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  • Writer's pictureWoman Up Cleveland

Hosting Events with Shannon

Updated: Feb 1

Shannon Okey - Founder + Showrunner of The Cleveland Bazaar

Shannon leads the immaculate Cleveland Bazaar and strengthens the connection between the Cleveland community and its small business makers.

Cleveland has been and always will be a city where opportunity and community are at the forefront. The support that our city shows to any and everyone looking to start something of their own is endless. We at Woman Up experienced this firsthand when beginning our organization in 2021 but there may be no one more qualified to speak on the true power of our community better than Shannon Okey. Shannon has been the founder and showrunner of the Cleveland Bazaar since 2004 and is heading into twenty years of holiday events and vendor markets!

Shannon is dedicated, thoughtful, and incredibly hard-working. Building an in-person event that has stayed alive for two decades, despite such challenges as a global pandemic, is more than just an achievement, it is a legacy. Since founding the Cleveland Bazaar, Shannon has continued to expand the markets to various locations, seasons, and audiences. She has created an incredible community that perfectly displays what it means to support local businesses in Cleveland and thankfully for all of us, she’s not slowing down anytime soon!

The Cleveland Bazaar got its start with a simple holiday event at what is now 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. Back in 2004, the event featured around 30 makers selling their creations, which in itself is something to be proud of for a first-time event. This event became the pillar of the organization and as Shannon continues to expand the Bazaar and its reach, the annual holiday market remains the largest event she hosts. “Our largest event is still the one at 78th Street Studios with over 145 Bazaar makers spread over three floors. Last year we captured attendee headcount we had a minimum of 12,000 distinct people through the door,” she shared.

As more and more people hear of this wonderful annual market, they are then introduced to the various other shopping experiences offered year-round by the Cleveland Bazaar. In addition to multiple winter holiday shows, the Bazaar has grown to include more seasonal shopping such as a Valentine’s market and a summer event series. These events are much more than one-time gatherings. Their summer event series happens across from the West Side Market, twice a month from May to October, making it reliable for not only the vendors involved but the shoppers as well.

The Cleveland Bazaar Logo.
The Cleveland Bazaar Logo.

The driving force behind the success of the Cleveland Bazaar over its many years is having a true leader like Shannon at the helm. Shannon has such a deep understanding of the importance of connection and community and when it comes to bringing people together, the Bazaar has clearly got it right. Many Clevelanders can say they have been to, or at least heard of, a Bazaar event at some point over the last twenty years, especially those who frequent markets in the area.

While the numbers surely show that the events have been a success, Shannon shared that it’s not all about how many guests are walking through the doors. She said, “I truly enjoy hosting an event that is both fun for attendees and lucrative for the makers. We are a little under the radar, but if you know, you know. We see the same families coming back year after year—some of the babies who came to shows in our first few years are now legal adults!”

Over many years of getting to know the community, Shannon has an excellent understanding of her city and the type of people who attend and support the Bazaar. As she has watched many markets come and go in the past, she knows the key to what makes this event special and allows it to resonate so deeply with the people of our city. She shared, “Clevelanders appreciate handmade. They appreciate the amount of work that goes into making something yourself. This mindset makes the city perfect for an event like ours, and very livable to boot. We have the support of our loyal shoppers.”

Like any business or organization, there will always be hiccups and roadblocks along the way, and when you've been at it as long as the Cleveland Bazaar, you're bound to have your fair share of wild stories and challenges. Luckily, Shannon can say that she has found support and understanding from the community, in more ways than one. She shared, “We have the support of our city council people when there are problems, such as the vendor licensing and event permit issues we have endured over the past few years.”

Two shoppers connecting with a vendor at one of the Cleveland Bazaar's events.
Two shoppers connecting with a vendor at one of the Cleveland Bazaar's events.

