Being a reptile breeder has its pros and cons. The pros are that one gets to witness the mystery of birth, and the cons are how to give all the little baby geckos a good, new home. Just like I received many breeder animals per mail with shipyourreptiles.com, I also shipped out many animals to customers, safely packaged in breathable deli cups stored in Styrofoam boxes. However, when you ship an animal, you always run the risk that there is a delay through the shipper, caused by inclement weather, etc., or that your animal is DOA (dead on arrival) because it either got too hot, too cold, or died of a heart attack or stroke, or some other injury or stress-related issue. Sometimes, the animal drops its tail, because it was scared or got bumped around too much. Also, you won’t know what the new owner is like, unless it is a return customer, because you only know him/her through email contact.
However, if you vend at a reptile show, you get to see the adopting family in person, plus you get to talk to your customers, and mine were, most of all, children. It was really fun to explain to kids what correct husbandry looks like, or what the difference between a male and a female gecko is (guess what, not even their parents knew that, sometimes), at what kind of temperatures you need to incubate to get male or female offspring, etc. Some children (or even adults) think leopard geckos eat salad. Sorry to disappoint you, but unless you can handle live crickets and mealworms, leopard geckos are not for you or your kids. If you want to feed salad to a reptile, you’d have to get a bearded dragon, and even those enjoy live food from time to time.
It’s the best thing in the world to see the joy in a child’s eye when he/she gets to hold a gecko, and then it’s hilarious to hear the kids begging until the poor parents give in and buy them one! As a teacher, I clearly enjoyed the teachable moment most of all. I always had a care sheet with me that I distributed, so children and their parents could look up how to care for their little new friend. And I had many good conversations. But going to a reptile show doesn’t just mean to SELL geckos – it also means to walk around and meet other vendors, sometimes well-known, famous breeders one already knows from the Internet and/or has bought animals from before. In 2013, I met Kelli Hammack from HISS and bought a fascio male baby from her.
Here is an interview with Kelli by Aliza, published on Gecko Time, from 2010, the time I was most active in gecko breeding:
Reptile shows are for linking and connecting. And they are also for BUYING animals – I really had to make sure that I didn’t spend more money on new reptiles than I made selling my offspring! So what does one need in order to vend at a reptile show? Well, first of all, you need to have enough animals worth selling. At one show, I had 109 geckos with me! At other shows, just about 20. I usually had lots of baby leopard geckos, which I sold for $25-$100, depending on the morph. Little children and their parents generally don’t want to spend a lot of money, so you need to come their way and bring Normal morphs (yellow and black spotted wild-caught types that are not worth as much money as the so-called designer geckos, like Bandits, Diablo Blancos, Radars, Emerines, etc.). But since other sincere breeders will also approach you, you need to bring several high-end geckos that sell for $250 and up.
Put the most expensive geckos on your table first thing in the morning when you set up your table. This is the time the fair ground is still closed to the masses and the vendors go around and look, to snatch up the best stuff first. I did that, too. Little Johnny probably won’t know what an Electric Tangerine is, nor will he be able to afford one, but if you want to sell one of those, find a reputable breeder who you know has a breeding project and partner set up for that gecko of yours. (Sometimes, breeders arrange with other breeders in advance and online what to bring for them to reptile shows they both attend. You can also do that with regular customers, of course, so you can avoid shipping their animal to them, if they would have come to that reptile show, anyway.) Another good tip is to breed for females (incubate at lower temperatures, 82-84 degrees F), because you can house females together in big cages, but male leopard geckos always need to be housed separately. I usually had about 10 really good breeder males and 40-50 great to not so good females for them. When the breeders got older, I sold them as pets, so they could retire in a loving home without needing to reproduce anymore. Those were the nice, older, tame and calm geckos, loved by children. Kids also liked the baby geckos, because they wanted to watch them grow up.
