TRADE FAIRS; the Dos & Don’ts

GHA aerial shotI have been attending and exhibiting in Trade Shows since 1996, in Australia and internationally.  As we prepare for the Gift & Homewares Association’s (GHA) Home & Giving Fair which starts this Saurday 19th & finishes on Tuesday 22nf Feb, I thought I would share with you real life observations and experience from trade fairs here in Australia, Europe & USA.

I also hope this post will help first time visitors or long time complacent visitors.

Firstly, it is really important to attend trade shows, regardless of the lack of time, fully stocked store, no staff etc.  Exhibitors spend a fortune attending these shows and are constantlysearching for new and interesting stock for you to touch and experience in real life.

Talking with exhibitors about the business, promotional ideas or activities you can take advantage of are only some of the benefits of actually attending the show.  You are engaging all of your senses at a trade show.  Catalogues and Computer screens do not compare with this experience.


I know how easy it is to not attend a local trade fair or just quickly rush through one and stay in the comfort zone of familiar exhibitors.  But what a waste of an opportunity.

I am CONSTANTLY surprised by the laissez-faire attitude of attendees and exhibitors of trade fairs!

Some Exhibitors have a “We’ll build it and they will come’ attitude and then wonder why they have had an ordinary fair while they watch others have their ‘best fair ever’.  The retail landscape has changed on all levels; consumers are driving the market, retailers are having to revisit all they know and exhibitors have to step up and show flair and style in their displays rather than simply display all of their products.

It is the visitors who I want to address today.
Going to a trade fair is a business development exercise and in some cases, a new business development.  Anna Chandler Design

Trade Fairs are a massive exercise, they only happen a couple of times a year.

They are important for many reasons, including:

  • face to face meetings
  • new productsWaterlyn owner David Pursley
  • placing orders
  • market research
  • investigate trends
  • keep up to date with the market
  • merchandising ideas
  • get you out of your comfort zone
  • networking & relationship building

Although we are using the internet to look at products, there isnothing like meeting the people and touching the products at a Trade Fair.

Most retailers are time poor, so I hope this helps you get the most of whatever time you have to visit a trade fair!

  • Make The Time To Visit At Least One Trade Fair A Year
  • Do Your Homework
  • Set Your Objectives
  • Be Organised
  • Make Appointments
  • Prioritise – Realistically
  • Ask Questions – Build Relationships
  • Have New Eyes  &  Open MindPudding Lady
  • Have A Backup Plan For Staff
  • Get Out & About

In Detail:


Trade Fairs are important for many reasons, as stated above, so you need to invest the time in your business and go to them.

I am always surprised when someone tells me they didn’t go to a trade fair in their home town.  This is a wasted opportunity.  You don’t need to book flights or accommodation you just need to find a day in your schedule – yes ONE DAY minimum.  ( how to organise the time below)



If it is your first time at the Fair, see ‘Be Organised’ below!

For established visitors:
*  identify what is new in the market
*  look at what is missing from your business
*  look at the businesses around you so you don’t overlap
* who is a new player
* what is a future trend

Check the additional fair activities.  Attend seminars, celebrity appearances, meetings etc  They are normally not free but are free at trade fairs.  The fairs are a great opportunity to expand your mind and your assumptions.

With all of this in mind, you will be able to spot opportunities early and first.


Seriously, what are you going for?  Have this chat with yourself beforehand:

  • Are you going to find new products? What are they?
  • Are you looking for a new supplier? Will they be at the Fair (see Do Your Homework)?
  • Are you remerchandising your store and want to see how suppliers show similar products?
  • Do you want to source more locally made products etc

By setting objectives beforehand, you will be able to prioritise your activity in order to achieve them and not miss an opportunity.



Utilise the online listings, planners and fair guide books that are available, to ‘map’ your route.

Have a game plan so that you know what you need to have seen at the end of each day.

This is what I do:
1. go through a whole show quickly on Day One
2. see the people I have appointments with
3. go back to the items of interest – which I have prioritised

At the end of each day, review the plan and the actual day and plan out the next day.

Travel with a workbook that is segmented to make taking notes and reading them later easier:
– general items of interest
– appointment notes
– things to go back to
– things to follow up back at base

This is not a holiday so don’t be leisurely – unless it is your last day and all objectives have been met – you are on a mission, so act like it.  People understand if you tell them that you are moving through the fair quickly so that you don’t miss anything.



