Well I did it! Months and months of creating art, all for the specific purpose of launching my business at Surtex, and it was all worth it! What an amazing experience not only because it is one serious exercise in branding but I don't believe there is any better way to get yourself in front of buyers and decision makers. Take all this with a grain of salt because this was my very first trade show experience so I don't have all that much to compare it to.
I am so glad that I decided to jump right in, not that I didn't do an absurd amount of research, but I think there is only so much you will learn from reading. Part of learning about what it means to exhibit at Surtex, does in fact come down to exhibiting at Surtex! There is so much that I learned about booth set up, traffic flow, how to talk to prospective clients and how to display my art that I would have never been able to understand without coming in person. I have to say, I loved every minute! Along with a whole lot of mistakes, I also had a whole lot of successes.
Rookie Mistake #1: I packed WAY too much stuff! From post cards to business cards to give always it was actually comical! I would say for your first year, 100-150 business cards and post cards is more than adequate. I understand wanting to be prepared but those numbers would have been just fine and you still will have enough to handout/trade with other artists. If you are worried that you might run out, just think, that would mean that you actually talked to over one hundred people, that really is a lot. Even if there are several people from one company, they may look together and discuss but generally only one person will take your information.
Rookie Mistake #2: Get there early! I seemed to never allow for enough travel time to get to the Javits! It wasn't that I was late but I felt frantic trying to set up my booth items. You are already so filled with nerves that a bit of down time can really do a body good. The Javits opens at 8am and there are plenty of other artists around. Next year I am really going to make extra efforts to be set up by 8:30 so I can calmly begin each day and take advantage of some relaxed early morning networking time.
Rookie Mistake #3: Bring a camera! I thought I'd just make due with my phone and I really regretted it. It was of course in the spirit of packing light but you really need to document your booth with nice pictures at a minimum for your planning for next year. Here is the photo which wound up on Pattern Observer, I had no idea how blurry it was until returning home from the show! Along that same subject, take pictures! Not necessarily of other artists and their booths (unless they allow you to) but more for you to show how your set up looked. I have found it is very hard to describe what I did to people. It also would have been nice to snap a picture with some of my clients or online friends! After all, it is so nice to finally put a real face to the name and the opportunity to do so doesn't happen all the time. Plus, everyone is also looking for content for use in their social media, what better way to gain a bit more exposure than by following up and sending along the photo!
Rookie Mistake #4: Do not, I repeat, do not give anyone your packing containers. I followed the directions to a T and did not leave anything in my booth overnight. I filled out the labels and they were picked up just as they said they would be the day of set up. Well, that was the last I saw of them. When it came time to dismantle I watched as other exhibitors retrieved their boxes and packing tubes from behind walls and under desks. I even saw some which had stored things secretly behind the divider panels. I learned the hard way, and after two hours of waiting, being told they were still bringing pallets out, I was finally informed that they were missing. All in all not the worst thing which could have happened but it did delay my ride home, and I was one tired girl getting in at 2am!
All of these mistakes are things I will simply adjust for next year to help the show go just a bit smoother. Nothing was a tragedy just little bumps to handle along the way. I did have some things work out beautifully that I hadn't anticipated. Sometimes we make decisions that are really just best guesses and it is so nice when they work out.
Rookie Luck Out #1: Bringing binders. There has been a lot of discussion about showing art on an Ipad and although I really thought this was the way to go but I wasn't able to for cost reasons. (Side note: I spent pretty close to the cost of an Ipad by the time I purchased all the binders, paper, and boxes and boxes of ink!) Most experienced artists have gone to the digital form only although I did see both at the show. Many of those exhibiting around me went all Ipad and as I watched I felt like those who walked asked to see the art. Not necessarily a bad thing but that's why we were all there to show art. I feel like Ipads are still considered personal and some people are not comfortable just picking it up and leafing through it, just the same way they wouldn't pick up someone's phone. The nice thing about having the binders was that people felt very comfortable diving right in. They also could look at different patterns or collections at the same time by bending a page over or taking it out to lay along side a completely different line. One manufacturer developed a line with her team right in front of me pulling from different collections. I didn't even think they were related and if my grouping was rigidly displayed on an Ipad or even two, I'm not sure she would have been inspired to group them in quite that way. Next year I plan to have five binders with roughly 20 collections, just like this year, but then have the rest of the art in an Ipad, this way, if I am asked if I have another theme, I will be able to bring it up for them.
