Trade Shows 101: Networking and Promoting Your Design Business - QC Design School

Tammy Hart, I.D.D.P, is a graduate and Tutor of Q.C. Design School.  She oversees the Residential Division of B.I.G Renovations & Design and sits as a Director on the National Board for DDA (formerly CDECA).   She is a sought-after speaker, speaking at venues like IIDEXCanada and Heart of Networking.  She’s been featured as a guest spot on Daytime Durham, Rogers TV and works to empower young women to become successful future leaders.

I’m often asked about advertising how and where to’s and am asked to begin the conversation with my thoughts on advertising on social media.  Firstly, let me say, I’m not a social media expert.  Secondly, I grew-up in a generation that didn’t rely on internet (heck, I was reminiscing just the other night about typing class in high school and practicing typing “AAAA, SSSS, DDDD, FFFF”) on a TYPEWRITER!  So, when I think about advertising, I’m not ashamed to say I’m a bit “ol’ skool” in the sense that I still am a firm believer in pounding the pavement, hustling hard, and face to face advertising, but incorporate the new (a.k.a. Social media avenues) for a balanced portfolio.

Most importantly, whatever form of advertising you want to choose, you always want to consider your “Return on Investment”, or R.O.I, which in layman’s terms means you’re getting back the money you put into your advertising.

Throughout my careers, I have had great success with trade shows and will focus the rest of the blog on this for the simple fact that trade shows, provided you are picking the ones, can definitely show you R.O.I or “the money!”.  Trade Shows offer me the opportunity to get face to face with my target market (sometimes thousands of people) in a few days.  Plus, they’re the 2 Es – Exhilarating and Exhausting.

I’m going to guide you through my strategy with trade show and how to make them successful.

dark bedroom decor

1. Not all trade shows are created equal – Do your research

It’s important to understand that, like school and any other advertising opportunity, you need to do your homework – not all trade shows are created equal.  By that I mean, you have shows that are at large venues or you have shows that are at community halls. You have shows that have been running for decades vs. a year. You have shows that cater to all different target markets – some focus on consumers with modest budgets while others focus on consumers with lofty budgets.  You have shows with great attendance year-over-year and shows that have mediocre attendance. You have shows that focus on the consumer – you have shows that focus on the direct to trade.

They don’t cost the same to exhibit and are different durations. But you won’t know until you do your homework. That segues me into my next point.

2. Alignment

When you first built your company you created your target market. You visualized what your clients look like, whether that was a DINK Couple (double-income, no kids) in their 30s; or the Average Household with 2.5 kids and a dog; or the Retired Couple (the kids are finally gone, we have our house back!), you created your ideal target market. The trade shows you choose should be targeting your own target market.

The shows you choose also need to align with your advertising budget.  How much for how many days are you willing to spend on your trade shows? Know how many new clients it will take to make your show investment back.

beige living room

I use this formula to determine the number of clients I need to break even:

Cost of Show + Expenditures (Rentals, Promos, Staff time, My time, Food, Delivery charges, etc…) = x

X / Avg Client Spend = Number of Clients

For Example:

I spend $20,000 on a Show and Expenditures

An Avg Client with me will spend $5,000

$20,000/5 = 4 Clients to break even

Knowing your base for a new client booking at point of show is important.  It acts as a gauge.

3. Goal Setting

I have two primary goals I want to achieve from the shows.  First is to gain new clients, which will in turn cover my costs for the show plus make additional revenue.  Second is to develop relationships with suppliers and vendors, which will blossom into fruitful partnerships.

Determine what your goal will be for each trade show.

grey desk space

4. “By George, I think I’ve Got it!”

Fantastic! You’ve chosen the trade show you’re going to attend and you’re a confirmed vendor.  Now what?  This is where the hard work comes in, but where your creativity and training that QC Design School has prepared you for is going to kick in.  This is where I get excited! You can start planning your booth concept and promotional items.

This may come as a shock, but most likely you won’t be the only decorator or designer at the show.  And that’s OK.  You need to stand out but ALWAYS be true to your brand.  As a designer or decorator, you are a step above the rest of the vendors because you decorate and design spaces for a living.

Here are some thought provoking questions:

  • How will you showcase your work?
  • Are you going to have a monitor with a presentation on it?
  • Are you going to bring your 10×10 booth to life with draping, sitting areas, tables?
  • How do you want to talk to potential clients? Standing or having them feel cozy in your space?

Think of this space as your opportunity to shine, but it also needs to be an office for the weekend for you.  You need to consider the following:

  1. Booth Theme – (ie. Mod-Victorian, Art-Deco, Comfy Casual, etc..) This should appeal to your target audience.
  2. Flooring – Are you laying hardwood, carpet, vinyl? You want something that is easy and quick to install and dismantle but will keep feet comfy over the period of your show.
  3. Furniture – Are you going to create a living room feel with a couch and a couple of armchairs? Or do you want a modern office feel with Cruiser tables and mid-back high stools?
  4. Electrical – Do you need it? Are you running a TV or computer? Do you have lighting? Is electrical your responsibility or the show host’s?
  5. Signage – How are you getting your company name visible? Pop-up banner?  Hanging banner?
  6. Draping – How are you creating a backdrop for your booth?
  7. Promotional Items – I could talk about this at length, but consider how you are going to get people to remember your company versus Susie Q’s company. Are you going to have swag? People love free stuff, even with your name on it. What about business cards or postcards with Show Specials and a list of services?
  8. Gather Leads – Some shows have scanners for badges at a cost. Another idea to gather lead info is to host a draw from the people who enter your booth.  And an absolute is to make sure you take the names and contact info of people you’ve had conversations at length with – better yet, make an appointment for immediately following the show.
home office decor

5. It’s Show Time!

You’ve moved your booth in and now it’s time to showcase.  First person of the show is walking down your aisle, they’re coming towards you, you look down to the ground and they walk by.  Second person comes you smile, they walk by!  Breathe, it’s OK.

This is where you’re selling yourself and your services, which is a solution they’re looking for.   But you need to do it in a not-so-selling fashion.  Often times you’ll get people walking with their heads turned in any direction but yours.  They have been sold a hundred different products before arriving at your booth.  We’ve all been to shows as attendees – it gets exhausting. Here’s my advice:

Engage them.  Don’t be shy.  I start by breaking the ice with:

“How are you enjoying the show?”


“Hey there! My boss has had me cooped up in the booth so I haven’t had a chance to tour the show yet, what’s been your favorite new product?”


“Thank you for braving the snowstorm or for coming out on this gorgeous day.  Have you been here long?”

My goal is to get them talking to me.  Then, I can start driving the conversation to finding out what has brought them to the show and how my services might be able to assist them (finding their needs).  This is where you listen intently.

home office and living room

My other goal is to drive as much traffic to my booth at one time as is possible.  The busier your booth is, the more people will flock to it.  This also helps when you have a desirable booth location.  I normally try to pick aisle intersections near stages, the entrance to the show or along back walls.

It’s always beneficial to have a couple of people working your booth.  This will help flow people through, make sure you are getting your leads, and appointments are being made.

My biggest advice is not to worry about your “competition”. Be authentic and true to your brand and have fun.  And make sure you have water hidden on hand – you’re going to talk a lot!

All of this advice is for nothing if at the end of the show you don’t follow-up on either the show generated or your generated lead lists.  This is going to take lots of effort but you still need to continue working the show even after it’s ended.

Amp up your decorating business with new services! Check out QC’s online courses to hone your skills in a new area.

Leave a Reply