When taking on in-person events, one of the first obstacles you are often faced with is location. The Cleveland Bazaar has taken place in many different spaces over the years and Shannon has certainly learned what works for her markets, particularly when it comes to creating a lively event in an otherwise blank slate. As she told us, “It’s easier to work for yourself here than in other cities because there are a lot of assets left over from our industrial era that can be repurposed and made new. Almost every single space we’ve hosted events in over the past 19 years used to be something else: a factory, a workshop, you name it. Events like ours breathe new life into these spaces.” Shannon and the Cleveland Bazaar do an incredible job of incorporating the city and its otherwise hidden gems into each of their markets. They not only highlight makers and entrepreneurs but continue to show off all that the city itself has to offer to its residents.

In addition to the logistics of hosting a successful and exciting shopping experience, Shannon shared with us that visibility is one of the greatest challenges that the Bazaar often faces. As a long-standing event that comes back year after year, Shannon shared that they can sometimes feel overshadowed by other markets that have come and gone in the past. “It can be tough to differentiate between similar events in the minds of the shoppers. It hurts to overhear someone saying they wish a different event was still around. Well, it’s not but we are, and you’re here instead!”

So many aspects of hosting an event are out of the organizer's control and when it comes to market-based organizations, this can be made even more difficult with the financial factors that come into play with a shopping experience. Shannon has certainly been faced with her share of balancing vendor fees, guest counts, and event hosting costs. The behind-the-scenes work of such a large-scale event often goes unnoticed by the attendees and sometimes even the makers involved. It can be difficult to navigate the ins and outs of running what is essentially a small business, without wavering from the core values that have been established. Shannon has excelled at conquering this obstacle year after year by remaining transparent and valuing community over competition at all times. “I value integrity overall. I do my best to keep prices low for my artists despite rising costs. We are a juried event, so we don’t let in just anyone, and that keeps quality high. I do my best to do my best by our people. It’s a community, not a profit center,” she shared.

All in all, there is something to be said for consistency and honesty. Shannon is upfront not only with herself but with the shoppers and vendors involved in the Bazaar and continues to be transparent in all that makes the event a reality. Her willingness to create meaningful connections with everyone involved is what drives the Bazaar forward and has caused it to stay standing time and time again as other markets come and go.

Not only do markets like the Cleveland Bazaar directly affect the lives of those selling their products, but they also reach far beyond the individuals involved and create a lasting positive impact on the community and local economy. Shannon is deeply in tune with this aspect of the organization and shared a bit with us about the impact she has seen come from the markets and how it reverberates throughout the city. She told us, “Microbusinesses are a major economic driver in the community yet are often overlooked by government officials.”

A past Cleveland Bazaar holiday market.
A past Cleveland Bazaar holiday market.

Beyond simply the overall impact on the community, Shannon shared about the way her markets have been a positive connection for women in our community. “The majority of the makers we work with are women. Women frequently turn to running their own businesses that can sell online and pop up at events like ours because they are FLEXIBLE. We do not have the childcare infrastructure and family support that other countries do.” Proving even further that she sees far beyond the obvious factors that impact an event like the Cleveland Bazaar, Shannon continues to connect with the community on a deeper level and foster relationships that mean much more to each person she interacts with.

She even shared more personally about her experiences as a woman saying, “I myself was suddenly thrust into an eldercare situation that I was not expecting and have chronic migraines. Many of my Bazaar makers are in the same position or worse. Any one of them could easily fill an empty storefront, but you can’t staff it properly unless you have outside help with your other obligations like childcare. So, they continue to associate with multi-maker retail establishments like Lakewood’s Salty Not Sweet and events like Bazaar in order to make a living. It works, and it supports their families.” Shannon has an important understanding and care for the lives of those she works with through the Cleveland Bazaar and further proves just how in touch she is with the individuals who make these events a reality.

