Getting into the Convention Vending Business
Is it worth it in today’s market and economy?
Working the dealers room at various science fiction, fantasy, media or anime conventions can be a profitable part-time—or even full-time—business for many individuals and businesses. Whether you already have a physical storefront and are looking to expand your customer base, or are just starting a small home-based business for selling crafts, collectibles, books or artwork, conventions can be a great marketplace for sales.
However, getting established on the convention circuit can be a lot of work, and one must also find the right kinds of conventions for your merchandise as well. Convention vending can be a business with a lot of hidden expenses too, which must be factored in when determining whether you can truly make enough of a profit to make convention dealing worth your time. Of course, some people only care about making enough money to cover their expenses of attending the convention as well—which is fine, if you keep in mind you’ll be spending a lot of time stuck in a dealer’s hall and away from other convention activities during the day!
I have worked as a convention dealer for over fifteen years, attending and selling at events around the United States from Philadelphia to Dallas to San Francisco. Here you will find some of my tips and advice, along with my basic dos and don’ts, based on those years of experience. The market has certainly changed since I first started out; what worked well in the past doesn’t necessarily work well today. In some ways the classic model of the media and science fiction fan convention seem to be “greying” and dying out, replaced by larger commercial “mega” cons like Dragon*Con and Wizard World that appeal more to teens and young consumers. But that’s just one factor you need to keep in mind if you’re looking to get into the market today.
When, Where and What IS a Convention?
There are many different types of conventions held annually around the world. The kind of conventions I’m specifically referring to on this page are fan conventions: events where fans of a particular movie, television series, musical artist or genre of entertainment like science fiction, fantasy, anime or horror gather to be with like-minded fans. These conventions typically take place over a 2-3 day weekend at a hotel or convention hall, and feature numerous activities such as autograph sessions, Q&A panels with special guest speakers or celebrities, costume contests, art shows, demonstrations, musical performances, writers workshops, charity auctions and much more.
Of course, one feature at nearly every such convention is a dealers room and/or exhibit hall. In the dealers room, vendors of all kinds of merchandise are gathered for attendees’ shopping pleasure. Depending on the type of fan convention at hand you can find items such as collectibles related to the theme of the convention, new and used books, costuming supplies, handmade or thematic jewelry, hard-to-find and imported DVDs and videos, t-shirts, unique craft items, original art and paintings…work or attend enough conventions and you will nearly see it all!
People often come to conventions looking to shop for the kind of merchandise they just can’t find at the local shopping mall or easily on-line whether via Amazon, eBay, or another merchandise website. Attendees develop relationships with their favorite dealers and vendors and look forward to seeing them every year at conventions while also wanting to see new and exciting things for sale. Conventions come in all sizes, from small (30-50 people) “relaxacons” to huge events such as San Diego Comic-Con, which annually sees over 100,000 attendees!
How Do I Become a Convention Dealer?
Getting Started: Basic Facts and Information
Perhaps you’ve attended conventions before and have decided you want to get into the vendors’ market yourself. Maybe you’ve got a huge collection of memorabilia that you want to sell off, or you want to specifically start making or buying inventory for the purpose of reselling at conventions. Maybe you’re a crafter looking to expand your market beyond craft fairs, home shows or consignment sales in specialty boutiques. There are a lot of different reasons to look into the convention dealers’ market as a great way to grow or begin a business.
In some ways, conventions are even easier to get started in than your typical craft and art fairs. Because they are indoor events, generally tables, chairs, even table covers are provided by the convention as part of your reservation fee. Space is typically sold in 6′ – 8′ tables, although some larger conventions sell space in 10’x10′ units so you can set up a full tent or other large display. Space is usually sold as a flat fee (ie, no commission is taken by the convention out of your profits) and will include 1-2 memberships to the convention itself—so you can attend other events once you’re done selling for the day. Security is provided by the convention when the room or hall is closed, so you do not have to pack up and re-set up your display every day during the convention (although I still urge not leaving highly valuable merchandise out after hours.)
Small conventions generally have open dealer registration; that is, anyone can sign up to be a vendor until space is full. Larger conventions may use a “jury selection” process so that only a certain number of vendors of any given type of merchandise will be given space. Most conventions have vendor information available on their websites so you can read about their rules, regulations and space assignment process easily.
