How does one get into a Trade Show?
Starting this little business by myself and trying to do things right by the world hasn’t been the easiest journey. In fact, I can’t think of anything which ever brought me more frustration and headaches… on rainy days (like today!), when more things go wrong than right, I might even question if any of it is worth it. Are my designs good enough? Do people outside of my online bubble support sustainable business? Are there any shops out there willing to do business differently? Questions like these and more pop into mind, and the doubts aren’t always easy to shake.
So when I was contacted by the curator of Spotted at Top Drawer in June to take part in the fair, I was both surprised and flattered,
Top Drawer London is a bi-annual fair taking place in Olympia. Its maxim is to be ‘out of ordinary’ by showcasing a range of new and established brands across Home, Gifts, Fashion and Crafts. - all with design-led products. Spotted at Top Drawer is a section of brands exhibiting at a Trade Show for the first time, curated by Charlotte Abraham, from which a winner is selected.
My main consideration when deciding whether to go for it was the cost. Though this is meant to be a discounted stall, at £1495 (including VAT and insurance) it is a far cry from affordable. Add to that all the costs related to the production of goods to exhibit, printed materials and business cards, transport and set up costs… and let’s just say I didn’t have it in mind to spend that kind of money on marketing this year. But it did feel like a great opportunity, so I picked up a few extra shifts at my part-time job and committed to it. From the day I made the first payment, I had just over 2 months till the fair - included in which was my first trip to Portugal of the year to see my family, Of course that in one’s mind 2 months is plenty of time! In reality it went by in the blink of an eye…
I will admit here for the first time that in the weeks prior to exhibiting I had my fair share of moments of crippling doubt. Sure, it had been great to be contacted to take part in the fair, but wasn’t that all about the fair making money anyway? I’ve been in business for a while, but I changed my focus (product-wise) a few times, lost my fair amount of loyal customers in the process, and I am still working part-time to make ends meet. Was a fair the best way to spend my money? The only thing that kept me going was the thought that ‘if you never try, you’ll never know!’
Now that you know what my state of mind was, you can probably understand what I mean when I say that being shortlisted as part of the Spotted Award was a huge relief. Furthermore, I may or may not have shed a couple of tears when I found out that I won the award! Firstly because it confirmed that I hadn’t gone barking mad by investing so much of myself into this new collection, and secondly because it meant getting something in return for the huge investment I made signing up to this fair.
Winning the award provided me with a much needed confidence boost ahead of the fair, along with the validation that comes from being recognised by people and institutions that one admires.
Sam Hood—Founder of Amara said, “Both the idea and the end product are strong. Turning an unwanted raw material into a viable product is a great idea commercially and environmentally.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Emily Cuthbert—Head of Product at Wolf & Badger said, “The products are well-considered and using surplus fabrics to make creative accessories is a brilliant concept. Be for Change is a brand built on values and their focus on minimising waste is commendable.”
Setting up for my first trade show
Saturday was set up day. Being a Londoner as I am, I cycle around town and don’t own a car. I thought my display out in advance and decided to keep furnishings to a minimum (not just to facilitate getting things there, but also because I work from home and I have very limited space to store business-related equipment.) 1 suitcase worth of products, 1 suitcase with wall paint and assorted tools, plus an IKEA bag with plants and leather waste - that is all I took. I luckily got one of my friends to drive me to the fair, which made for a painless drop-off and unloading (do prepare all related paperwork in advance and look in the venue map for which loading bay to head to).
I proceeded to set up on my own, which took about 4 hours including the time to paint the wall and waiting for it to dry. I thought that writing with chalk on the wall would communicate the crafty element of my business, but quickly realised that it was simply not neat enough and looked a bit unprofessional. Oh well! Live and learn. There was nothing to be done about it at that point.
