The winter wholesale trade show circus kicks off with AmericasMart opening for market on January 12. Earlier this week, I wrote about the Top 10 Things that rookie buyers should consider, to help make their first trip to the Mart a bit easier. This must-read companion piece is dedicated to those of you embarking on your first wholesale show venture.

Back in the day, the company I worked for exhibited in Atlanta, New York, Boston and Chicago – among other wholesale markets – so I was in the Javits Center, the AmericasMart, the Merchandise Mart or (God rest its soul) the Bayside Expo Center for a week at a time twice a year in each city. I do a handful of select retail shows now to test market products for my Studio line, so I know a thing or two that might make your show experience run a little smoother.

You have just shelled out a FORTUNE for your booth space (makes you think you’re on the wrong end of the business, doesn’t it??), your travel expenses like airfare, hotel, meals, never mind what you just sank into your booth display and the fees you’re about to fork over for drayage and (God, I hope you ordered it) electrical hookups.

Now that you’ve chosen to go make this investment in your chances for growing your business, here are some tips on how to minimize the headaches from your first show.

1. Have a game plan. You know what you make. Hopefully you have given some thought as to  how you will market it: what your booth signage is going to look like and how you will display your wares effectively in the booth so your set up will attract (not repel) buyers.

Before you leave home, sketch out your ideas on paper so you have a strategy as to how you’re going to build your booth once you’re in it. Where and how should products be displayed? Also, consider what has to get done first so as you’re sitting on an aisle crowded with other exhibitors’ crates rolling by, you can get into some sort of workflow and not feel overwhelmed by the surrounding chaos.

For me, I always start with laying down the floor (rubber interlocking pieces = best thing for your buyers’ and your legs. They will LOVE you for it. Get some), getting lights into place, hanging any banners, setting up display fixtures and THEN it’s all about the merchandising. Since this is your first show, mentally walk yourself through the process and make a written checklist so you can stay focused once you’re on site.

Artisan Bruce Baker has a fabulous CD on Booth Design & Merchandising for Craft and Trade Shows.   Order it 🙂

2. Create and pack your show folder/binder. This should be where all of your pertinent contacts and paperwork are housed: signed show contracts, electrical and/or rental agreements, PRO-numbers or shipping tracking numbers, hotel and travel reservations, and your packing list (see below). It’s rare to do a show in which some ball does NOT get dropped. Next thing you know, you’re having to prove that you advance paid for your electrical service or you have to get your freight forwarder to track where your crate or inventory is (been there, done that).

This folder should stay with you at all times; don’t check it in your luggage and risk losing it!

Other things that might be helpful: address and phone numbers of a Home Depot or Lowe’s closest to the show venue (if I had a dollar for every time we had to track down additional bulbs for lighting our display or get lumber so we could rebuild sections of our display that were damaged in transit…).

It can also be where you park written orders at the end of the day so they don’t get lost in the shuffle.

3. Packing List. This checklist needs to go in your show folder, and it will help you make sure you have everything you need on site. Trust me: you’re going to be all Jackson Brown: running low, running on empty…so the more “thinking” you can take out of the equation, the better.

Before I leave for a show, I make sure I have my complete display, inventory, flooring, backdrops/drapes, signage for the booth (banners, signs for the product), business cards, collateral (price list, catalogues), order forms, calculators, pens/sharpies/highlighters, duct tape, Windex/paper towels, my tool bag (scissors, box cutters, screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutters, small hammer, zip ties, etc), my emergency supply bag (see below), extension cords (always more than I think I will need), lights/bulbs (extras…something always burns out!), stools/seating, and a blank notebook (see below).

Your packing list may be slightly different, but the above laundry list will get the ball rolling as you give it some thought.

4. Emergency Supply Bag. Trust me: nothing stinks quite as much as being in the booth for a 10-hour day if you have a headache/stomachache/congestion/cramps/open wound, etc etc. ESPECIALLY if the show is blissfully busy and you can’t escape the booth to tend to your basic needs. My emergency bag is usually well-stocked with Advil, Excedrin, Tums, Tylenol Sinus, bandaids, Neosporin, sanitizer, tissues, lip balm, breath mints. You will personally thank me later!

5. Blank Notebook. a) during set-up, you’re going to realize you forgot something or you need to replace something or you need to remember to do something b) invariably, someone will come in the booth with a great suggestion or you’ll be walking around (e.g. coming back from Cash & Carry Jewelry) and you may see something that sparks an idea. You’re going to want to have a place to write it all down. You’re going to love having a blank notebook.

