This is an excerpt from my upcoming book called License to Draw due out at the end of this summer! The book is part memoir of my zig-zaggy path toward success in art licensing, part informative guide and finally a little motivation to find your own voice and path. And it's all served up in a funny story-telling format. I'll let you know when it's available! In the meantime, here's a section from the book that could be helpful just in time for that little old show called SURTEX 2013! So here goes:
Trade Show Realities
by Ronnie Walter
Congratulations! You’ve decided that you’re ready to exhibit at one of the major shows for our industry. Probably SURTEX, Licensing Expo or The Craft and Hobby Association (CHA) Winter Show—or hey, why not throw caution to the wind and do all of them? I’ve done dozens of these shows and the following are absolutely universal truths.
Well, at least for me.
1) You will send a large sum of money to show management up to a year in advance of the date of the show. You’ll realize that there is no turning back and if you change your mind it will cost you some major coin. So, you soldier on.
2) You will panic that there is no way on God’s Green Earth that you can ever make that money back. Your inner scaredy-cat will repeat this over and over and over.
3) You will make many lists. Lists like:
a. Things to do before the show. Any one of these things could have many steps, but writing out detailed checklists feels like you’re making progress so keep making them.
i. What the booth will look like.
ii. Get a handle on how much it will all of this cost (here’s a tip--double it).
iii. Figure out how you will get your booth materials from wherever you are to wherever the show is.
iv. Figure out how much shipping your booth materials will actually cost. (If any of these haven’t made you cry yet, this is the one that will do it.)
v. Redesign your booth so it can be folded up and carried in your purse. Or an awesome messenger bag if you’re a guy.
b. What you’ll wear. If you’re a guy, skip this list as you will decide the day before you leave, and you’ll have comfortable shoes and feel super smug the whole time. Fine. This is for everybody else – the non-guys.
i. Clothes that minimize fatness. Crucial to know this now due to your entire diet going further downhill every week you get closer to the show until you are subsisting on PopTarts, coffee, and raw almonds since you care about your general health.
ii. Shoes that look cute while walking blocks and blocks to your booth, standing for hours on end and then walking blocks and blocks back to your hotel.
iii. Realize that “looking cute” and “not being crippled” are two very different things. You can choose either one but not both. OR you can carry a second pair of shoes which will immediately become a lead weight along with all the other crap you will be carrying, plus a cup of coffee. Choose wisely.
iv. Accessories. Do what I do and pack all black clothes and 2,000 different accessories. It won’t save space but you can at least pretend that it does.
v. Whatever you do, do NOT wear a costume! Outlandish hats, appliquéd capes, masks and/or clown shoes will only make you look the fool. You will be meeting with people in suits who can generate actual royalty checks and they are there to do business--and you need to look like you know how to behave in a business setting. Yes, you can dance around the edges of acceptable business attire, but you don’t want to be known as “That girl in the crazy hat” or “You know, the guy in the Mork suspenders?” I remember a woman who was a first time exhibitor at a show who started on day one dressed in some sort of French artist’s smock and wearing a huge straw picture hat. By 11 am, she had stashed the hat behind her booth and by noon the smock was nowhere to be seen. Remember that a trade show is not Comic Con or an art fair in the park. It’s a three day business meeting.
c. Oh, yeah… AND you’ll need to have some art to show! (See how I have prioritized these lists for you?) You will place your art into the following categories:
i. Art you love more than life itself.
ii. Art that will sell.
iii. Art that you love AND will sell, but you have no idea what that is yet—isn’t this fun so far?
d. Your Travel Details
i. Flights. Always come in if not two days ahead, at least one full day. Really, people, these are usually three day shows, and you MUST BE SET UP before they open. And if you miss one day because of horrible weather over Omaha you are instantly 33% more broke than when you left. This will make you say a few bad words (and probably cry) so don’t cut the timing too close.
ii. Hotel. In the early days of your career try to stay in a hotel somewhere between where George Clooney stays and the throat slitting area of town. You will need a good night’s sleep and a decent cup of coffee in the morning, not much more matters. And you don’t want to step over another starving artist to get it.
iii. Food. You will need it. Budget for it. And yes, a slice of pizza and a cheap glass of red wine is an excellent (and cheap) post trade show dinner, but remember a salad wouldn’t kill you either.
4) Set Up day will be hot and you may cry:
a. This is the day to wear comfortable shoes and clothes that will function properly as you climb on step stools, sit on the floor and chase your roll of tape under the table. But you still have to look a little bit cute since you’ll be mingling with your competitors and a couple of potential clients may be walking around. I know, they’re not supposed to be but they still manage to be there. And of course the agents that you might be begging to represent you before this show is over will be there too.
b. Be nice. I know… it’s noisy, hot and confusing. There will be big burly guys with ladders and tools, and there will be forklifts zipping around and people barking orders into walkie-talkies. But this is not the time to have a complete hissy fit because your lights aren’t there yet or someone swiped your tape (it probably rolled under the table). You will be judged from this point on. Have your hissy fit in your hotel room. As Tim Gunn would say, “make it work”. And don’t forget to introduce yourself to your neighbors; you have the potential of meeting lifelong friends in the next three days or at least someone who can lend you a breath mint or a safety pin.
c. You’ll look around at other art and immediately decide that you are a complete hack and you never should have spent all this money, and all this time away from your family, and everybody is CLEARLY better and smarter and more experienced than you are and fer cryin’ out loud, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING??? And then you will remember that everyone in that room had the exact same feeling once (unless of course they were delusional) and that everybody there had a first time and IT WILL ALL BE FINE. REALLY.
d. You will go back to your hotel, take a nap, call your mom (or mom-equivalent), have a nice meal, maybe a drink and a good night’s sleep and you’ll be fine!
