Trade Show Adventures

Branching out!

I wrote this post to share my experience of doing a trade show as a maker. This is not a 'how to' guide, it's simply my particular experience of attending my first one. In April 2018 I exhibited at the British Craft Trade Fair in Harrogate, UK. BCTF is the biggest trade fair for handmade goods in the UK and has been going for over 40 years.

But first, a history lesson

Humblewood has its roots in the mists of time, starting as a rather unfocussed 'woody' hobby. Then in 2015 I decided to try a few craft fairs to make some pocket money. Expecting huge demand for what I was making, I attended the first few fairs with the car loaded down with my woody wares and boundless hope in my heart! What I soon found was that craft fairs weren't what they once had been, and certainly, few visitors were in the mood to buy my particular lovely things...

As an aside, it seems to me that the word 'craft' has been largely absorbed into the general hobby, home-craft, industry, so now I prefer to think of myself as a quality, small scale maker, for want of a snappier description!

“My problem, short of stalking, was finding where they shopped.”

Anyway, fast forward to 2017 and the misty-eyed hopes of actually making a modest, pint-of-beer-sized profit from attending fairs had evaporated, and I was on the verge of returning my woodworking to hobby status. But I had had some successes, particularly in a couple of shops and at longer running events, where I did not have to be present (maybe there was a clue to my lack of success?!). These highlights suggested that some folks did like my stuff enough to part with their hard earned cash in exchange for a piece. I had however, come to recognise an obvious truth for anyone trying to sell anything; first, find your audience. My problem, short of stalking, was finding where they shopped.

There had been shops asking if I did wholesale and even an approach to attend a previous BCTF, but hey, this was just a hobby, that sort of grown-up stuff was a bit out of my league. I should say at this point that I have actually had my own design and print business for 35 years, so I knew in principle how to run a business. Looking back, it was this thinking like a hobbyist that was the barrier to me seeing it as a proper business with wider horizons.

I hadn't done much with Humblewood in the early half of 2017, having decided to stop attending fairs, and the graphics business was busy anyway. But I did have a couple of long-term events booked for the autumn through to Christmas, so I had to get back in the workshop. While these events had previously been among my few successes, the sales in 2017 were amazing! So amazing that they rekindled my enthusiasm and I revisited the idea that maybe Humblewood had a future after all. In the space of a few hours (and I don't recommend this approach), I had decided the answer was simply to get other people to sell my lovely things – easy! So on one day in November I made the switch from direct selling to wholesale and had booked a stand at BCTF 2018...


With the decision made and the stand booked, I set about preparing for the event with renewed boyish enthusiasm – no mean feat for someone of my advancing years! I had visited BCTF before on the pretext of considering a future booking, but really I'd felt a complete fraud, seeing all those seasoned makers with their trade catalogues, wholesale price lists and minimum orders strutting their stuff. Anyway, I'd booked now and got to work planning. Designing the promotional and display stuff was easy – it's my day job – but to be taken seriously I knew I needed professional photography. That turned out to be the single most effective thing I could have done*. Overnight, Humblewood went from hobby to serious small business. I will say now, that having the show organisers use several of my photographs in their publicity material was a big bonus, but the effect decent images had on the overall quality of my presentation has been invaluable. As one very perceptive woman said to me; 'money spent on quality photos is more effective than the equivalent spent on advertising'.

“...talking out loud to strangers, while still making sense, isn't normally one of my strengths!”

I had planned the stand display to scale on the computer and this was invaluable for making the set-up as painless as possible. One thing to note – 2m x 1m is smaller than you think! With hindsight my display was a bit too busy, but I did have quite a lot of product variations to display and I wanted to make an impact! Something a little more subtle is planned for the future. Judging by how many of the other stand displays were done, IKEA is the exhibitors' friend!

Everyone I spoke to had their own take on aspects of the show. In the newcomers gallery, we were surprise how few buyers (identified by their badges) there were walking around. Students and designer/makers abounded, presumably with an eye on seeing how it's done. Seasoned exhibitors either seemed to feel buyer numbers were pretty typical, or that their numbers were gradually declining each year – maybe a result of the high street problems we hear so much about.

