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Bettie Goes Solo: How I Survived My First Trade Show

Back in February, we interviewed eCommerce guru Andy Cordina, better known by her business alias, Bettie Confetti. Andy had recently decided to leave behind her Marketing Manager day job to focus full-time on her greetings card business. Well, we didn’t want to leave her story there… We’ve teamed up with Andy to find out what it’s really like going solo. Over a series of monthly blogs, we’re going to uncover the ups and downs – and take the scary out of leaving the day job.

For a small business owner, there comes a time when you have to seriously consider how you’re going to grow your business. There’s nothing more detrimental to your income than standing still and resting on your laurels. And while a part of you may have left the big, bad corporate world to escape the use of words like ‘strategy’, you need to have one knuckled down to ensure you grow. For me, that meant seriously considering a trade show.

Growing up my Mum and Dad owned every business under the sun. They were restaurant owners, they launched and ran cosmetic lines, owned a children’s clothing store… the list goes on. The import and export of products meant that my Dad was often at trade shows, all over the world.

When I was little, I remember him going to the US for a few weeks at a time to exhibit their latest product line. To me, it was the longest wait in the world for the latest LA Gear trainers exclusively available in the United States. To him, it was hard graft, weeks of preparation and a considerable expense for the business. So naturally, when I thought about how to grow my business, trade shows seemed like the most straightforward option to consider.

But there was one problem. I had no idea what I was doing.

The thought of putting myself out there and having to sell myself and my brand to actual human beings, filled me with dread. I had absolutely no clue where to start to make sure my brand didn’t look like amateur hour. So off to Google I went, in search of 5,280,000 results in 0.72 seconds.

 

When I thought about how to grow my business, trade shows seemed like the most straightforward option to consider.

 

Choosing the right trade show for your business

For the home and gift sector, there are a few really well-established trade shows that could work for a new brand.  

  • Pulse 
    The boutique style trade show that is somewhat selective with the brands that they’ll allow to exhibit. Think Instagram Glam. If your product works well in a strategically positioned out flat-lay, you’re in. They also offer smaller style areas in the show for emerging brands, if you’re not ready to enter into the world of shell schemes.
  • Home and Gift Harrogate
    A really popular trade show that always has a great buzz around it in the maker community. There are about 850 exhibitors at the show and a massive attendance by retailers and industry bods at about 12,000 people over the 4 days of the show.
  • Progressive Greetings Live
    A greeting cards specific trade show (who knew that there was such a thing) that features the big boys in the industry, right down to emerging publishers in a dedicated area called ‘Springboard’. There are affordable options if you’re just starting out and as it’s only two days it’s a good entry level show for newbies.
  • Top Drawer
    A slightly more expensive option than some others, but a fantastic show that happens twice a year. So, if you’re thinking about exhibiting but not quite ready yet, you won’t need to wait a whole year to apply for a stand. Many brands swear by this trade show as their number one, but you might need to be a little more clued in about how to present your brand. So this one might be better for your second or third show.

After looking at all my options and doing a bit of research from other brand’s experiences of the different shows, I decided on PG Live. What appealed to me most was the emerging publishers section, which didn’t seem as daunting as other shows. And the fact that I knew buyers were definitely coming for greeting cards and nothing else, so I was in with a good chance. The free lunches and drinks reception didn’t hurt either.

 

Ask the show organisers for help and advice

It’s a good idea to talk to the organisers to make sure the show you choose is right not only for your brand, but for your stage of business. Speaking to Tracey Arnaud from PG Live, she gives some helpful advice to first-time trade show exhibitors:

“What I always warn new exhibitors/publishers is not to be too downhearted if they don’t take any orders at their first exhibition. Buyers like to see exhibitors for at least two years before they will place orders.

It’s a steep learning curve, get as much feedback as you can from visitors to your stand. The font or colour may need tweaking, and these changes can alter the design completely.  It’s not criticism, it’s valuable feedback!”

 

The Bettie Confetti stand at PG Live -

 

Find help in the unlikeliest of places

Once you’ve committed to exhibiting at a trade show, you might still feel like you’re completely clueless and have a list of questions as long as your arm. I know I did. As I saw the money leave my bank account, I kept thinking that this could be a massive over-commitment on my part. But sometimes you find help in the least expected places – your competitors.

