I’ve written that space size down so many times over the years that I swear my fingers can do it all by themselves! 10’X10’ is clearly the standard of the industry. Of course any show sponsor who has actually mapped out true 10’X10’ spaces certainly has had to do a whole bunch of adjusting on show day because hardly anyone’s booth is really that regimented size. I remember doing a show in the early 90’s where the sponsor had actually made the mistake of putting one booth right next to another and making no particular allowances for error. The show was a sell and each row had about 25 booths in it. You can imagine the confusion during setup when there was no room for the last two booths in each row! The moral of that story is… “Always allow at least an extra foot or two for each booth.” I’ve given that advice to so many novice show sponsors its unbelievable!
Now that we’ve determined we actually have 10’X10’ to work with, what can we do with it? There are two basic ideas we can start with… either the inverted “U” shape where customers walk into the booth, or the “U” shape where customers walk around the outside of the booth. Part of the decision which affects your setup is the kind of work you do. Someone like a jeweler may want to use the “U” with glass cases because customers can see the work but access is only from the back. In a situation like this you only want customers to have access to the merchandise when you choose to let them because it’s worth a lot of money and would be easy to shoplift! On the other hand, in a situation where you have larger pieces and need to interact with the customer such as pottery, painting, and many crafts the inverted “U” makes a lot of sense because it gives you plenty of area to display and the pieces are large enough it’s difficult to shoplift them. I know all this talk about shoplifting sounds a bit unusual… but as our economy gets tighter you can’t afford to lose work to a thief and there are a lot more thieves than you might normally find at an art or craft show.
If all things are equal and you could make a choice between the two basic setup styles, my personal preference would be the inverted “U” where the customer walks into the booth. I think there are several advantages to this shape. First of all in a crowded show the customer can step away from the crowd and spend some time shopping without having to endure the hassle of being pushed and shoved as others pass by. Another aspect of this arrangement is purely psychological in that the customer is coming into your “shop” when they step inside your booth. This simple fact gives you the “home team” advantage because they are coming into your territory rather than you infringing on theirs. Secondly this arrangement gives you a greater amount of surface area to display on. In fact, depending on your merchandise you may be able to run another display area down the center of your booth. Putting work on both sides of that extra wall almost doubles the size of your display.
Once you’ve decided on the basic arrangement of your display it’s time to start adding in some things that will make is even more useful and appealing. One of the biggest mistakes I see novice exhibitors making is to forget about all the vertical space they have. You’ll see them set up folding tables along the edges of the canopy and they proceed to lay everything out flea market style. Certainly this works, but you lose probably 75% of the potential display area and the customer’s eyes only go one place. If the show is crowded, passersby won’t even be able to see what you have for sale because their view will be blocked by the other shoppers. There are a number of ways to take advantage this vertical space. You can buy commercially made panels. They look great, they’re self supporting and they’ll last for years. Unfortunately they are also fairly expensive. You could also make your own panels for the walls and maybe down the center. I’ve seen some of these that look every bit as good as the commercial ones then again I’ve seen some that look just plain terrible. You want to make an honest assessment of what yours look like when they’re completed because you only have one chance to make a first impression on a customer and most of us want that impression to be good. These panels can be made from a wide range of materials. Sometimes exhibitors use a frame of wood and chicken wire stretched across it (this gives you incredible flexibility to hang things of all sizes. I’ve also seen PVC pipes with wires stretched from top to bottom or even vinyl lattice within the frame. Of course you can always use pegboard too. Whatever you do, make sure it’s light enough to carry (remember you may have to set these things up yourself some day), make certain it’s durable because it will have to endure all kinds of weather, thousands of miles and a multitude of different setups, and make sure it can be cleaned because bad weather… a muddy setup site or a moldy trailer are almost inevitable.
The panel idea is a good one, but you don’t have to be limited to this. You can use lots of other “props” to achieve vertical space too. I’ve seen exhibitors use a set of stairs, an arrangement of wooden crates, used displays from stores, even a hutch, a set of drawers, a dresser with a mirror and just about anything else you can imagine. The main point here is to draw attention to your exhibit while at the same time expanding you display area you have to work with.
If you’re lucky (or pay more money in some cases) you can get a corner booth. I’ve always come prepared for this if I happen to get one because now you can exhibit both on the inside and the outside of your booth. This effectively doubles your vertical space and if you have a lot of work to display it may be worth paying extra for. In any case make sure you’re prepared to use it if good fortune smiles on you and you get it for free! I’ve seen some shows that use this corner arrangement as a selling point because the booths are set up in groups of four so everyone has at least one additional corner and thus more display area. Unfortunately if the booths are positioned exactly back to back it also limits the area behind your booth for supplies, understock and yourself. It’s always nice to make friends with your neighbors here so all of you can maximize the advantage you’ve been given.
