Tanko drives in each year from Minnesota for the October craft fair in Gatlinburg.

A need to enjoy one’s work seems to be the driving force for many of the young makers in the new resurgence of interest in creating handmade products. Many in this group have been defined as millennials – they spend money on experiences rather than things; they enjoy adding to their quality of life rather than their material belongings; many forgo traditional work preferring instead two or more part-time careers, often working from home or in some other non-traditional way, supplemented by their side gig—an art, a craft, something made and designed by themselves, thought up and started up, and owned as sole proprietorship or limited liability corporation for the most part.

Craftsmen, artists, makers, and designers in America have all had the same entrepreneurial drive that is coming around again with extra voltage in the clouds (pun intended) from social media outlets.

“We already knew but learned even more so during our July Fair that all these people making arts and crafts are from so many different backgrounds,” according to Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair’s Jeff Rusk, co-promoter and owner with his wife, Kelly.

“You never know the completely separate life that an artist or maker has lived while finding their passion for what they make,” says Rusk. Often the jobs they do in the public arena are mostly for the monetary resources to get to their real passion.

During the July Craftsmen’s Fair, Bill Black with Smoky Mountain Ministries, a group that provides many volunteer services to patrons, children, and exhibitors at the show, came up with the idea to make a game out of the “other” lives and backgrounds these talented people have lived. “We have a former doctor/surgeon, a renowned cellist who used to teach and perform in Shanghai and Beijing, a former high-level marketing professional with Coca-Cola, and a former trainer of marine mammals for Sea World–those are just a few,” said Rusk. The difference here is most of the jobs mentioned above were not mere side jobs, but entire professional lives.

Many in the maker community still have a side job, but most of the participants in this fair are full time professionals able to dedicate a great length of time to making and exhibiting at this 18-day fair. Shorter periods of six days are available, but most of the exhibitors and demonstrators set up shop indoors for the duration and say they just enjoy interacting with customers.

“Young makers I met at The Maker’s Summit on Sunday in Knoxville expressed the desire to always be changing what they do to keep it fresh and challenge themselves in new ways,” said Kelly Rusk. This begs the question: do they enjoy the side-gig as just that, rather than wishing to make it their main business? Some don’t want to grow their business to the full extent it could grow, as noted by Colleen Cruze Bhatti, Cruze Farm, who points to preserving a certain lifestyle with family as one reason for this.

Another revelation at the Summit: many don’t have a sure footing on the whole spectrum of social media out there that can be used to promote business. An informal survey of the room of about 300 on Sunday, mostly in the age range of twenty-something to forty, showed that no one knows exactly what they are doing right or wrong with social media. The interesting thing is, neither do most of the experts.

Conducting the quick show-of-hands survey of the audience at the Summit, Eric Meyerson of Sensai, an expert in artificial intelligence as it relates to social media and business management solutions, noted that the big social media companies are changing their algorithms weekly, so even the experts don’t know what works. His advice to be effective? Choose two outlets that work for your business and keep your posts unique and authentic.

The next best practice is to treat it like it’s your job, because it is, according to Marianne Canada, HGTV Handmade and Discovery, Inc. She recommends posting on a regular schedule, leaving room for occasional inspirations not in your routine plan.

Outside of working the social media posts, this new swell of makers can rely on one thing to help them, and some of them have caught on to this reality on their own. Sarah Mandell, Once Again Sam and a Summit panel spokesperson, successfully and without incurring debt built her company over the last 10 years. She says craft fairs are responsible for 35 percent of her business.

“Because I hear how valuable craft fairs are to those I know, before attending The Maker’s Summit, I surveyed our crafts people coming to our October show to ask their reasons for living this crafter’s lifestyle. I also wanted to know what was beneficial to them at our fair. I wanted to be able to tell potential applicants why they would want to consider doing craft fairs, and specifically ours,” said Kelly Rusk.

The answers varied as widely as the backgrounds of the people in the fair. “After receiving the responses and having gotten to know many of our people on one level or another, I think it’s a deeply rooted reflection of each of their personalities and their personal hierarchies that drives what each of them makes and why they live the lifestyle of maker, entrepreneur, exhibitor, sales person, teacher, mentor and so on,” said Rusk.

Some responses of exhibitors point out the value of the family-like network, the wisdom of those who have gone before them, the feedback from customers, the refreshing of purpose from interacting with customers in person, the close relationships formed in their travels, the preservation of their own families and relationships, to recap just a few reasons they embrace their work and lifestyle.

“We like being able to handcraft something with our hands and have our family with us 24/7. Our family life is very important to us. Our kids have grown up in this business, and in turn it has made them hard workers themselves.” – Joe & Cassie Nelson, Fox Creek Baskets

“From someone who was told that by an exhibitor who had done it for years, we are sorry we didn’t do it sooner! Gatlinburg is wonderful, as are the folks who work there. No matter which shop or restaurant, they always let you know they are glad you are there, but, if you want to be spoiled as an exhibitor, be a part of the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair.” – Connie Starkey, First Glass

“Craft shows are filled the new and veteran crafters, each of us with different skills and business knowledge. Through this we have been able to gain valuable knowledge about business practice and new ways of thinking. Sometimes it’s just the little things that we may have never thought of that make our experiences so much easier.” – Heather O’Dell, Furniture Flip Alabama

“Honestly it is my job. God gave me a talent, and an idea was developed.” – Caryl Pohland, Name Me Company

“Because of the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair and the exposure it brought to me, I now have people from all over the United States and as far away as Australia reading what I write in my books and following me on Facebook and Twitter every day. I was able to share my books with people who would have never known I existed.” – Randall Carpenter, Ran Cath Writings

