As a small business, taking the plunge and booking your first trade show can be daunting, especially as exhibiting can take a lot of preparation and be a big investment.
In this chat with The Completist owner Jana, (which we originally did on Instagram live) we talked about how to make a success of exhibiting at your first trade show.
The Completist is a stationery and paper goods brand based in London. They started in 2018, and their bold, colourful stationery is sold all over the world.
Let's meet Jana
1. When did you do your first trade show and which show was it?
This kind of has two answers. At the beginning of our business, we won a competition to have a part of a trade show stand. So officially our first trade show was Top Drawer.
But our first standalone alone show was Pulse, which was a smaller trade show that used to be in May and only happened once a year. Now it’s been made a part of Top Drawer.
2. How did you find the experience when you did your first trade show?
We were lucky because we won that competition, meaning we’d had the trade show experience without having to invest a whole lot of our own money into it.
But at our first trade show on our own, we had all these grand plans of how we were gonna do stuff and then things never go exactly to plan, such as the walls are always a bit wonky and things don't stay up the way you think they will. We ended up spending such a long time setting up that the next day we were absolute zombies, just sitting on these tiny little chairs staring into space cause we were just exhausted.
But it was a wonderful experience, and some of the stockists that we got at that show we still work with to this day. For example, Other Letters in Leigh-on-Sea, Space in Clerkenwell and Selfridges. We were really lucky we got Selfridges at our first trade show.
3. And how long had you been in business when you did your first show?
I started The Completist as a business mid 2017 officially, but I only really got it all together and made it what it is at the beginning of 2018, so we consider the start of 2018 as when we really started. So that makes it about five years.
4. What shows have you done since?
We've done quite a few Top Drawer, we’re onto our fourth Maison & Objet in Paris, and we'll also be doing our fourth Shoppe Object in New York. We do those two regularly now.
5. What made you decide to go from doing domestic shows to international shows?
We're both quite ambitious with the growth of the business, and it's a big world out there. Trade shows are very expensive, and they take a lot of time and a lot of work. But ultimately the industry is still pretty old school, and a lot of buyers still go to trade shows to find people, even with sites like Faire and Ankorstore
Selfridges, Liberty, or any of the big art institutions, department stores etc, they’re going to trade shows to find people. I’ve also found there are quite a few stores that will only really buy at trade shows, we have customers that only order from us when they see us at trade shows.
6. Do you have a favourite show?
Yes. We love Shoppe Object in New York, it’s a really nice show in a really light and airy building, plus the organisers are fantastic, and they've really thought of everything. For example, there’s free breakfast for the exhibitors and the buyers in the morning before every show, and they have a food delivery service, so if you are at the show by yourself, you can order your lunch to your booth so that you don't have to go and stand in a queue and wait for your lunch. It’s just little things like that.
7. How do you think national shows compare to domestic shows in terms of buyers? What would you say is different?
Maison & Objet and Top Drawer clash every September, and we spoke to a lot of our buyers the last time we did a September Top Drawer, where we found that a lot of them said they would do both because Maison runs for five days and Top Drawer for three. So you can do both.
Many buyers also say they know about the brands in the UK, so would often just go to Maison because they found it to be a better show because it's bigger. I personally prefer the international shows, let's just put it that way.
9. If you are new to trade shows, how much of your cashflow would you set aside to start exhibiting your trade shows? And would you start with just one trade show?
I would say yes, I would just start with one, and I would suggest going and visiting the trade show before you exhibit, just to get a sense of what people are doing with their stands.
I would start off with the smaller sized stand that they have and set aside half of that amount again to make sure that you can print all your catalogues or your business cards. You've got to consider all of the things you might need such as if you use bigger fixtures, you might need to rent a car or a van to get that stuff there. Then there’s all your lunches, coffee to keep yourself going.
The coverings for the wall panels are not cheap, and you have to pay for lighting and sometimes a power box for your stand, depending on which package you go for. Then there’s also accommodation, and travel costs, plus other things which inevitably come up. So it’s important to put aside enough money.
10. What type of marketing materials are helpful for trade shows?
I’ve got my catalogue, and at the show, we give out postcards to people, because our postcards are the same paper as our greeting cards. So it's a sample, but also people like pinning them up around their desks, and it reminds them that they've visited us. And what we've started doing in the last couple of years is printing on the back saying thanks for visiting us, this is how you can order from us and contact us, with a QR code for our catalogue in case they don't wanna take the physical catalogue.
One thing we’ll be doing this year is postcard invites as well before the show for various accounts, and for our bigger accounts, we'll do like a little sample set for our top 10 accounts and be sending those out to them. Just to remind people.
You need to really invite people, and you need to be proactive before, during, and after the show to have a good show.
11. What would be your top tips for exhibiting at a show?
Be prepared for things not to work out the way you think they're going to, in regards to your trade show set up. We had to go find a hand saw at 8:00 PM because a shelf was too long. If you're prepared for encountering issues like that, then it won't stress you out when if happens.
Be prepared with your visual marketing, as for me is the thing that takes the longest time and knowing how I'm gonna put everything just saves so much time.
Drink lots of coffee, speak to lots of people. I often have a bowl of sweets, as it’s a nice icebreaker to offer people. I've made some of my best contacts at the very end of a day at a show by like saying, “Oh do you want some sweets?”. It feels less salesy.
Stay to the end of the day. You see a lot of people that take off 5 minutes or so before the show ends, but don't do it. We met Papersmith in the last 10 minutes of a show. You just don't know until it's closing time who's gonna come around. I've actually written a blog post about this in our journal, my top five tips for trade shows.
It was so informative talking to Jana about her tips for exhibiting at trade shows.
New students tell me that they're not sure how to know when they're ready to start exhibiting at trade shows. Do you feel this way too?
I'm here to tell you that you don't need to figure it out on your own. I'd love to have a chat if you feel this way. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or head over to my Instagram @small_business_collaborative and drop me a DM to find out more.
Download your free trade show check list from my FREEBIES page https://www.smallbusinesscollaborative.co.uk/freebies
All photos are from The Completist.