How to succeed at Surtex: 5 great tips for a smashing debut

Promo materials for Surtex

Promo materials for Surtex

Doing Surtex for the first time is a super stressful endeavor, there’s no doubt about that. But, it’s also been one of the funnest and most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I have no idea what will come out of the contacts that I made from this year, but I do know that I will, most certainly, be back. If you’re thinking about showing next year, here are 5 tips for having a successful debut.

{1} think about how you can stand out

You’re at Surtex, exhibiting for the first time, because you have something special to offer. Don’t forget that. For me, I knew I could make an impactful booth. I have tons of retail design experience and worked on instore seasonal campaigns for Target for 4+ years. I knew from walking the show 2 years ago that most people stick to flat banners adhered to the walls of the booth, and that  I could do something much more dimensional with minimal effort. This would give me a way to stand out my first year. For others, it may be their experience, their sense of savvy color, their ability to think conceptually- A great example of this is Kathy Weller who concepted her "Cat at Work" graphics for a scented candle product. It was brilliant and imaginative and certainly showed how she could add value as a partner beyond just being an artist. Whatever it is that’s going to make you stand out, broadcast it loud and proud. Even if that’s just opening your mouth and talking about it (See: “It’s not about you, it’s about them” below)

A sub-point to this tip is: “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.”  This becomes particularly hard when you’re at the show and see other people’s booths busy with activity, etc. Put your best foot forward and trust that you will make the connections you are supposed to make. It's not a competition where one person wins at the end. If the right manufacturers find the right artists, everyone wins. That's the beauty of it. A big “stop worrying about everyone else” moment for me was my portfolio. There is so much info about what to do for portfolios, and in the end it all comes down to what works best for you. I decided to go iPad only at the last minute leading up to the show, and then promptly started freaking out as everyone was unloading their books. And guess what? Having the just the iPad worked great for me. It may for you too. Or it may not. Just do what works best for you, and stop worrying about everyone else and move on. You’ll figure out ways you’ll want to optimize after your first year, but everyone is going to have a slightly different take based on how they present and what type of work they make.


{2} stay flexible

This is a BIG one. Doing anything for the first time, let alone Surtex, you’re going to run into some curveballs. Learning how to be adaptable will certainly help you out along the way. There are things that won’t turn out exactly as you had envisioned, self made deadlines that will enevitably be missed, vendors that mess up orders, and things that are just plain out of your control, but you’ve gotta make it work. I had too many to list them all here, (don’t worry, it seems I had a bit of a hex over me and had more of these things happen to me than most. Apparently the universe was asking me repeatedly “Do you REALLY want this?) but the big one was showing up on set up day and realizing the floor plan that the Surtex team sent me was completely different than the one that was there for me to decorate. After turning white as a sheet, realizing that most of my banners wouldn't fit into the configuration that was set up, I pulled myself together and went to calmly talk to someone about the screw up. Turns out, they had sent me a floor plan for a bigger booth size (that I had not paid for.) This being my first year, I had no idea and just designed to what was sent to me. They were unable to change the configuration, but did oblige a request to add an extra panel to the open side of my corner booth. I rearranged some things, cut some banners down, and moved the placement of my main sign and shelves. The giant paper flowers I made for inside the booth no longer fit, so we hung them on the outside panels. They ended up being a great way to draw people into the booth, and no one would have ever guessed the booth wasn’t designed exactly as it was seen. Walking out after set up day my friend Nina said “We just Tim Gunn-ed the sh*t out of that.” Indeed. Which brings me to my next tip:

{3} enlist help

I have no idea how anyone does their booth by themselves. I mean, it happens. I saw plenty of people there doing it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. (On the flip side, I totally applaud people who work the show with spouses/partners. Me and Mr. Gooder would kill each other if we tried that.)

First, there is the obvious: physically having someone at the booth at all times. Wouldn’t it be a bummer if that person you were dying to talk to showed up while you were in the bathroom? Trust me, this happens. In fact, it happened to me 2 or 3 times. Boy was I glad someone was there to grab a business card, take some notes and hand over some promo materials. It also comes in handy when you’re busy. The second day, I was backed up several times and my friends were able to still talk to people and get information. Lots of times, people say they will come back, but the reality is, it’s a big trade show and sometimes they just don’t have time to swing back around, so it’s great to still have contact info to be able to follow up after the show.

My two helpers (who are also my two best girlfriends in the world- Miki and Nina) also jumped in to talk me off the ledge when I was being ridiculous. Cause yeah, that will happen. Besides meeting tons of my online friends in real life + making lots more new friends, the first day wasn’t as busy at my booth as I had hoped or liked. That night we went out for dinner and formulated a plan to make the next day more successful, and guess what? It was. My friends didn’t allow me to wallow. They reminded me that I needed to find a way to engage passersby in a different way so I could maximize my results for the show. If I had been alone, I probably would have spent the night crying into a glass of wine instead. Which again, brings me to another point:

Me and my two indispensable partners: Miki and Nina.

Me and my two indispensable partners: Miki and Nina.

{4} it’s not about you, it’s about them

Yes, you are the artist. You made pages and pages of beautiful work for your portfolio. You made presskits, you designed a booth, etc, etc. But I’m here to tell you, if you build it, they will not come. The first day of the show I had countless people walking by, admiring my booth, telling me how beautiful it was, telling me how engaging it was. The problem? I wasn’t there to hear how great my booth was (although that was very nice) I was there to get leads and make connections, and was not succeeding at it. The next day if someone even remotely glanced at my booth I would strike up a conversation with them by asking questions about THEM. “What are you looking for today?” “Seeing lots of stuff you like?” “Who’s your primary demographic?” “What kinds of products do you make?” Those little questions opened the door to so many conversations that never would have happened had I simply been content to stand there and be admired, too scared to open my mouth.  And guess what? I’m a total introvert in situations like this. Striking up conversations with strangers is not something that comes easily to me. Partner that with showcasing my artwork at the same time and it’s a recipe for a heart attack. Do whatever you’ve gotta do to get over it.  Retailers and Manufacturers are there because they have specific needs and desires that need to be fulfilled and it’s your job to find out what those needs and desires are and how your work can help them. Your walls can only hold so much artwork, and people passing by don’t know what’s in the depths of your portfolio, so speak up.

{5} minimize the stressors you can control

This last tip is especially important when showing during your first year. You have no idea what to expect, and honestly, the most random, idiotic things will keep you up worrying at night. Think about the things that will stress you out, big and small, and make a list of ones that are in your control and do something to minimize that stress. For me, it was the location we stayed at. If I have a calm morning, generally speaking, whatever is thrown at me during the day, I can handle. I also have a penchent for running late though, especially in the morning, and especially when I’m traveling. To make sure I was starting each day with the least amount of stress possible, I rented an Airbnb apartment about 1 block from the convention center. Walking to the Javits took less than 5 minutes, and the building had a grocery and deli in the bottom floor where we could pick up coffee, water, breakfast and something for lunch on the way to the show. Brillant. I walked in every morning feeling cool as a cucumber. And being able to be home and off of tired feet in 5 minutes at the end of the day was priceless.

There are so many more random gems that I learned during the show, but I’ll wrap it up here for now. What about any of you? Have you shown at Surtex or other big trade shows and learned some great lessons along the way? I’d love to hear in the comments below!