The Contemporary Craft Festival

No ordinary craft fair, this on-trend festival event in Bovey Tracey, Devon, brings over £1m to the local economy and is 250 per cent oversubscribed for stall holders!

By applying best practice in financing, volunteer management, community engagement and festival trends, this west country craft festival is rivalling major London events. We talk to founder Sarah James about how she has grown her award winning Contemporary Craft Festival to attract over 10,000 people a year.

The Contemporary Craft Festival Devon

Describe your event and how many people it attracts
We organise high-end craft events. Our largest event, The Contemporary Craft Festival, attracts over 10,000 visitors to the small town of Bovey Tracey in Devon. We also run events in Cardiff and Cheltenham. The festival represents 200 of the UK’s finest contemporary craft makers selling directly to the public. We are currently Festival of the Year and the winner of Winners at South West Tourism Awards 2018. We have also won Festival of the Year for Visit Devon three times.

Explain a bit about your venue and its history
The Contemporary Craft Festival is held in beautiful Mill Marsh Park in the centre of Bovey Tracey on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon.

The Contemporary Crafts FestivalWhat is the event’s history and what made you decide to run it?
The Contemporary Craft Festival came about in 2003 when three Bovey Tracey craft businesses joined forces and formed a non-profit making company with the aim to bring a large craft fair to the area. For the first three years, the fair was supported by European LEADER funding and aimed to showcase the very best in British craft, create a new, sustainable and strong marketplace for contemporary craft and bring greater prosperity to the town.

The Contemporary Crafts FestivalBovey Tracey has a long history of making and at one point up to 15 commercial potteries were running in the area. I was initially appointed as the project manager in 2003 and made a company director in 2004. I have a degree in ceramics, was a former potter and am very passionate about contemporary craft. I wanted to create an event that could combine my intense interest in craft and, as a mother of two very young children, an event that welcomed families too. I was told that the combination wouldn’t work…

Since the event was founded, a variety of craft based businesses have flourished in the town, strengthened by the year round presence of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, which is also based here. The three day event generates over £1million for the local economy.

How does the relationship work with the venue you hold the event at?
The venue, Mill Marsh Park, is owned by Bovey Tracey Town Council and we’ve worked happily together since the first event in 2004. The event has grown from 2,000 attendees to over 10,000, and it has been developed in partnership with a great variety of organisations from local authorities including Devon Council and Bovey Tracey Town Council, government agencies such as Craft Council, Arts Council of England, Dartmoor National Park and the Met Office, higher education establishments including Plymouth College of Art, local museums in Exeter and Plymouth and with the Devon Guild of Craftsmen.

We have support from a range of companies through sponsorship including NatWest, Mercedes Benz, Bovey Castle, Potclays,, WBW Solicitors, Devon Contract Waste, Western Event Hire, Plymouth Gin and Fever Tree.

The Contemporary Crafts Festival DevonDid you have to make any compromises to satisfy the local authority?
We have to apply for permission to use the park every year, but the relationship is very good and the council is happy to have the event in the town. Though music is played in our Street Food Area, we are not a music festival, and our local authority does not stipulate that we need an entertainments licence.

We have to obtain a Temporary Events Notice to serve alcohol and submit our plans and risk assessments to the Safety Advisory Group for assessment at Teignbridge District Council. The event is held during the daytime hours, closing at 5pm, so has minimal noise disruption.

How have you planned the layout of the event and what structures do you use?
Mill Marsh Park is incredibly flat and has excellent drainage, which is very helpful in setting up an outdoor event. We use the software provided by our marquee hire company, Devon Marquees, to plot the event in the park. We hire a range of structures to create variety, utilising a combination of very strong aluminium framed marquees to create height, presence and the best weather protection.

We locate all the craft stands in the biggest marquees. We also use a range of traditional tents to add a vintage feel. We add features in yurts, teepees and moveable vehicles, like our Craft Cinema, which is presented in an original 1967 Bedford Bus, to add atmosphere and animation. We dress the site with props and bunting from Prop Factory and a range of site specific craftworks that are created for the event.

The Contemporary Crafts Festival DevonHow did you research and source your marquees, flooring, bars etc?
We’ve been using Devon Marquees for a number of years and have followed a key member of staff as he’s moved from one company to the next. Good relationships are very important! Devon Marquees has a very large stock of aluminium framed and traditional tents.

We prefer to work with companies that are as geographically close to us as possible and prefer recommendations. We work with Yurts for Life and World Inspired Tents for yurts and teepees.

We use temporary road and pedestrian surfaces from Marwoods and I research using various means including visiting events of all sizes for inspiration. I have also found that Twitter and Instagram have given me lots of ideas.

The Contemporary Crafts Festival Devon
Pic: Jim Wileman

What entertainment do you offer and how did you choose and source it?
The Craft Festival features over 200 makers and an additional 25 stands of craft suppliers and demonstrators. An independent panel chooses the 200 makers, who have to apply each year with six pictures. We are oversubscribed by at least 250 per cent every year.

We focus on craft as a theme throughout the event and we have a full range of craft workshops for adults, a huge children’s craft tent, and a teen craft area called The Den. Craft demonstrations are scattered throughout the event and our Craft Cinema shows short films about craft throughout the weekend.

We host live music from a range of local performers. They are sourced from either personal experience or recommendations, usually contemporary folk, acoustic duos, Latin and jazz. The music is laid back and adds to the atmosphere. Recently we also added free, early morning yoga in the park for exhibitors and anyone who wants to attend. Music events pop up in the evenings in various locations around Bovey Tracey. 

The Contemporary Crafts Festival

What provisions do you make for power, lights and sound?
We work closely with the contractors and have worked with most of ours since the very beginning. Power is provided by generators from Aggreko, lights are provided by START Lighting, PA systems by Showbitz and radios by PAS Communications.

The Contemporary Crafts Festival DevonHow do you manage admissions and visitor safety?
We pride ourselves on making the craft festival as friendly as possible. We have around 70 volunteers that help run the event which is supplemented by a security team from 3D Security that manages income protection and patrols the event.

The volunteers work as stewards and box office staff. About 40 per cent of tickets are bought in advance but the majority of sales are made on the day, so we have a very large team on hand to bring in people quickly and safely. We train our volunteers, working with David Dann, who was part of the team that developed the training for the Games Makers at the London 2012 Olympics. We introduced the training about four years ago and it’s made fundamental difference to volunteer satisfaction and retention. We empower the volunteers to be ‘ambassadors of the craft festival’ and help us to fulfil our aim of being the friendliest festival ever!

Only Blue Badges and people needing assistance can park on Mill Marsh Park. Our main car park is within walking distance and both areas are marshalled by our traffic team. We also provide a free park and ride service from our car park to the event.

What ground protection do you use for cars and footfall?
We use Marwood’s matting for cars and pedestrians.

The Contemporary Crafts Festival DevonHow do you publicise the event?
Our marketing campaign covers a variety of bases. We send regular e-newsletters, we focus on Facebook and Instagram, with less emphasis on Twitter these days. We produce 100,000 flyers and 1,000 posters and distribute across the region and to arts centres much further afield throughout the South West, Midlands and South Wales. We also use AA traffic management signage and roadside banners.

I give talks to students at various universities and we run marketing courses for makers throughout the year. We also visit similar events in non-competitive areas to promote our events and have good relationships with key craft events in Manchester and London. Cross marketing and competitions are an important part of our marketing strategy. It also helps that we live and breathe what we do.

The Contemporary Crafts Festival DevonWhat challenges have you faced?
The weather! The weather is our biggest annual challenge. We’ve had blistering heat, torrential rain, high winds and gloriously dry, not too sunny i.e. perfect conditions. We’re very lucky that we have a very hardy and loyal customer base, so the weather doesn’t seem to put people off, but dry years are considerably easier to manage, much safer for everyone involved and the damage to the ground is minimal.

We work closely with the town council and, in wet years, have the park rolled and re-seeded after the event. Mill Marsh Park is incredibly resilient and drains very well so it bounces back quickly. Dry years are the best!

As with all small towns, not everyone appreciates disruption or change to their routine. The Craft Festival has become sufficiently large that it can’t be ignored for a few days a year. The vast majority of residents appreciate what we are trying to do but we can’t please everyone. I have the greatest respect for the fact that the event does impact the town and we respond to all feedback. We also give discounts to locals through a voucher scheme in our local advertiser and give free tickets to residents who are directly inconvenienced by the event.

The Contemporary Crafts Festival DevonThe obvious money worries in the early years were very challenging, but general guts and determination got us through. The company has expanded very slowly but we now organise four events and employ four people.

How have you financed the event and how profitable is it?
We are a non-profit making company and we raise funds by selling stands and tickets to the event.

In the early years we relied on funding; for the first three years from LEADER Plus which was also supplemented by additional funding from Arts Council of England, Dartmoor National Park, Ernest Cook Trust and Devon Foundation. In the last eight years we have worked more in partnership with organisations to help run the event and less than 4 per cent of our turnover relies on sponsorship and funding. We wanted to be free of major funding as soon as possible.

It took around seven years to be in a stable position where there was high demand from visitors and exhibitors. Now, we usually make a small surplus each year, and as we are non-profit, we give a proportion of our surplus to local charities with anything else going back into the pot to make the event better next year.

The Contemporary Crafts Festival

What are your plans for 2019?
We want to do more in Bovey Tracey throughout the year and we are developing more experiential activities for children and adults to enjoy at the festival. While the key element of the festival is selling craft to an appreciative audience, hands-on experiences are a growth area in festivals. We already do a lot, but we want to do more.

What other outdoor events do you run?
Made by Hand Cardiff, Made by Hand Cheltenham, and Nourish Festival – a food event also in Bovey Tracey. 

What advice could you give to someone coming into the industry?
Working in partnership has been an important part of growing our business. Building relationships is so important, so go to trade events and meet as many people as possible.

Be friendly and help people along the way. I meet and greet every stand holder at my events, it may only be a quick handshake if they are busy but for some it is a daunting experience and a friendly hello goes such a long way. Not many organisers do this and it takes most of the weekend to say hello to everyone once! But it’s built an incredible amount of loyalty and made The Craft Festival one of the most loved and best craft events in the UK, with sales that outstrip events in London.



Devon Marquees


Yurts for Life
World Inspired Tents




Western Event Hire


The Prop Factory


Start Lighting 01841 541441




PAS Communication


FS Fencing




EMS Medical


Lemon Jelli Events


Devon Marquees


Marwood Group


Event Hire Solutions




3D Security


WPS Insurance


The Contemporary Craft Festival
7-9 June 2019
Mill Marsh Park
Bovey Tracey, Devon

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