Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's Not Like It Used To Be

"Sodding hell, I've got another one!"

"Another complaint letter?"


"Is it because there weren't any craft stalls?"


[Sound of head hitting desk]

It's been hard work changing a long standing event. For many years now we have held an annual Christmas Fayre, with numerous stalls situated in and around the house. Each year, however, visitor numbers grow smaller as competition grows greater. The problem is we are a small property with a smaller budget. We simply cannot compete with the garden centre up the road or the big shopping centre in town when they advertise that Father Christmas will be arriving by reindeer-drawn sleigh, as opposed to Mini Metro, and will then be available in a proper grotto that isn't just a hastily erected shed. To make matters worse, neighbouring properties have also jumped on the Christmas Craft Fair bandwagon, often holding the same event as we are, on the same day, thereby effectively, and pointlessly, thinning out the audience.

In previous years we have had all the fun of moving the heavy oak furniture upstairs in the house to accommodate the craft stalls, helping the traders unload their cars and set up their stands, and then listening to them complain bitterly all day that there aren't enough power points, that the lighting is insufficient and that there aren't enough customers and we should have advertised it better.

So, for 2008 we decided to change our Christmas event. Let's play to our strengths, I said. Let's feature what we do have and stop trying to compete with properties with more money or big commercial operations. What we have is a unique, moated medieval manor house. We shall hold an authentic medieval Yuletide event!

The re-enactment group were most enthusiastic when I explained the concept to them. I wanted the public to feel like they'd stepped back in time by 500 years. Characters in costume would be making medieval Christmas food, staging mumming plays, bringing to life and illustrating the origins of many of our modern traditions, everything from original meat-filled mince pies, to Yule logs and Saint Nicholas.

I tried to sum up the essence of the event in our promotional material. The press releases, the adverts in the local papers, the posters, even the banners on the road all emphasised the living history aspect of it all. "Enjoy a Merrie Medieval Christmas" went the blurb. "Experience the music, food and customs of Yuletide as it would have been 500 years ago. See the Great Hall decorated with foliage from the estate and join the household as it prepares for the Christmas festivities." I stressed to anyone that would listen that this was a turkey and tinsel free zone. One thing I was very clear about, one thing it did not say in any promotional material at any point was that this was a craft fair.

The event itself went very well. Visitor numbers were high and our re-enactors were fantastic. The public seemed particularly fascinated by the food piled high on the tables and kept our household ladies very busy with questions about it all. One unexpected point of interest was the skinning of a hare! The group had brought some game with them - a hare, some pheasants, a mallard - so that the men would be able to return successfully from their staged hunt. On the second day of the event one of the medieval ladies asked me if there was anywhere secluded in the courtyard she could go to skin (or pluck, in the case of the birds) and gut the game before it spoiled. I set her up in a discreet corner, where no one had to be privy to the blood and guts of real meat if they didn't want to, but still on show if anyone took an interest. She ended up with a huge crowd around her! Children in particular were quick to express an "Ewwww" and immediately draw closer with a volley of follow up questions.

At the close of the weekend I felt confident that we had provided a top quality educational and entertaining event, with far more people in attendance than at the Christmas Fayre the previous year.

Then I received a letter. It stated how disappointed the author was with our Craft Fair this year. There weren't any stalls at all. I replied to say how sorry I was that he was disappointed with our Merrie Medieval Christmas event but that this was not a craft fair and had never been advertised as such.

Then I received a couple of emails which said pretty much the same thing. The complainants came to our Craft Fair every year but this year it was rubbish! The re-enactors themselves were good, they said, but the courtyard had no trade stands whatsoever. What kind of Craft Fair was this?

Almost every week since Christmas I have received another letter complaining about the paucity of stalls at my Craft Fair. I really don't know what more I could have done to raise awareness of the fact that this event was not a Craft Fair other than emblazoning "NOT a Craft Fair" over all my publicity material. There is annoyance that the event has changed, even though the new event is much better than the old one. There is annoyance that they were unable to not buy anything from a selection of tat-laden trestle tables despite the fact that we were surrounded by venues offering exactly that on the very day they attended.

I truly believe that if I invented a time machine and actually transported people back in time to experience the house in its medieval prime, some people would still be disappointed that the paths were muddy and that there was no opportunity to buy a hand-painted tea tray. It confounds me. Why come for a day out at a medieval house, for a medieval event, if all you really want or enjoy is shopping?

Heaven help me if I ever decide to change the format of our Easter Egg Hunt!


Geoff said...

You can't imagine you're on Antiques Roadshow if everything's medieval. Imagining you're on Antiques Roadshow is a very popular pastime. Tat is fascinating.

cogidubnus said...


mym said...

Just kill them, it saves time.

(and skin them, cover some of the tables with nice leather cloths...)

Doris said...

Geoff -this is undeniable!

Cogidubnus - indeedy.

Mym - I couldn't bear the complaining that would inevitably ensue!

stitchwort said...

You can please some of the people some of the time....

They say that "shopping" is now an actual hobby, even more popular than visiting "heritage sites".

Doris said...

Stitchwort - yes, that's what we're up against now - trying to lure people away from the garden centres and sofa warehouses.

soubriquet said...

Back in the days when I made my living as a craftsperson, I recall well the joys of the crafts fair world, getting a call from some tourist-trap, "We're having a "Crafts for Christmas" event, and it's going to be really well advertised and signposted, can we book you in ?" When I arrive, I'm assigned my spot, in a cold, draughty, shadowed area, begging for a place where the occasional possible customer might see me, or at least, could there be some light?
There was the mediaeval hall, where I prepared myself well, bringing my display of mediaeval-inspired pieces and reproductions. I was sent to the chilly undercroft, and, of course, in prime position, below the window in the great hall, was a table arrayed with disney-character tea-cosies and star-wars fridge-magnets.

I understand the venue's position, but the reality is that the venue cares not a whit whether the craftspeople even cover their expenses, we're just cannon fodder, another attempt to get punters through their doors, and we pay for that privilege.

These days I make my living by looking after industrial premises, I unblock drains, repair roofs, repoint crumbling walls, pump out basements...
I get paid real money, which is nice.

Doris said...

Soubriquet - the problem is that many venues aren't geared up for craft fairs. Things like lack of lighting, heating or space mean that no-one's getting the best out of the experience, which is why I stopped having those types of event.