The first thing after establishing which animals you want to sell at a show is to make a list. My animals were all named. You need to make a sticker for each deli cup they go in. The stickers have the date the gecko was born, and – if you have noted it – the lay date of its egg, whether it’s male or female, what morph it is (e.g., Mack Snow, Mack Super Snow, Tremper Albino, Rainwater Albino, Bell Albino, Blizzard, Diablo Blanco, Eclipse, Tangerine, Electric Tangerine, etc.), what morphs the parents were, and its name, if you gave it a name, and its price. For pictures of different morphs, check out my other post, “What’s it like to breed leopard geckos?” The night before the show, you have to catch each gecko and put it on a moist paper towel into the deli cup. These all go stacked upon each other into cardboard boxes. On the morning of travel (usually around 4 a.m. in the morning, depending on how far away the show is; it normally lets in the vendors at 8:00 a.m. to set up their booths, and lets the masses in at 10:00 a.m.), you need to check whether some geckos have pooped, and in this case, exchange their paper towel in the deli cup again. Then, put your cardboard boxes full of geckos in your van. I had mine on the backseat, not in the trunk. Make sure they neither get too cold in winter, nor too hot in summer. The best thing is probably to have them in the car with you, so they will have room temperature. However, that depends on how many boxes you have.
The trunk is reserved for the materials you have to bring. One thing absolutely needed is banners. Without banners, customers might walk right past your stand. I had a huge banner displaying my favorite, most colorful High-Contrast Tremper Albino. (This banner was a pain in the a** to set up, so I left it behind after a couple of reptile shows where we had to spend valuable time setting it up and taking it down again.) I also had a smaller sign with my best Carrot Tail Tangerine, and s small sign with an Enigma baby hatching, just because it was cute and an eye-catcher. I also had a sign of a colorful Enigma sitting on top of a cave, so people could get a glimpse of the husbandry and cage furnishings, which brings me to the next point: I always brought a sample cage, all set up with moist hide, dry hide, artificial plants, and substrate (either paper towel or hydroton, which I used back then). When you want to educate first-time gecko owners, most of them children and their newbie parents, it’s a good idea to show them what a sample cage has to look like, so they do it right at home and don’t buy something inadequate at a pet store, which might not counsel them right.
You also need business cards to give to new breeder contacts and to your customers and people stopping at your stand to look. Plus, you will need marketing outfits, like t-shirts with your logo and caps. We had t-shirts with a Tremper Albino face on it, and caps that had the gecko face and said, “LZRDGRL.” Then, you need a table cloth. I had plastic ones that could easily be wiped off. Remember that you will take some geckos out of their deli cups to show your customers. They will run around and perhaps poop on your table. I have to admit, at some shows, my booth was more like a petting zoo than a sales table, because some children just came to hold a gecko, but their parents then decided against buying them one. Oh well, at least they learned to love geckos and not be afraid of them. If you managed to awake the love for reptiles in a child, you have reached a goal already. This might be a future customer, or just a good person who is kind to reptiles and doesn’t kill every harmless snake in the back yard with a shovel.
If you have to stay at a hotel overnight for a next-day reptile show, you have to find a way to smuggle your boxes with the geckos into the hotel. Many hotels say, “no animals allowed.” However, they never checked what was in my boxes. I put them right in the bedroom with me. This way, I could feed and water my animals, and clean their poopy paper towels. I held reptile shows in Wheaton/Chicago (Scott Smiths All Animal Show), IL; Indianapolis (Midwest Reptile Show), IN; Shepherdsville, KY; Memphis (Repticon) in Southaven, MS, and St. Louis, MO. I couldn’t have done it alone; I always had my American host parents with me, who drove the van, helped setting up the signs and banners, sat at my table vending while I walked around making connections and purchasing animals, and kept me company in general. One time, I got to hold an alligator, and another time, a tarantula. I held a huge monitor and touched a snake.
I almost forgot, you need a sales booklet with carbon copies for your customers, too. You need to keep track of your sales for tax purposes if you have a breeding business, like I had with www.lzrdgrl.com. And the customers need the carbon copy to be allowed to leave the reptile show room with your animal! Otherwise, it could have been stolen from your table. And guess what, that happens. I was lucky that it never happened to me. This is another reason why it’s good to vend together with other people, because once you’re engaged in explaining to a parent where the balls of a male gecko are, someone else might take a deli cup with a high-end gecko and swiftly walk away with it. I always put the more valuable geckos on the inner side close to me, and the Normal baby geckos in the front. It’s unlikely those will get stolen.