5) Opening Day
Oh, the glorious sound of the opening bell of a trade show! Fresh pre-coffee spill carpet lines the aisles, exhibits are finished, exhibitors are all shiny, clean and color coordinated, the lights are bright, air conditioning is in the ON position and hoards of attendees are waiting for the doors to open! It is a beautiful and exhilarating sight!
You put the finishing touches on your booth, boot up your i-pad, straighten up your portfolios, fan out your business cards, and stack your postcards in tidy little piles. Now, freshen your lipstick and get ready to do business! Actually, unless you have an opening bell appointment scheduled, you will just… stand there for a while. It takes some time for the masses of potential business partners to make their way through the hall and eventually find their way to you. And as you see them come toward you, your face lighting up with anticipation, your hand ready for a handshake that’s just confident enough without too much of a vise-grip… you’ve even got a clever and not too desperate comment to make… and they walk right by. They might give you a brief smile, but most people will just keep walking. Maybe they have an appointment, maybe your work isn’t right for them or maybe they just need a cup of coffee and will come back later! Maybe. And then you do this again and again and again…until…
Someone actually stops into your booth!
6) You have a Meeting!!!
Relax. It’ll be fine. Talk a little bit about their business, lead them toward your work and don’t be too pushy—nudge, don’t push! These people are going to see hundreds of artists and they are going to be tired. Find a good method of taking notes so you know what to follow up with. Adjust your expectations. It is very rare that a potential client will offer you a deal right then and there. And even if they do, you will still be doing your own due diligence after the show to make sure it’s a deal you want. If they ask for you to send any of your designs after the show, make sure you know what their plans are. Will they be having internal meetings? Will they be showing it to any retailers? When will they be making decisions on the work? All of this information is very important to your future follow-up.
7) Closing Day
Considering all the weeks and months you spent planning and anticipating this show you will be shocked at how quickly the time goes. It’s kind of like your wedding-- except you don’t get any small appliances or trips to Hawaii at the end of it! The last day of the show sometimes ends a few hours earlier than the previous days, and if not the traffic likely will. It is usually in your contract that if you break down early you will be fined or not invited back to the show. I have never heard of this happening but I will tell you this: DO NOT DO IT. It’s inconsiderate of your neighbors, disruptive to everyone in and around your booth and frankly it’s letting attendees know that you have no time for them if they are still walking the show. I cannot tell you how many times we have had meetings right up to and past closing time of a show. Plan your travel accordingly, if you cannot make your flight without breaking down early then that is the wrong flight for you. Stay another day or take a later flight. It’s the cost of doing business.
And here are some bonus tips:
(just because I’m nice that way)
What not to do in your booth. I may have done some of these things and I have certainly seen all of these things happen--but we’ve all learned from this experience! So here goes:
· Chew (gum, caramels, etc.)
· Talk on the phone
· Hide behind your laptop
· Do any grooming except a quick swipe of lipstick
· Visit too long with your neighbors
Here are all the reasons you will hear (and say) about the lousy traffic in the exhibit hall:
· They’re all starting on the opposite side of the hall.
· They’re all in seminars.
· It’s raining so they’re late.
· It’s sunny so they’re taking their time to get here.
· They’re giving away i-pads in the next show over.
· Mary Engelbreit is doing a signing in the next show over.
· It’s supposed to rain so they’re all leaving early.
· It’s beautiful outside so they’re all leaving early.
· They look everything over first and they’ll come back.
· Your work sucks. (Oh, come on! That’s supposed to be funny!)
And one more thing?
Don’t forget to follow up! It’s shocking how often I am told, by clients actually, how often they never hear from artists again after the show! Send what you have agreed to send them, or if you’ve met and you didn’t make a connection, at least send a quick thank you email and keep them on your radar for when you have new work or when you announce the next show.
Hopefully this little reality check will help you negotiate the upcoming shows, or it at least takes the edge off every little detail you’re trying to take care of! Just remember—every exhibitor at a show had a first time and we have all have hilarious (now…) stories of trade shows past. And if it’s a really funny story, make sure you tell it to me first!
Many of the readers of this blog (hello??? are you out there???) are in the final countdown to one of the biggest trade shows of our industry. SURTEX is an annual 3 day extravanagnza of art, all on display for the attendees to come and make Big Big Deals with the uber-talented exhibitors--like me, for instance. I have been doing this show for almost a dozen years and it sneaks up on me every darn time. So, in case you are one of my fellow attendees, here's a list of things you still have time to in the next six weeks that may or may not help you. You could:
... and try to remember that it will all be fine! Really! It will!
I Love Valentine's Day---ever since we used to decorate shoe boxes in grade school and exchange all those cheap and cheezy valentine cards in the really thin envelopes. I got one in second grade addressed to "Vronca Qualter" which was apparently some second grade boy's phonetic version of my name. My sister Chrissie still calls me that occasionally which always makes me smile. So have a day full of of love, even if it means you're just a little nicer to the bagger at the super market, or your sister. They need love too.
I know, I have completely abandoned this blog. It's not that I don't have anything to say...I just haven't felt like I had anything meaningful or hilarious or something that could change your life to say. But I've been writing a lot lately and thought I would start sharing some of these stories with you. I will continue to let you know what's going on out there in the wide world of art licensing and post the occasional new outfit and if it amuses you, all the better. I just won't try to change your life. Too much pressure.
So here's a little story: