a beginner’s guide to trade shows (written by a fully certified beginner)
Every small creative business owner goes through certain rites of passage: The first market stand, the first online sale, the first stockist. Sooner or later, you’ll start to wonder about your first trade show.
Trade shows are for B2B (business-to-business) sales only, and they’re like retail markets on steroids. The displays are more elaborate, the venues are enormous, the foot traffic is higher and the orders are bigger.
Trade shows are a big investment. Once you factor in the cost of the stall booking, your stand furniture, transportation, accommodation and meals, you’re looking at a starting cost of €3,000 or more for a small set-up. But with great risk comes great reward. If you find the right trade show, your income potential is huge.
If you’re serious about retail sales and can provide the consistent quality and quantities needed for wholesale, then trade shows are your next step. Buyers come from all over the world to the biggest trade shows (like Heimtextil in Frankfurt and Maison & Objet in Paris), and include not only independent shops but large department stores, online retailers, hoteliers, restauranteurs, interior designers and press.
If you’re considering getting involved in the trade show scene, but don’t know where to start, this is my guide of how to book your first trade show, including a list of nine essential things to bring. This way, you’ll work your first trade show like a seasoned pro.
(Image credit: Maison & Objet)
are you ready for a trade show?
Before you even fill out an application form, start by asking yourself if this is something you really need. It can take a few years before you really start to see a return on your investment, so make sure your profit margins are solid, and that you’re in this for the long run. Trade shows can be a lucrative source of income and are a great way to introduce small brands to large retailers, but success is not guaranteed. Before you start filling out application forms and planning an expensive stand layout, take the time to do your research. If there’s a trade show you’re interested in, visit before applying. The cost of visiting for one day is peanuts compared to the cost of exhibiting, and you’ll be able to get a feel of the atmosphere, see which hall you would fit in best with (each trade show has multiple halls, each with different design categories), get a feel for popular stand design ideas and talk to other small brands selling there.
I would love to give you a set formula that will tell you if you’re ready for a trade show, but the answer is different for everyone. Instead, here are some questions you can ask yourself that might help you find the right answer for your business:
- Do I have a clear brand identity?
- Do I have a cohesive product range?
- Have I clearly identified my target end customer?
- Can I get myself, my products & my stand furniture to the trade show location?
- If I do not recover all the costs of a trade show, can my business still operate comfortably?
- Can I commit to do a trade show for the next 3 years?
- Do I want to sell through stockists, or do I only want to sell directly to the end customer?
- Am I able to produce my products at wholesale quantities & prices?
- Am I prepared to ship wholesale orders internationally?
(Image credit: Hello Evra)
negotiating your stand
When you first apply for a trade show, you’ll be given a cost per square metre (which will be so high it’ll make your eyes bleed) and a minimum stand size. You’ll also be given the chance to pay for a bunch of extra options, such as:
- How many open sides your stand has (I like having two open sides, as it gives you plenty of wall space, but also lets visitors catch sight of your stand from two different directions)
- Wall covering or material (there will be a basic option, which is usually for plain white walls, and then a selection of more expensive options)
- Electricity (this is highly recommended)
- Lighting (see the first point on the list below)
- Flooring (usually only the raw exposed venue floor is included, which can look great if you want an industrial-style look for your stand. Otherwise, there are options to pay for carpet or other flooring.)
And finally, there is almost always an additional compulsory fee for a “digital marketing package” which is what you pay to be included in the print and online exhibitor catalogues. Yes, this fee is absurd; yes, it always feels extortionate; no, I don’t know any way to get out of it. (If someone has the answer, please let me know).
Once your application has been accepted, someone from the trade show will be in touch to let you know which hall they’ve placed you in, and where your stand is located within that hall. Look carefully at the selection they’ve made for you, and don’t be afraid to ask for a different location. This is a huge investment for you, and you should be happy with what you’re paying for. It’s incredibly common for exhibitors to ask to swap locations, so don’t worry that you’re being rude or difficult if you ask for another option.
