Ever thought about selling at a trade show? Wanted to expand the wholesale side of your business but not sure where to start? In September I set up at Top Drawer in London, for my first EVER trade show stand. It was a crazy whirlwind experience, and I wish I'd had someone to ask for advice, so with that in mind I'd thought I'd write a few blog posts about what I learnt. Including this post there will be four in total, covering my general experience of Top Drawer, creating a beautiful trade show stand, tips and tricks for trade show newbies, and finally looking at creating a wholesale catalogue (whether you're doing a trade show or not.)
So for my first blog post on the topic I'm going to talk (as candidly as possible!) about my experience at Top Drawer. (the photos aren't really related, I just wanted to share some of the pictures I took whilst we were setting up!) Starting with setting up - set-up was hands down the most stressful part of the five days. You have to book an unloading time slot beforehand, where you'll be allowed to drive your vehicle up close to Olympia to unload, and then move the vehicle into the car park once you're unloaded. Different types of stands have different amounts of time to set up their stand - we were allowed to start setting up two days before the event started (for some stands you're allowed one day before, and other stands you're allowed three days before.)
With this in mind my top tip for setting up is GET IN EARLY! As it was my first time ever doing a trade show, and because I had a four metre wide stand, I had no idea really how my stand was going to look. It wasn't possible to do a trial run of the set up at home, so we left ourselves the maximum amount of time possible to faff around and arrange things so I was totally happy, rather than rushing round at the last minute and it not being perfect! So we arrived nice and early on the Friday morning, and had the whole day to get set up, plus all of Saturday too (we finished early on Saturday though as we did most of the work on Friday.) It took WAY longer than I ever would have imagined to set up, so leave yourself the maximum amount of time.
When I applied for Top Drawer there weren't very many stands left (because I kept umming and ahhing about whether to do it!) so I didn't have a huge amount of choice in where I was placed. We ended up being only about one or two rows from the back edge of the show, so definitely not the best location. Plus, the way the show was laid out this year meant that the jewellery section of Top Drawer was right at the back, at pretty much the farthest point from the entrance. I definitely think this was a big disadvantage as when I ventured nearer to the entrance of the show (where the gifts section was located) it was heaving with visitors, whilst the jewellery section remained pretty quiet throughout. I'd definitely recommend looking at the show plan before booking a stand - I don't think there is an exact science to picking a spot, but the nearer to the entrance the better I reckon!
Before the show I had lots of emails and phone calls about various advertising opportunities on offer for Top Drawer exhibitors - it was a bit of a minefield and I wasn't sure whether it would be worth the (rather large sum of) money. The main options where to have an advert in the Top Drawer Preview magazine (which gets sent to every buyer that has ever visited Top Drawer, and is sent about a month before the actual show), or to have an advert in the official show guide, which is only available at the actual show (everyone gets a free listing in the guide, with your business name and stand number, but you can have a bigger advert within this guide.)
I ended up deciding to place a half page advert in the Preview magazine (there are about four different size adverts, at different prices.) The advert cost £420 inc VAT so not cheap by ANY means, but as the stand had already set me back about £2400 I figured in for a penny, in for a pound! I chose the Preview magazine as I figured that way my work would be in front of buyers that weren't going to make it to the actual Top Drawer show, and also that buyers that were planning on coming would be able to make a point of visiting my stand if they liked what they saw.
It's hard to quantify exactly what return I received on the advert investment, but I did receive a number of orders before the show from companies that found me through my advert in the Preview, and several buyers that visited me at the show mentioned they saw my advert and made as point of visiting me.
So, down to the real nitty gritty. Was it worth doing a stand at Top Drawer? For me, it definitely was. My target going in to the show was to make enough money in orders over the three days to cover the cost of the stand, the magazine advert, the furniture/display stuff I bought, and all the promotional materials I bought for the show, and I achieved this (but only just.) I also had a number of orders before and after the show, plus several of the companies that ordered from me at the show have placed second orders since! And of course I'm hoping the new stockists I picked up at Top Drawer will place orders in the future too, on an ongoing basis.
A lot of the other business owners I spoke to who had stands near mine had been doing trade shows for a number of years. They said that they used to take stacks and stacks of orders, whilst now they are lucky to just cover their costs! So it seems that trade shows aren't what they used to be, which I think makes sense. More and more independent stores seem to be closing, and they make up a huge proportion of the buyers that visit trade shows.
Would I recommend doing a trade show to other small business owners? The short answer is; yes, I would. I'm really glad I did Top Drawer - it was a huge learning experience, pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and helped me to get my products in front of buyers. However, it was a BIG expense - if I had tried to do a trade show when my business was smaller, I don't think I would have been able to afford it. So I'd definitely recommend waiting until you feel it is financially viable. There is no need to rush into a trade show - with the joys of the internet it's relatively simple connecting with shop owners and buyers using email or social networking. Trade shows aren't the only route! In fact, I'd recommend trialling your products in stores before even thinking about doing a trade show, purely so you can gauge whether your items sell in a retail environment, how much you can charge for them in a store, how they need to be packaged in order to be sold in a store. Also, a trade show is a huge commitment in terms of your time, particularly preparing for your first one. There are so many things to think about - it's not simply a case of rolling up with your products and off you go. I spent about two weeks before the show painting, sanding, designing, packaging... not to mention countless trips to Ikea to measure up for display items, evenings spent swearing at the complicated lighting forms and health and safety forms that have to be completed. Your first trade show is a big deal - make sure you're ready for it and commit to it!
I hope this post has been helpful - as always, if you have any questions you can leave a comment below, or drop me an email, and I'll try my best to help!