In this post we will be documenting some of the struggles of being a first time exhibitor at the National Stationery Show. Despite a couple of major hiccups I would say that it was an overall positive experience.
The preparation phase
We first expressed an interest in exhibiting at the National Stationery Show about three years ago. Those in the stationery industry know that the NSS is the place to be, so for us there was no question about the venue.
We contacted NSS every year to negotiate a booth location. Our thinking was that we would only exhibit if we could somehow manage to secure a corner booth. However, anyone who has tried will know that the good ones are nearly always taken a year in advance by repeat exhibitors. For us there was really not much point travelling 16 hours if we couldn’t get a decent booth, so we first had to cross this hurdle before we could even begin to think about exhibiting.
This is it, we’re really doing this!
By some stroke of luck and a heap of persistence we did eventually manage to settle on a location. It also helped that NSS & NYNOW were planning to merge and so in August we finally took the plunge, which meant we had less than 6 months to prepare. Most people will prepare a year in advance but since we had researched a lot over the course of three years we felt that the timing was right.
The design of the booth
We are a design-focused company so this was by far the most enjoyable part for us. As with all major design projects it first begins with some sketches in a notepad which we then translate into a photorealistic mockup. It may not be 100% necessary to go into this much detail at such an early stage, but we found it to be a helpful visualisation process.
Most exhibitors at the NSS are greetings card designers so they tend to use all available wall space to display the main bulk of their products, and then perhaps a small table area for additional decoration or literature. However, this approach would not be suitable for the type of products that we create and so we decided to do it a little differently.
For us, because our products are very hands-on we knew from the beginning that we wanted to put our main product display right out at the front for people to interact with, leaving the wall space for branding and eye catching imagery. This was the basis of our concept for the booth and so everything else revolved around that one idea.
To build or not to build
This should be one of the first questions you ask yourself when planning for your booth. There are two choices, you could either build it yourself or hire a professional company to help with the construction and assembly. The paper model below shows the extent of our building capabilities and so it should come as no surprise that we chose to outsource...
If you are travelling from overseas then you don’t have any choice but to hire a professional, unless you have friends or family on site who are willing to help out. It is monstrously expensive and for the price that you pay for a couple of repurposed plywood walls, you could probably furnish your own retail store (I'm exaggerating, but you get the point). Although we chose not to build the booth ourselves, we still found it important to set aside a corner of our office to visualise the space.
It's not the prettiest sight to behold, but it just so happened that this was the exact same size as our booth and after putting together a couple of tables and turning over some chairs we were able to get a good feel for the space.
One other thing you should bear in mind when deciding to work with a booth builder is that everything is rental, so if you damage anything or do anything which was not previously agreed upon then you may be faced with additional charges. But for the most part I would say that it is worth hiring somebody to do this part for you as it creates one less thing to worry about.
Everything in between
Although the booth itself is the most important part, there are many other aspects which should not be overlooked in your planning phase. For example:
We sent out our invitations a little too late. You certainly don't want to send them too early, but we would also recommend not sending them any later than 2 weeks before the event to give prospective clients time to arrange travel plans etc.
This is one other thing which took us much longer than we anticipated, partly because everything has to be double and triple checked before going to print. We were pretty happy with the end result even though they were extremely pricey, but it is an important investment.
Price Sheets & Order Forms
These are fairly self-explanatory, but if you're unsure what information to include then there are many hundreds of free online templates to choose from. There's no point trying to re-invent the wheel with something as basic as an order form. We went round and round in circles trying to overcomplicate it with checkboxes and all kinds of unnecessary thingamabobs but in the end we settled for a simple blank table. When you have multiple people reeling off items at you under pressure, at that moment you will end up writing down whatever first pops into your head so don't worry too much so long as you leave yourself enough space without having to write really small. Also, we were lucky enough to have the option of printing onto carbon copy paper which will save you the hassle of writing everything twice!
The mad rush
Our biggest nightmare began just 2 weeks before the show was scheduled to open.
Firstly, for some obscure reason the people at NSS decided to remove the entire aisle where we were situated. All those years spent planning our location went completely down the pan. Try to envision yourself having done all that preparation. Your invitations have been sent and your catalogs are in the process of being printed and suddenly you are told that you no longer have a booth number.
We were absolutely distraught. It was a total nightmare.
Luckily, the person that we had been dealing with had recently been promoted to show manager so he had every power to make things right for us, and he did! (Thank you Aaron)
At first they tried to move us to a location near the back of the hall, and then they tried to switch us to an in-line booth even though we had already paid the builders to create a corner booth. We did manage to secure a comparable location at the very last minute, however we were forced to shrink our booth size from an 8x10 to a 6x10 for which we were refunded accordingly.
The second part of our nightmare was the builders themselves. We worked with Gregory at ‘The Displayers’ who did a good job in the end, but they were pretty terrible at planning. We communicated everything to them months in advance, but they decided to leave it until the very last minute to confirm really important details.
We were not given any indication as to the progress or even what anything looked like versus what we had shown them in our mockup. We were basically left to guess, and for first time exhibitors this can really take a toll on you both physically and mentally.
A few boring (but important) details
There are a couple of really important things that NSS don’t tell you about as first time exhibitors which you will need to have prepared in advance if you want to be able to exhibit.
Insurance is something which sounds daunting at first but is actually pretty straightforward. All you do is go to the website www.totaleventinsurance.com and pay online via credit card. It only costs $65 (plus an unusual $1 premium) and once the payment is successful you will be given confirmation which you can then print out and upload directly to the NSS portal.
Labor is something you will only have to worry about if you plan to install anything yourself whilst on site at Javits. For us we had already paid for the lighting as part of our builders contract, but even so you will still need to physically chase somebody down to help you install them as only official Javits laborers are authorized to carry out the work.
