How to Host a Pop-Up Market (or Any Event) in 10 Straight-Up Steps and Bonus Best Practices for Success

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Earlier this spring, I shared some of my behind-the-scenes secrets about my largest Eat Boutique Holiday Market (ever). We had about 8,000 guests visit while we were open, and I really can’t thank you all enough for attending the market, shopping from all the participating artists and makers, and reading all about it here. That single post was so popular that I decided to go even deeper today. Like, way deeper.

Instead of a recipe, I want to share the 10 straight-up steps that make up my approach to planning an event, and a bunch of best practices to make them super successful. Ready?! Wait a second…

You’re probably thinking, where’s the recipe?!

How to Host a Pop-Up Market//eatboutique.com

Friends, I realize this is not a recipe post. The thing is, my business life is complex and goes beyond making delicious, wholesome, sweetly-wrapped dishes to share or gift. This behind-the-scenes stuff makes it possible for me to develop recipes (YAY) and write cookbooks (DOUBLE YAY).

Before you click away, I’d love for you to stick around to read this post. Many of the following steps apply to running a small business, taking on a new venture, going out on your own to freelance, or even just getting through a big project at work. I tried to make this post as helpful as possible to as many of you as possible because it’s all of you who stop me at events, asking how to make a job you love. This one’s for you, for real.

Okay, back to the show…

I don’t host and design pop-up markets just for the fun of it – though it is super fun and I love to see your smiling faces. I host events because I crave in-real-life community experiences that matter to my business, and it is these experiences that showed me my real work.

I didn’t build Eat Boutique over night. It came to life through nine years (wow) of blogging; tasting thousands of foods; picking my favorites for taste, quality, design, and best business practices; shipping food gifts around the country; and eventually hosting in-real-life events. And it all starts with #1.

1. FIGURE OUT YOUR WHY.

Don’t host a pop-up (or anything, really) because it’s cool to host a pop-up – honestly, that’s just a waste of time and money. Do it because it will do something powerful for you or your business. If you want to build up or extend your brand, a pop-up can help clarify your brand image and aesthetic.

Are you hoping to make money through your pop-up? Pop-ups can make money, definitely, but only if you’re super clear on what you’re selling (tickets, services, or products) and put that first. Many folks host pop-ups to network and just build up a community of like-minded folks while not losing money. That’s a totally awesome reason to host a pop-up, just let the “not losing money” part guide your decisions. Meaning, you may have to design your own photo booth versus shell out cash for a professional one. Figure out your why and let it guide you.

Eat Boutique Holiday Market 2015 Opening // eatboutique.com

2. CREATE A BUDGET AND STICK TO IT.

This is important for an event, and for life, really. If you don’t know how to create a budget, this is the perfect moment to figure it out because sticking to a budget makes it possible for you to do the stuff you want in life and in business. Figure out how to use a spreadsheet program, and use it to sketch out a budget and track your spending. There are plenty of very smart people on the Internet who can show you how to set up a budget spreadsheet, or read on for my very basic explanation.

I suggest you create two simple spreadsheets. Spreadsheet #1 tracks all the money going out (your costs). Spreadsheet #2 tracks all the money coming in (your revenue). Let’s talk about Spreadsheet #1.

Spreadsheet #1 will track your estimates (what you think something will cost) and your actuals (what it really did cost, the actual cost). This spreadsheet needs three columns. Column 1 lists out each item you need to spend money on (like space rent, a carpenter, a website, etc.). Column 2 is where you fill in your estimated budget. You’ll come up with estimates based on your knowledge and research. Don’t pull these numbers out of thin air. Do the work, call vendors, email spaces, and get those numbers as close to actual as you possibly can. Column 3 is where you will add in the actual cost once you know it or you get the bill. Make sure to total up all the figures in Column 2 and all the figures in Column 3, and compare them. You want them to be as close as possible or, preferably, you want Column 3 to come out to less than what you estimated in Column 2.

Spreadsheet #2 will track your revenue or sales numbers. If you’re making your money via ticket sales, then Spreadsheet #2 may have number of people estimated to attend and ticket price. Multiply those two figures together and you have your estimated revenue. The point of this exercise is to make sure that you break even (that both spreadsheets come out to the same number) or that you make money (that Spreadsheet #2 has a bigger number than Spreadsheet #1). Got it?

Okay, enough about budgets!

How to Host a Pop-Up Market//eatboutique.com

3. LINE UP THE SPACE.

In order to host a pop-up event, market, dinner, or party of any sort, you need a space. Without the space, you really are stalled. I have become very familiar with most of the available event spaces in Boston. I’ve toured them, I know their rates, and I know the easiest way to reach the event coordinators at these sites. I am always viewing spaces to be aware of what’s available when. And I also meet with realtors and developers, as they’re always looking for new, modern ways to use buildings that would otherwise be empty (which is a downer to a prospective tenant, they want to see activity there!). You should become familiar with the spaces available to you, so you can act on a pop-up opportunity whenever it comes up. Don’t forget the unconventional spaces — like an empty garage of an old factory building or a cruise ship port — and be open to the potential of an otherwise hidden gem just waiting to be filled with your fans, followers, friends, and colleagues. Book the space first, because everything else will be informed by its location, size, capacity, and price.

How to Host a Pop-Up Market//eatboutique.com

4. GATHER A TEAM.

You can’t plan a successful pop-up on your own. Sometimes, it feels like you have to do it all yourself – boy, I know that feeling! I planned some of my very first pop-ups all by myself, but they were way better when a few friends donated their time and when, eventually, I was able to pay a team of folks to help bring it all to life. Try to assemble a team of people with skills who compliment your own. They can overlap a little, but it’s better to bring on folks who know things you do not know. You can see the types of people I brought on board to help me with my last pop-up in my original behind-the-scenes post.

5. INVITE THE KEY PARTICIPANTS.

A pop-up needs participants. In my case, I have a huge group of food and drink makers, artists, vendors, chefs, and food trucks I want to highlight and include in every single pop-up. Since my space and budget determines how many folks I can include, I figure that out and get invites out fast, immediately, the moment the space is booked. I don’t manage my invite list like a wedding list – with an A team and a B team. That’s too much work and doesn’t really work to your main goal which is filling the space with wonderful participants whom your guests will love. I invite 3x the number of participants I can fit in the space and make the invitation first come, first serve. I do that to maximize my ability to get the most delicious, complimentary mix involved but I also want those who are motivated and excited to be a part of something special. Because, pop-ups are special and the truly motivated are the ones who help to make it special.

How to Host a Pop-Up Market//eatboutique.com

Eat Boutique Holiday Market 2015 Opening // eatboutique.com

6. CREATE THE LOOK.

This is my favorite part. I’m a very visually-motivated person – a single image says way more than a single sentence – so I take this part of the process very seriously. I also have fun, too, because this is so fun, really.

Often times, I design the look many moons before I even get to step 1 or 2. I do this with sketches and through Pinterest. On my Eat Boutique Markets board, you can see all the inspiration for my first retail space. I pin images that help me share the story for the retail space. You can do the same thing. Create a Pinterest account and start with your very first board (you can keep it secret, if you prefer). Look for images that spark a vision for your event and keep pinning until you have a full board that tells the story for your event.

[I keep many pop-up boards going at all times. I have a dream of doing an Eat Boutique Market in Paris someday – really, for the pure joy of it. It may never happen, but when the right partner appears, you better believe I’ll be ready!]

Once you have the look, create marketing collateral to promote it — flyers or postcards or a website or press release or whatever suits your event. I often do a little of all of them.

7. ANNOUNCE YOUR EVENT TO THE WORLD.

Make this a big deal. You’ve worked so hard so make sure to tell everyone, and I mean everyone, about your pop-up. Sure, do the regular stuff like sending email newsletters, writing blog posts, posting flyers, and sending press releases. But I take it a step further by telling all of my friends via social media and even sending personal (or sometimes time-is-short-blast) emails to friends and family. These are the folks who want to help you be successful and they’re so happy to help in whatever way they can, big or small.

For my last event, we asked all participants and partners to share our pop-up with their networks too. Every mention helps. I also got to work with a publicist during my last event, and she notified all the press. I sent some personal emails to the press too because that personal connection is important in deciding whether they may attend or mention it to their friends or colleagues.

I used to lead a life building consumer brands on the Internet. Our user research studies showed that a consumer needed to hear a message seven (7!) times in order for it to register with them. Seven times!?! That’s a lot. Sometimes, I feel weird saying “please come to my market” for the third, fifth, or seventh time, but I also know that you don’t see all of my messages. If I want all of you to know about it, I have to keep saying it. So share your event everywhere and don’t be shy about it. And after you’ve shared it with everyone everywhere, collaborate with friends and other brands to share it even further. More on that next!

How to Host a Pop-Up Market//eatboutique.com

8. COLLABORATE TO SHARE EVEN FURTHER.

Collaborating around a common goal is a little easier than you may think. And if two brands are after a common goal, perhaps raising brand awareness, then it’s natural to want to collaborate to amplify your awareness and help each other. I’ve built Eat Boutique over years of many collaborations — from working with Gilt, Food52, and even Harvard University.

If you see a brand that fits with yours, contact them to share what you’re doing, offer up a way for them to get involved, and convince them of why they should work on your pop-up (or project) with you, meaning, give them sound business reasons for why it makes sense. Smaller brands are happy to collaborate closer to the last moment, but larger brands often plan their budgets and marketing up to a year in advance, so be sure to contact them as far in advance as possible.

When you do sign on a collaboration partner, make sure to do what you said you would do and provide them a recap afterward. It’s important to close the loop and make them super successful too.

