The 3 Rules of Tradeshows

Inspired by discussion elsewhere, I thought it would be useful to write an entry with broader utility.

There are two kinds of trade shows. The kind you sell at and the kind you buy at. This post deals with ones you sell at or would like to sell at. Please follow all links so I don’t repeat myself (too much) and be sure to read the comments of those entries.

The three rules of tradeshows are

  1. Knowing where and how you want to show,
  2. getting buyers to your booth, and
  3. having reasonable expectations of what a show can do for you by understanding who the show is designed to serve and who runs them.

Rule #1 is where and how; know what you’re getting into.
The first rule of trade shows is, never ever sign a contract to exhibit at a tradeshow you haven’t walked. Never. Ever. If you want to show at a larger venue like MAGIC, walk every part of the show. You must understand that you may not get to pick which segment you’ll be placed in so if the representative wants to put you in Street but you want to be in Slate, you cannot agree to the change unless you’ve walked Street because unfortunately, you often don’t get to pick where you’ll be.

You don’t need to have your own booth; you have the option of seeking a sales rep to represent you ¹. I think this is the best option to start with. When you walk the show, keep an eye out for independent representatives who carry product lines that complement yours.

If you want to go to a show because you think it legitimizes you and gets you some exposure, it’ll be an expensive lesson that won’t return what you put into it. There is a perfect show for you; take all the time you need to find it.

Rule #2 is getting buyers into the booth:
You must understand that the show is responsible for getting buyers to the show. It is your responsibility to get the buyers into your booth. The show is merely providing a central location where buyers can meet with their vendors -and of course, perhaps pick up other products. I wouldn’t expect show management to be very sympathetic if your traffic is slow, they will say you should have made pre-show appointments.

Every show is different but you also can’t expect the tradeshow to provide you with a list of pre-registered attendees so you can mail or email them in advance with the hope of setting up appointments. It is important to read the fine print in the exhibitor manual/agreement beforehand to make sure it compliments your strengths or compensates for some of your deficits. Some shows sell lists of buyers that fit certain criteria in advance of the show but those can be rather expensive. Many (most?) exhibitors don’t buy these lists. Most exhibitors send sales collateral to their customer base about the show and solicit appointments that way. They will also mail to buyers who may have visited their booth in seasons past (here is a dandy form to use to capture data).  I realize this is difficult if you’re just starting out -which is another reason you might consider getting a sales rep because they have established relationships with buyers and will market on your behalf.

Rule #3 is having reasonable expectations of what shows can do by understanding who the show is designed to serve and who runs them.

This is the most poorly understood concept of all. You think that because you’re paying for booth space that you are the customer and therefore have a lot of pull, and they have to make you happy. Maybe, maybe not.

First, do you know how shows start? Shows start because independent sales reps  -usually road reps- get together to organize one.  These are often hosted at hotels and are called “room shows”. If the show takes off, the reps create an official organization to run it and the show becomes a property unto itself. This is why many shows (particularly regional ones) are called “X representatives X (region) Show”. Most (all?) show charters prohibit manufacturers from owning a piece of the show; it is not unusual for smaller shows to prohibit manufacturers from showing so they must acquire representation. By the way, does anyone know what MAGIC stands for? It’s an acronym that stands for “Men’s Apparel Guild in California” because that is who started it. It was a men’s show (I still remember when it was mostly a men’s show), a bunch of reps who sold men’s stuff were annoyed at the price of booth space and lack of differentiation so they high tailed it to Las Vegas where rooms were cheap.  Now it’s the biggest wholesale apparel show in the world.

Now, since reps start shows, they need to set things up to attract buyers so that is the major priority and interest. They care about retailers more than manufacturers because it’s easier to pick up another brand (since there are so many to choose from) than it is to pick up another buyer.  Indirectly, this is the reason that most manufacturers cannot source from the sourcing pavilion at MAGIC. That is set up for retailers to full out their merchandizing mix with some private labeling. I realize that the situation is fluid and ever changing but if you find something there, consider yourself lucky rather than smart.

The last reason it is important to know it is reps who set up shows is to understand you rarely have control over the location of your booth on the show floor -especially if you’re new. Signing a contract to exhibit is not like buying an airline ticket and getting a seat assignment. Sure, they’ll try to place you where you prefer but only if it makes sense for their buyer attendees and is convenient for them.

Moreover, you should expect to get the worst booth assignment at your first show. If you come back again, you can expect a better slot. Without a doubt, seniority rules. This is another reason to consider getting representation because a given sales rep has been showing there all this time and probably has relationships to get a placement they like.

