This is the fourth year that we have had the opportunity to photograph at the Westminster Dog Show's Green Room, located at the Penn Hotel. As many of you know, last year was a huge success for us. We were able to make our first real profit and we were excited about expanding on that this year. However, there were big changes to the show this year that made us seriously consider whether or not we wanted to go back.
The major change was that this is the first year that the show was 'split.' In prior years, all of the events occurred at one location, at Madison Square Garden. Starting this year, the events were split between Piers 92/94 and Madison Square Garden. The breed judging was to be performed at Piers 92/94 and the Groups on Monday and Tuesday night at MSG. This shift was reportedly a result of remodeling that is occurring at MSG. However, I have heard it said that when the remodeling is finished, the show will continue to be split. Allegedly MSG does not see the breed events as garnering the income that they would like from the space.
The other major obstacle for us in deciding to go back to the Pennsylvania Hotel, in light of the split show, had to do with the hotel's physical plant conditions. In 2010 and 2011, there had been a lot of talk that the Penn would be sold off and re-developed into a skyscraper that would rival the Empire State Building. The hotel had been very slow in making renovations to the 94 year old building. People coming to the Green Room to prep their dogs would report that while the facilities were excellent for the dogs, that many of the humans would prefer other accommodations. I am happy to say that this year, the Penn made a commitment to a 10 year plan to re-hab the aging facility. While we still heard many complaints about the physical plant, I am hopeful that there will be positive changes in the near future.
As there are no major hotels near the Piers, we decided that for what we do that the Penn would still be our best bet. This is also true because this year the show increased its size from 2600 dogs to 3200 dogs. We figured that even if a smaller percentage of people stayed at the Penn that we would still do fine. I have been to several other hotels in the area, and my feeling is that the Penn offers more 'dog' facility than any other place in the area - particularly if you have a large breed.
Setup for this year's show was a real snap. One of the things about having done this a few times is that we have figured out exactly what we need - and what we do not need. I still remember the first year that we did the show. We had so much stuff that we could not fit everything into the car and had to make multiple trips. This year, we fit it all in one ride down to 34th Street.
The biggest addition for us was the need to show current work throughout the Green Room. We produced an additional 20 17x25 inch prints that were spread out throughout the Green Room from dogs that we had photographed over the last couple of years. These were made with our Epson 4900 and 1/2 inch pre-cut gator board foam core prints. We had a bit of a scare right before the show because the foam core boards that we had received were mis-sized and the finishing on the prints looked really sloppy. As a result, we wound up scrambling at the last minute to get all of the prints properly glued onto the new foam core boards. We initially went with foam core boards over canvas wraps because the foam core boards look cleaner at the edges. Foam core boards are more expensive - even making them myself, so I was making a gamble that people would like them better and would be more willing to plop down the additional funds.
This year, we also decided to hire my sister to help out with the show. While I am very comfortable dealing with people, it is hard to schmooze and photograph at the same time. My sister has a great gift. She really knows how to approach people in a non-threatening way and without hitting them over the head, encourage them to come over and have a portrait done. My sister is awesome.
My wife also came to bat at the last minute and took some days off from work to help out with the 'office stuff.' Chanthee is really good at handling sales - much better than either my sibling or I am. Also, Chanthee is an amazing wrangler. I think she was very inspired by watching Ken Flick work with his wife Helmi. While I work well on my own, I am better with Chanthee there. Chanthee is awesome.
Without giving away too much, I think these two factors, more than any other, was what really helped make this year's show.
The next scare that we had this year had to do with the weather. The night before my sister was to arrive, she called to confirm and stated that she was going to try to leave early to 'beat the storm.' My response to her was, "what storm?" Apparently there was a large storm coming to hit NYC, right when most people were about to start coming to the show.
The storm turned out to be not as severe as expected, delivering only about 8 inches here in Manhattan. However, 8 inches is enough to foul up a lot of flights. As of Friday morning, over 3600 flights had been canceled coming into New York City. My worst possible fears had occurred. We were all set up and there was nobody there.
Saturday, the Penn was also a grave yard. Nothing was happening. As of Saturday afternoon, I had rung one solid sale - even though my trigger finger had been in action. I was definitely starting to sweat things a bit. The dog show, even with me working to keep costs down, is expensive. Rent, in Manhattan, is the big cost. While I have a very good relationship with the show promoter, and the hotel, there is still a pay to play element.
Just when I was starting to get more than a bit anxious, we were fortunate to get some help from some of our former clients. On Friday night, I had sent an SOS to some former clients who had been at the show. Some of our biggest customers came on Saturday, telling us that they had heard that we were here and that they had been told that they should come check us out. I am so thankful as Saturday turned out to be a really good day for us.
Sunday, things returned to normal and between Sunday and Tuesday, we were booked solid the entire time. This year, we photographed nearly 60 dogs, a record. It was also financially, by far, the best year that we have ever had. We are still getting orders and re-orders, for which I am also thankful. In short, it was a huge success.
The biggest problem with having a great show is that you have to spend a lot of time in post production. I spent nearly a month working every evening on prints for customers. I also had a problem with my Epson 4900 that I was raving about last year. It went down after the dog show. I had some major blockages that I just could not fix. I tried everything I could to unblock the cartridges. It cost me nearly $500 in ink as I constantly went through cleaning cycle after cleaning cycle. I ultimately had to outsource my canvas prints, which caused a dent in our profits. I am happy to say that I was finally able to get the 4900 up and running again and have been using it with reckless abandon. I have learned my lesson - print something at least once a week if you want to keep those heads working.
So, was it all worth it? This year there were a lot of expenses - rent, hiring extra staff, a massive investment in foam core boards, a few extra backdrops, canvas and ink (particularly after the unexpected ink jam). The upshot is that for me it was worth doing. However, I still working on the time = money equation. Time is the one thing you never get back, and while the immediate profit was a good one, I think I still have room to be more efficient in terms of producing a final product.
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that this was a terrific dog show for us - but not one without complications. With experience and effective planning, we were able to do very well this year. I am looking forward to year number 5. I can say for sure that we will be there next year. I have even debated opening up for more shows, though I realize I just do not have the time to do more - not and keep doing a full time job.