It’s been a little more than two years since we did our first trade show at Top Drawer in 2018. In that time we have been busy and done countless other trade shows, markets, fairs, and showed at Maison + Objet in Paris. We were sad not to be in Paris again last September due to the coronavirus but we thought it would be useful to do a roundup of some top tips of what to expect when exhibiting at trade shows - it’s always good to be forward planning!
1. Location at a tradeshow is key
Without sounding too much like Kirsty and Phil - remember ‘location, location, location’. When we exhibited at our first trade show we were lucky enough to win a competition through printed.com, and were in a great location. It was a blessing to be part of their stand as we learnt so much from being at Top Drawer without huge risk and in hindsight it really helped us prepare for future events. But we were really lucky having this! For any normal situation, firstly I’d say: reach out to other brands you know who’ve exhibited before. People are usually happy to help and give you advice based on their real-life experience.
One of the key lessons is to know the venue and brands around you, if you can. For example, at Top Drawer they’ll give you a list of available stands, and you can ask them which brands are signed up on the neighbouring stands. It’s important that the brands around you are complementary - for example, you don’t want to be next to a brand catering to older, more traditional customers if your audience are young and modern. They might be big and attract lots of buyers, but they won’t be right for you. Likewise, if that brand is well-known and you aren’t, you might be lucky enough to catch the eye of the people visiting their stand. Brands that aren’t direct competitors, but are complementary are key.
Another thing to consider is location in the hall - where are the main walkways, and can you be as close as possible to them, if not on them? Do you have a pillar in your stand (annoying for some, but others really make it work for them and prefer the extra element!) Is the stand you’re looking at in a corner, or a bit of the show where walkways are a bit weird and you could be missed? All things to consider! Just remember, trade shows are overwhelming for buyers, and not all of them will find you (even if they want to!) What’s worth paying for is a good location that means people will essentially stumble upon you.
Just a note - some shows like Maison actually won’t let you choose a location, as they tend to curate the show themselves, and we’ve found this works quite well too. It’s in their interest to put you in a good place where you’ll do well and want to exhibit again!
Our lovely stand at Top Drawer 2020, adorned in the best named paint colour, Bongo Jazz
2. Be prepared for last minute changes in stand design
An important tip for working in trade shows (maybe the most important!) is to be prepared to change bits about your stand build on the day. The stand might not be the measurements you were told (this is common), or your plan might not work as well as it did on paper. Make sure you bring tools and extra bits so you can make last minute changes. No one wants to run around looking for anyone with a handsaw at 8pm (speaking from experience!) Here’s another tip - temporary walls can be really wonky! Save yourself trouble by planning anything on walls to be split between wall panels, as making something like card rails straight when you have wavy walls is a headache best avoided. Make your stand simple and modular - there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to leave a fully built stand at 4pm the day before the show, rather than being there until 10pm and being a zombie for the first show day (also speaking from experience.)
Also, be sure to make sure you know as much about your space as possible before the show - for example, you aren't allowed to nail anything into the walls at Maison + Objet. This means you need to get a bit more creative about using your wall space.
This unglamorous stand build progress pic was taken about 2 hours before a last minute trip to Ikea for supplies. In Paris. At 8pm. Where no cabs wanted to drive us back to the show.
3. Be Social and Network
During trade shows you live and breathe everything that is going on during the show and have very little time apart from standing in your stand space for the duration of the event. Make sure you introduce yourself to brands around you. You can learn so much from talking to other brands and sharing your experiences.
Whether it's your first trade show or 50th trust me that your neighbours will be your saviour. If you are manning the stand alone or have a lot of people on your stand you can sometimes rely on the brands around you to help out (even if they just keep an eye on it while you have a loo break!). Everyone looks after each other and you can learn so much from smaller brands and get tips about other events that might be good for you.
Other exhibitors may have been doing shows for a much longer time than you and may be able to give you pointers about things like packaging or branding. Everybody has amazing info to share, and even now we walk away having learned something new after every show. Plus, it’s nice to make industry friends! We wouldn’t know people like Jess from Rumble Cards or Alison Hardcastle if it wasn’t for trade shows!
A printtastic card corner from our stand at Maison + Objet, Paris, September 2019
4. Have a reason to engage
We often have postcards to give away to people (it’s an example of our card stock so it’s a sample, plus they look nice and people put them on their walls too) and a big bowl of sweets. It gives you a way in to speak to people if you’re unsure about how to start a conversation (especially if you've spotted on their passes that they happen to be from a dream stockist!) Also, people always love freebies, and are almost always in need of sugar after a long day at a trade show. A lot of the time these buyers and retailers talk to so many different brands and exhibitors that it can be a bit of a blur for them by the end of the show. If the buyers have something distinct to remember you by they are much more likely to reach out to you afterwards.
We enticed Sid from Papersmiths over to our stand at around 4.30pm on the last day of Top Drawer in September 2019, and they've ended up being one of our biggest stockists so... sugar helps!
5. Remember that you will spend way more time on everything than you expect
It’s not just the time during the show. It consumes your whole life days before with restless nights spent wondering, ‘have I forgotten anything?’ and waking up in the middle of the night remembering something that you still haven’t done. While being at the show itself is also long hours and time on your feet, remember that the critical time comes right as the show ends. Many brands and exhibitors fail to follow up from the leads they get. From a practical perspective, you might not be able to read your own writing when referring back to contact emails (and you’d be surprised how many people forget their business cards.) We paid for the pass scanning app for the first time this year (it’s just an app that scans the QR code on entrance passes which then saves all the contact details connected with that person in an easily downloadable CSV format) and it was life changing. You don’t need to pay for all (or many!) of the trade show extras, but this one was definitely worth it. A handy CSV file at the end of the show rather than trying to interpret someone else’s writing? Yes please!
Make sure you make time to email all potential leads and do a thorough follow up. And don’t forget that these leads don’t always produce immediate results - what’s important is to be consistent and keep a dialogue going. Some stores (especially museum stores) will probably come past your stand 2-3 times before actually placing an order. Some of the bigger stores move a bit slower simply because of their buying processes work - for example, we’ve just sent our first order to Fenwick, after emailing them 8 months ago!
In summary, the world of trade fairs can be a tricky one. It’s a lot of work and can (definitely) be very tiring. However, the benefits to your brand can be amazing and the people that you meet really make the experience. It's old school, but they also make you seem legitimate and serious in the eyes of buyers - especially the big ones.