Shows and show cultures vary a great deal; a good way to think of them are as clubs (many of them are called clubs) and you should take some time to get to know them because some have better reputations than others. WWIN is one show that gets rave reviews from buyers and exhibitors alike. By contrast, Pool is a feeder show for both exhibitors and tradeshow employees so the culture is young and fresh -but also inexperienced and with little in the way of continuity and customer care.
¹ There is probably a lot of link rot in this post but I explain the tactics in great detail to locate reps. Be resourceful!

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  1. Trish says:

    I also remember when MAGIC was menswear only…. it is amazing how everything changes over time. Think of the huge building in Dallas that was the menswear and children’s market and the even larger womens wear market. I got to fly over it while it was being demolished. It was funny, it was like the end of an era. Now Las Vegas has taken over. Thanks for another great post.

  2. WWIN is a wonderfully run show. We get pre-registered buyer lists way in advance so we can target our customers. They go out of their way to help you.

    Smaller (ie, less expensive) regional shows can be a great place to start. But, it is true, that some are rep-only shows and manufacturers cannot get in.

  3. Frances says:

    Kathleen, in rule #1, end of the second paragraph, the word is “complement”. Not trying to be picky, just think it’s better to be accurate. Although, in a way, the other works.

    I’m just a home sewer but I’m finding your site fascinating. It keeps me up too late!

  4. I have not done any trade shows yet, but would like to in the future.
    Do sales reps pay for their booth (I would assume so), and if so, is the fee divided among however many lines they represent? Meaning, if a sales rep decided to take on my line for show representation, and they represented a total of, say, 4 lines (including mine), I would be responsible for 1/4 of the fee? I don’t have a problem with that, I just want to know because I have never done it before. Thanks!

  5. Kathleen says:

    Thanks Frances, I much appreciate the diction check, has since been corrected.

    Hi Christina -time to check the book again :). It’s also on this site and forum in greater detail but yes, the various lines chip in the cost of the booth if their rep is primarily a road rep because this represents an unusual expense. Usually the rep will explain the costs and ask if you want to participate in it. Sometimes some designers don’t want to or even, an independent rep hosts a booth exclusively for a given line.

  6. Russell White says:

    I started as a menswear designer back in the dark ages of the 1970’s and polyester double knit pant suits, I went to my first MAGIC show when it was in Palm Springs. I was working for Levi Strauss. I was their first designer for the sportswear division and also relatively new to the industry–it was very exciting, especially when you were working for one of the founding companies of the MAGIC show.

    The show moved to the Los Angeles convention center. I worked for several other companies that displayed at MAGIC. Almost every boss I had was on the board of MAGIC–and so we always got invited to the best parties and dinner events. The stories I can tell about what really went on behind the scenes would make a best seller.

    I remember when the tornado hit the convention center as we were setting up for our booth for the show. The company I worked for, Balboa Sportswear, was very near where the tornado ripped off part of the roof–talk about a wild day!

    As the show bigger and bigger until it could hold no more–even with all of the “bubbles”–it moved to Las Vegas. One of the reasons why they moved the show was due to the city of Los Angeles refusing to increase the size of the convention center.

    Working the show is very tough. It is very tiring and if you have a successful line it is very stressful–yet always exciting. It is a place to network, meet up with old friends and see what is happening in the real world of fashion–not just from the runways in New York, Paris or London.

    One of my bosses told me and my design staff as we working the booth (which was not a 10×10 but one 10 times that size) that we always had to keep the booth looking busy at all times, even if there was a lull in buyer activity at 4:30 in the afternoon. We had to present the line to each other. This always gave the impression to those walking the show that our booth was constantly busy, vibrant and must have some great items.

    Another thing he told us was not to just sit there and read or talk to each other. We also had to smile and look and feel like we were the best of the show.

    We were on hand to help other sales people, we had to put the clothes back in proper order on the racks (yes, you need to have the clothes lined up in presentation order for speedy and efficient showings), we were the welcoming committee for buyers and lookers, we made trend presentations to the buyers and schmoozed with them (they love to bond with the designer and talk about trends and what is happening in the fashion world–the best thing you can do is make a good impression with the buyer, a trade show is about relationships), and lastly we had to run errands for the sales team–we never felt it was beneath us to be gofers because we were all on the same team.

    To this day, I am always amazed when I walked trade shows and see people sitting there looking bored in their chair. This is not an inviting way to bring someone into your booth. You can understand why people show little interest in these booths the person is not acting like they are the best in the show.

    Whenever I have worked trade shows, I have followed what my one boss told me and trained my staff to do the same and these shows are always fun, exciting and bring money to the company.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I told him as much. Asked him pretty please to come visit for a spate of days. That I’d pay for it and everything. Waiting to hear back from him on that.

  8. Betsy Cook says:

    I do agree you should walk the show before you exhibit at it—because of course I hadn’t read that before I did the opposite! I did walk tons of shows, just not the ones I wound up at.

    But I still had very positive things happen. I did find my reps by having my things on display at a show.

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