Table Fees and Other Costs
Space reservation fees can vary quite a bit, depending on the size of the convention. At a small regional fan con with only a few hundred attendees, the cost for a dealer’s table may be in the $50-100 range. At a large scale event such as Dragon*Con, which sees upwards of 40,000 attendees a year, you can expect to pay $600+ per table space or $1100+ for a full 10×10 booth. So there is always a trade-off: pay more money for your space, you’ll have the opportunity to potentially sell to more people. Access to electricity or phone lines will cost you additional fees, and some shows will sell tables or booth spaces in premium locations for a higher price. Events held in large convention halls may also require you to pay for Union labor charges, just to plug your lights into the electrical hook-ups or to load in your merchandise!
Some small shows may offer dealers or artists free tables, because the draw of having vendors is expected to help their attendance numbers. Just remember that you sometimes get what you pay for: a free table at a sparsely-attended convention isn’t likely to generate a lot of sales income, but it could be a good way to just gauge response to your merchandise.
Paying the Tax Man
It is also important to remember that especially at large scale conventions open to the general public (or selling memberships at the door), you must play by state and local sales tax laws. Some states are very good at providing dealers with temporary tax IDs and forms, so even if you are not a registered business in the state you can attend and sell at the convention. Other states make it much more difficult if you are an out-of-state vendor, so if you are only starting small scale with your convention business, it is best to start with events in your own state where you have a registered business, or at conventions that make reporting easy. It does happen, from time to time, that convention dealers halls get visited by tax collectors and you could face fines and penalties for not collecting and reporting sales tax.
What Type of Merchandise To Sell At What Conventions
Finding the Right Markets for Your Merchandise
This can be one of the most difficult aspects of being a successful convention dealer. What type of merchandise are you going to sell, and which cons are you going to sell them at? The best way to begin to answer this question is to start attending conventions if you’re not already doing so. You should soon be able to get a sense for where the markets are best for different types of merchandise. In general, these are trends that I’ve found from the conventions I’ve attended and vended at:
Media/comic fan conventions
At conventions focused on particular tv, film, or comic forms of entertainment, merchandise directly related to these topics does best. Collectible toys, photos, autographs, videos, DVDs, actual set props and memorabilia…fans come to these events looking specifically for these items. Of course extremely large media cons such as Dragon*Con will have dealers for almost any type of fan/genre merchandise imaginable. But at a smaller/more regional media con, you’re not going to find a huge market for, say, handcrafted fantasy jewelry. (I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked at such shows if I had trademarked jewelry available, like Lord of the Rings-inspired jewelry or the Superman-logo ring!)
Literary/”old school” science fiction conventions
These are some of the oldest and longest-running fan conventions, such as PhilCon, and the merchandise you can find at them is typically diverse. Of course, books are usually everywhere, from collectible first editions to inexpensive paperbacks. But you will also often find jewelry vendors, costume suppliers, prop weapons dealers, with only a small interest in media collectibles and entertainment memorabilia. Keep in mind too that dealers at these conventions have often been selling there for years, so it can be difficult to get a “foot in the door” and establish yourself as a new vendor unless you have something really unique and different to offer.
Fantasy and “faerie” conventions, such as FaerieCon, typically feature vendors selling merchandise specifically related to fantasy art, costuming, jewelry, general spirituality and Celtic crafts. These are not conventions for general science fiction merchandise, gaming and toys, or collectibles.
Fanfiction/fan-run media conventions
These smaller conventions like MediaWest*Con – which generally do not feature celebrity guests but fans interested in talking and sharing fanworks with each other – often have very eclectic dealers rooms. People sell new and used fanzines, fan art, fan-made t-shirts and household items, homemade fan crafts along with some collectibles and memorabilia (typically items from personal collections people want to sell or trade for new collectibles.)
Of course at anime conventions such as the popular A-Kon you can expect lots of vendors of anime videos, manga, related toys and merchandise, and costuming supplies as cosplay is very popular at anime cons. You may also find people selling Japanese candy and other items related to Japanese culture.
People come to gaming conventions such as Gen Con to do primarily one thing: buy and play games. Don’t expect a significant market for other merchandise.
Further Resources and Links to Learn More
Related Articles on Becoming a Craft Show Vendor
In 2010, I wrote a 5-part series on becoming a craft show vendor—and if you’re thinking about becoming a convention dealer, much of the same advice and information applies. You’ll need to think about issues such as the practicality of devoting much of your weekend time to traveling and working shows, buying display fixtures and supplies, pricing your merchandise and how to deal with your customers. I’ve linked to those articles below so that you can read them for more information on these issues:
- Becoming a Craft Show Vendor, Part 1: Is Vending Right for You? Is the vending life right for you? Things to consider before signing your weekends away to traveling, working and selling merchandise.