The same goes for price. When you see the final cost of your stand, if it’s too expensive for you, ask the organizers if they can do any better on the price. There’s never a guarantee that they’ll lower the cost, but it does happen sometimes. The worst they can do is say no, so it’s always worth asking!
(Image credit: Emma Wood)
nine essentials to bring to a trade show
Trade shows are notorious for charging huge amounts for basic stand essentials, like electricity and lighting. You’ll most likely want to pay for electricity, but you can save considerable money by taking control of your lighting. Buying (or renting, or borrowing) your own halogen spotlights or other industrial-strength lights means your products and stand can be well-lit at a fraction of the cost. Just make sure you bring plenty of extension cords, and that you have a way to attach your lights to the top of your stand wall.
It’s better to overestimate rather than underestimate how much light you’ll need — the exhibition halls that trade shows take place tend in to be vacuous and poorly lit, and you don’t want your space to be a black hole when the stand next to you is illuminated like a football pitch.
You’re going to need some tools to get your space set up. I invariably forget to bring at least one of these things each time:
- Hammer & nails
- Screwdriver, screws & wall plugs
- Electric drill
- Extension cords
- Large tape measure
- Masking tape & electrical tape
- Basic cleaning supplies (dustpan, glass & all-purpose cleaner, bin bags, etc.)
- Stationery (paper, scissors, stapler, pens, pins, etc.)
And don’t forget to bring a flat-bed trolley! You might be able to borrow one, or you can buy large, heavy-duty ones online starting from around €50. You’ll have a lot of equipment and stock to unload, and it’s always a chaotic environment. Being able to wheel your goods on a flat-bed trolley (instead of doing countless trips from the unloading bay to your stand) will save you time, physical effort, and will help preserve your sanity.
Plainly put, your standard design market setup won’t cut it in a trade show environment. You certainly don’t need to spend a fortune, but it’s worth it to invest in a few basic pieces that you can keep reusing. You will definitely want chairs (pro tip: bring ones with backs, so you can relax when you’re tired), and you need an area where you can sit down with buyers and finalise their orders. Also try to incorporate some hidden storage into your display, where you can stash empty boxes, coats & bags, extra stock, etc.
Trade shows will label your stand with your brand name, but it’s best practice to bring your own sign with you. Getting a vinyl-cut decal of your brand logo is usually the most affordable option, and it makes the cheap trade show walls look more bespoke. Of course, feel free to go beyond a simple vinyl decal – some brands paint or even wallpaper their stand walls, so you can really design each inch of your space to suit your aesthetic.
When you’re leaving your stand overnight, be sure to take all your cash & valuables with you. You can also use large sheets to cover up your stand.
(Image credit: Emma Wood)
- Wholesale price list
Know. Your. Prices. Potential buyers have specific budgets and price points they work with (and a lot of ground to cover at large shows), so they want to know as quickly as possible if your products will be both affordable and profitable for them. Here’s what needs to be included in your wholesale price list:
- The wholesale cost in your operating currency
- A rough conversion of the wholesale cost in the currency of the trade show country
- The recommended retail price (RRP) of your products in your operating currency
- A rough conversion of the RRP in the country currency of the trade show country
- A minimum order amount, if you have one
- Minimum order quantities per product, if you have them
- Average shipping cost estimates, if you have them
- Average lead time (how long it takes from the order being placed to it arriving with the customer)
If you’re unsure about your pricing & profit margins, or want to understand more about how wholesale pricing works, check out this piece dedicated to product pricing (coming soon!). Getting your pricing right is one of the cornerstones to having a successful business, so I can’t stress enough how important it is to get it right!