As an exhibitor, I always made appointments with key customers.  I always invited customers to make an appointment so that I could give them my undivided attention.

As a visitor, I always made appointments with existing and potentially new exhibitors.  This way, I was sure to get the one-on-one time I needed to get the most from my visit.

Make yourself a schedule with the day and the appointments showing contact number in case you needed to reschedule or contact them quickly.



When you are planning your time, prioritise the meetings and the exhibitor visits that will achieve your objectives.
Objective: more local suppliers.  Priority: view all local suppliers > make appointments with top 3, visit next 5…

When prioritising, see the interstate people first then the local suppliers second.  This said, you will see more at the show than they can bring to you in a suitcase.

Be realistic – you can’t have a nice long chat with EVERY supplier that you think has nice product!  Be ruthless, only those that fit in with your big picture should be considered.

Consider travel time between venues when you are planning so you don’t run out of time.



Take advantage of having the creator, supplier, importer, developer, seller of the product in front of you!  Ask them what is new, how products are doing in other locations, what are the best sellers, any suggestions for your business, what are they doing online etc

Normal communication is rushed and normally about one topic, use this time to build a relationship with them and find out how to get the most for your business.


This  seems to be the hardest for most people to do , but to me it is one of the most important things!

Successful retail is one that evolves and reinvents itself without imitating the competition.

By keeping your mind open to new possibilities and training your eyes to see opportunities you will maximise all that you see, hear and feel and apply it to your business.

When you hear yourself say, “My customers don’t buy that…” or “We have always done that..” etc – challenge yourself and your activity and consider a new perspective.



Again, I constantly hear retailers say they couldn’t go to a fair because a staff member called in sick.  Have a backup plan and someone on standby.

Assign someone the role as your contact – only one person – this is far more efficient and will stop the calls every 10 minutes.  Oh yeah, set 2 call times a day.  C’mon the store’s not going to burn down if they wait an hour!! (ok they can call you an extra time if it burns down…)



If you are going to an out of town show, set aside a day (at least) to vist stores in and around the city.
This is a great  opportunity to see what is new and how others outside your normal point of reference are doing it.
When doing your homework, look out for new stores, updated shopping areas, events that are on at the same time as the fair.

This also expands your mind in terms of your visual reference; look at the retail experience not just the products.

Overall, be strategic and plan your time at the trade fair.
If you are organised and on your toes you will make the most of your time away from your business, in order to make it better!

I’ll be at the Fair for the entire 4 days, I will be in The Oasis Lounge, holding seminars at 10.30 am & 1.30 pm, more information here

Have Fun & See You at the Fair!! 🙂


  1. February 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Great article Nancy. Look forward to the one on advice for exhitors.

  2. February 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Such excellent advice Nancy. I was struggling with the fair this year -- was not going to attend - we have events on Saturday through to Tuesday...but somehow I'm going to cram it in there on the weekend once our deliveries and pick ups are done. Being inspired by you will be a priority. Hope I make it there in time. Oh and as obvious as this may seem, my advice is to leave the heels at home, and to bring a small portable trolley to carry the brouchures and samples collected. Saves your back. No one seriously doing trade fair can navigate that much floor space over so many days in their favourite Jimmy Choo heels. Even though I have seen some try over the years! At least it always makes me smile when I see that sort of fashion idiocy/vanity/newbiness on show (sometimes usually all at once :-). It's a trade fair women, not a fashion parade!

  3. February 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    thanks Alicia, brilliant advice!! Look forward to seeing you there! :-)

  4. February 14, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Thanks Lara :-)

  5. February 14, 2011 at 4:32 pm

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  6. February 16, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Have we ever told you how amazing you are...? Thanks Heaps for your help. See you on Saturday. Sean & Mel

  7. February 16, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    thank YOU very much! Look forward to it! cheers Nancy

  8. February 17, 2011 at 9:16 am

    As always, excellent advice Nancy and perfect timing for us as we have just signed up to exhibit for the first time at Online Retailer in September. Although different industry, the principles are the same so have printed off your article (sign of a good article!) to come back to later in the year! Good luck with the Trade Fair.

  9. February 17, 2011 at 10:39 am

    thanks Louise!! I constantly meet new retailers who don't know how to tackle a show and easily become overwhelmed as well as jaded retailers who need to re-focus!! Good Luck To You too, I will see you there :-)

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