- Becoming a Craft Show Vendor, Part 2: What You Need to Get Started, Besides Your Crafts Even with a table and chairs provided, there are many other fixtures and display items you may need to showcase your merchandise effectively.
- Becoming a Craft Show Vendor, Part 3: Finding Craft Events in Your Area Where to find shows in your area, as well as how to evaluate if a particular market might be right for you and your merchandise.
- Becoming a Craft Show Vendor, Part 4: How to Set Your Prices A critical issue for all convention and fair dealers: how do you set your merchandise prices? How do you stay competitive while still hopefully making a profit?
- Becoming a Craft Show Vendor, Part 5: Do’s and Don’ts when Dealing with Customers No matter what type of selling environment you’re in, you’re always going to run in to some difficult customers now and then. Here are my tips on dealing with them.
Convention Databases On-Line
…Because finding conventions to work is part of the process as well!
- UpcomingCons.com A comprehensive website listing upcoming conventions in the Anime, Science Fiction and Gaming genres.
- Fanboy’s Convention List A con database primarily for science fiction conventions.
- ScifiConventions.com A website listing conventions as well as more resources about and related to scifi cons.
- Slash Conventions and Slash-Friendly Conventions in the United States Listing of fan conventions focused specifically on slash and fan-fiction topics.
Some Final Tips for Potential Success
My advice after many years of experience on the convention circuit
Build and maintain a web presence
If you don’t already have a website or webpage, build one now! Make sure people who enjoy your products at a convention have a way to keep in contact with you, find out what other conventions you’ll be attending, and if they end up having any questions or problems with your merchandise. These days it’s easier than ever to build your own website that is easy to keep updated, using a product like WordPress. I highly recommend Dreamhost, where I’ve hosted and built my websites for years. They have easy “One-Click Installs” of programs like WordPress that take a lot of the headaches and work out of building and maintaining an attractive website.
Be nice to the dealers room coordinators and staff
They’ve got a tough job to do, often dealing with vendors unhappy with their space locations, electrical and lighting difficulties, getting every vendor checked in and out properly…so cut them some slack. If you have a legitimate problem, take it to them quickly and civilly. Cause an unnecessary scene and you might not be welcome back the following year.
Know your competition – at the convention and on-line
These days it’s tough in some markets to be competitive, when there are so many collectibles and other fan merchandise for sale on eBay and elsewhere on-line. So don’t overprice merchandise, and try to offer things for sale that can’t be found elsewhere. Also, try not to step on the toes of an already well-established vendor at a convention. Con customers tend to be loyal to the vendors they know well for years – so you’ve got to offer them something different.
Keep up with what’s hot – and what’s not
Especially at media-related conventions, it’s important to know what fandoms are hot and likely to be what your customers are interested in. Who’s on the guest list for the convention? Are people more likely to be into Teen Wolf or Star Trek right now? Is Twilight still popular, or have all the young adult readers moved on to The Hunger Games? Is there a related product, film or new season of episodes soon to be released, that should have people excited? What’s hotter at the moment: vampires or steampunk? Follow the trends and stay on top of them.
Read the fine print on your dealer’s contract
Be sure you know what the rules of conduct are for the convention you’re vending at, as well as what you will and will not be allowed to sell. If a convention is an “all ages” event, certain types of adult merchandise or artwork may not be allowed, or may have to be displayed away from children’s eyes. At some media and anime conventions, only officially licensed photographs, art and merchandise can be sold: no fan art, no fanzines, nothing potentially violating a trademark or copyright. There may also be strict rules about sharing table/booth space with other vendors and requiring advance permission from the dealers’ room staff first. So don’t get in trouble by committing avoidable mistakes and errors in judgement.
Related posts at Spacial Anomaly
Table of Contents
- Getting into the Convention Vending Business
- Further Resources and Links to Learn More
sockii is just your typical Jane-of-All-Trades who never has enough time in her day for all of her projects. She has written for many websites online including Squidoo, Zujava, Yahoo! Contributors Network, HubPages and Wizzley. She has been attending and vending at science fiction and media conventions for over 15 years, and for several years ran an art gallery and jewelry store in Philadelphia. Today she is happy to be living in South Jersey with her partner David and their 6 cats. Sockii is a member of several affiliate sales programs including Amazon Associates and Viglink. Products from these services may be advertised on her posts and pages to generate sales commissions.