Rookie Luck Out #2: Table placement. Most of the exhibitors had their their tables right at the edge of their booths along the aisles. I had planned my booth with the focus of having a full 36" panel visible at the front edge on both sides. I was thinking more about my art's visibility rather than my personal visibility so I had my table pulled in to the booth with the front edge starting where the 1/2 meter panel began. How did this help me? Manufacturers walking are greeted almost too eagerly by the artists or at a minimum are stared at eagerly hoping they will stop and talk. By being further into the booth it allowed people to stop closer to look at the art (there seemed to be a 4' distance they would keep to any physical person initially!) I think it made looking at the art a bit more accessible because they could walk right up to the panels without feeling like I was right on top of them. I'm sure this is something there are a whole slew of opinions on but when I am out shopping, I don't like to have someone trying to "sell" me something before I've even had time to form an opinion, so this felt more like my style.
Rookie Luck Out #3: Booth Layout. I decided to use each panel as if it was a little shop. To me it provided the space to show multiple images in a clean and structured way. Although I love the booths where you felt like you were looking at a 3-D version of the exhibitor's art, I'm not sure it really is me. I love the creativity booths like that show but my comfort zone seems to be to lean on the side of professional, clean, and organized. I was surprised how many people complimented me on my presentation since it truly was not that creative. Many manufacturers felt like I was instructing them on the way a collection would "feel" together. It gave them a style, color pallet, and theme in a restricted way so they didn't have to think through that part. This allowed them to connect the collection to their product on their own, not sure quite how this worked but it happened enough to make me think there is something to it!
Rookie Luck Out #4: Greet everyone! This I have to say is attributed to all the years I have spent as an Optician. It is just not in my nature to see someone and not say hi. I was excited to talk to anyone, I didn't necessarily know if they were an artist walking the show (which I did last year) or a manufacturer looking for art. Some people I thought were walking turned out to be manufacturers, others were exhibitors who turned out to also purchase art, and some people who were wearing manufacturer badges turned out to be artists, this last one I found questionable. No matter what I always asked how they were doing, allowed them to look and if they seemed interested in something on the wall, I'd asked if they wanted to see just that collection. Most artists would immediately say who they were, if they hadn't already and manufacturers rarely said no.
It was amazing how quickly you learn the process of how people look at your work and what they ask you for. I was shocked at how difficult it was to get people to look at your books. I feel like you need to have a good amount and variety of art on your walls. There were very few people who looked through all of my binders because they weren't sure what they were looking for. Most who looked through started because they wanted one of the themes displayed, most of the time they saw more that they liked or would ask if I had something else but the initial interest wasn't necessarily because they liked my style, it was because they liked the exact collection they saw. While they looked I tried to no ask too many questions but I would ask what type of products they produced and if I could think of another collection which related I would open to that line.
Another thing I made myself do, was to get a business card from every manufacturer I spoke to. Sometimes people would just ask if they could take my card, I would say, "of course, let me give you some post cards too so you can remember the type of work I do." As I got the cards together I'd ask them what they were looking for (most often they were taking a card because they liked one of my collections on my banners) and I would ask if they had an email address I could send that collection to after the show. I had no expectations for what would happen at Surtex, but my main reason for exhibiting was to build a contact list for use after the show. I didn't want to leave it up to chance that I might be contacted later by a company. The result is that I've come away with a great number of contacts, most of which were from companies I have never heard of before (not that that is saying much!). Some of these are great leads that I will follow up immediately with and others are companies who I know my style appeals to and as I create new work if there seems to be something relevant to the products they create, I will have a contact to approach.
When I started on this journey, it was based off a gut feeling that this was the right field for me. There was no proof or reason for me to think this just my subconscious recognising a future path. So many times I have felt like I was running blind, creating whatever came to mind, with only one goal, to exhibit at Surtex 2012. In my heart of hearts I knew this was what I needed to do in the time I needed to do it. Eighteen months of hard work and dedication to a single goal which was hard for me to describe to most people. There were times I felt as if I simply had an obsessive hobby. There were no prospects, no paychecks, no deadlines. There was no guarantee, no path to follow, and I am a person who lives for these things, just an unwavering belief that I was on my correct path. To have been able to go through this experience and have manufacturers, publishers, and other artists respond so positively to what I put together is more validating than I can say. I am greatly encouraged with the reactions and comments I received and couldn't have predicted a better show in my wildest dreams. So stay tuned, I feel like this year is going to be very exciting and I'm already planning because I'm SO coming back next year!