9. BE THERE WITH BELLS ON, ALWAYS.

Before your pop-up opens, be there. Be there to train and educate your team on how you want the event to go. Don’t leave anything up to interpretation. Explain the experience and walk your team through the space from point 1 to point 37, explaining what you hope guests will experience in every inch of the space. If you want your team to smile, tell them to smile. If you want your team to keep it model-cool, tell them to do that – though I don’t know why you would want that, ha! Either way, be there to explain your vision up until the final moments before it opens.

The moment your pop-up opens, be there. Say hello, greet everyone, and stand behind what you made. Spread hugs and handshakes and thank-yous like jam on toast: liberally. Of the 8,000 guests who attended my last pop-up market, I feel like I met at least a couple thousand of them. Gosh, many guests wanted to come up to me just to ask why I did this, what motivates me and the team, or to simply tell me it was a nice way to spend an afternoon. Many guests returned three and four times, and that was wonderful to see. But the point here is, be there to greet as many guests as possible, thank them, ask why they attended, and point them into a direction that helps them have a good experience.

This also means, you have to be there when things may not go quite perfectly. Guests should be able to say “this isn’t as expected” or “I’d really love to see a cafe-style restaurant in the middle of your space next time” (hint hint). Take each piece of feedback graciously and thank them because, frankly, you’re lucky they care enough to share. Be there, always.

Eat_Boutique_Holiday_Market_2

How to Host a Pop-Up Market//eatboutique.com

10. SURVEY, SURVEY, SURVEY – BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER.

Some people are so afraid of feedback. They’re afraid to ask because they worry someone may say something critical or, perhaps even, negative. In fact, the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is not surveying guests, participants, and partners for ways to improve. How are you supposed to get better if you don’t know what to improve?

I used to run a user research group at what was once the largest search engine on the planet during a time when another big search engine was kicking our butts. I developed a super thick skin asking about all the ways we needed to fix our user experience and improve our search results. That thick skin has helped as I tumble through creating a business and life that I love. Before, during, and after a big event, I always prepare surveys asking about the pros, the cons, and the improvements that we need to make to take it to the next level. When folks take a survey, they are doing me a huge favor and investing a few minutes in making Eat Boutique better. Even a simple one-question survey that asks whether you’d return is very helpful. Don’t forget it.

IT WAS SUCH A DELIGHT to bring the Eat Boutique Holiday Market to life last year. It taught me so much about what you want in food. I hope this pop-up posts helps you in some small way. Please don’t ever hesitate to email me, anytime.

Before you go, I want to share some quick best practices as you tumble through creating your own stellar events, pop-ups, and marketing programs…

How to Host a Pop-Up Market//eatboutique.com

BEST PRACTICES:

A. Pay everyone on time, get receipts, and track what you’ve actually spent. Put it all in your spreadsheet.

B. Get your friends involved in spreading the word. Email them, really!

C. Be PRESENT, and treat everyone as you would want to be treated.

D. Track all the other details like number of visitors, sales, and any other feedback. This will be so helpful for the next one, and sharing lessons with participants and partners.

E  Celebrate all the little moments. Celebrate the opening, celebrate great press, celebrate the closing, and celebrate everyone who showed up to help you make it happen.

F. Show tons of gratitude to all those who participated, and show your thanks in your own way. This could mean an email or a hand-written card or throwing a party at the end of it all for your core group. Do what you can.

How to Host a Pop-Up Market//eatboutique.com

Photos taken by Heidi Murphy/White Loft Studios.

Eat Boutique is the go-to resource for all things food gifts, including one-of-a-kind, small-batch products and inspirational articles. We’ve got food gifts in our award-winning shop and story-driven recipes for everyday cravings, special occasions, and for anyone who needs a little food gift love—and, really, who doesn’t?!

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Comments

  • Susan Huff

    Wow, wow , wow I loved this such great information and WISDOM – I love FOOD and I want a business I have not done what you mentioned – DECIDE what it is I am selling at this POP -UP – how do you sell a service and charge at the pop-up to show the service?? susan.huff@icloud.com http://www.thesoulfulseed.com

    • Hi Susan, Thanks so much for your kind note! Come up with someone that represents your service! OR, better yet, offer a discount or coupon to use your service. I bet you’d get folks trying with a small discount. Goooood luck! xo

  • savvy

    Thank you for such a informative posting….esp setting the stage for WHY and being CLEAR re what you want…right down to ‘walk through’ with visions for experience of your guests!! You’ve learned well, and therein lies your success!! My fantasies include being in Boston when you’re having one….or some other city where I can visit!! Salt Lake City IS becoming a city for Foodies….and Next year Hamilton expected to show HERE!! So maybe you’ll be on your way….

    • You’re so sweet. Come to Boston! Yes. We have several events coming up soooon. But Salt Lake City does sound fun. I was there a couple years back, great city. Thanks for commenting! xo