Susan James talks to the director of Craft Festival, Sarah James, about how Covid-19 opened up a world of digital opportunity.
Established in Bovey Tracey, Devon, in 2003, Craft Festival was created as a not-for-profit enterprise, originally known as The Contemporary Craft Fair. Its aim, using start-up funding from the European Union, was to create an event to stimulate rural regeneration in the local area, a small town on the edge of Dartmoor with a rich heritage in pottery making.
Craft Festival brought together existing local craft businesses, extending the shoulder periods of the traditional summer season whilst celebrating British handmade products. Bolder, longer-term aspirations were to create a national platform for craft.
Today, it is a multi-award-winning events production business, curating both craft and food events across the South West of England. Most recently it achieved Champion of Champions and the Gold Tourism Event of the Year in the South West Tourism awards 2018.
Craft Festival events comprise an independently curated selection of British-based designer markers exhibiting their work direct to the consumer, live craft demonstrations, workshops for visitors, free children’s craft making workshops, music, street theatre and artisan food.
Driven since its formation by Sarah James, a passionate entrepreneur, campaigner and former ceramic artist, it is led by a small, dedicated team of event and marketing professionals.
Its flagship event is Craft Festival Bovey Tracey, where over 200 of the UK’s finest designer makers showcase their work in a beautiful parkland setting. The event typically draws 10,000 affluent visitors over three days each June. But as the impact of the pandemic struck in spring 2020, this demanded some agile and radical thinking.
Creating new retail platforms
In response to the pandemic, Craft Festival thoroughly embraced hybrid technology to extend and connect its audience in new ways. Building upon its strong social media platform of over 30,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, and a rich customer database of both consumers and designer makers, curating events online was the natural next step.
“We’re always evolving Craft Festival, but the impact of the pandemic demanded an immediate change of strategy,” says Sarah. “Thankfully we were well placed to innovate and create new digital platforms.
“With just 10 days to go to our third Craft Festival Cheltenham in March 2020, we had to pull the plug. It was devastating. Over 100 small businesses were ready and prepared, and of course we had all our commitments in place and the budget spent. Like so many other event directors, I was unsure if we’d survive. The future was bleak.
“We started experimenting with Instagram Live, and in those early sunny spring days of 2020 our online live broadcasts and interviews with craft businesses were receiving some terrific engagement and feedback. Our customers, the hundreds of designer maker businesses across the UK, valued the community and connection we created online – a shared experience during very uncertain times. From the feedback I received, our online broadcasts provided some reassurance that we were all in this together. It also led to me creating our podcast, The Capital of Craft, talking to makers about their work and reasons for making.”
Embracing hybrid technology
In June 2020, the first new format launched. Digital Craft Festival was delivered free for makers and consumers alike. Live demonstrations, pre-recorded workshops and educational films, and a series of live interviews with makers and influential commentators proved popular.
“The makers who got on board early and embraced digital marketing, creating engaging and attractive content, reported a surge in interest and purchases during our first Digital Craft Festival,” says Sarah. “We’d created a retail platform we knew we could improve and build upon.”
The Arts Council Culture Recovery Fund, supported by The National Lottery, enabled the team to invest in a new digital platform and create a commercial online event. The grant application process was rigorous, but as a viable not-for-profit business model operating for over 18 years, they were successful and progressed in November 2020 to launch the second Digital Craft Festival online.
The format now combines live Instagram interviews and craft demonstrations with pre-booked virtual technical workshops so consumers can meet makers and try their hand at making alongside experts. The event showcases selected makers with all content directed to a dedicated website which aims to re-create the live festival vibe online. Makers showcase their work with website visitors directed to their online stores.
Exhibitor proactivity is key to event success
“I’d exhibited at Craft Festival Bovey Tracey previously; it’s very well run and they take a professional approach,” says exhibitor Jeremy James, a sculptor and print maker from Derbyshire. “They know how to publicise and how to network – that’s the key to success. I knew the Digital Craft Festival could work.
“Digital Craft Festival offered me direct sales. I get a lot of repeat custom so in finding a new customer I hope they become one for life. The digital event, my database and social media enable me to target customers and, importantly, enables me to build a relationship with them directly.
“I see live and digital events complementing each other going forward. I think the format will develop strongly, but I need a mix of outlets – face-to-face and digital”.
Jeweller Cathy Newell Price from Berkshire loves live events but recognises that online events also offer a great way to reach customers. “I’ve always built my customer database and had a website but hadn’t really put the time and effort into driving online sales,” she says. “My sales approach was face-to-face events. But Covid changed all that. Digital is now a crucial element of my business.
“I’ve achieved sales and found new customers online from Digital Craft Festival and I’ve worked hard to make it work by improving my website and learning to take better photography. It’s worked for me. I could see from Google Analytics the impact it had on visitors to my website, as well as click-throughs from my email marketing. I’ll be taking part again.”
The online events have drawn over 30,000 visitors from across the UK, Europe, Australia, US, Canada and India. Digital Craft Festival also welcomed its first few international exhibitors.
Essential customer communications
The importance of communications with exhibitors couldn’t have come into sharper focus throughout lockdown. Craft Festival has always prioritised regular direct communications with both its makers and its consumers (the public who attend its events).
“We don’t rely upon social media to connect with our audiences,” says Sarah. “We continually build our customer database, carefully obtaining permission to keep in touch”.
Ceramics maker Amy Cooper from Cornwall agrees: “I built my mailing list and regularly communicate with customers. I built my first e-commerce platform to sell direct and Digital Craft Festival gave me focus to get my business online – its profile drove visits and purchases”.
Creating an online directory and business school
Craft Festival’s second online initiative was ‘Find a Maker,’ a curated online makers directory and business advice service for craft businesses. Over 400 designer makers applied to join, and 190 were accepted into the launch programme.
“I see being accepted to join ‘Find a Maker’ as a quality standard,” said Devon print maker, Niamh Geraghty Morris. “I love the business school workshops, they’re brilliant. They’ve had a big effect on my personal confidence and have opened up new opportunities for my business”.
Find a Maker was also supported by the Arts Council Culture Recovery Fund. Its dedicated website and marketing programme promotes selected designer makers throughout the year. It also hosts monthly online business seminars providing advice to craft businesses to help them evolve and improve sales plus monthly Family Gatherings for more informal chats about any burning issues.
Live events and digital working together
The Craft Festival Cheltenham and Craft Festival Bovey Tracey live events returned later in summer 2021. The early September event in Devon demonstrated increased visitor confidence with over 6,000 tickets sold over the weekend.
Visitors were drawn not just from the South West, but from across the UK and included a BBC TV crew who featured the event on local TV and radio.
Carefully planned, socially distanced queuing, crowd management and a one-way system with mask wearing in each marquee, plus enhanced cleaning and cashless transactions, helped reassure visitors.
Craft Festival’s live and digital event programme continues. Its next Digital Craft Festival takes place in November, and applications for its live events for 2022 are now open.
Digital Craft Festival, 13-14 November 2021
Craft Festival Cheltenham, 11-13 March 2022
Craft Festival Bovey Tracey, 17-19 June 2022