After my 6th hour on Google, reading reviews and blog posts of previous exhibitors, I came across one article by Jenny Price of Dandylion Jack. I took a punt and emailed her asking if I could pick her brains about her experience at the trade show. She was so incredibly helpful and answered all my questions and then some.

If you’re feeling like you are running in circles with a load of unanswered questions, there are so many people that have been in exactly the same spot. And more often than not, they’re willing to share what they learnt if you ask nicely enough.

10 things I learned from my first trade show

With the experience of my first trade show behind me, and the steepest learning curve I think I’ve experienced since understanding the complexity of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, here are my top tips for surviving your first trade show.

1. Double down and get a plan in place

Once you’ve confirmed your exhibition space, read all the material that the organisers send you and get yourself a plan. Figure out how much effort you think you’ll need to get ready for the show and double it. There are a million things you’ll need to do before the show and it will always take longer than you think.

2. Make a list and check it 4,563 times

A good list can be your best friend getting ready for the show. When you add the pressure of preparing for a trade show on top of your regular work day, it’s likely you’re going to forget something if you don’t write it down. Trello is a fantastic free tool for this.

3. Keep it simple, stupid

It can be easy to get carried away with shell scheme design, props and graphics. But, for your first show keep it simple or you’ll have a nervous breakdown. Buyers are there to see your product, not all the other tatt that you’ve bought last minute on Amazon Prime to decorate your space. Find a simple aesthetic that works with your brand and stick to it.

4. Know what buyers want

Buyers will often need to know if your product will work with their shop systems. Most established retail outlets prefer barcodes on products, every retailer likes a stock keeping unit (SKU) and packaging is also important. Although it might take some time to get these in place, it’s worth it to show buyers that you’re a serious brand.

 

Bettie Confetti's line of notepads -

5. Pitch it, pitch it good

Know your product pitch inside out. Where was it made? Are your items sold individually or in sets of six? Is the wholesale price inclusive or exclusive of VAT? What’s the minimum order? How long does an order take to turn around? What’s the carriage fee? So many questions, but if you’re prepared you’ll answer these questions in a heartbeat.

6. The stapler: the most important stationery item that ever was

Get your hands on as many business cards as you can while you’re at the show. If someone comes to your stand, rather than sussing out their name badge to see they’re worth your time, introduce yourself and ask for a business card. Then staple it into a notebook once you’ve finished talking with them, and write a note about what you need to do to follow up with them.

7. In the words of my Father, put down your bloody phone

Don’t be one of those people at a trade show that spends the entire day with your head in your phone stalking people on Instagram. You don’t need to check your phone every five seconds. Do you want a buyer’s first impression of you to be your high score on Candy Crush? No. Put down your phone and focus on the trade show visitors or talk to your neighbouring exhibitors about their experience if it’s a bit slow – you never know what you might learn.

8. Stop short of your pyjamas, but ditch the ball gown

Make sure you’re wearing comfortable clothing and are prepared for if it’s going to be a little warm in the exhibition hall or a little cold. You want to be presentable and look the part, but leave the six-inch heels at home for your next clubbing sesh, you’ll thank me at the end of the day. Wear something that shows off your personality. If you like bright colours then definitely wear them. If you’re a vintage clothing hound, then get out that A-line dress that you love so much. You want people to feel comfortable around you, and what better way than if you’re comfortable yourself.

9. Dollar Dollar Bills Y’all

Well, not quite. But you’ll need to be prepared to take orders on the spot. While this doesn’t happen as frequently as it used to at trade shows, some buyers will want to place and order there and then. Get an inexpensive paper order book from eBay and make sure both you and the buyer know what your payment terms are.

10. Soak it in, soak it all in

If you don’t take a single order from your trade show, it’s not been a failure. Think about all the things you’ve learnt. All the little changes you would make to have the next show be more successful. There’s something to be said for the value of having all the knowledge you will gain for doing a trade show. Don’t think that you’re leaving empty handed if your phone isn’t ringing off the hook with buyers, or your order book is not bursting at the seams. You’d be surprised how much activity happens in the days after the show has ended, and you’ve walked away a more knowledgeable business person.

 

Andy is the owner of Bettie Confetti, a snarky greeting cards line available at Not On The High Street, Etsy and select independent retailers in the UK. 

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