“We enjoy the social interaction with both the other vendors and customers. We miss this on Etsy. At craft shows, the customers give us feedback about what they like and want to see in the future. This helps strengthen my jewelry line.” – Elaine Krugman and Bruce Cook, Cooked Glass Creations

“Craftsmen and artists cannot afford large marketing budgets, but a craft fair offers exposure of their product and teaches self-promotional skills as one deals with a potential customer base. The feedback from a craft fair customer can make an immense difference in an artisan’s branding of his or her product, how he or she is perceived as a part of that brand, and whether that product meets the needs or wants of that customer. This craft fair exposure can be the beginning of a successful business as well as a creative endeavor, or it can teach one that his or her product or persona needs tweaking!” – Jann Peitso, A. Jann Peitso Art

“We love the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair! We meet a lot of people, some new customers, some we have known for years. During our years of doing the shows we have gained so many friends. A lot of them come every year – both July and October.” — Bev Humphreys, Bev’s Bags

“I specifically choose the Gatlinburg Craftsmen Fair because of the ethics of the promoter. It had to be handmade by the craftsmen or it was not allowed in the show. Sam Large [former owner, with Tracey (Large) Li] was very firm on this aspect. It was important to Sam that the show embodied the authenticity of hand made so his customers could take value home with them after enjoying Gatlinburg. It was and is my understanding that Sam recognized that the customer valued hand crafted vs. mass produced.” — Lisa Baraszu, Nimble Needle II

“I am humbled and honored that the third generation wants to continue our family business.” – Judy Archbold, Craft Cottage

“Generally speaking I do craft shows to make money! However, your shows are a bit different: 1) you control the number of craft artists in each area – not 30 jewelers, 25 photographers, etc. – like most other shows don’t do; 2) your shows are long enough to set up and leave it, so that you don’t have to keep putting up and taking down after a couple of days; 3) mostly the craft artists are very good (no buy-sell junk); 4) nice sized spaces with storage… most other shows that I do have provided no storage; 5) it’s relatively close to home for me (Knoxville); 6) it’s very nice to be able to drive to your booth to unload and load! (especially for us old guys); 7) nice to have a bank available for change; 8) booth sitting is a great idea; 9) food available there – usually pretty good food; 10) the main reason I like your show is that it’s one big family, and we all get along (most of time); it’s fun, I enjoy it, and I do make money.” – Clay Thurston, Wildlife Photography

“This is our 35th year at the show, and folks truly come from all over the United States to visit the Smokies and make the show one of their stops. You have the privilege to visit one-on-one with every person that buys a piece of your work.” – Fritz & Penny Simonecht, Penny’s Leather

“The [Gatlinburg]Craftsmen’s Fair is a well juried event and ensures a consistency of quality and design uniqueness of the crafters who portray a level of professionalism and commitment to the crafting industry. This is the ‘nicest’ craft fair I participate in with organizers and support from people who truly care about our welfare and success.” – Fiona Thompson, Elegant EarCuffs & More by Fiona

“Now that everything is paid for and the kids are gone, I’m free to roam about the country!” – Brian Ross, Any Name Jewelry

“The American craftsmen is how this country started! We need it to be strong to continue to be part of keeping this country so special.” – Rosalyn Rego-Sharpe, Designs by Rego

“Gatlinburg is a particularly friendly venue. I’ve encountered nothing but kind, caring people. It seems that most visitors to the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair have a true appreciation of handcrafted arts. They often are surprised that the artist or crafter themselves are present to show and sell the craft.” Gayle Sassano, Cook N Serve Aprons & More

“Gatlinburg is different. Instead of a pond, the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair is a meandering river. There are plenty of local and even distant customers who return year after year, but most of the people who visit your event are just passing through town. They come from all over the country and around the world and happen upon the craft fair on their way to some other distraction. This gives us incredible exposure to incidental buyers from a wide territory – far greater reach than we could ever achieve through any other marketing plan. It also assures that we will never overfish the Gatlinburg pond, since new fish are swimming down the river every season.” – Don Stewart, Chief Visual Humorist, DS Art Studio Gallery

“Through cooperation with Bill’s ministry, [Smoky Mountain Ministries], the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair has a great outreach to children. Reaching children early with the love and knowledge of Jesus Christ is our passion, and your [fair] and other craft fairs seems to be the venue the Lord has us in for now.” – Sandy & Sam Sprott, Little Kicker Books

The bottom line though is that successful, well-run craft shows help ensure the success of their businesses.

“We have tremendous respect for the talents and work ethic of all these people we are privileged to work with filling the [150,000 square feet of downtown’s] Gatlinburg Convention Center twice each year. The Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair can only have the reputation it does through the ongoing creativity and hard work of these artisans and craftsmen from all over the nation who choose to exhibit here again and again, for 45 years now. The fair’s reputation established by the Reagans and the Larges before us is a high mark we strive toward as the new promoters and owners.”

During each Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair, 200 booths with unique and one-of-a-kind handmade products are beautifully displayed, many with demonstrations. All items represented are handmade and of utmost quality and without duplication. Look for exceptional pottery pieces, molded leather, copper art, local candy makers, and many more unique items.

The fair is recommended for families, or couples, anyone with an appreciation for the best, most unique gifts available anywhere. Daily music shows are included with the price of admission featuring contemporary country, bluegrass, and your favorite gospel tunes at 12 and 3 daily.

Concessions are available for sale through the Gatlinburg Convention Center.

Our Fairs this year are July 8-17 and October 13-30, 2022. The Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair usually takes most of the day to see. Multi-day tickets upgrades are included free at the Craftsmen’s Fair office located at the end of aisle 500. Just bring your photo ID and we will make you a ticket to keep for the duration of the current fair.