5 Requirements of Successful Pop-up Markets

I expect that there will be a lot of new pop-up markets and similar events when summer rolls around.

Even in the recent years of the Before Times, there have been more pop-ups popping up. More artists were starting side hustles, but they weren’t able to land coveted spots at large conventions and festivals, or otherwise couldn’t afford the pricey upfront investment. The extreme, nationwide competition at major shows was also leading more veteran artists to seek less competitive local alternatives.

COVID-19 forced the acceleration of many existing trends, and I think this one will become more obvious in the months ahead. Vendors of all types, especially those who haven’t been able to find success online, are as desperate as ever for places and ways to sell.

As I mentioned before, I think competition for convention vendor spaces will worse than ever post-COVID, but since attendance and spending will remain unpredictable in the short-term, they’ll be riskier ventures, too. The peak of the convention boom was already a few years past, probably, but either way, now is certainly not a great time to start a new convention.

Pop-up markets, meanwhile, are a lot less risky to put together — and to vend at, too.

Setup at an "Artist Alley" pop-up event at my local Blick store in 2016.
Setup at an “Artist Alley” pop-up event at my local Blick store in 2016.

Pop-ups VS Conventions

Even the smallest convention is a collection of many different attractions. In addition to vendors, there are often panel discussions, presentations, celebrity signings, video and game programming, competitions, and more. Those big attractions cost money, and so conventions are nearly always ticketed.

A pop-up is usually just one thing: a bunch of vendors. It’s a marketplace and that’s mostly it. Sometimes there might be small side events, like a demo or panel by a local artist or minor celebrity or a costume contest, but these are nearly always volunteered and low-key.

The primary cost for the organiser is venue and supply rental and advertisement. This is usually covered by vendor fees, so such events are often free for attendees, which encourages them (and random passersby) to spend on the vendors. Sometimes, particularly for business-sponsored pop-ups where the business is the venue, the event is free for vendors as well.

It’s not easy to run a successful pop-up though. Compared to conventions, they might be less of a financial and organisational nightmare, but you can’t just throw a bunch of vendors into any old space and call it a day.

I’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned pop-ups fail because organisers didn’t seem to realise how much more effort was needed to make their event succeed without the bells and whistles of a larger show. For an pop-up to be worthwhile for all participants, it might still need hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours of work.

2019 Google AAPI event
Google AAPI pop-up event outside their Seattle office in Fremont, 2019.

5 Requirements of Successful Pop-up Markets

1. A Theme

Matching customers with artists and creating opportunities for them to connect is hard.

Art is infinite in its variety. Different customers look for different things as far as style, subject matter, aesthetic, practicality, and price point, and few have the patience to look through a deluge of work they’re not interested in in hopes of some hidden gem.

Pop-ups and small events should have a clear and obvious theme, so they can attract a clear and obvious type of customer and create a clear and obvious market.

Many pop-ups aim to promote artists and vendors of a specific identity (e.g. LGBT+, BIPOC, and other minorities) — that’s great, but I think it’s important to still include some category of art in the theme. So perhaps a pop-up promoting queer goth and horror artists, rather than just queer artists. This makes it easier for a potential customer to know what to expect from the market, subject-wise. Someone can want to support queer artists, but if they can’t find work they like, then the market has failed.

It’s important to spotlight and give space to under-represented populations, but in the end, customers choose to patronise artists because of their art, and it’s easier for customers to find art they like when the market makes it obvious what kind of art is going to be there.

Urban Craft Uprising 2014
Urban Craft Uprising 2014.

It’s honestly surprising to me how many markets are just general “art markets.”

There are exceptions, but usually this only works if there’s a strong brand or an intense marketing effort — for example, Urban Craft Uprising is Seattle’s “largest indie craft show” and has a very “traditional Etsy” vibe. They’ve been criticised for only accepting a certain aesthetic of vendors, but that’s their brand and what they’ve built their audience and customer base around — and it’s smart to stick to it.

Same deal for Short Run, the big local indie comic show, also frequently criticised for only accepting a certain style of indie. If anything, the thing to criticise is both UCU and Short Run’s lack of transparency on their theme and the fact that they do have one beyond “indie.” It sucks for everyone who doesn’t fit their criteria — I don’t fit in at UCU or Short Run — but the fact of the matter is that having a certain look, even an unspoken one, makes it a lot easier for customers to know what to expect and gives the artists who are accepted a higher chance of success.

And sure, lots of artists, like me, don’t fit neatly into a categorical box. Organisers should keep in mind what themes might be considered “adjacent” to their chosen one and be open to vendors with reasonable overlap for a bit of variety.  I don’t really have a lot of obvious anime-inspired work available anymore, but there’s still tons of crossover between what anime con-goers are into and what I have at my table, and I’m still most successful at anime events.

