Taking a gamble on trade shows

Wholesalers Experience at Trade Shows in the UK


An email pings to inbox ‘roll up, roll up, take a chance, will you be re-booking your stand at THE Trade Show of the year?’. And I sit there and think ‘Do I feel lucky today?’  For someone who doesn’t do the lottery, I’ll still take a chance on a trade show or two. After 12 years of doing the rounds of the UK’s main shows, I still can’t seem to work out how, on occasion, I’ve stacked the deck in my favour or how, on occasion, it’s been an absolute bust.

And so I go for it.  I pay £1000’s to rent a small meterage of space in an aircraft hangar in Birmingham, in a tent in Harrogate or in a glass and iron palace in London.

The online exhibitor guide comes through and I spend a day filling in the compulsory forms, the non-compulsory forms and anything marketing related that may get us noticed followed by the ‘yes, I would like to actually light my stand, here’s some more money so that I can’ forms.  Design the posters, send them to print, gather the samples, the trestle table, the shelving, and the ‘show notebook’ where retailers business cards are stapled in and notes written against their names: The one notebook that is protected as fervently as Gollum protects the ring.

And so follows weeks of nervous anticipation, over-thinking and sleepless nights.  Will we be snowed in? Will anyone turn up? Will I get THE account we’re so desperate for? Will this brand of double sided sticky pads manage to keep the posters up for the full 2/3/4/5/6 days?

The day of the get-in and it’s a mad panic to get in and out as quickly as possible, the hall looks austere, always seems to be at least 10 degrees colder on set up day than any other day and I just feel the need to rest so that I have the energy to smile and engage in the following days.

Regardless of where I am, my own bed or in a hotel, first day of the show is a 5am start. Can’t sleep, full of nervous energy and needing to get to the stand to check it’s looking presentable and we turn up early, bumping into so many friendly faces, so many fellow traders who have seen you through previous shows with laughter and comradeship and a general feeling of belonging that can’t be felt in an office of two through the rest of the year.  We all catch up with ‘how’s business? what’s new? how are the kids? do you feel lucky?’.

The clock ticks and a voice declares the show open and I wait. Someone comes onto the stand and after all these years, I still can’t work out who wants to engage in conversation and who wants to be left alone to slink off without being noticed.  I don’t want to seem pushy but equally don’t want to seem hostile or unhelpful.  It’s a fine line every time.

The stand opposite has 3 sales-people with clipboards and as they follow their customer around their enormous stand furiously writing quantities down on their order forms, I sit there like a thickie at an intellectual’s party wondering ‘What on Earth am I doing here? I could be actually working at home right now, I could be there for my children when they get home, I could be doing ANYTHING and it would be more constructive than sitting here on a very expensive piece of thinly carpeted concrete’.  Buyers fold up their completed order forms whilst chatting to their colleague as they leave the stand opposite and by the time they’ve looked up, they’ve passed my space and my face personifies misery until I spot another possible customer and re-align.  One particularly bad show saw me in the carpark on my knees sobbing uncontrollably.

But then, the gamble seems to be paying off. One set of two ladies stops at the stand and progress to picking up the samples, fingering them, feeling the quality, taking a step back to check our company name board before coming in for a chat, perhaps an order, and whilst busy with them, another set of three or four people stop and peer around the first set to see what we’re offering; ‘must order some more of those’ one says before asking for the latest catalogue and wordlessly passing over their business card. Suddenly the time is moving quickly, and we have a few orders to justify our existence and a load of business cards stapled into our precious notebook with hand scrawls about what they looked like, what they particularly liked and what should be mentioned in a follow up email.  Long standing customers stop for a chat with valuable feedback on sales and the correct amount of attention paid to new lines and they promise to order in a week or so.

Feeling a little more at ease, by the last hour of the day, I’m wandering around, asking friends how the day went, exclaiming to the stand next door that they had seemed busy, smiling when they say the same.  And we ALL try to rationalise the bad days – no orders? Not enough footfall, in the wrong position, in the wrong hall, Sunday/Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday is always the slowest day, buyers are doing more online, the economy (or my personal go-to thought, ‘my stuff is sh*t’).

We bid each other a relaxing evening and we all head for the exits and hope that the next day will make the gamble pay off.

So when that email pings in, and they ask me to gamble my money, my time, and my self-esteem, the answer is usually ‘hell yeah!’ I’ll take another roll of the die.


I’ll be the one sitting there on stand 639 at the Business Design Centre Stationery Show in April, trying to work out whether to approach you or not.