ll archives: How to Rock Your First Trade Show

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I just went to my first trade show, and it was like being the new kid on the first day of school: equal parts excitement and impostor syndrome. It’s thrilling to finally be there; it’s nerve-wracking to be doing all of this for the first time with seasoned pros. But for a few days, I got to live and breathe my side hustle, meet a ton of interesting people, and learn a lot, both about the industry and also about myself. And the good news is, that’s not an uncommon experience. Trade shows can be daunting endeavors, especially depending on the show’s size and prestige. But there’s no reason that you, as a first-time attendee, can’t rock the shit out of your time there! It really is what you make of it. As a new business owner, I was on the buying end of the equation, but some of these tips work for sellers, too. Share your trade show tips in the comments!

Do: Arrive early and walk the floor

You might not be a morning person, but I recommend getting there early on day one, while everyone is still setting up and getting their bearings. You’ll beat most other retailers and media to the punch, and it’s really nice to walk the floor when it’s still quiet, when you’ve got clear sight lines to all the booths you walk by. If you’ve done your homework beforehand, you may have an idea of who you want to check out (in addition to the vendors you have appointments with), but you’re bound to pick up a few on your walkthrough (and honestly, maybe drop a few vendors, too).

Don’t: Book yourself solid with appointments

It might be tempting to make an appointment with everyone who looks interesting prior to the show. Don’t. Leave yourself some breathing room to grab lunch, meet up with friends, drop in on those booths that look super interesting, and go to any programming that catches your eye. And who knows—your appointments could be on completely opposite sides of the building! Build in breathing room.

Similarly: if your trade show is multiple days and you are a first-time buyer, don’t feel the need to commit to the entire event. My first trade show (Curve New York, for lingerie) was three days long; I only attended the first two days, and that was more than enough. I met with all the brands I wanted to, including brands I discovered at the show and media, plus events the first two evenings. After that, I needed to just sit and process.

Do: Jump in and talk to people!

Technically, trade shows are about the stuff, but really, they’re about the people. This is when industry folks see old friends, meet new friends, and connect with people they haven’t seen all year. This is where the relationships are built.

As a first time attendee, it can be intimidating (especially for introverts), but as a buyer, remember that you are exactly who the vendors want to be talking to! Don’t be shy—just walk up to the booth, say who you are and where you’re from, and ask about what they do. Trust me, they’ll start talking about their products! Ask questions, ask where they’re from, ask why they got into this business. The best conversations inevitably veer off topic. Laugh, smile, bring your coffee to the table. Keep it simple; keep it fun.

Side note: bring more business cards than you think you need.

Don’t: Freak out about your numbers

As a total nerd (and an academic by training), I researched everything I could about how to do a trade show. All the articles I found said, bring your numbers. Bring your budget, your open to buy, your sales figures. But as a new business, you may not have many numbers. If you haven’t opened yet (the situation I was in at my first show), you may not have any, save projections you have very little confidence in.

The night before day one, I was frantically doing last minute numbers of every kind imaginable. Just so I’d be prepared, cause who knew what it would take for a sales rep to take me seriously? And you know what? No one asked for numbers. No one. The questions I got were about my target market—not my sales projections.

Bottom line: don’t freak out. It’s good to be prepared (those numbers will help you in the long run even if you don’t need them for the show), but don’t worry about sales reps grilling you. Be confident in your own knowledge about your business.

Do: Follow Up Via Email & Social Media

Did you meet sales reps you’ve been working with for months in person for the first time? Did you connect with new brands you are super psyched about? Did you place orders with those brands?

For goodness’ sake, follow up.

This one, I chalk up to being a good Midwesterner with a mother who privileged manners above all else, but I learned the value of a good thank you note early on in life. Send an email (or at least a tweet) following up with people within a few days. Don’t trust that people will remember you—write follow ups, thank them for their time, continue to work on building a good relationship with your vendors.