Kinokuniya Artist Alley 2015
An “Artist Alley” event inside Seattle’s Kinokuniya, 2015. This event didn’t have a theme, but was organised by an AA veteran. Unsurprisingly, most vendors were also anime con veterans, but anime fans are just a small percentage of Kinokuniya’s customer base, so there was a weird dissonance to the event.

2. Customers

Whatever the theme, it’s important for there to be some sort of community around it. And it’s important for that community to be more than just vendors.

Vendors are very, very easy to find. Thanks to capitalism, there are more side hustlers now than ever, and everyone is trying to monetize their hobby. Pop-ups are the perfect place to get started because they’re among the cheapest events to vend at (at least when travel and lodging are considered; table fees for pop-ups are often comparable to large cons, which are primarily financed by ticket sales and sponsorships) and it’s expected that only a low volume of goods is necessary — so if you’re dealing in individually hand-knit tea mug cozies, you don’t need to mass produce them in the same way you might for a 25,000 attendee convention.

Vendors often buy from and support each other, but if that’s all a community consists of, it’s not a very good side hustle for anyone. The community needs to be large enough that even if everyone participates in the craft or hobby, only a fraction of them are selling it.

Mahouto Market 2017
Mahouto Market 2017. It was very much an Artist Alley vibe, just without the rest of the con attached.

Mahouto Market, a former biannual pop-up in Seattle, tapped into the local anime and cosplay communities and was the most successful local pop-up I’ve participated in.

“Anime and cosplay” is a huge, vibrant community with tons of sub-communities and adjacent interests while still having a strong central thread. Artists are an important part of the fandom, but they’re still just a slice of a larger whole, and even fewer are the artists who vend at events.

The fact that Seattle (and Washington state in general) only has one major annual anime convention (Sakura-Con) also means that the demand for an anime-focused market here is huge. It’s a wonder there haven’t been more events like Mahouto, both before and after its brief run (2016-2018, RIP).

Obviously, being over-specific has its downsides — any theme that a pop-up market picks needs to be broad enough that there are enough potential customers to make the event viable. A Gundam-specific show will never do as well as a general anime show. On the other hand, throwing a holiday on top of a basic theme always seems to help: Kawaiiween, Mahouto Market’s Halloween collaboration event with Kawaii in Seattle, has also been a great show.

Kawaiiween 2019
Kawaiiween 2019. Since this and Mahouto Market both come from very “anime con” roots, it’s no surprise these are the only pop-ups that allow for my traditional con setup. Those that wonder how my own anime con roots led to half a table full of birds should know that the original eight birds were from a Japanese visual novel.

3. A Good Venue

A good venue for a market is sheltered, spacious, and in an area with good foot traffic. Ideally, there’s food nearby and places for customers to hang out, socialise, and relax (so they can take a break and then shop some more!). Parking and transit access are also important considerations.

This list of requirements for pop-ups is probably in reverse order of importance. You can scrape by without a theme or a large community, but if your venue is hard to find, no one will come, and if it’s uncomfortable to be in, no one will stay. Shopping rarely happens as a spontaneous decision — people like browsing and stopping by a table multiple times before making a purchase. If no one wants to hang out, then attendees don’t get cool art and vendors don’t make sales. Lose-lose.

Punk Rock Flea Market 2015, outdoor spaces
Outdoor spaces at Punk Rock Flea Market 2015, which unfortunately took place during a massive windstorm. Thankfully, I had an indoor space, but the weather definitely affected attendance.

Outdoor spaces can work well, but they’re extremely reliant on good weather. Even if vendors themselves are prepared with tents and weights to anchor down their goods, no one wants to come out and shop during a rain or windstorm.

Small events venues are typically used for things like wedding receptions, graduations, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, etc — they’re cheaper than renting out a hotel or conference center, but they usually still cost a few grand and are well outside the tiny budgets of many pop-ups.

So those pop-ups end up taking place in weird, out-of-the-way spaces instead.

Sometimes, the venue is simply a local business generously donating their space — but these venues almost always fail. I’ve done pop-ups hosted inside a restaurant, a co-working space, a hair salon, and more than one music/dance clubs. It’s very kind of those businesses to host markets, but their space was not made to host a market.

A pop-up event in a co-working space.
A pop-up event in a co-working space, 2018. The layout was pretty awkward.

They’re cramped: customers don’t have space to move around, browse, and shop. In these tight spaces, people usually just make one quick circuit and then leave — having no room to move is unpleasant, so there’s little incentive to make a second lap, or to browse more in-depth.

They’re out of the way and unexpected: even customers who already know about the event have a hard time locating it, and the potential for random passersby to notice the event is extremely low. No one really expects there to be a market in a dance club or a hair salon, so even if someone glances over a sandwich board advertising the event, they might not process the information properly before they’ve passed it.

