The Business of Making Money at Festivals by Gary Cole

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 The following is from my lecture on making money doing festivals... If you would like a free lecture in your area check out the details on this or the other classes at


by Gary Cole of Ruby Red Paints USA Inc.

Finding festivals in your area or region…                         Festival Network Online                   20,000                                            40,000           Festivals and          Music Festivals                                 2,500

 Festivals, Fairs and the like can be excellent resources for both revenue and in finding new business. It can be as simple as a small “Irish Festivals” to events like the State Fair of Texas which boasts 277 acres and over 3,000,000 visitors each year. Add to that it lasts 24 days each fall. They can be a huge cash cow but if you want to make it work it is going to take some real thought, a clear strategy or you can lose money and have your staffing turn on you.

Our success story is the Fort Worth Art Festival we have been doing for thirteen years. We get exclusivity as the only face painting company and we can easily gross over $18,000 in the four days of this event. With that said, there is so much to consider from weather to manpower. You better be prepared for it all or your proposed victory can turn out to be a big loss. Here are some steps to take to make sure you come out on the side of victory….

Do your research and get the REAL FACTS about any festival. GET A  BODY COUNT. Most festivals overstate their numbers. This is because they count in their numbers daily staffing to those attending special events in the area. You want to get to the base count, which will be those with face painting potential. Using the State Fair of Texas as an example the staffing alone for all of the exhibits, food vendors and amusement park facilities can be 25,000 per day. Take that and multiply it by the twenty four days and that totals 60,000. Is that part of the 3,000,000 count? That is something we will never know. During this event they host the Cotton Bowl which is a big football rivalry between the University of Texas and Oklahoma University. The stadium holds close to 70,000 people and most enter the State Fair just to attend the game and not participate in the other activities. You will need to do some digging but you really want to look for events that have a MINIMUM attendance of 20,000 people and you need to focus on family attendance. You might find 40,000 people attending a Rolling Stone concert but the number of faces to be painted will be much different than a mix you will get at the zoo. Adults go to concerts and families with kids go to the zoo. Find out the mix. You want to focus on children in the mix unless it is something like a KISS Concert where the obvious applies.

NEGOTIATE for everything you think you can turn to your advantage. For every single step of the process GET IT PUT INTO WRITING. Your financial future can depend on the simplest task. Read the fine print on any contract and make sure you are protected as best you can.

Go for EXCLUSIVITY in face painting unless the crowds are well over 20,000 per face painter. If 100,000 people are going to show up you can make a lot as a face painting group. If they allow five different face painting teams then your earnings will drop substantially. Not only is there more competition but everyone seems to drop the prices to “buy” more customers. Add to that you could easily have the Girl Scouts set up right next to you doing free face painting and it will wear on your income. It also does not help if they are using acrylic paints and their painting is awful.

Negotiate for a PERCENTAGE of the take instead of a flat booth fee if you can. There are so many factors and you might very well pay more to the festival but if the weather turns sour you will not take a huge loss. Depending on the time of year you will not get much face painting done if it is pouring rain for the full length of your event. Unless you have God on speed dial you need to consider the WEATHER as a pro or con to your event. Most festivals want a flat guaranteed fee per booth. This generally works to your disadvantage as they earn more money by selling more booths. Their interest is in volume in booth sales and they really do not care if they have fifteen face painters at the one event. They know if you do not show up next year there will be a new face painter ready to fill in your spot. Others will ask for a percentage and this can range from ten to fifty percent. I think the best profit sharing is twenty to twenty-five percent of the gross. Most of the better, more organized festivals will force you to offer a guaranteed minimum income per ten by ten booth as well as a percentage. For example they might state they want twenty-five percent with a minimum of one thousand dollars for a ten foot square spot. From there you need to ask yourself how many faces do you have to paint to break even. It boils down to simple math. You are promising them $1000 minimum and most of the time they make you give that to them up front.

To make it simple…. If you are charging $5 per face, then you will not make a single penny until you have painted 200 faces. Even if you are an average face painter (twelve faces per hour) and you had endless lines, you would work the first 16.7 hours simply to break even. If you are a solo face painter it is hard to meet the booth fees. Put your pencil to reality and make sure you are ready to play in the big leagues. If they have Girl Scouts giving free face painting twenty feet from your booth where the adopt-a-pet is going on you need to understand it will have a major impact on your sales even if they are painting rainbows and hearts and you are painting like a pro. Be prepared to FACE REALITY AND THINK ABOUT THE NUMBERS.

If you think you are up to it then calculate the man power. Most festivals are from 10am to 10pm and most people can not paint non-stop for twelve hours for three or more days. There can be a big burn out factor. If there are too long of lines your workers get fatigued. If the lines are down then the workers are working for $2 per hour and that does not go over well either. It takes some real skill to MANAGE STAFFING (numbers). For our large art festival we have done it for thirteen years. We know the lines will be good if the weather holds out. Thursday and Friday we staff with only two people. Friday evening at five pm we add four more people. Saturday we start with nine, gear up to twenty by three pm and then whittle down staffing to ten by night fall. With this the line stay at an average thirty minute wait. It starts off a little slow and ends up strong. Take into consideration flow issues to allow potty breaks, lunch breaks or even time to stand up and stretch. A three minute break to stretch can have a big impact on morale.