6. Make nice with your neighbors. The wholesale show circuit truly is like a traveling circus, and if you work the circuit with any regularity, you will bump into the same people over and over. For me, that was fine. I made some great friends, and shows sort of felt like “summer camp” to us. Your first show will either be one of the most fun, invigorating weeks of your life or one of the most exasperating. Play nice in the sandbox.

The folks on either side of you might know of other shows that would be a good fit for your company. They might also tip you off on accounts that are slow-pays or “net nevers”. If you play your cards right, if you’re doing the show by yourself, they’ll watch your booth for you while you go take a little bio-break. With your super-duper snazzy Emergency Bag, you’re poised to be the Hero of the Aisle if someone’s bleeding and/or hungover.

Also: your space is your space. Don’t go over it! And be careful during your set up so you don’t knock over their display. Seriously. That would be a bad thing.

7. Be “up” and “on” during the show. Be the radiator, not the drain. People don’t like grumblers, so don’t complain about how slow the show is (if it is). Buyers don’t walk ito booths where the exhibitor looks like death warmed over, so don’t sit down and look bored. Try to look “busy” as often as you can, and be as upbeat and positive as possible without being annoying (….there is a line, people).

8. Recognize who is in your booth. You will encounter several “tribes” of people in the show: the buyers, the “looky-loos” and the “be-backs.”

The buyers, God love ’em, are the ones who stop in the middle of the aisle, run into your booth, connect with your line and write up an order on the spot.

The “looky-loos” are the “I’m just looking ” types. Obviously, they stopped in your booth because something caught their eye. You’ll have to engage them by asking some probing questions (“What type of store do you have?” “What lines/themes work best for you?” “Can you tell me about your typical customer?” “What caught your eye and brought you into the booth?”).

The “be-backs” are the ones who stop in, act looky-loo-ish, and as they depart your space, they’ll say “I’ll be back.” Sometimes, they are telling the truth.

In any of the above scenarios, you need to make sure you get contact information (a card, or….for the buyers who either don’t have cards or are pretending like they don’t have cards….make them write down their info in your handy-dandy blank notebook). You need this information so you can FOLLOW UP with your leads. The “be-backs” may NOT be back because the show is gi-normous and maybe they don’t have time to backtrack to your booth. “Looky-loos” and “be-backs” may not be open to buy your line at the moment.  Or, maybe they like some of what they see, but you don’t have “enough” of whatever it is for them to tell a story in their store. Some of my “looky-loos” gave me some great suggestions during the show, and now they’re clients because I created what they requested.

Other people you want to recognize are people from trade magazines (hey, they’re out walking the show floor, too, looking for new products to feature). Get good at identifying what color badges they have on so you can be sure to spot them and get them into your booth so you can show them what’s new.

Sometimes you get accosted by salespeople trying to sell you inventory management control software or something along those lines. My former boss was overly fond of kicking those kinds of people out of the booth, saying he was “there to sell, not to be sold.” I still kind of get a chuckle out of it. Anyway: you are there to sell and to focus on your buyers. If one of these salespeople appears, ask if they can follow up with you after the show.

And….some of the people who wander into your booth are actually other exhibitors. Sometimes, they are snooping. Most times, though, they are shopping for themselves. They may ask if you write “courtesy orders,” which are orders that don’t meet whatever minimum requirement you set for your wholesale accounts. Some exhibitors do, some don’t.  It’s up to you.

9. Stay until the end of the day. Yes, you’re E X H A U S T E D. Yes, you want to get off of your aching feet. But, you’re there for the buyers. Conform to posted show hours, and don’t be one of those weasels who tries to get out of the Mart ten minutes before it closes so as to avoid the crush of people on the escalators. I had many, many shows in which the largest order of the day was written literally two or three minutes before the official close. You have paid the king’s ransom to get this far. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to write new business.

10. Stay on top of the paperwork. This includes making sure you don’t lose track of orders you’ve written. If you’re overnighting orders back to corporate, make sure you don’t send the originals….just.in.case.

I think it’s important to stay on top of end-of-show paperwork. Know where the show office is. Come in early one morning and get all your labels that you need to complete for load-out. Make sure you’re all settled up for drayage, etc. It’s the non-glamourous underbelly of these shows, but it has to be done.

10a. Have fun! You are going to meet many incredibly successful and amazing people, and you will be invigorated by seeing some incredible designs. Be the sponge: soak up all the good stuff!