Seattle Unique Boutique 2017
Seattle Unique Boutique 2017. This event took place at a nightclub on Capitol Hill… I was set up in the hallway leading from the entrance to the main room. I think I actually had more light than most since I was in the hallway, lol.

Mahouto Market originally took place at Nagomi Tea House, a small events venue in the heart of Seattle’s International District — a very fitting location for an anime event. It was across the street from Kinokuniya (Japanese bookstore) and Uwajimaya (Japanese grocery store) and next door to a bubble tea place. The area was also very walkable and transit-accessible. The light rail and several major bus lines stop a block away. It was easy for random people to stumble in, but there was a big parking lot behind the building for those coming from the ‘burbs.

Then Nagomi Tea House closed, and Mahouto moved to Yesler Community Center’s gymnasium. Less than ideal? Of course. YCC wasn’t in the ID anymore, but it was just up the hill from Little Saigon. It’s next to a nice park, though there was less random foot traffic. Parking was more of an ordeal, but was it reasonably transit-accessible. There’s a bus and street car stop right out front. They made it work.

Good LUC Market 2018
Good LUC Market 2018. You can tell this venue is usually for wedding receptions.

There was a show I did at a beautiful events space on the north end of Eastlake, just south of the University Bridge. Further south on Eastlake were lots of restaurants and shops, but the area immediately around the venue had narrow sidewalks, low foot traffic, and poor transit access. Private events like weddings don’t need street-side visibility, but total lack of foot traffic will absolutely kill a show. Turnout for this market was pretty abysmal. I don’t think it helped that the event’s theme was identify-focused rather than subject-focused, either.

Location is important, but again, the venue itself is also important.

The event I did at a hair salon was in Capitol Hill: a dense, high foot traffic neighbourhood… But it was in a hair salon. There was space for maybe five or six vendors set up at salon booths. The salon owners running the event were great, but man, that was the most awkward space I’ve ever set up in. The people who wandered in not looking for a hair cut left pretty quickly — there just wasn’t enough space to browse or linger. And this was pre-COVID!

If actual events venues aren’t affordable, I think community centers, schools, and libraries are some of the better low-cost solutions. Unrelated businesses should be a last resort.

Events can succeed in spite of a weird venue — especially if they do well in other areas — but it’s doubtful they’ll succeed because of one.

Table photos from Macabre Market June, October, and December 2019
Table photos from Macabre Market – June, October, and December 2019. MM was a monthly event that took place in a private club, which presented a lot of marketing challenges along with the expected lighting challenges… but they made it work, all things considered.

4. Marketing

With venue costs and location being the major hurdle and headache of small events, many seem to forget that getting the word out is also critical, especially for first-time pop-ups.

At minimum, there should be plenty of day-of street advertisements such as sandwich boards, banners, balloons, and other obvious signs that something is happening. These promotions should be as big and bold as possible, with simple and clear wording. I highly recommend not including any date information on such banners so you can reuse them over multiple events.

ECCC Homegrown Market
Emerald City Comic Con’s Homegrown Market 2018, a surprise 3-hr pop-up event in the middle of Amazon’s SLU campus. This event had basically no prior promotion, but there were lots of banners and signs day-of and it was obvious what was going on. It also helped that we were right between a Starbucks and a local restaurant and got all the lunch traffic!

Of course, it’s also good to let people know about the event before it happens.

The minimum effort here is paper flyers stapled to telephone poles. Aside from boldly declaring theme, venue, and date, it’s also a good idea to have a web URL or QR code that leads to an online event page of some type.

Facebook event pages are free and provide an easy way to let potential customers RSVP and have a way to remind themselves to come. Many local papers and neighbourhood blogs also offer free or low-cost event listings on their websites. With small events, hyper-local targeting works best — hit up those local subreddits and other community groups.

Sandwich board promotion
Sandwich board promotion for that co-working pop-up in International District. The venue was in a busy, central location, but the event was not noticeable to most passersby. This sandwich board did not do a great job for obvious reasons.

A lot of first time events seem reluctant to register and commit to social media accounts. I assume it’s because it’s a lot of effort when you don’t know the event is going to be successful or survive to a second event. Unfortunately, social media is the cheapest and easiest way to advertise and promote online, and lack of promotion may well be what leads to an event not succeeding.

Social media presence takes time to build up, especially for event-specific accounts which are almost always only posting advertisements. How do you convince people to follow an account like that?

It seems obvious that posting things other than advertisements and providing some other content or value to followers is the key — but this is, again, a lot of effort. The organisers for pop-ups are often creators and vendors themselves, with their own social media to run. I get it. Managing social media accounts can literally be a full-time job. It’s work! But running a show is work.

Various artist promos for Mahouto Market 2017
Artist promos for Mahouto Market 2017 by me, @Jobofish, Alex, Mis0 Happy. Everyone added their own touch, but the branding for Mahouto is clear and memorable.

