It’s time for the 2016 Tucson gem show! As my husband says, it’s my Disneyland. It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since I attended my first one.
To be accurate, I should say “shows,” because Tucson is not one show. Or two. Or three. Or four. It’s more than 40 shows each year — 45 for 2016 — held during the period from late January through the middle of February.
Tents, hotel rooms, ballrooms, parking lots, fields — virtually anywhere large enough to display rocks, minerals, gemstones, tools, and equipment is covered in just that.
Are you thinking about going to Tucson, but feeling overwhelmed? Have you ever wondered how to “do” the shows? I searched for information before my first trip, but found little with the specifics I wanted. Hopefully, this article will help in your planning!
I was so excited to attend my first Tucson show, I made all my travel arrangements seven months in advance — admittedly excessive.
Lodging can be quite pricey, especially as the shows take place in the peak season (winter), but in addition to oodles of hotels and resorts, there are houses, cottages, apartments, and rooms for rent from central Tucson all the way to the far suburbs, and at virtually every price level.
Most of the shows do not run the entire period, so it’s important to verify dates when planning your trip, and there are numerous websites that list the full schedule.
To get around the city, I rented a car, which I booked in advance, and picked up from one of the several rental car companies located at the Tucson airport. If you prefer to fly into Phoenix, it’s only two hours via car to Tucson.
Personally, I don’t think it’s very feasible to move around Tucson beyond the shows without a car, as the city is quite spread out.
The great news is that you can definitely move between the shows without a car, however, because the City of Tucson offers GemRide, a fantastic free shuttle service. The GemRide shuttle vans run non-stop during show hours on pre-set, color-coded routes, and maps are available at many stops, as well as online.
If you don’t want to rent a car, or are concerned about navigating the city or finding parking, GemRide is a great option.
Even though I had a rental car, my first day at the shows I parked my car at one of the largest parking hubs, and hopped on the GemRide to “get the lay of the land.” I picked one of longest shuttle routes, and rode the whole way. This helped me learn where many of the shows were, determine which were within easy walking distance of each other, and gave me a general understanding of the city’s layout. If you’re planning to self-drive, and have the time, I definitely recommend using the shuttle this way.
An added bonus: the shuttle drivers are some of the friendliest, most patient people you’ll ever meet, and they know where everything is. They’re a great resource, and wonderful representatives for their city.
The city’s Sun Link streetcar system is another option for getting around downtown, and stops near some of the shows, as well as close to some of the GemRide shuttle and parking hubs.
A note about driving in Tucson: I had been warned that getting around the city during the gem shows would be a nightmare; that traffic is terrible, and parking impossible. To be honest, I found that to be far from the case.
If you live in a large metropolitan area, and are accustomed to driving in heavy traffic, Tucson may well seem like a driving paradise. The city is built on a grid, with only a few major east-west and north-south roads.
The sun is typically shining, and the city is ringed with large mountain ranges, making navigation easy for all but the most GPS-addicted drivers. I also had no trouble finding parking, though I did start out early each day, arriving to the shows 30-45 minutes before they opened.
I focused on parking in the parking hubs, which are large lots on the edge of the show areas, from which I walked from show to show. If you have health or mobility issues that prevent you from walking longer distances or standing for a long period of time, park at the hubs and catch a shuttle.
Some shows, like JCK, have special shuttles running between limited locations, so check the websites of the shows you want to attend to see if they offer any special transportation.
With so many shows and show sites to choose from, and with some of the venues measuring as much as 100,000 square feet, a little advance research and planning can make your visit far more efficient and less exhausting.
Each show has a different focus, such as: gemstone rough, minerals, fossils, finished (cut) gemstones, jewelry, tools, or a combination of several of those categories. There are also lectures and many classes to choose from, including in mineral science, gemology, and jewelry design.
Before attending, I studied the show schedule to maximize my time on the ground, and see as many shows as possible that were of interest to me. Each night while I was in Tucson, I strategized my plans for the following day, making a checklist of start times, show locations, and parking availability.
Until I got there and started walking, there wasn’t really any good way for me to know how much I could get through in a day. Having a plan each day enabled me to thoroughly explore more than twenty shows in a week (including doing the enormous Gem Mall & Holidome twice), as well as attend industry events, and spend time with colleagues. For the record, walking the aisles of that many shows in that period of time requires a level of stamina that might be more than some people can handle.
