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Taking the worry out of the trade show experience

By John Shanahan

Ah, trade shows.

You pay to get in them, fly or drive to get to them, deal with logistics and sometimes unions to get set up, and then compete with everyone else on the floor to get eyes on your product and orders in your book.

But hey—no stress, right?

For many jewelers, trade shows are another cost of doing business. They present opportunity, broaden your brand’s reach, and raise awareness. Which is not to say they’re all delightful, worry-free jaunts into the world of commerce. Particularly for first-time exhibitors, trade shows can be daunting because there can be quite a lot riding on having a good show. We reached out to several seasoned trade show exhibitors to ask how they take the worry out of exhibiting. What it all comes down to is: Know where you’re going, be ready for everything, and don’t forget to have fun.

This Must Be the Place

One of the major concerns for potential trade show exhibitors—especially when you’re first setting out—is whether you’ll find your customers at the show you’re considering. What if, after all it took to get there, your fine jewelry is surrounded by great craft artists, and your price points are out of sync with what’s around you? That happened early on for Michael Jensen and Catherine Jensen, G.G., of Michael Jensen Designs in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

“Our first trade show, we were given a micro-booth in Las Vegas during Jewelry Week,” Catherine recalls. “The show was more for crafty/artsy/gifty stuff. Our price point didn’t belong there. And we were in the back of the venue. We didn’t realize we were going to be there with people selling silk-screened pillows and wind chimes made out of forks. We were there for three days. Practically no one looked at our work, and when they did, it was, ‘Oh...way too expensive.’”

One way to avoid this kind of conflict is to scout out a show ahead of time. Plan far enough ahead, and you could choose to attend a show you’re considering. This allows you the freedom to see the space, check to see if your work fits in, and talk with some of the exhibitors. All this, without the pressure of having to sell.

“I always say you should walk a show and know the show before you do it,” says Barbara Heinrich of Barbara Heinrich Studio in Rochester, New York. “You can see if your work is the right caliber, or if the show is too big. If there are a thousand exhibitors and you’re a newcomer, are you going to get lost? Should you be part of a smaller show? You have to look at what’s there and determine if you’ll stand out enough to do the business you want to do.”

Another way to scope out a show is to piggyback with another exhibitor by asking to help them work it. It’s what Sarah Graham of Sarah Graham Metalsmithing in La Quinta, California, did when she was looking at moving from craft shows to higher-end jewelry venues. “I was thinking about exhibiting at JCK Las Vegas,” she says. “I looked in trade magazines to find designers who were advertising that they’d be at the show. I found a designer who looked like they had cool work, and who might be in a similar market to me or sell to the same types of stores. I called and introduced myself and said, ‘I want to learn about these shows. I’d love to come, on my dime, and work for you.’”

Graham notes that in trying this, you may strike out a few times, but it’s not hard to find someone who’d be happy to have the help. “At the very least, you’re going to booth-sit for them when they go to the bathroom. When I did it, I was in the booth most of the time. I got to see how she interacted with buyers, and how she handled it when people said they don’t buy, they want consignment—that sort of thing.”

Marlene Richey, a consultant for art-based businesses based in Melrose, Massachusetts, also supports this idea, whether you’re new to shows or looking at a show with which you’re not familiar. “Get a feel for what it’s like to be behind the counter,” she says. “See what it’s like to talk to customers, see what they expect.”

Sometimes a simple call to a past exhibitor to ask about their show experience can give you the information you need. Remember, though, that everyone has a different measure of what constitutes a “good” show.

“For some people, it’s sales numbers,” Heinrich says. “For others, it’s ‘I want to find five new galleries.’ It can be a combination of things, like finding a certain number of stores and selling so much.”

“When I contact people, I’ll ask them what their general, overall impression is of the show,” Graham says. “If I only ask questions, she may only give me the answers to what I’m asking. And I may not ask the right questions. Depending on what information I get from asking about the show overall, I may ask something more specific, like, how was the traffic? Were people buying? Would you do it again?”

Once you’ve landed on a show you feel confident about doing, it’s time to get ready. And that’s a job in itself.

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Everything in its Place

As your upcoming show begins to loom large in your sights, proper preparation is going to go a long way toward taking the edge off your exhibiting concerns. According to Chris Ploof of Chris Ploof Designs in Leominster, Massachusetts, there are three important things you need to do:

“Make lists, make lists, make lists.”

“You have to think about everything,” he says. “I don’t make a list like, ‘bring rings, bring show trunk.’ I make lists like, ‘bring stapler, staples, pens, pencils, ruler, Scotch tape.’ Make a detailed list of the office things you’ll need. We plan redundancy around that and bring extras.”

