Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Street Fairs - do they help or hurt neighborhood businesses?

Street fairs are not unique to New York City. But a recent report by the Center for Urban Futures explores how to improve upon New York's venerable street fairs, many of which have become staid, boring and, just like the local mall, exact replicas of one another. The lessons and ideas presented in this report are helpful way beyond the boundaries of New York City. This report is a great read for folks looking for new ideas or new ways to develop interesting, unique street fairs that support local businesses and help develop your commercial district brand more effectively.

In New York, street fairs are an industry that has increasingly become controlled by a few companies, who roll out the same tube sock vendors and crepe vendors over and over again. This report includes interviews with experts who explore ideas, and share best practices, for creating great street fairs. Some of the interviewees mentioned my own pet peeve - the fact that street fairs often turn their back on neighborhood businesses. In fact, many business owners hate street fairs for that reason. The booths typically turn their backs to the businesses, close the streets to traffic, and as a results end up hurting business for the merchants that are there all the time.

A few tips for street fairs to keep in mind:
  • Engage local merchants, artists and vendors in a street fair is what gives the fair flavor and authenticity and should be encouraged. Help local businesses drive sales by encouraging them to set up a table and sell on the street along with other vendors.
  • Quality matters. Tap local vendors and businesses who offer great quality food and products. Consider starting small and being selective with who participates at first. This is how to ensure your fair is differentiated from others - and how to make sure it grows over time.
  • Don't ignore the businesses! Instead of setting up vendors so that they face the street (and therefore their backs to local businesses), set up the vendors so that you have two aisles with the vendors in the middle of the street. This set up helps ensure that foot traffic during the fair also benefits the formal merchants. The picture that accompanies this article shows The Castro Street Fair in San Francisco. Note that the vendors occupy the middle of the street - not the sidewalk side of the street.
  • Consider the fair an extension of your brand. Street fairs are also a great way to brand your community. Consider 'Pickle Day' by the New York Food Museum on New York's Lower East Side. This fair plays upon the area's history and heritage as a destination for wonderful pickles. What could be more unique than that?

Here is a link to the report...."New Visions for New York Street Fairs"


  1. Laris, this article is so right on! In San Francisco, many of the street fairs are produced by only two big event producers that roll out the same vendors year after, event after event, many of them from outside SF, hardly benefiting local businesses. It's why many of us who produce much smaller street fairs recruit micro-business enterprises and encourage our local businesses, particularly restaurants to vend. Another challenge are the high permit fees our city imposes, making it prohibitive for many small vendors to participate. In SF, we're working to reduce these fees or subsidize them with corporate sponsorships- however these are down as well. We've had to get creative on how we recruit and ensure these vendors that they'll even break even, much less turn a profit. Instead we relate to them how important these street fairs are as marketing tools for their business. Maybe they only break even, but we hope these events draw new customers to our commercial districts and demonstrate to the larger community all of the many wonderful and unique vendors and businesses they have right in their neighborhoods!

  2. Street fairs can also be great ways to capitalize on other events that are bringing people to your district. I recently learned that the BID in Poughkeepsie, NY coordinates its street fair with Vassar College to coincide with its annual parents' weekend. What a great and simple way to introduce parents to the district and make them feel more comfortable about their children's new environment.

  3. Yes, I too dislike street fairs, bc they deliver low quality experience while crowding out core's a post of them taking over our neighborhood yet again here on
    University Place Street Fair…See pic of the invasion ;-)

  4. Cafe Hon is located on a 4 block MainStreet in Hampden, Baltimore, Md. In 1994 I started the Baltimore's Best Hon Contest, a "beauty" pageant. Women of all ages
    have the opportunity to enter. They are judged on thier inner beauty, their outfits, fashioned with lots of leopard print, hot pink boas, cats eye glasses, original beehive's and warm personality.
    This little pageant celebrates our endearing quirkiness and has turned into a three day celebration.
    Hand picked vendors work for months preparing specialty HON type items that sell out! Check it out on YouTube and
    This festival gives people permission to have fun! And they do, all 50,000 of them! "HON" is a term of endearment short for honey.