Another big talking point among newcomers was the theory that some buyers deliberately avoid newbies, preferring to buy only from more established businesses. Apparently, a few years ago there had been a number of newcomers who had taken orders at the show and had then, for whatever reason, disappeared without fulfilling them. Certainly the exhibitors around me weren't playing at it, and many were past the first flush of youth, so (I would suggest) more likely to take a responsible approach. That said, there were also plenty of young 'uns with their heads on straight. As I said, everyone brought their own expectations, and had their own experiences during the show. On the whole, I came away with little to complain about. I suppose it all comes down to how successful the show is for each individual.

Talking to potential buyers wasn't as daunting as I imagined. Indeed, talking out loud to strangers, while still making sense, isn't normally one of my strengths! But I found chatting to people who are actually interested in what you make, pretty easy. Especially as I was taking about something I'm passionate and knowledgeable about. Such a different experience from standing behind a 6ft table in a drafty church hall :-) Thankfully I had prepared my buyer pack – pricing, terms, catalogue etc. – and it wasn't like I was making a formal presentation to the board of Harrods!

It was only a last minute decision to take order forms with me. And then it was more about having them to hand to go with my catalogues, than expecting to use them during the show. As it turned out, I'd have looked a right chump if I hadn't had them! Another 11th hour choice was to display my trade prices clearly on the stand. I had read somewhere not to do it, but as the show loomed I began to wonder about the sense of that. It wasn't like I didn't want people to know, or that I might change them during the event. As it turned out several buyers commented how helpful it was to be able to see the prices and decide whether my items at those prices were a viable option for their particular shop or gallery. I only had one comment that my prices were too high, but I'm confident that was just a case of them being too much for their particular location. One thing I did do was to call my order form an 'order planner' which seemed to me to be less pushy and more helpful looking to the retailer.

In approaching wholesaling in general, I have tried to think of the process as much from the retailers point of view as from the makers. Hopefully that helped, but I still have a lot to learn!

“...hurriedly stuffing the last bite of pizza in your mouth as someone approaches isn't a good look!”

Eating on the stand was tricky as I was doing the show on my own – hurriedly stuffing the last bite of pizza in your mouth as someone approaches isn't a good look! There will be periods too during a show when it goes quiet, and it's easy to lose concentration – those sneaky buyers can suddenly appear when you least expect it!

Some buyers were happy to leave a business card, others less so. Next time I will try harder to collect details to follow up with later (assuming they don't order promptly). I didn't do this enough and there were potential buyers who genuinely seemed interested and even said they would order, but I have no record of who they were! Maybe just asking for their details would have indicated more of a commitment on my part? I'll never know. Waiting two to three weeks before following up was the general consensus. I do now realise that orders generated by attending a show may come before, during or afterwards, so hopefully the makers near me who didn't get orders at the event will see some success over the coming weeks.

So where to from here then?

One thing I hadn't bargained for, was getting orders before the show... I hadn't really known what to expect from doing the show; maybe some retailers being nice about my stuff, and possibly a couple of orders after the event. But not during and certainly not before! In the end I had orders from five retailers before the show (some couldn't attend and some it seems, just couldn't wait!), another seven at the show, plus a bonus third order from the first of my pre-show buyers. You could have knocked me down with a feather (and still could).

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and especially the people I met and friends I made. And obviously the unexpected sales success gave me a nice glow. It took several days for me to come down from the post-show high I was on. Plans and new ideas poured forth in the days afterward. After the initial euphoria, I calmed down enough to realise how tired I was! The pre-show period, plus a set-up day and the three days of the show itself really took it out of me! But I'm so glad I made the leap, broadened my horizons and finally saw the light.

So it seems I have found my audience – not the general public as I had assumed, but other small business owners who, like me, are passionate about what they do. They just happen to be the ones, unlike me, who are experts at selling to the general public. Who knew?!

Would I do it again? Well, I've already booked for next year, AND (impulsive fool that I am) booked to do another trade fair this year! Roll on the Home & Gift Buyers' Festival in July!

PS. One thing that did irk me was regarding the press (or probably one particular member of it)... As suggested, I prepared six press packs which included a press release, catalogue etc etc. I also included a sample of my little fridge magnet vases. Upon collecting the unclaimed packs at the end of the fair, only one had been taken, but two of the remaining packs had been torn open and the fridge magnets removed. While I intended for them to be snapped up by an eager press, so it wasn't a great loss, clearly the one journo who had collected the first pack had taken the opportunity to snaffle a couple of extra freebies. It wouldn't have been so bad if they'd squirrelled away three complete packs, but this way just felt like I'd been taken for a mug. Grrrrrr...

* Richard Bryan Photography