We asked Shannon about a woman who inspires her and she unsurprisingly, had more than one shoutout to give. First up she mentioned, “Jenny Hart of Sublime Stitching and Debbie Stoller, founder of BUST magazine and author of the Stitch ‘n Bitch book series. I’m fortunate to count both as friends.” Yet another example of connecting well beyond the work itself, Shannon took this opportunity to not only highlight two women she considers to be inspiring influences in her life, but also share about their own personal achievements. She went on to say, “Jenny has turned her art into a thriving mail-order business of many years and continues to innovate. Debbie kicked off a handcraft revolution and brought so many knitters into the craft that even today, twenty years later, my side business is publishing patterns and knitting books through my company Cooperative Press.”

The recurring pattern throughout each and every answer Shannon gave us was the mention of community. Everyone we connect with in Cleveland continues to mention time and time again, how strong and meaningful the community they have found has been. No matter who you turn to in our city, it is clear that you can easily find those who understand you, your situation, and your struggles. Beyond even our city, we have seen this pattern continue to women from all over the world and the way that we so naturally offer help and support whenever possible.

The Cleveland Bazaar's 2023 Winter Events.
The Cleveland Bazaar's 2023 Winter Events.

It continues to be such an inspiration that leaders like Shannon not only choose to dedicate themselves to uniting others, but repeatedly do so for women, and other minority groups who can benefit from networking and a sense of community. Shannon shared with us her experience with this feeling of camaraderie saying, “You won’t get anywhere without people to help you, so be careful about how you treat them. This applies to every kind of business but particularly one like mine where we are reliant on each other for continued success.

From the big things to the small, we all need each other to help push us forward and no one knows this fact better than Shannon. Having worked with so many incredible people over the years, she has developed such a respect for teamwork and trust. She shared more of her thoughts on her own Cleveland Bazaar community saying, “We work long hours. We have limited resources. We need to be able to turn to our fellow makers for help, whether it’s as small as borrowing bags from another maker at a show or majorly important business needs you can’t do well yourself such as designing a logo. Community matters.

Despite what you may believe, the Cleveland Bazaar community that Shannon has curated over the years is no small group. Although there are many who have been there since the very first market all those years ago, the group has only continued to grow and are constantly sharing their success with one another at various events. Shannon shared with us that there are over 700 participants in the private group for Bazaar sellers, even further proving that there is strength in numbers.

A Cleveland Bazaar maker selling crochet goods and explaining them to guests.
A Cleveland Bazaar maker selling crochet goods and explaining them to guests.

With so many supporters from all ends of the process, it is obvious that the Bazaar will only continue to grow and expand as more and more people get involved. This season, for example, Shannon has expanded to Akron for a more meaningful reason than you may think. “I added an Akron event this holiday season after another market canceled abruptly and left 50+ makers high and dry in our busiest time of year. Stepping in to help with a given, but I’m curious to see where it will go from here.” Once again, showing her dedication to her community, Shannon has no hesitation in offering her help and even takes on more challenges in the name of supporting others when they need it most.

As for the future, as any founder would, Shannon has big dreams for the Cleveland Bazaar. She has her ideas for expansion and evolution but under it all remains her dedication and thoughtfulness when it comes to the individual people involved. She told us, “We are partnering with some new community events in 2024 to bring our makers in and revitalize the existing activities. I want to design a better and more streamlined way to process our event applications, so one major goal next year is to see if a programmer friend can cobble together the thins, we need to work better.”

Time and time again, Shannon Okey has shown that the Cleveland Bazaar is so much more than a full room of people participating in a shopping experience. She continuously proves to everyone involved with the markets, whether they be selling or shopping, that these events matter to our city. Her hard work and determination go far beyond creating an event and extend into her outpouring of support and love to the members of the community she created. First and foremost, Shannon is a down-to-earth, dedicated, and considerate person with endless kindness to give to others. She has created not only a thriving organization that continues to host thriving markets year-round, but a fully functioning city of her own filled with makers and shoppers alike who all share an affection for the local community and uplifting their own.


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