Being an Artist in Business
My Story - Part 2

Other essays in this series

(The section numbering in this essay is a continuation of My Story - Part 1 that ends with section 9)

People think that at the top there isn't much room.  They tend to think of it as an Everest. 
My message is that there is tons of room at the top.
Robert de Niro

10 - The break
According to McDonald’s we all deserve a break, and we deserve it today.  We should take it right here, right now and preferably in a McDonald’s restaurant.  The fact that McDonald’s are ubiquitously present in cities and along main highways makes this approach very convenient.  McDonald’s certainly had marketing considerations in mind when they came up with that line. However, getting a break does have some truth in the context of our considerations.

In business, we all need a break to get started.  Why?  Because we need a way in, a ramp-up, a motivating factor, something to make us feel like we have a chance to succeed, something to make up for the fact we have no experience and (in my case) no funds to give us a financial advantage. Such was my situation and my break was being able to sell my work on the North Porch of the El Tovar Hotel at Grand Canyon National Park.  By being able to sell at the Grand Canyon I was able to bypass years of attempting to make a living in second class, or third class, or even lower than that, venues.  You see, in selling there are venues and then there are venues.  In selling art, as in selling real estate, location is very important.  And the Grand Canyon is a prime location, especially the El Tovar Hotel which on top of being the premier hotel in Grand Canyon National Park, and listed in the National Register of Historical Places, is located 60 feet from the rim of the Grand Canyon, with many of its rooms and suites having a direct view onto what is considered to be one of the wonders of the natural world.

11-The people
But location, while being crucially important, isn’t enough to make you succeed. The best location in the world is nothing without traffic that brings you qualified customers on a daily basis.  The El Tovar delivers just that.  Located at the top of a hill overlooking the Grand Canyon, the El Tovar is on the path of just about every Grand Canyon visitor. 

First, the Grand Canyon Railroad Terminal is located just down the hill from the El Tovar hotel.  After getting off the train, passengers --who in the summer can number up to 3000 per train with two or more trains per day-- come up the path to the El Tovar because it is the most direct route from the train station to the first overlook. They then walk in front of the El Tovar, and, you guessed it, walk by our display, stop, look, and purchase photographs.  Some purchase them right there and then, and some purchase them on their way back.

White House and Ollas
The pottery depicted in this image, as well as in the last image in Part 1-- Canyon de Chelly Collage--
is from the archaeological collection of the University of Arizona.
I photographed it after obtaining special permission.

I have always preferred customers who purchase on their way back because the train only gives passengers a 3 hour stopover at Grand Canyon.  When passengers realize it is time to return and stop by our booth, they usually have only minutes to spare and must make a decision right there and then. It is do or die, sink or swim, buy it now or have regrets forever time.  Many sales to passengers that were “late for the train” and at risk of being left at Grand Canyon overnight (what a drag) were made on the basis of “Can you frame it and pack it in 3 minutes my train is leaving right now!”  And we could.  I would frame the piece, Natalie would package it while I wrote the receipt and processed their card or gave them change. In less time than it takes to say “all aboard!” they were running down the hill with a photograph under their arm.  We never had a “late for the train customer” negotiate the price, try to not pay sales tax, or ask for a cash discount.  I am sure many thought of doing so but time was running out.  The expression impulse purchase was never more accurate.

Second, there were the hikers.  Never discount the hikers.  They may be sweaty, covered with dust and pulverized donkey poop, sometimes haggard and nearly always suffering from a bad case of Kaibab Shuffle, this unmistakable swagger that develops the day after climbing 7000 vertical feet and makes your lactic-acid-loaded-legs unable to climb stairs because you cannot lift your feet more than an inch above the ground, forcing you to walk with legs locked at the ankle, or the knee, and in particularly extreme instances at the hip, legs that can only be moved sideways and forward, as any flexing of the muscles that allow you to bend your legs has become impossible.  The Kaibab Shuffle became our best friend, because hikers afflicted with this painful and debilitating condition were easy prey to any and all possibilities of sitting down.  “Would you like a seat” became for them the best news in the world.  A seat, and the knowledge they were on top of the hill and that as long as they stayed there they would not have to go up any further, was the best news they could ever get at this specific time in their lives.  And since we were located on top of the hill, and because we had seats, specifically large historical benches located on the porch of the El Tovar, we were the bearers of good news.  Almost any hiker that would take us up on our offer to  “take a seat” became a customer.

Hikers would come in droves, equipped with complete explorer outfits and larger than needed backpacks, asking if we could ship.  And we could.  We had large signs that read, quite simply “We Ship!”  Those signs were ubiquitously pointed towards the trail so hikers on their way down into the canyon could read them.  They would make their actual purchase after they returned, most afflicted by then with the Kaibab Shuffle as I just describe, now seeking to bring back home with them one of our photographs, as memento of their trip.  If their finances allowed it, this memento was going to be as large as we could make it, so that its size would be metaphorically proportional to the suffering they endured below the rim.  The longer and the more difficult their hike was, and the least likely it would ever be repeated, the bigger the purchase.  I once had a father who bought our largest piece –a 7-foot panorama of the entire Bright Angel Trail—and who mentioned, after announcing his decision “Two of them.  One for me, one for my daughter.  We did the hike together.”  “Yes sir.  And would you like a couple of companion prints with that?”  Actually, I didn’t say that.  I just said “Thank you. That is a wonderful gift to your daughter and yourself.” and proceeded to write the receipt.  But I certainly thought it.  Sometimes, it is really challenging to know when to stop talking.  Usually, I was able to do quite well.  But on occasion, I did digress. Not that time though.