With so many gorgeous and fascinating items available, it’s easy to go over your intended budget. Make a list of what you’re seeking, and try to stick to it. I tried to keep to a daily spending limit, but that was virtually impossible since it was my first time at the shows, and I didn’t know what I was going to find; subsequent years should be easier. Many vendors accept plastic (credit/debit cards), but some do not, so bring a little cash. There are certainly plenty of ATMs in Tucson, but primarily those of the larger US banks.
Some of the shows are wholesale-only, others are retail-focused, and some are a mix of wholesale and retail. The wholesale shows require credentials to attend, and they don’t take digital. Make sure you bring multiple photocopies of your tax ID or resale certificate, business license, some business cards, and a photo ID.
Even at the retail shows, you can frequently buy wholesale, if you have the proper documents, and buy a sufficient quantity of goods. Do not expect to get a “wholesale” deal/discount if you’re only buying one or two of an item; like many things, the more you buy, the better the price. If I’m serious about a particular dealer’s products, and don’t have a lot of time to spare, I typically cut straight to the chase and ask how much I have to buy to get their best price. They can usually tell I’m not messing around, and readily tell me. Likewise, some dealers will give a better price if you pay in cash, so it’s always worth asking. The worst thing that can happen is they say no.
In addition to the standard business documents, some shows require that you either be a member of the Jewelers Board of Trade (JBT), or present recent (less than a year old) itemized invoices showing jewelry-related purchases; typically, if invoices are required, the show registrars want to see purchases totaling a minimum of several thousand dollars. Check the requirements for each show you want to attend to ensure you have all the required documentation.
When buying in Tucson, things can get extremely hectic, especially if the dealer is popular, well-known, or has material that everyone wants. Sometimes, if the dealer is busy, and you’re buying quite a bit, it can take the dealer more than an hour to write up your order. Being prepared can greatly help this process.
Numerous websites suggest having extra business cards on hand, so the seller has all of your information in one spot. It’s a good suggestion, but business cards typically lack quite a bit of information that the dealer needs and wants, such as your tax ID/resale and license information. One of the best things I did last year was to create labels with all of my business information on them. I made them myself very inexpensively with a basic word processing program, and printed them on 2×4 inch (5×10 cm) labels. Each sticker included my:
- Name, title
- Business name
- Tax Resale Number with State & Country
- Business License Number with Jurisdiction (county)
- Business Mailing Address
- Business Phone
- Cell Phone
Dealers absolutely loved these stickers, because every bit of information they needed was on them, and all they had to do was peel it off the backing and stick it on their copy of the sales receipt/invoice. Easy, done in a flash, no tape/stapler/paperclip required, and nothing to misplace. I highly recommend making labels. They really speed up the checkout process.
In one case, in which I purchased a substantial quantity of goods, and the dealer was very busy writing orders, I left my goods with the dealer, and continued walking the show while the dealer wrote up my invoice. That took a bit of pressure off the dealer, and kept me from wasting precious time standing around waiting. If it’s agreeable to both of you, it’s an option to consider if the dealer is exceptionally busy.
Tucson has a desert climate, and even though the winter temps are lovely, typically in the 60s-70s Fahrenheit (mid 10s-low 20s Celsius) during the day, you can get very dehydrated walking the shows. Carry a small bottle of water with you to help avoid this.
The shows are large, and involve a significant amount of walking, sometimes on gravel or uneven ground, so comfortable shoes are an absolute must. While the weather is generally pleasant and dry, Tucson can experience rain, as it did at the start of the 2015 shows. Traveling with a small umbrella and shoes that can handle rain and mud will prove advantageous if the weather is wet.
A comfortable bag is key for carrying your purchases (unless you’re buying a table-size specimen, of which there are many), and some buyers use rolling backpacks or even carry-on suitcases to haul their purchases.
I was thankful I carried a small snack with me each day, as I never seemed to have time to stop for a proper meal until dinner. Food is not available at every show venue, and what is for sale often falls under the category of “snacks,” so plan accordingly.
If you’re fortunate to be able to bring family with you to the shows, but they don’t share your interest in gems, minerals, or tools, there are lots of things to do in Tucson and the surrounding areas.
One final note: if you have a fitness tracker or pedometer, bring it. It’s quite fun to keep track of how much you walk during the shows.
I hope this information is helpful to you. Have a great time in Tucson, and thanks for reading!