- Order forms
Quite a lot of buyers at trade shows like to place orders after the show has ended. This can be frustrating for the sellers, since it’s harder to know if your costs are being covered (and it’s so much more motivating to sell directly at the show). For orders that are placed in person, make sure you have a way to write them down efficiently, and with all the information you need to send them an invoice right after the show. Carbon copy paper is a good choice, since you will also need to give the customer a copy of the order to take away with them. Here’s what you need to be including in your order forms:
- Company & contact name, billing address, shipping address, phone & email
- Customer VAT-ID number (if based in the EU)
- Order items, including quantity, colour, size, cost per unit, etc.
- Shipping cost, if known
- Total cost
- Payment terms
- Estimated delivery date
A few extra tips about ordering:
Some trade show buyers may show a lot of interest in your products, but won’t place an order, even after the show is over. If you’re new to trade shows, this isn’t unusual – some companies like to know the brands they buy from are reliable, and wait until they’ve seen you at the same trade show for a few years before they start placing orders.
Make sure you have your payment terms locked down. The first wholesale order you get from a new client requires a leap of faith from both parties — they have to trust you will deliver a high-quality product on time, and you need to trust they will pay you in full, and quickly. A good way to meet in the middle is to request 50% payment on orders “pro forma” (this means they pay before the order is shipped), and the other 50% after delivery.
- USB press kit
Save on printing costs and make journalists’ lives a bit easier by prepping a few cheap USB sticks with your press kit. Having all your important press text & images in an easy-to-use digital format makes it simpler and faster for any interested press members to store, transfer and use information about your brand and products. Here’s a quick checklist of what to include in a USB press kit:
- Digital catalogue
- Individual product photos, both high-res (300dpi) and low-res (72dpi)
- Your brand or mission statement
- Latest press release
- Contact information
- Retail price list (not your wholesale prices!)
- Any current stockists, or where to buy online
(Image credit: Emma Wood)
In case you haven’t already gotten the glaringly obvious message, everything about trade shows is expensive, and this goes for everything from lighting to a simple cup of tea. If you’ve already paid for electricity on your stand, bring your own small kettle or coffee machine so you can make hot drinks for both yourself and your customers (the same goes for bringing your own lunches & snacks). These savings might seem small (and obvious), but every little bit really does help. Most importantly though, I believe strongly in a BYOB attitude (Bring Your Own Booze). Sometimes trade show days don’t end until after 7pm, and in the last two hours you’ll be oh-so-grateful for that bottle of wine you have tucked away in a corner.
- Books & magazines
Even though large trade shows will paint the impression of packed halls abuzz with buyers, for most of the time, trade shows are b-o-r-i-n-g, and there’s not much in the way of entertainment. It took a few trade shows before I finally started bringing my laptop, books & magazines to help kill the long periods of time where I was just waiting for interest in my stand, and now those items are indispensable. Just make sure you’re always aware of visitors to your stand and put away your book or laptop as soon as someone needs your attention. This should go without saying, but never wear headphones whilst on your stand, and never, ever watch Netflix. As brain-achingly dull as trade shows can sometimes be, they’re neither the time nor the place to binge-watch The Crown.
- Extra stock
One common way for sellers to make a bit of extra cash at trade shows is to sell products directly at the show. Technically it’s not allowed, but people do it anyway, especially on the last day. It never hurts to bring a small amount of extra stock that you can sell to visitors or fellow stand-holders, and usually these goods are sold at a price somewhere in between your wholesale and retail price, and are paid in cash. For example, if you have a cushion with a wholesale price of €16 and a retail price of €42, you might sell it directly at the trade show for €30.
(Image credit: Marcus Nyberg)
And there you have it: my nine essential items to make your first trade show a success. Whilst each trade show is different, I hope this gives you a better idea of what to expect in terms of experience and expense. A trade show stand should never be an impulse purchase, and you shouldn’t go into it blind.
Personally, I believe small brands are one of the most important parts of trade shows — they add fresh design and an alternative to conventional bigger names, and they can help you get a feel for what’s trending. Hopefully this list can help you in making an informed decision about whether you’re ready for a trade show, and if you are — go get ‘em!