The El Tovar is the second-closest lodge to the head of the Bright Angel Trail, the most traveled trail in Grand Canyon.  The closest lodge is Bright Angel Lodge, about a half mile past the El Tovar.  You may ask, “then the Bright Angel Lodge should be a better location, shouldn’t it?”  Well, not really. You see the Bright Angel Lodge is not in the same caliber of lodges as the El Tovar.  The El Tovar is where the wealthiest visitors go.  Since art is a luxury, it is those with the highest amount of disposable income that will buy the most expensive artwork.  Furthermore, just about every one who stays at the Bright Angel Lodge comes up to the El Tovar because it is along the path to other overlooks, because it is a beautiful, world-renowned historical lodge, and because it is next to what I consider to be the two nicest gift stores in Grand Canyon: the Hopi House and Verkamps.  Visits to both stores are “required” of all Grand Canyon visitors. In fact, when you exit the park you are asked to show a receipt from one of those two stores and if you cannot show such a receipt your must pay the park entrance fee a second time.  At $25 this exceeds the cost of a tee shirt, or other affordable souvenir, making shopping in those stores a no-brainer (just kidding).

Third, are the walk-in visitors. This may be the largest category, but not necessarily the most profitable.  Walk in visitors are basically just about anyone who drives into the park, parks their vehicle, and walks along the rim, into the stores and into the historical buildings.  They are sightseeing without a further goal in mind, unlike hikers who may be walking along the rim but are doing so waiting to start their hike either down to the river and back, or across the canyon, or on some remote wilderness trail following their own itinerary.

Walk in visitors is a misleading term because they are really “driving-in” visitors. However, by the time we meet them, they are on foot, their car parked somewhere, far away.

Tsegi Spring Storm
Olympus OM4, Zuiko 18mm, Kodak Royal Gold 25

The average Grand Canyon visitor spends 20 minutes looking at the Grand Canyon and 3 hours shopping in the stores along the rim, the three main ones being Verkamps and the Hopi House (required as I just mentioned) and the El Tovar whose gift store, although selling higher-end merchandise is also very popular.  With Natalie, we worked very hard at lowering the average time people spent looking at the Grand Canyon.  After 5 years, and based on extensive surveys conducted by the National Park service (survey based on passing over 7 million questionnaires to Grand canyon visitors) we succeeded in lowering this average to 15 minutes.  We were on our way to 10 minutes, and going strong, when the El Tovar show was terminated (just kidding although the show was terminated; more on that later). For now, let us look at a fourth traffic category: the hotel guests.

Hotel Guests were among our best customers.  First, they were a “captive audience” so to speak, for the duration of their stay.  The North Porch being the most direct way to the rim of Grand Canyon, nearly all of them walked by our show several times a day.  Most of them looked at our work on their way in or out, and it was only a matter of time until they purchased something. Some made their purchase on their first visit to the show.  Others made their purchase as they departed the hotel.  Most made purchases during the middle of their stay, after having made their mind up carefully about which piece they wanted to take home with them. A surprising number made repeated purchases throughout their stay, often at the beginning, middle and end.  Highly recommended.  By the time they departed Grand Canyon for the next destination on their itinerary, they had become close friends. Some even recommended us to their entire family. I once sold artwork to each member of a 50+ member family reunion.  All together, they purchased nearly 100 pieces. 

What is most important to understand about El Tovar guests is that they were qualified customers.  As I mentioned, because the El Tovar is the most expensive hotel in the park, only the wealthiest guests stay there.  This means that they are the ones with the most disposable income, and because art is often purchased with disposable income this means they were our most likely customers.  Second, they obviously liked the El Tovar otherwise they would have elected to stay somewhere else.  It therefore made sense that they would like most other aspects of the hotel, including our art show.  And finally, the fact that we were showing at the El Tovar, instead of in a lower-category hotel, said something about us. Clearly, the hotel picked only artists that met the high standards that had been set for this hotel.  This in turn justified the prices we charged and guaranteed the service we provided.  In short, we were the ones when it came to buying photography.  The fact that we were the only ones in the park to sell fine art photography didn’t hurt either. Not that most people looked anywhere else.  But for the few that did, it was a one-way trip back to our show. In short, and when everything is taken into account, we were the ones when it came to purchasing original photographs at Grand Canyon.

12-The approach
The best location and the best traffic and two essential elements, and together they are enough to guarantee a certain level of success no matter what your approach to business is. However, a certain level of success wasn’t what I was after.  Call me ambitious, and if you consider this a crime, notify the proper authorities.  In my book it isn’t.  In fact I consider it a quality.  What I was after was the highest level of success I could reach through this opportunity. I didn’t have much experience with arts shows at all when I started the El Tovar (I had done one art show in Michigan and a handful of shows (read Christmas Bazaars) in Chinle, and that was about it. My other sales had been through gallery exhibits or direct sales to customers.  I had placed one ad in an art magazine, and had some success with it, and I had sold notecards wholesale to hotel gift stores in Chinle and Monument Valley. Unless I forgot something that about sums up my experience selling art at the time I started the El Tovar show.

Being an Artist in Business part 2 is continued in the full essay, available in PDF format, by subscribing to Briot's View, my monthly essay series. Below are the 15 other sections in the full essay:

13 - The Progression of the Grand Canyon Show
14 - Quantity
15 - Wearing out
16 - Transitions: how the end of one opportunity can be the beginning of another
17 - The second best place to start a business is Phoenix, Arizona
18 - Teaching again
19 - Quality, not quantity
20 - New shows
21 - Longer and more thoughtful essays.
22 - New Projects
23 - Becoming a music producer
24 - Setting up the ideal studio
25 - Two businesses into one
26 - Learning never ends
27 - Conclusion - Part 3: How you can do it too

Alain Briot

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