So you signed up for a giant trade show. Don't panic, just plan!

By Vikki Wiercinski April 11, 2018

Vikki Wiercinski is the Edmonton-based designer behind Mezzaluna Studio, a line of modern textile and paper goods that she has grown from a craft fair experiment to a wholesale line carried by retailers across North America. She has also coordinated Edmonton’s primo maker fair, the Royal Bison Art and Craft Fair, for eight years. In this, the second of three posts on trade shows, she helps you through figuring out if a trade show is right for your business. You can read her first post here and the final post here.

Vikki Wiercinski


So you’ve decided setting up at a trade show is right for you and you’ve zeroed in on the trade show you want to do. The first step is to inquire about exhibiting by filling out an application form, which will get you a response from a rep at the show for your preferred section. Make sure to ask any questions you have at the moment to the rep before putting down a deposit as most of the time the deposit is non-refundable.

The rep will send you a booth offer, and will tell you who your neighbouring booths are so you can decide if that spot is a good fit or not. The booth offer should include a map of your booth location in the show as well, which is helpful to see if you’re towards the back of the show or nearer the front.

As with anything in business life don’t forget you can negotiate — perhaps a spot closer to the front, or a larger size for the same price towards the back — as a brand new exhibitor your options are limited, but make sure you come out with a spot you’re feeling happy with.

Depending how close to the show dates you book in, you may be required to pay 100% of the fees up front, or secure your booth with a deposit and have the other payments scheduled at other dates before the show. Even a 100% payment is negotiable, make sure to talk to your rep, they are there to make things easier for you.

Once you’re booked in and have a booth number, the emails with start coming fast. Anything from official trade show correspondence including the all-important Show Manual to any number of approved vendors offering services to exhibitors, to extra things like webinars about “trade show success.” Glance at everything, but the items to focus on are the Show Manual and any offers for services that you know you will need.

The Show Manual will tell you important things like guaranteed freight arrival and load-in times, dos and don’t of the show, insurance requirements, etc. You should at least skim through it. I used the show manual to plan when I would arrive in New York, and when I would arrive on-site to set up my booth.

And about all those services being offered — your booth price generally involves the cost of the bare floor space and that’s it. Sometimes there’s a booth package offered that contains power, lights and walls, sometimes you need to rent everything (including access to a plugin) out separately.

There are lots of companies that can help you with what you need to complete your booth, including hard walls for your booth, lighting, furniture (if you choose to bring it with you). Shop around and consider alternative options to your needs, as rentals are very pricey — once again your show rep will be your best friend in helping navigate this.

Glance at everything, but the items to focus on are the Show Manual and any offers for services that you know you will need

Many vendors ship things ahead of them on a pallet or in a crate and have it waiting for them when they arrive at the show. You can even store that crate off-site until the next show instead of shipping it back. This includes building hard walls and shipping them from wherever you are located, which could be much cheaper than rental walls.

Here’s the thing about most trade shows: they are a bit like a secret society with their own rules and regulations. For example, all labour on site is unionized and in some cases you cannot even lift any kind of power tool yourself, you must hire the work out to their staff.

I was surprised to find out I couldn’t even bring a freight cart inside from the parking lot out front, an employee hand carries all your things into your booth from the front entrance. Read the Show Manual and check with vendors you know who’ve exhibited at the show about the rules at the particular show you’re interested in.

Once you’ve ordered your power and decided if you’re buying walls and lights or renting them, all that’s left is plan your booth (don’t forget to think about any booth items or furniture you want to ship over or purchase while in you’re in town) and to book your travel to the show.

Once you’ve set up your booth, you should have at minimum:

  • product samples displayed with wholesale price and minimums on back
  • company signage (cut vinyl on the wall works really nicely)
  • catalogues (with clear product images of your items with item numbers)
  • a line sheet that accompanies the catalogue that has any terms or conditions, minimum orders amount and shipping rates
  • company business cards with space to write your booth number on
  • PDF versions of the catalogue and line sheets ready to email in case a buyer requests that instead of paper copies
  • the ability to accept credit card payments for orders made on the show floor in the country’s currency that you’re showing in

While the market is on, buyers will ask you things like:

  • “What’s your price point on this item” — the buyer is asking about the wholesale price of your item. Think about making the prices on a small label on the back.
  • “What’s your minimum” — the minimum order is the dollar or quantity amount a retailer has to order from you to qualify for wholesale pricing

Never give out a wholesale catalogue without getting a business card in return so you can follow up later. Don’t be afraid to ask for a buyer’s business card in exchange for a catalogue if they seem interested and you’ve chatted a bit. Make sure you’re set up for payments in a foreign currency if you’re in another country, and that you’re able to quickly email order confirmations and request payment from buyers.

If you are showing in another country, there are some things to consider when it comes to cross-border commerce. I asked the trade show I was at for a formal letter of invitation. It’s a good idea to keep this with you to show the border guard so you can prove you’re coming in for legit business reasons. The letter states that no cash is being exchanged at the show and you are only bringing samples. And those samples have to be marked “SAMPLE NOT FOR SALE” as well as with their country of origin or they may be confiscated at the border — essentially your sample product needs to be non-sellable. And if someone asks to buy a sample at the show, it goes without saying that you would kindly decline their offer and send them to see a retailer who carries your work.

You’ve written some orders, you’ve given out and gotten a stack of business cards and it’s the end of the last day of the show. You made it! In the next post (3 of 3) we’ll talk tear down, storage, about how it’s nowhere near over yet.

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