Trade shows on a budget for micro-businesses

Amy Crabtree is a graphic artist whose artwork is populated by cute characters inspired by Japanese pop culture. As Cakes with Faces she sells t-shirts, prints and bags from her website and at events and comic cons. Here she shares her tips for attending trade shows as a micro business without breaking the bank.

Trade shows are a great way to raise awareness of your business and find new customers. Small businesses get the chance to appear alongside the major companies in their field, but appearing in a trade show can be extremely pricey. Last year I took my t-shirt brand Cakes with Faces to an alternative fashion trade show and proved that it is possible to do it on a budget, if you are resourceful!

1) Do your research

Search for trade shows and pick the one that is best for your business. Ideally, visit the show before exhibiting so you can check out what goes on. Is it for trade or the public? Will you need to take your stock or just samples or a portfolio? Will you be taking orders, or making contacts?

2) See if you can get a deal on the stand

Once I had decided which show was for me, I contacted the organisers, told them I was interested and cheekily asked if there were any deals available for first-time exhibitors or small businesses in their first year. At the time I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to afford it at all, but they gave me a great price for their smallest booth.

3) Dressing your stand

I went for a shell scheme booth, but it’s also possible to book space-only stands, where you have to bring a complete display. Check on the floor plan which sides will have walls. Larger companies have swish exhibition kits to decorate their space and I didn’t want my stand to look bare. I decided to create a graphical background to show off my artwork, and ordered large format paper panels from, that were the same size as the shell scheme panels. I attached them using Velcro pads and they looked great!

4) Plan your layout

Check on the floor plan which direction most visitors will be coming from and plan your space accordingly. If your booth is small (mine was a tiny 1m x 2m!) it’s easy to overestimate how much you can fit in, so measure any furniture to make sure it’ll be ok. You’ll also need somewhere to keep your bits and pieces out of sight, such as a box or a cabinet, or under a table with a tablecloth.

5) Be resourceful!

Hiring furniture can be pricey, so think about what portable items you already have that you could use. A fold-up camping table with a tablecloth would be ideal. I used the top shelf from a plastic shelving unit, and a box that was handy for storage. I also took along a practice pad and stand from my husband’s drum kit, with fabric as a tablecloth, to use as a stand for leaflets and for writing on. You’ll need somewhere to sit – a drum stool was ideal for me, but you could go for a director-style chair or a good-looking deck chair. You can also get away with using cardboard for displays – I added a strut to the board that came with my prints, attached a strut to the back and used it for signage. Think DIY!

6) Order lights

I’d recommend booking lights for your booth if it doesn’t come with any. This was something I agonised over, but in the end I went for a single strip light, and I’m glad I did because the booths without lighting looked dingy. After all this work, you want your displays to look their best.

7) Think about what else will you need

I ordered postcards with lovely gloss laminate to give out. I made the design generic and ordered loads so I could use the leftovers after the show. Make sure you have plenty of business cards. If you’re taking orders, will you need order forms? It might also be useful to have some letterheads to write notes on and give out – I used my greetings cards to show off my artwork.

8) Plan your budget

Parking might not be included, and you may need hotel accommodation or train tickets, as well as food, so don’t forget to take all the extra costs into account.

9) Promote your attendance

Attending a major show makes your business look good, so promote it on your website and social media. The organisers might send you leaflets and posters to give out. Take advantage of any promotion the organisers are offering that’s included in the package.

To keep up to date with all the latest news from Amy and Cakes with Faces, you can like her page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter too.


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