Marketing was another thing Mahouto Market did right.

They had great visual branding and asked vendors to create promotions for themselves using a specific template. This made them both recognisable and memorable! Their social media content was limited, but their promotions were at least varied, especially once they had photos from past events to share. In addition to vendor promos, they also posted about their side events like costume contests, coloring books, photoshoot opportunities, etc.

Mahouto ran a lot of Facebook ads, had flyers posted in the International District (and the University of Washington campus as well?), and I believe they also had some print ads in some local Asian papers and free magazines. Mahouto already had a strong community to rely on because of their theme and existing connections, but that didn’t stop them from reaching out to the city at large, and that allowed them to grow rapidly.

Kawaiiween 2017 banners and signs
Kawaiiween 2017 banners and signs. Okay, Kawaiiween needs to up their sandwich board game too, but the big banner is good!

A lot of shows rely on their vendors to get the word out on their own social media and some require vendors to make a number of promotional posts. I don’t have a problem with that, but it shouldn’t be the only way the show promotes itself.

Again, many of the vendors who do small pop-ups are new and small themselves. Many don’t have much of a social presence, and those that do often have a large worldwide audience, which has extremely limited benefit for promoting a small local event.

The event itself needs to do the work to establish itself in its local community and make itself an attraction. Getting vendors is easy; getting customers is hard. It shouldn’t take for granted that vendors are eager for a place to sell — if not enough customers show up to make it worthwhile, those vendors aren’t like to come back for a second event.

Part of a vendor agreement for a pop-up event in 2017
Part of a vendor agreement for a pop-up event I did in 2017.

5. Leadership, organisation, and communication

This is obvious, but it requires emphasis and constant repeating because so many fail at this, whether they’re a tiny pop-up or a juggernaut convention.

Most pop-ups are organised by a tiny group of people, if not just a single person, and they’re usually vendors. They want to create a market so they, personally, have a place to sell. These people are usually very cognizant of vendor needs, which is great! But it seems rare that they’re also good at organising and communicating with people at scale.

As with marketing, coordinating the effort to put together an event is a lot of work.

Tiny Dodo pop-up 2015
Tiny Dodo pop-up event 2015 at Stone Way Cafe.

Calling up and negotiating with venues is work. There are lots of executive decisions to be made, written down, and communicated/made accessible. Will the event be renting furniture (tables and chairs) or are the vendors expected to provide their own? How many vendors can fit in a space? How much space is each vendor to be allotted? What’s the process of vendor selection and collecting payment? Money matters can’t be underestimated — what happens if venue rental costs end up being higher than quoted? Is there a contingency plan? What’s the no-show policy? Refund policy? Waitlist policy? Does the event need volunteers? Is there a dedicated contact email for the event separate from the organiser’s personal one? If so, are they going to remember to check it?

There are a million tiny things to deal with and they add up!

Event organisers should know what they’re signing themselves up for and have a plan to deal with it all. Sometimes that involves enlisting help that’s better at administrative tasks than they are, but even doing that requires some level of coordination and communication with whoever becomes responsible for that stuff. If there are multiple organisers, they need to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively among themselves and have a process for making decisions together. I think the most important part of this is recognising that it is hard work.

Event organisers need to be able to communicate effectively with each other, their vendors, and their attendees. If an event has a great theme, customer base, venue, and marketing, they can probably do pretty well for a while — but without good leadership, they will fail, sooner or later.

Punk Rock Flea Market 2015
Punk Rock Flea Market 2015, a well-organised show despite some rough edges. Photo by Alex Garland for the Capitol Hill Blog.

Even as people get vaccinated and the pandemic begins to slowly subside, I think it will be some time before large, crowded conventions come back into vogue.

Most major conventions seem to have already canceled or rescheduled shows through mid-summer, with a few maintaining optimistic dates after that, including Emerald City Comic Con in December. At this point, it seems likely that these late-year events will indeed go forward, but it remains to be seen how successful they’ll be in terms of attractions and attendance. I’m really curious to see what the numbers will be like for big shows when they finally have their first post-pandemic convention.

In the meantime, many vendors have been out of the game for a year or more now, and many are eager to do any kind of show, even just to remind themselves how.

Now is the time for smaller events to shine, but they should really keep the above points in mind.

Spacious or outdoor venues, in particular, will be even more important in the post-COVID era. Affordable spaces in this city are a premium though. I’m not sure if rental costs will be better or worse post-pandemic. Event runners have a tough job, but it’s better they know that going in.

Setup on a salon counter!
Setup on a salon counter! 2019.

About the author

Kiri is a Seattle-based artist, writer, and (brush) pen enthusiast with over 12 years of convention vending experience and a lot of opinions.