Learning from Trade Fairs


Mary Duggan, Contrary Mary Designs, takes us through her experience of BCTF, from preparation to reflection.


Use the time leading up to the trade fair to prepare thoroughly. This is the time to think, not only about what samples of your work are best going to represent you but also of how you are going to take full advantage of this huge marketing opportunity.

Trade fairs all have an online catalogue. This catalogue is often available for many months and buyers use it to plan their visit. Make sure that your product photographs are clear and attractive. This is where it could be wise to get a few excellent professionally done pictures. Also make sure that the accompanying descriptions are exciting – make the buyers want to have a closer look.
Interested buyers will check out your website. Make sure it looks great and shows a wider range of work than the trade fair catalogue.

Think about how you could use the trade journals – which trade journal will your ideal buyer be likely to read? Many journals will run trade show preview items, so think about sending a short press release (200-250 words is plenty) with at least on high-resolution picture to the key journals. Also, don’t forget to add your selected trade journals to your mailing list.

Design your booth. There will be hundreds of really creative, original displays. Have fun making sure yours is one that stands out. Consider how you are going to store things like spare promotional material and paperwork, your bag or wallet and so on. Also remember that there may be equipment you need to hire from the organiser – like a display stand, spotlights, electricity socket…

Send out invitations to your current stockists and to those you’d like to work with. Don’t forget to include a picture of your work, and your stand number.
Prepare your marketing material. You will need:

Plenty of business cards
A catalogue or look-book
Price lists/line sheets
Order forms (I wish I’d had time to get a duplicate book!)
Information on minimum order and at what point you will offer free carriage
Price tags or cards

Prepare your set-up and on-the-day checklist of things you will need, which might include stepladder, sack trolley for moving all your gear, picture-hanging equipment, hammer and so on. Don’t forget that you’ll need some kind of seating – a bar stool is best so that you’re not sitting below visitors’ eye level. It’s a good idea to take some bottled water and a stack of energy bars – there will be somewhere selling food, but it isn’t always easy to get away from your stand.  

It’s very easy to get absorbed by all of the practical marketing issues and even easier to forget something hugely important, and that’s your own mindset. Now would be a good time to sit down with your coach or mentor (you have got one, haven’t you!) and talk through your anxieties. A trade fair is a huge challenge for most of us. Even highly experienced makers still get nervous before the event.

On the day

Now is your chance to shine. Your booth looks attractive and there is something to catch people’s eye as they walk past. You look smart and approachable. You’re ready to talk about your work – and remember that you are the world’s leading expert in your own work. And one of the first things that you will notice is the number of buyers who walk straight past you, not even giving your work a glance. Don’t be downhearted. Now is the time to remind yourself of how most buyers operate at a trade fair.  There are too many booths for them to stop and chat at every one. Like you, they have prepared systematically for this event. They have looked through the catalogue, they have checked out the websites of makers that they are interested in and they have made a list of stands they want to visit. If they are looking for jewellery, they won’t have time to look at your stunning ceramics, however much they might love to buy them for themselves! The buyer is looking for what works for their ideal customer, and are looking for work that is right for their gallery and at the right price points.

Having said that, if you catch someone’s eye, smile and say hello. If nothing else, it spreads good vibes. But sometimes, a buyer might just stop for a second to see what you have.

When someone does talk to you, check out their badge – they could be a buyer, or a fellow designer-maker who is checking out the show for future reference, or students or lecturers who are interested in new design developments. Tailor your conversation.

When you talk to the buyers, be professional. Be clear about your prices. Your trade catalogue should show both Wholesale and Recommended Retail Prices. Buyers prefer to see prices displayed on your stand so they can quickly see if you are in the right range for them.  If you can, consolidate your price ranges to keep things simple. Tell your buyer what is special and different about your work, what your best-sellers are and what feedback you get. Point out your new designs. You can help the buyer by suggesting a collection that will work well together. Also show buyers that you can be flexible and can respond to changes in demand, to new ideas and suggestions. I’ve been given some great ideas for expanding my collections by buyers.

 If a buyer seems interested but non-committed, don’t worry. They often don’t make up their mind on the spot – they like to consider everything they have seen and think about their purchasing budget. Always ask for their contact details. It helps to have a contact form that you can use to capture their name, email address and company and add a few notes about what they were interested in.

Take time to network with your fellow makers as well. The best trade shows have a very supportive atmosphere and you can learn a lot from each other, and make new friends too. But be prepared to break off in mid-sentence if a buyer appears. Also, when you are chatting, be mindful of where you are standing – don’t block the view.

Most of all, keep well hydrated, keep your energy up, and sparkle!

After the event

Prepare to be absolutely exhausted! Lots of makers remark that standing at a trade fair is one long performance and they are right. You’ve just spent several days with a smile on your face, talking enthusiastically and knowledgeably about your work. There are three things that I would recommend straight afterwards:

Celebrate. We are often bad at congratulating ourselves, but you’ve just done something really challenging that has probably taken you way out of your comfort zone. Celebrate your courage.

Schedule some down-time, even if it’s only a day. Make sure you do something that restores your physical and creative energies.

Follow up. Send a warm email to everyone who gave you their contact details. It doesn’t have to be long – just say how you enjoyed talking to them and include a picture of your work in the body of the email to jog their memory. You can then add them to your mailing list (some people have three – one for current stockists, one for potential stockists and one for retail customers) and update them when you have news to share.

Find out more about Mary's work HERE