Visa requirements should always be researched any time you wish to travel abroad. Even if you think that your passport allows you unlimited travel, it is much safer to assume that immigration laws are subject to change therefore you should make sure to do your due diligence before flying.
Arriving at the show
We had decided to ship some of the heavy display items direct to our hotel via FedEx prior to arriving in New York. All the important display items such as physical products and samples were placed inside our hand carry, as we felt this would be the safest and most reliable option.
Once we arrived at the Javits Center we watched in admiration as local exhibitors began assembling their booths by hand. There wasn’t really much that needed doing on our part since the builders had already fleshed out the main shell of the booth, but it was still fascinating to observe. The only thing we needed to worry about was lighting which we had to wait an entire day for. Once we were happy that everything was in place we then came back the following day with 2 large suitcases full of display materials and began laying out our booth.
One thing that we were so glad to have prepared in advance was our signage, which was a job that we could not entrust to anybody but ourselves.
We had asked a very good friend of ours to laser cut our logo into acrylic which we then spray painted gold. The night before our flight we spent hours sticking tiny strips of 3M tape to the back so that we could easily install the signage on site. A corrugated cardboard template was then used to help align all the pieces together, which was great because it could be easily rolled up and placed into our luggage.
The most time consuming part for us was laying the items out on display. Although we had spent many hours meticulously planning our test run back home, when we arrived at the exhibition hall we quickly realised that the counter top was actually much smaller than we had originally specified.
There are only so many Plan A’s and Plan B’s that you can prepare. The rest is all down to luck and how you adapt yourself to different situations that may arise.
First day nerves and excitement
Being our first time we had no idea what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised by much of our initial encounters. Within minutes of the doors opening the aisles were flooded with people and at one point we were filling out multiple orders at a time!
We had brought only 100 printed catalogs with us and due to our initial excitement we ended up giving away more than half on our first day which was far too many. In hindsight we would have only given them to prospective customers, but when you’re immersed in the moment it can be hard to keep track. On top of the catalogs we had also ran out of business cards. We had focused all our attention on printing fancy literature that we had neglected the most basic method of contact.
Adapting to the situation and learning from experience
On the second day we had come slightly better prepared. We arrived early in the morning to print some additional business cards in the on-site FedEx facility. We had also spoke to our friends at Studio Carta the night before who gave us priceless advice about printing so-called ‘contact forms’.
These forms are used by most veteran exhibitors and they serve the purpose of collecting information from potential customers who have either run out of business cards or who have neglected to bring any with them.
Another thing we found was that not everyone benefited from printed catalogs. Some people prefer not to carry anything around with them at the show, so for this situation we had devised a cunning plan which involved the use of the trusty QR code. To our surprise not many people had heard of QR codes (maybe it’s a European thing?) and so we received a lot of praise from customers and even some veteran exhibitors who after seeing our display said they would try something similar at their next conference.
If you'd like to give it a try, simply open up the camera app on your phone and point it at the QR code above. A popup should appear at the top of the screen with a link. Simply click the link and it will open the PDF directly in your browser.
Despite the couple of nightmares we had at the beginning, I would say that our experience at NSS was great. What stood out most for us was just how friendly and supportive everyone was! We are so grateful to our neighbors and now friends at Old English Co. and Studio Carta for their advice and support throughout.
It's at this point in the blog that most people will post a rundown of their budget and sales etc. Firstly, we did not have a budget in mind since we had no idea how much it would cost to begin with. However, in terms of sales we almost certainly did break even but in all honesty it was not the main focus of our trip. Our reason for exhibiting was to elevate our brand and so the highlight of the event for us was having the pleasure of meeting new people and to be alongside some of the biggest names in the industry.
The only downside I would say is that for us we tend to be very selective about which stores carry our products. We tend to approve retailers on the basis of whom we feel would be a good fit for our brand, and because of this we have been known to turn down some pretty big names (it sounds crazy, but believe us it's true!). Those of you who have been around long enough will know that we don't always base our decisions on numbers.
When you’re an exhibitor you unfortunately don’t have this same freedom of choice, and it can be quite unnerving when you have people stopping by your booth who you have absolutely no idea who they are or what kind of products they sell. For this reason exhibiting may not be quite the right approach for our business, but regardless we are grateful for the experience and would gladly do it again given the opportunity.
Awesome to read about another exhibitor’s experience! I was up at NYNow and wish I had been able to come to see your booth. It looks great. Hope y’all will come to AmericasMart in Atlanta some day and write up your experience comparing the two shows. Best of everything and congrats! Kate
Glad to see you guys persevered and it looks like all your hard work and struggles paid off. Your booth looks amazing! I would’ve loved to attend the show.
Great job on the article and your first event! From personal experience, you nailed the bits about having to adapt, preparing the best you can while things can still go wrong out of your control. I love how you guys see the big picture out of this experience! It’ll only get easier from here on ( maybe 😉). Never give up- you have plenty of us who loves to support you 💪🏼💪🏼💪🏼💪🏼
My goodness, you and your crew knocked it out of the park! Great job! As a customer, I knew you all would do well. Breaking even on a trade show is better than most!
Great job on the booth and congratulations on your first USA show! You should look into Night Club and Bar show in San Diego and maybe Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, the ice stamp would be a huge hit at both of these.
I just love the stamps you have done for us and hope to continue a very long relationship with your company, welcome to the US trade show scene.
Hey Oli , great to read about this in detail. On top of this Rollercoaster you had me on your back about my order! Very proud to be a supplier! Your products, philosophy and quality are of the highest I have know in the Stationery world! Keep it up!