Having used a rack and plants I already owned and then nothing but my own products as decoration, I was definitely one of the people who spent the least money on their stand.. A number of the makers and designers in the Spotted section bought tables, shelves and display units on purpose for the fair, in addition to custom wall stickers, etc. I later found out that a number of the other exhibitors had been getting ready for the fair for over 6 months, which made me feel a lot better about how differently we had budgeted and prepared for this!
Exhibiting as a one woman band
I came to the fair prepared with everything I thought I might need: reusable cup, a filled water bottle, lunch and a few snacks. The business cards and price list I had left hidden in my stand over night, along with an order pad.
On Sunday the doors opened for the first day of business, and much to my thrill I got an order shortly after! Around midday the delivery of the prize ensued, giving me the opportunity to meet a few of the judges who were in attendance. Everything felt brilliant! I was alone at my stand but got to meet “my neighbours” and their work whenever things were slow. At this point I was getting a fair amount of interest in my products, but no more orders as my prices turned out to be too high for the buyers in attendance. Still, this felt okay as we had been told in advance that on Sunday a lot of general public and independent shops would be present. The day ended with Exhibitors’ Drinks, which was not only a great way to unwind a little but also to meet other people and their work.
Monday was said to be the day in which most buyers and press attended, and I showed up coffee in hand and feeling ready for business (I made the mistake of buying coffee within the fair the previous day - far too expensive for the quality). Within the first few hours it was visible that this was a less busy day, yet quality over quantity is what we all really looked for. Unfortunately, throughout the second day I continued to get the same feedback: products were too expensive for the buyers who stopped by. A few people spoke with me at length and took my details, but none of these contacts resulted in business.
The third and last day brought me more of the same, but with even less visitors. I must confess that at a certain point I became a tad disappointed, especially as I continuously saw that buyer’s interests gravitated toward printed PVC products (just happens to be one of the most toxic, non-recyclable materials man ever came up… no big deal for some people, my head on the other hand was about to explode! It’s 2019 people! How do you do not care what material your products are made of?!!! Profit over planet is alive and well - including in small business in the UK) or goods made from not-that-bad materials but manufactured in China and then shipped over.
At the end of the day, my boyfriend (who had just got back in town) came by to help break down and paint the wall back to white. The painting at the end did add a bit more fuss to it than what other people had to deal with, but, as always, I was happy to get on with it instead of spending extra money getting it done. At the end of the day, we loaded everything into an Uber and made our way back home - thus ending my experience of Top Drawer AW19.
Spotted at Top Drawer first prize
While winning has been really exciting, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t all about the prize.
The prize for the Autumn Winter 2019 edition comprises a free stand for the next edition of Top Drawer, as well as one-hour mentorship sessions with Patricia Van Den Akker, Founder of The Design Trust; Rosey Blackmore, Merchandise Director for Tate Enterprises; Madeleine Furness, Business Development Office at Cockpit Arts; Laura Jane Boast, Founder of Design Giving; Ella Doran, Founder of Ella Doran Design Ltd; Victoria Suffield, Founder of The Hambledon.
It has now been a month since Top Drawer, giving me enough time to settle back into a routine and meet with a few of my mentors. Each of my sessions so far have been precious lessons in not only what it takes to succeed, but how to wear different hats and do it well! A number of the ladies gracing me with their time and knowledge have gone above and beyond to provide value, from discussing my business in-depth in preparation to our session, to sending me further information in the aftermath of our mentorship session and making themselves available to help with anything else that may come up in the coming months.
It was really these sessions that made my financial investment worth it so far, and if I hadn’t won the award I wouldn’t be going back to Top Drawer anytime soon.
As I do have a free stand waiting for me, I look forward to going back to Olympia as an exhibitor in January, with the expectation that having a stand in the more relevant section of the fair will help me reach the right buyers and grow my business. In advance for the fair, I am developing a couple of new products which are less costly to produce - and therefore less expensive to retail.
More blog posts to come on the run up to the fair in the coming months!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and that it proves helpful to anyone considering exhibiting at a trade show!
Do let me know if you have any questions, as I would be more than happy to help as I can