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Discover Mid-America — July 2008

Elements of a good
antique show

by Bruce Rodgers

Everyone in the antique trade is feeling the economic pinch in one way or another. The big trickle-down effect comes from high gas prices, putting pressure on the shop/mall owner, dealer and antique show promoters as well.

13th Annual Smithville (MO) Flea Market and Antique Show held in June. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Seasoned promoters have always known that the adage “build it and they will come” doesn’t really apply to antique shows. Both dealers and those who come to look and buy have to have a reason. It’s up to the promoter to generate a certain level of appeal for that to happen.

Discover Mid-America talked with three show promoters to find out a little about how they do what they do, how they’re weathering an economy flirting with a recession, and what they think is down the road for them and sellers and buyers of antiques.

One promoter is new to the enterprise, keeping her show close to home, outside her mall. The other two have been in business for years, promoting shows in various states and different venues.

Reasons why

Like many antique lovers, Kimberly Schilling found an interest in antiques early on. The collecting began in her youth, leading to a dream of eventually developing an antique show. In 1995 and armed with seven years of advertising experience, Schilling founded Melting Pot Productions and with it produced her first Antique Speculator show in Davenport, IA.

“I saw a niche in the market where we lived,” she said. “There was room to grow; there wasn’t a formal, indoor show at the time.”

Two years later Schilling took the show across the Mississippi to Rock Island, IL to the QCCA Expo Center and it has been there ever since. Melting Pot also produces Antique Spectacular shows in Council Bluffs (where Melting Pot is based) and Des Moines, IA.

Schilling started young in show promotions. She was 25 years old. It was that — not being a woman — that was the big hurtle to overcome.

“I got a lot of ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie” remarks,” she remembers good-naturedly.

“People have come to respect me over the 13 years (of show promotion). But I had to prove myself more because of my age. Antiques are old and people expect the promoter to be old, which has been proven over the years to be an asset.”

Tammy Borden, owner of Bates City Antique Mall, is in her second year of planning another outdoor antique show. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Tammy Borden, owner of Bates City Antique Mall, has one show under her belt, which included 15 dealers.. She’s planning another in October and hopes to double the number of dealers. Like the first one, it’s an outdoor show, under a big tent set up near her mall in Bates City, MO.

“My personal desire was to promote Bates City and bring sales to my vendors,” said Borden.

She’s bullish on show promotion and confident of her abilities. “You’re talking to a girl that when mom brought out the pots and pans, I put the small one with small ones, and the big one with the big ones. I’m a born organizer.”

Gerry Nagel got into promoting, he said, “as a favor.” Fifteen years ago a local organization in his hometown of Auburn, IN that benefited from having an antique show became disenchanted with the current promoter and asked Nagel to take over.

Nagel enlisted the help of long-time Indiana antiques dealer Don Orwig and soon Willowrush Promotions was born.

Up until 2006, Nagel also kept his “real job” so-to-speak as a high school teacher. “My partner (Orwig) and I have expanded the business in a slow and deliberate manner, relative to the amount of time available.”

Willowrush has the reputation of attracting high-quality dealers. The company produces nine shows a year with anywhere from 65 to 110 dealers over a two- or three-day period. The geographic spread includes the Louisville (KY) Antique Show, the Maumee Valley Historical Society Antiques Show in Ohio, the Missouri Heritage Art and Antiques Show in St. Louis and the Overland Park (KS) Antique Show.

“Obviously, I love traveling,” said Nagel, “and I enjoy the history part, learning about the artifacts and meeting some really cool people that have the same sentiment.”

Making it happen

Three key elements go into making an antique show successful: Choosing the right mix of dealers and their representative wares, selecting the right venue for the show and picking the right day or days to put it on. With an outdoor show there’s another factor — the weather and hoping it’s not raining or too cold or too hot.

“All those items are important to us,” said Nagel. “Foremost for us is the ability to create a show that will stand the test of time and entice buyers to spend money at each of our venues.”

Presenting his shows to “a favorable demographic for our dealers” is how Nagel makes sure Willowrush shows keep drawing in the crowds. Research is vital, said Nagel, and with his radio/TV marketing background, he looks hard at the area where he mounts the shows and how he markets them. Along the way he found some interesting conclusions.

Kim Schilling of Antique Spectacular with show assistant Carol Young. (photo courtesy of Melting Pot Productions)

“We try and skew the economic demographic toward a more educated class that’s more amenable to discretionary spending, and did you know that jazz lovers are more like to take to impulse buying?

For Schilling, “A successful mix (for a show) includes marketing and more marketing.

“The only way a show will be successful is if the buyers know it is taking place. We aggressively market through direct mail, print in trade and local newspapers, television, radio, website, email and public relations.”

Booth rental receipts, said Schilling, go to marketing the show. Her profit comes from the door.

Developing a reputation as a “quality show” is fundamental. That determination depends upon the types of dealers attending. Schilling asks for show references and photos of what a dealer will sell. “I shy away from flea market-oriented, outdoor show dealers,” she said.

Nagle also has a vetting process, including watching closely for dealers handling reproductions — “Absolutely no way,” he said. Nagel also doesn’t like to overload a show with jewelry exhibitors, stating it’s hard to determine “the year” of jewelry.

One way Borden attracts quality dealers is “letting them know ‘you are their first customer,’ that my services are to them. If I do, I think they end up having a better show.”

Parking, particularly free parking, is another crucial element both for dealers unloading their antiques and set-up gear, and those attending the show. As for the date: “You don’t want to end up on a date where there are other community events taking patrons away from the show,” said Schilling.

Everything can be taken care of but again the unforeseen can arise.

Nagel has yet to forget the time a table supplier had the wrong date for the show and failed to deliver the exhibitors’ tables.

“This show was on Labor Day weekend in an area that hosts the fifth largest festival in Indiana. There was no other distributor with tables.

“We spent a day and a half locating 300 tables from area churches, school and clubs. It was both emotionally and physically challenging not to mention the anguish it caused the dealers. I still recall those pleas like, ‘Where’s mine?’ and ‘You told me the next load was for me.’”

But the ultimate in stress said Nagel was when a facility’s contract was cancelled because of new ownership only four months prior to a scheduled show. It caused the show to be cancelled.

Facing challenges

In describing the current antique market, both Schilling and Nagel use variations of the same word. Nagel said the antiques trade “is in contraction for now.” Said Schilling, “The market will continue to contract.”

In the face of that agreement, Nagel has a certain dilemma. Dealers are asking him to create new shows within the Midwest.

“They want us in Columbia, MO and Tulsa, and we’ve been asked to purchase other shows,” he said.

Gerry Nagel of Willowrush Promotions produces antique shows from Ohio to Kansas. (photo by Ron Johnson)

“Right now is not the time,” Nagel added. “Due to the weakness in the marketplace, we are very tentative regarding expansion. I would say guarded.”

Schilling agrees. “We’ve been feeling it a long time.”

She cites a familiar concern — not enough young people are coming into the trade. The task, she said, is reaching for the new urbanites and speculates that “going Green” may be a way.

“We’re all about preserving history, reusing something — a Green point of view,” Schilling said.

Nagel believes having a non-local presence at Willowrush shows help draw people. But he admits that rising gas expenses make “dealers not anxious to travel long distances to exhibit.”

The options are limited, said Nagel: increase ticket prices, increase vendor booth rent or cut costs. “Not very palatable to us,” he added, noting that postage and advertising are major expenses for promoters.

“To reduce advertising is not a viable option for us,” Nagel said. “At the present moment, we seem to be caught in a Catch-22 scenario. We are in the business to promote and promoting costs money.”

Nagel believes that antique shows have to change — or expand — their approach and what they sell. He’s been adding an art element to his shows. It’s an aspect that Borden has also bought to her Bates City event by seeking out local and regional artists to sell and display.

Nagel thinks offering live entertainment may be a plus along with a good food concession beyond just hotdogs, chips and soft drinks. Both additions would help the antique show experience, he said.

“The antique business has gotten lazy,” said Nagel. “We walk around the aisles and look at stuff. What it’s all about is making shopping fun again.”

Isn’t it the “fun” element that got folks into antiques to begin with?

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at

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