Ploof also has a dedicated show trunk that’s kept ready to roll. “We keep it packed with our office supply bag, our tools, and our emergency bag with tape and fishing line, all the stuff you need to fix if something’s going wrong or there’s something in the booth that’s falling down.”

Aside from the physical things you need to bring, you may also want a list to cover other small considerations that can make your show life easier...like directions. “Keep a folder with information such as, you enter the venue on X Street,” says Todd Pownell, owner of TAP by Todd Pownell in Cleveland. “We drove around and around the Javits Center one time, not knowing where to turn. There can be different entrances for different booth numbers, that sort of thing. It was much easier for us the second year, knowing what tent we were in and what side of the building it was on.”

The Jensens are also list-keepers, and note that what’s on those lists has changed as they’ve become more experienced. “The first few shows we did, I could practically construct a booth out of what we had in the back of our car,” Michael says. “I would have assorted duct tape and wire and anything else I could build something with if we needed it. With a bit of experience, we’ve trimmed that down quite a bit. We’ve taken a few things off, and added things as well—we should have brought this, we should have brought that.”

They also divide their lists not only by pre-show, during show, and post-show needs, but also by who does what. “It’s how we cover our bases,” Catherine says. “For example, he doesn’t touch a computer. I cover the computer. When we bring showcases, he makes sure they’re packed, that the lights are good, and everything’s ready to go. I handle the paperwork.”

Graham relies on division of labor for shows as well, but also parcels it out in terms of timing. “Usually it’s two of us who do a show, and we stagger our arrival,” she says. “My assistant typically gets there the day before the show, and I get there as the show’s beginning. Even if I’m not planning on setting up that evening, I often go straight from the airport to the booth and look to see that everything’s there. Do I have everything I need? If I do, then I know I can come in the next day and set up and everything will be fine.”

And should things go a little south, Richey says, you can always turn to the people around you. “Someone’s always got pliers, they’ve always got duct tape.”

Ploof offers one other packing and shipping tip: travel light. “What can be shocking to first-time exhibitors is what the union charges to get your stuff from the dock to your booth. It’s one of the reasons I favored turnkey shows where you walk in and there’s already furniture and power in the booth. Instead of sending in 10 containers, we’d bring our show trunks, which are like really large suitcases. That allowed us to take a cab from the hotel or airport to the show and walk in the front door without paying hundreds of dollars to have it moved from the loading dock to the booth.”

Enjoy the Ride

Yes, trade shows come packed with tension and concern and lots of lists. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time doing them. After all, you’re surrounded by other artists, people you may know, people you’ve been hoping to meet, customers you’ve grown fond of, and new customers waiting to be had. It can be a very social scene during and after the day’s work, and you owe it to yourself to enjoy that.

For Pownell and his crew, that enjoyment sometimes begins before the show opens for the day. “We sometimes stay strategically in Airbnbs or hotels where we can walk to the show,” he says, noting that in New York City, he enjoys getting to the show via the High Line walking path. He’ll also grab his morning coffee at someplace along the way, to avoid having to start his show day standing in the queue at one of the kiosks inside the hall when they could be getting a jump on work.

Pownell also advocates getting out of the exhibit space for breaks if you can. “I don’t generally go for lunch in the place we’re showing. One of us will go out and get something special. We’ll take breaks separately and get outside the show for a half hour or so. Take a break where you can sit in a different spot so you’re not constantly on the show floor, in that same headspace.”

Getting out of the booth also lets you take in a bit of the social side of being at a trade show. Whether it’s connecting with people or just enjoying the work around you, it’s a good idea to have a stroll now and then. “For me, the personal connection at shows is very fun, and I make sure both I and my staff get time to walk around outside the booth,” Heinrich says. “We give ourselves half-hour breaks to walk the aisles, say hello, see some exciting work. For me, seeing other artists’ work and feeling the energy on the floor, that in itself is exhilarating.”

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At the end of the day’s work, be sure to take advantage of opportunities to have dinner or attend functions with friends, fellow artists, and customers. It’s another chance to discuss the show, get a feel for business overall, and (it’s okay) maybe kvtech a little. Because at the core of every trade show there’s a group of like-minded individuals with two common goals: to create great art and sell it. They’re your people, so enjoy them.

With a little research and a lot of planning and packing, you can reduce the number of worries you have about doing a trade show. You can focus on your business, enjoy the atmosphere, and hopefully come home ready to share your experience the next time the phone rings and a jeweler you may not know says, “I heard you just did a trade show. Can I ask you something?” 

Note: Also see our online column on Trade Show Packing Tips!

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