You have to pay for your vendor’s table. At some shows, it was $75 for an 8-foot table. There were also 6-foot tables. When I had lots of geckos with me, I took two tables, but usually, one was enough. You can leave a few boxes with geckos under the table and put more deli cups on the table as geckos get sold. At the Repticon, I paid $95 for one table for two days and $50 as a new vendor’s fee in advance. The organizers come around during the show to collect their money. You also need their payment slip for your taxes as advertising expenses.
Don’t forget to bring your own, comfortable folding chairs and food. Sometimes, reptile shows will provide wooden or plastic chairs, but they never had enough for the three of us, so we always had our own ones. Some reptile shows have food stands, others have nothing. So bring a packed lunch and drinks. Restrooms are there, of course. And don’t forget extension cables!! That’s very important if you have digital signs or need lamps to show off your critters better (or, to warm them). I had one digital sign that said, “happy hour.” One hour before the reptile show was over (it usually went from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.), at 3:00 p.m., I used to halve the price of the geckos I still had left, to make extra sales towards the end. And my faithful customers who knew me from previous shows already knew that; they waited and got their gecko cheaper then. Of course, you have to make sure that you don’t ruin it for the other sellers; leopard geckos have “fixed” price ranges, and from doing your research on the Internet you would know what a high-end gecko is worth and that you can’t low ball by selling it for 25$ bucks. Don’t destroy other vendors’ business, as you don’t want them to destroy yours. There will be a healthy competition, but if you have comparable animals, you should have comparable prices. You will know in advance who is setting up at the show with you, because the show organizer will put you on the show’s website along the other vendors. Check out their livestock and prices in advance (and maybe, you’ll find an animal you want to purchase or trade for!).
The greatest feeling in the world is to LOOK at the customers walking by. There are gothic people, there are bikers, there are tattooed and pierced people, there are people with snakes wrapped around their necks and iguanas traveling on their shoulders, and you simply can’t get enough of staring at them and admiring their outfits and animals. Sometimes, there might be someone you think you wouldn’t want to meet in the dark. But that’s what some parents might think of you, too!
I always had food for my geckos with me, although they really don’t need to eat anything at a show. I just fed a few treats, wax worms, so that the children walking by could see a feeding session. And one time, a leopard gecko had laid two eggs while at the show (so the children got to admire those, too). Of course, I didn’t have an incubator with me and couldn’t save them, but at least, I was able to use the teachable moment.
Finally, a reptile show is not just a great occasion to get the high-end gecko you always dreamed of having for a better price than online, but it’s also a good place to buy feeders and cage furnishings cheaper than at a pet store. I always acquired some drift wood, plastic plants, crickets, worms, etc., and one day at the Shepherdsville, KY reptile show in 2011, I even bought “snake food” in the shape of a tiny kitten! Frankie would live with me for many years and be my baby’s true companion.
And now probably the most anticipated question – will one get rich at reptile shows? Well, a small breeder like I definitely not. The most I ever made was $1,000 per show. Most times, it was more like $400. In Wheaton, I once sold 29 geckos, and that was a lot for me. Some shows were two days long, and I always went on the weekend shows, because I had a job as a university lecturer. Subtract the hotel, the gas, and the food for three people, and there’s not much left over. Maintaining your leopard geckos, buying crickets, mealworms, wax worms, calcium, and vitamins, purchasing cages and furnishings, and paying a high electricity bill because of all the under-the-tank heaters (UTH) and overhead heat lamps will counterweigh your income. Really big breeders (those who do this as their profession) will probably make a profit, but they also have high costs. And doing the taxes for a business was also quite elaborate and time intensive. However, I loved doing it, and it was my favorite hobby next to building an airplane and composing music. I will never forget that one student in my teacher education class once told me, “Ms., usually, it’s a crazy cat lady, but you are the crazy gecko lady!” 😉
At the end of the show, I usually gave away my gecko balloons: