A trade show is an event which involves many people within an industry coming together to show new products, and to share industry knowledge. Within retail, this involves suppliers ‘exhibiting’ their products at a stand, and retailers take the opportunity to look at these products in more detail.
The aim of a trade show is for suppliers to meet more retailers they can do business with, and for retailers to see exciting new products they may want to stock in their stores.
On this page
- What happens at a trade show?
- Attending a trade show
- How to get the most out of a trade show as an attendee
- Pros of attending
- Cons of attending
- Exhibiting at a trade show
- How to get the most out of a trade show as an exhibitor
- The future of trade shows
What happens at a trade show?
The most well-known trade shows are held in convention centres or stadiums in large cities, and last for several days. People often travel a long way to attend the most prestigious ones.
But what exactly happens at a trade show?
First, there’s the exhibiting we mentioned above. This may not seem like enough to fill many days, but keep in mind that there may well be hundreds of suppliers attending these trade shows, each with a full set of products to show, and a story to tell.
But besides browsing through the different stalls and booths, there are usually other events going on at trade shows, including:
- Industry talks
- Awards presentations
Between these events, networking and browsing, you’ll find your days fill up pretty quickly as a trade show attendee. Ultimately though, the aim of trade shows is for suppliers to secure sales (or at least generate leads), and for attendees to identify new products they’d like to stock in their store.
Attending a trade show
Attending your first trade show is an exciting event. But given the cost of attending, not to mention the opportunity cost of stepping away from work for a few days, it’s important to prepare well so you can get the most out of it.
How to get the most out of a trade show as an attendee
- Research suppliers beforehand
Most trade fairs will post a list of the suppliers exhibiting beforehand. While it’s nice to let your eye be caught by products on the day, it also makes sense to do some research before you get there. Work out who you’re definitely interested in meeting, and plan a route to make sure you hit them all without having to double back.
- Bring business cards
Whether it’s suppliers or other retailers, a major reason for attending trade shows is the opportunity to network. Business cards may seem outdated, but they’re still the easiest way to get your contact information across quickly and smoothly. And hey, there’s no need for them to look outdated: you can pop your social handles on there, and really jazz them up.
- Plan your outfit
Hear us out for a second. Outfit-wise, the most important thing is packing comfy shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of standing and walking, and don’t want aching feet to be the reason you can’t make it round every stand. Plus, you want something that feels smart and comfortable to wear — the general vibe tends to be ‘smart casual’ and you want something you’re comfortable socialising in later on.
- Embrace the social side
Try to embrace workshops, talks and after-show social activities. Push yourself to start conversations with those around you — while you’re mainly here to meet new and existing suppliers, this is a great chance to compare notes with other retailers, too. We know from speaking to many of you just how much you rely on your network when it comes to navigating tricky or unfamiliar situations for your business.
- Leave space in your bag
You’ll pick up plenty of leaflets, catalogues, freebies and product samples at a trade fair, so make sure you have room in your suitcase to bring them back, and a tote bag for carrying them around on the day.
- Come ready to spend
Trade shows can be a great place to snap up on-the-day deals. So while you certainly shouldn’t rush into anything, a bit of planning (budget, gaps in stock etc) can give you the freedom to pounce on these if you do want to.
Pros of attending
- Get to see lots of different products all in one place
This is kind of the whole reason behind trade shows; the chance to compare a lot of products in one place, and do a lot of business in a short period of time. That said, if it’s volume of products you’re after, this is something wholesale marketplaces have replicated and improved upon; you can browse thousands of brands from the comfort of your own home.
- Chance to network and learn
In an increasingly virtual world, there is still something undeniably nice about coming together in person to meet with suppliers, and grow your network of other retailers. Large trade shows will attract pretty noteworthy guest speakers — just take a look at the lineup from Maison & Objet this year (although it’s worth noting that you’re able to watch all these talks virtually after the event).
- Special trade show discounts available
In a bid to stand out, generate business and grab attention, you will often find that suppliers offer some pretty generous deals and discounts at trade shows — particularly if you’re prepared to do business on the spot.
So while ‘saving money’ shouldn’t be your primary reason for attending (you’ll see why that doesn’t work out in the next section…), an extra discount is definitely a nice bonus.
Cons of attending
- Cost of attendance can be high
Compared to exhibitors, the cost of attending a trade show is pretty small — a Maison & Objet ticket cost €70 this year, for example. It’s the cost of all the other stuff; the hotel, the meals out, the travel… unless the trade show is based a commutable distance away, be prepared to swallow a fairly sizable cost.
- It takes time away from other work
While there’s a literal (not small) cost to attending a trade show, there’s an opportunity cost, too. Four days away from work is not always an easy thing to achieve — you may need to hire extra help to cover you, for example.
- You’re missing out on truly up-and-coming brands
As we mentioned above, the cost of exhibiting at a trade show is very high. And as such, you may actually be missing out on the truly exciting, up-and-coming brands because they can’t yet justify the expense of attending a trade show. Instead, you may find yourself stocking the same things as the shops around you, all choosing from a similar pool of brands.
Exhibiting at a trade show
Exhibiting at a trade show can either be a game changing career moment, or a costly learning curve. Fortunately, there’s a lot of preparation you can do to make sure it’s the former, not the latter!
How to get the most out of a trade show as an exhibitor
- Work on your booth design
Your booth is the number one way to attract new potential customers towards your products. In a sea of carefully merchandised stands, you definitely don’t want to be the one giving off school fair vibes.
A lot of this comes down to planning. Work out the size of your booth or stand, and practice the setup in the months leading up to the event — you’ll soon spot where you need to buy extra props.
You should also look to get professionally-printed banners and signage, as well as leaflets, cards or catalogues you can hand out on the day.
- Promote yourself beforehand
You may have noticed that we recommended trade show attendees spend time putting in research prior to the trade show so they have some idea of who they want to meet with at the actual event. So as an exhibitor, you need to make sure you’re on those lists.
Ramp up your social media efforts in the run up to the event, and be sure to tag the trade show in relevant posts, and use their hashtag — basically anything you can do to get in on the buzz!
- Offer something fun
Whether it’s an interactive product demonstration, a fresh cup of coffee, a fun freebie or a competition, again this is all about making yourself stand out, drawing people over to your stand, and getting them to stay there for as long as possible.
- Book in meetings with existing customers
While it’s natural to focus your attention on creating new business, don’t forget about your existing contacts and clients, too. Be sure to email all of them in advance to let them know you’ll be attending, and try to book a time for them to come by. Even if you’re already doing good business with a retailer, it’s a great chance to strengthen your relationship with them, and to show off your new products. If you haven’t yet received an order from another, a face to face chat may be all they need to get to the point of placing an order.
- Don’t assume you have to go…
Because there’s such a buzz around trade shows, it can sometimes feel like everyone is going. But trade shows are expensive and time consuming to attend as a supplier, so there’s no point in attending until you’re confident you can give it your all. There are great alternatives to in-person trade shows (something which was only accelerated by the pandemic), so don’t feel you have to attend one for the sake of attending.
Alternatively, ease yourself in. Maybe you’re not ready to attend the larger trade fairs this year, but how about something smaller, and more local?
The future of trade shows
Did you notice ‘cost’ and ‘time’ are cons of both attending and exhibiting at a trade show?
More accessible alternatives needed creating in order to truly support the smallest businesses, and this is something the pandemic has only accelerated.
As well as wholesale marketplaces like Creoate, it’s increasingly common for retailers to find new business via Instagram, and to attend versions of online trade shows, or smaller local ones.
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