In 2010, there were maybe two known Natural Hair Expos, the World Natural Hair Show and the Baltimore Show. That quickly changed in the following years, where Meetup groups popped up, sometimes two or three in one city, and then the Expo. Expos are a great way for small business owners to gain exposure to the community and for naturals to find products and services that are specific to their hair care needs and fashion preferences. Each business has their own personal flaire and take on African Culture and more. Expos have been an awesome way to build a community of like-minded business owners and consumers unlike the traditional business networking.
The stages gave Indie and local artists a chance to share their gifts and talents, and maybe even make some money selling their merchandise. Most expos have been kid friendly, typically with free admission, and they also may have offered local food that wasn’t in a restaurant or food truck. Expos were much needed in the natural hair community, as it was growing rapidly. The set-up was basically a gym, hall or hotel event space that had a small stage, and an open floorplan for vendor booths. There were usually chairs placed in the middle facing the stage for performances and presentations–some even had separate rooms for classes. What’s more is that expos gave organizers a way to really earn money on a larger scale, somewhat as an event planner.
So what has happened to them? Where have all the expos gone? The World Natural Hair Show is in its 20th year, located in Atlanta, GA the nucleus for Black Everything in the US. Even in recent years with a decrease in attendance, it’s still the largest of its kind anywhere. But as for expos in smaller cities, well, some fell off after the first year or a few years. Some started off great and decreased in attendance each year, and some may have gotten too big for organizers to continue with mounting costs of venue rentals, volunteers or paid staff and trying to keep vendor fees as low as possible.
For natural hair expos, what made them most was the number of unique vendors showcasing their products and services. With others catching the wave of vendor events, it had become overwhelming for vendors to decide which shows and events to be a part of. On the one hand, they could pay the nearly $1000 price tag for larger festivals and expos with the hopes that the thousands who attend would patronize them and they’d at least break even. The problem with that is if their products have a low end price-point, it would make it very difficult to even break even at a show. On the other hand, there has been an increase in vendor events in churches, schools, community organizations and just about anything you can think of. From concerts and CD release parties to fashion shows and even club parties, event organizers had to get in on the wave of charging vendor fees to cover the cost of venue rentals and promotions and to also increase their profit margin. They could charge vendors anywhere from $5 to $25 and that would help smaller event promoters a way to make back their rental fees. The issue with this was that vendors had to start choosing what was worth the risk.
The risks? Yes, the risks in vending at an event is not being sure if the attendance was going to be good or if the event had been promoted well or not. So if a vendor pays $100 or more for one table for an event, but the attendance is low, they may not do well in sales during the event and may take a loss– not even recouping their vendor fee, let alone the cost for purchasing supplies and making or preparing enough merchandise to display and sell. This makes an event with a $20 vendor fee worth the investment or the loss. Vendors had to start thinking about the costs associated with being a full time vendor. The cost of not only preparing merchandise, but the cost of display equipment, storage, travel fees and set-up and tear down is tremendous for vendors. They are basically packing up a store on a regular, sometimes weekly basis, to travel to events both indoor and outdoor. So the cost can become astronomical, also, if the price point of their merchandise is low to mid range.
What else has come in to play with regard to expos? The attendance. Guests who have attended more than one look for the same things each year as well as something different. If they are used to getting swag bags upon entry, but none aren’t available, they may not attend. If there aren’t enough classes to attend, they may not attend. If there aren’t enough performances, they may not want to come out. The time of year and the time of day also makes a difference. During cooler months, guests are less likely to come out to an event where they will basically be shopping. The challenge for expo organizers is figuring out what does and does not work, what time of day, what locations, and what prices work best for their event. If they have done it more than once, they should be always trying to reinvent their event in some way, keeping those things which are successful, and changing those things are less successful. Some may not have the budget to bring in “celebrity” guests or panelists and some may not be able to afford the rising costs of renting facilities, especially where there is a meal cost requirement. For example, a local venue only charges $200 for a beautiful space with a lovely view of a downtown area, and can accommodate up to 100 guests. But you have to purchase food for the guests as a part of the deal. Just for sandwiches, chips and a beverage for each guest made the total cost well over $1000.
The final “nail in the coffin” for many expo organizers, event planners, meetup hosts and small black businesses is the mainstream haircare and fashion industry who has carefully observed the natural hair movement and then strategized to monopolize on the new and upcoming industry. There was a time where you could only purchase African Black Soap, Shea Butter, Nubian Heritage and Dashikis from independent business owners. Now they have these items, for smaller quantities and still for less than what a customer would pay at a vendor event. Why pay $15 for a 16 oz tub of Shea Butter when the Asian Beauty supply store has 6 oz. for $3.99? Why go to a local business for a Dashiki where you may pay $30 for one, when you can go to Rainbow fashions and get one for $14.99? And finally, why buy products like Shea Moisture from a vendor when you can go to Walgreens and get them Buy one get one free? Vendors have the uphill battle of trying to find merchandise that is unique to a certain customer base, for a price that people will pay. While there are those who try to support small businesses no matter what, there are many more who are always looking for the least expensive way to obtain the items they prefer.
Today, vendor events like natural hair expos are few and far between. The market had become over saturated with events, and the cost grew as others caught on to the movement and changed the game, gobbling up all the “Black Products” they could obtain in order to sell it to us for a cheaper price. Does that mean that natural hair expos aren’t needed? No, there is still a need and a desire, but there has to be a way that organizers can find a way to continue doing these types of events without being priced out of them all.