OFFER CONSISTENCY. The best way to do this is train your staffing and make sure they can do the top seven faces exactly like the sign boards or books. The top seven faces in our area are Princess Mask, Butterfly, Spiderman, Tiger, Skull, Dog and Flower Face. Your experience staff can generally handle the more difficult faces but ninety-five percent of the faces will be those top faces. You do it any way you want but we issue face painting books and everyone is expected to match fairly closely those designs. Sign boards also work. We allow artistic interpretation but they must be fairly close to the standard. You do not want a sub-standard painter sending our designs that do not pass the “what-is-it” test. Remember every face sent into the crowds will be a billboard for your next customer. We make new workers pass off on painting the top faces. For festival work we pay by the face so we are not overly concerned about speed. Focus first on quality and then speed.

Ideally your workers will paint good faces at a rate of one face every THREE TO FIVE MINUTES. No doubt the newer workers will start out at one every ten minutes but your experienced painters can turn out a quality face every two to three minutes.

We strongly suggest you pay your workers by the face and not by the hour. You really need to work out a fair AGREEMENT ON PROFIT SHARING. There are many ways to do this and the final agreement must be something that is fair. I’m not saying our method is the perfect answer but it works for us. In our case we assume all financial risk. If it rains all four days of the festival, then we are out literally thousands of dollars. We supply everything from face paints to lighting to training to tables. The only thing we ask the face painter to bring is two chairs, their own water, baby wipes and mirror. We supply everything else including a professional face paint set up valued at over $300. To make a good set up you need a good table, well designed make-up kit and a good set of brushes, sponges and book to work from. In our case, and again I’m just telling you how we do it, we charge $6 per face. 25% (or $1.50) goes to the festival. $.10 goes to the line worker (explained later), $2.20 goes to the face painter and $2.20 goes to the company. Our average worker paints twelve faces per hour so our high school and college painters get about $26+ per hour. We also live in the part of the country where tips are common. So the worker can EASILY earn an extra $15 per hour average in tips. They get to keep all tips. The more experienced workers can paint fifteen to twenty faces per hour.

On STAFFING our key is the wait in line. Our goal is an average of fifteen to twenty minute wait. If they are waiting more than forty-five minutes then you need to raise your prices per face or add more workers. If you are running out of kids to paint then you need less painters. I have found people do not really complain about a thirty minute wait for a quality face painting job. If it is longer then it will start to affect your business.

We offer INSURANCE for our whole team of painters. We all use the same safe Ruby Red Paints face paints and an emphasis is made on SAFETY in every aspect. This includes our supplies, our work methods and even managing large sums of cash. We do not keep large bundles of money exposed. We also have a stated expectation in terms of cleanliness standards. We try to avoid the unsightly “coffee water” and messy work areas. We also have specific standards in terms of wardrobe. I went out and bought a bunch of very colorful Hawaiian shirts that are easy to spot, very comfortable, easy to keep clean and they make us look like a unified as a professional face painting group.

We use stickers or plastic tokens and a line worker for festivals. The stickers sell for one penny each at full retail at Ruby Red Paints. You also can use reuseable plastic tokens from Ruby Red Paints or even washers from the hardware store. We like stickers as they are easy to use. We do not want our experienced painters using “paint time” when an inexpensive LINE WORKER can easily manage the lines and the money. You can use any trustworthy teen to do this. As the line forms they simply sell to the adult/child a face painting sticker. This way you get their money and then they never give up and walk away without getting painted. You can even use different color stickers if you have different rates for more complicated face painting designs. When they get are painted they pass the sticker to their painter and they put the sticker in neat rows of ten on a piece of paper and we know exactly how many faces they painted and how much they earned. For safety reasons every once in a while stacks of money are passed on and hidden or packed away to make the line worker less vulnerable. You need to be discrete when you are handling thousands of dollars. The more obvious the money, the greater risk and temptation you will be.

We put the workers into a sort of a gauntlet with one way in and one way out. The FLOW is obvious. The area is sort of sealed off to not allow people to affect the flow or cutting in line. We supply a uniform 18 x 18 inch aluminum table for all workers to work off of. Before they enter the gauntlet the person already has had the opportunity to select the face they wanted painted from face painting books. Each face has a name so they simply tell the painter the name. We come with plenty of these books. The newer painters also have a copy of the book near them in case they need to look at it while painting. We have someone that is constantly shuffling the people to be painted to the next available painter. Our faster painters request two or three people to be sent at a time as they finish painting to keep the flow fast. With one way in and one way out it keeps it moving. We put the quality face painters closest to the waiting line and the fastest painters closest to the start of the gauntlet.

Depending on the conditions we offer adequate SHELTER. This can be coverage for potential rain to massive lawn umbrellas to block the Texas sun. Once the sun goes down we have good, inexpensive lighting to keep all working until close time.

We want to use this opportunity to be used as a great TRAINING GROUND for the future. There is nothing like the line of fire to get them painting faster. Remember we have already made sure they meet the minimum standards in quality. We put the weaker painters near the better painters as MENTORING. Also if someone asks for a face they can not do they can pass them off to the other painter. Also when the slower painter sees the painter next to them paint three faces for every one of theirs it is pressure for them to pick up the pace. We like to put our best workers where the crowds can see the quality AND the speed. The watching is certainly part of the experience.

Festivals are also the perfect time to do your best MARKETING. Make sure you have plenty of business cards as we ALWAYS get lots of future bookings from these events. In our case we have one business card for the company that everyone uses. On the back of the card there is a specific spot to list the face painter’s name. It says something like “Ask for _____________” when you do your booking. We have business cards on our sign boards, in pockets in the face paint photo books and at every face painting table. Pass them out like candy as it can be your best tool.

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Gary Cole

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