Now that we’ve achieved our maximum display area, let’s take a look at some other ways we can draw and hold the attention of customers. I mentioned props a few moments ago and how they could be used to achieve more vertical space in your booth, but just as importantly they can be used to draw attention to you booth. When you look down the rows of a show it just looks just like a sea of canopies each one identical to the next. Although the work is unique… there is nothing else to distinguish each exhibitor. Of course some shows require that to be the look and at that point there is nothing you can do to the outside of your booth. But the inside could be an entirely different story. Creating an interesting environment for the customer to shop within is a marketing technique as old as the hills… and one we shouldn’t leave unaddressed! I’ve seen people use old Coke crates in their booth, antique farm machinery and implements, carpets for the floor, professional jewelers cases, bales of hay, barn boards for vertical accents, wall paper, mirrors, kitchen cabinets, posters, candles, fog machines… you name it and it’s probably been used. The whole idea here is to create a visual effect that causes the customer to slow down and take a look at what you have for sale. If you have a situation where there is no limitation to what the outside of your booth looks like, you can let your imagination run wild here too. I’ve seen displays that have resembled boats, shacks, restaurants, animals and just about any other thing you can imagine. In all these cases, the props have become an integral part of the overall marketing plan and it can be very effective! Even if customers don’t enter into your space with the intention of buying, many times they’ll ultimately wind up buying something just because they get caught up on the excitement you’ve created with the props you’ve selected.
Invest in side curtains. Not only do they provide protection from the elements, they can go a long way toward eliminating problems with an obnoxious neighboring exhibitor or another booth that causes distraction from your. It allows you to focus on the objective of getting the customer to buy and gives the customer the same opportunity to focus exclusively on your work! Some of the best side curtains I’ve seen are made from high quality fabric and even include a screen that can be revealed by zippers. If you’re simply trying to stay out of the elements just about anything will do. I’ve seen exhibitors use everything from shower curtains to tarps to plastic sheets and they all work to some extent. The first time you’re in a serious rainstorm though, you’ll be congratulating yourself over and over when you’ve spent the money to buy a high quality side. And if that investment keeps you from losing work you’ve spent weeks creating, the cost will seem minimal at that point.
Make sure the lighting is the best you can achieve. At many events a white canopy is your only choice because it’s what the show requires. But even if this is not a requirement of the show, it usually makes a lot of sense. Whenever you choose another color there is always a “cast” of that color on all your work. I remember starting off with a green and white canopy at one time. It seemed like a good idea because we could always tell the customers who were going to return (have you ever actually met many of those anyway?) that all they had to do was look for the green and white top! When we actually set up though… you couldn’t even tell what we intended the true color of our work to be. Everything had a green tint to it. Needless to say, we went to white shortly thereafter. Certainly this demonstrates the quality of lighting is extremely important, but quantity of light can play an important role too. The shade of a nearby tree my keep you cooler during the day… but you’ll pay a price because the colors of work in your booth won’t be as vibrant as those in the booths who have more direct sunlight. If you participate in a show at night, you’ll want to have the brightest lights you can stand! Those lights will not only show off all the colors and brilliance of your work… they’ll attract customers too. I’ve always notices that customers are attracted to lights at night with just about the same intensity as mosquitoes! Sure it may be a little uncomfortable for you, but the extra money you’ll make will compensate you for the inconvenience. Depending on your product, it may almost always be worthwhile investing in supplemental lighting. It can add that extra glimmer to your jewelry… provide the right exposure for your painting… or highlight the nuances of your country crafts. Proper and adequate lighting can be an extremely effective marketing tool. One work of caution though… intense lights can get very hot and you’ll have to make sure to keep they away from the canopy so you don’t have a fire. Also… make sure everything is grounded well and all wires insulated. You wouldn’t want an inadvertent electrocution during a rainstorm or from the heavy morning dew!
Keep your booth neat, tidy and clean. OK… I guess I sound like your parent when you were a kid! What they told you was true though. Most people like to walk into a booth that doesn’t look like a hurricane just swept through. You’ll want to keep your bins in the back out of sight or underneath your display. Personally I think it’s best to keep all the packing either in your truck or trailer. You can always get them right before teardown. Hopefully you won’t need nearly as many as you arrived with! It’s also important to keep your canopy top and sides in good condition. It’s probably not a good idea to wash them every time you use the canopy unless you plan on replacing the fabric every few months… but one in a while it wouldn’t hurt. That’s especially important if you’ve torn down in a rainstorm or had some encounter with mud etc. I know that usually you’re just so glad to have everything put away in your trailer or your truck that all you want to do is head home and get a warm shower! Unfortunately nature doesn’t agree with you. Within a short time all the fabric on your canopy will begin to mildew and the metal legs will start to rust. Both events will make your canopy look terrible. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes for a moment. Would you want to walk into a place of business with mildew on the walls and rust all around you? I might walk in… but chances are good that I’d also just turn around and walk out. I’ll bet a lot of your potential customers feel the same way.
Between show fees, fuel for your vehicle, time to create your work and inventory… you’ve invested a lot of time, money and effort to arrive at the show. And there are certainly a lot of variables contributing toward your success at the event. Many of those variables we have no control over, but for those things we do have the ability to influence… we owe it to ourselves to exercise the utmost advantage. Our display is the “first impression” most customers have of us and our work. Why not make the best impression you can. I’m betting your checking account will attest to a job well done at the end of the day.