The Future of Trade Shows – What Now?
By Mary Lind Mahmud, Sales Manager at WorldFinds and Vendor Member Advisor at MSA
In September 2010, I travelled to the Fair Trade Federation (FTF) conference in Boston, two days after I started with WorldFinds. After the first hour of working our expo table with our designer, Stephanie, I looked at her and said, "I was BORN to do this!"
I LOVE trade shows! However, things have changed a bit since then, eh?
At their zenith, I could work up to six trade shows per season -- the major gift shows, some apparel and/or accessories shows, a few regional shows on the side :), and of course MSA FORWARD and as many of our chapter's regional gatherings as I could manage. The preparation was time-consuming -- and varied greatly depending on the show.
For instance, participating in the MSA Gallery at the LA Mart for a few seasons meant that our office had to figure out how to make everything fit in a single box that could be shipped to Daedre Berryman, a fellow MSA vendor, living in LA. We focused on an easy set-up of a couple of our package programs and only the new designs -- it was for a single, narrow 6’-8' table!
On the other hand, for NY NOW, we have about 200 square feet that we configure with everything from flooring to display fixtures and wall coverings. A mock-up of our booth is set up in our warehouse. It's all packed to fit on a skid -- anywhere from 400-600 lbs worth. Our designer provides schematics, everything is labeled in advance, and of course a couple of us put it together before the show so we're ready to roll on opening day.
Regardless of the venue though, we try to do the following to prepare for each trade show:
- Contact those who have attended before through personal email or call, or at least include the information in our company's email campaigns and social media.
- Reach out to future potential retail partners who may be attending.
- Develop a postcard to send out via mail, but also to have in the booth, printed with our images and website, booth number, trade show special, and some upcoming shows.
- Print line sheets of the new season's introductions; (hopefully) print new catalogs as well (but we always seem to be behind schedule on that).
- Include business cards! It's surprising how many folks still ask for them...and some vendors forget them!
- Label each item that will be displayed in the booth with its part number and price.
- Prepare some sort of "giveaway." Many of you have called me "the bracelet lady" because of the recycled kantha pull-on bracelets I'm often handing out. For us, this is a terrific marketing tool because it is labeled with our booth number and is indicative of our most popular line. I don't hand them out without some forethought, but have found that when I pre-judge who may respond to them with an interest or a purchase, I am often wrong, LOL! However, we don't "advertise" the giveaway. For me they are a way to entice someone who might consider us, or a thanks to those continuing customers, but not for that sweet woman who comes up and says she'd like four more for her grandchildren and could she choose the colors please -- and by the way, she doesn't carry jewelry in her store.
- Lately, we've also brought a smaller, business card-sized handout with a promotional code for our retail site, as a way to satisfy the MANY who come by just to purchase one thing, or to buy from us at the end of the show at a wholesale price.
- Send marketing materials (signage, and in some cases handouts) for MSA and FTF to display in the booth.
- Prepare an order-taking system -- we've been using our iPads for years, but many are still using paper for ordering, and I've been known to throw a legal pad to a customer to allow them to write down their own order while they wait for me to get to them.
At the actual trade show, we always try to:
- Engage! It doesn't matter if the "sell" is now or two years from now; at this show (or after you've seen someone at three in a row) on the floor or afterward in the office. We all need to engage with these other human beings roaming the trade show halls. You never know when you can fill a niche for them, or heck, when you may be speaking with a new (potential) MSA member.
- Listen! I knew we'd hired a brilliant trade show assistant a few years back when I observed her shut up and just write, when a customer asked her to do just that (in a polite way). I also saw her readily recommend product mixes when asked. And, of course, she initiated conversations. The key is to ask (if needed) -- and listen.
There are also important networking opportunities that present themselves at each of our shows. The bottom line here is...participate in any and all! MSA is scheduling some for Atlanta, Vegas, and NY. And there are MANY opportunities to connect at MSA FORWARD and the regional chapter shows, if and when they start up again.
Right before Covid shutdowns, we were having some record-breaking shows. The aftereffects were devastating to many of us -- new customers that were never able to get their "just-received" purchases off the ground, the cessation of in-person selling/buying opportunities, incredibly challenging supply chain issues as buying began anew, and tremendously challenging staffing issues on both sides of the equation.
Our first time back to the scene was with Atlanta's Gift Show this last July and NY NOW in August. Things we noticed:
- The "crowds" were not there, but those who came to buy, did so with a relish. Many of my fellow vendors reported great results – just bigger volume among fewer customers.
- Inventory was a challenge for many of us in attendance -- we just had to be as clear as possible in our communications; no one was surprised.
- Online venues are on the rise. Consider our own MSA Marketplace and multiply by 10 -- they're all over the place - and definitely affect the purchasing at the show itself! I had a few customers who were looking and then ordered online later, in which case I got as much information as I could to enter them into our system, avoiding future commission charges. I also got a few who had eschewed the online market places, and were hoping to see us in person after finding us online -- either way works!!!
- Although NY NOW was down in attendance, I saw more museums there than I had anywhere else -- and not just from the east coast. NY NOW has been a favorite among our museums for a while, but especially its August show. It was wonderful to see so many attendees, especially when considering there are those who are still battling travel restrictions and no open-to-buys.
We're looking at this January/February season as the one upon which we'll make decisions going forward. Many of us have noticed that trade shows are less robust than in the past, but how many of us are ready to give up seeing product, and people, face-to-face? Should we use these venues as marketing placeholders? Should we still consider them a viable revenue stream?
We're getting ready in the same manner -- maybe we'll be reaching out a bit more vigilantly to potential buyers.
We'll prepare our booth space with a bit more "space."
We'll try to support each buyer the way they feel most comfortable buying.
And we'll be attending all networking opportunities available to us, because really, trade shows are about connecting. Good luck to us all!
Mary Lind Mahmud is the Sales Manager at WorldFinds, a fair-trade wholesaler in the Chicago area of Illinois. Previously she taught art (among other functions) in a Montessori school, and before that worked in advertising and marketing firms in the D/FW area. She is currently serving on the MSA Board of Directors as Vendor Member Advisor, and has served as CVA with the Midwestern Chapter as well as on the national membership committee. Working remotely from her home in Raleigh, NC these last few years has allowed her to easily expand her face-to-face time with museums in different regions across the US, cementing her wholehearted support of MSA.