Surtex 2018: Six Lessons from My 2nd Show

When I signed up for Surtex 2018, I was nervous about how my second show would measure up to my first experience in 2017:

  • Will it be worth it to come back?
  • Would I meet any new contacts or just the same people?
  • Will the time and money investment pay off again?

Each year you exhibit is a gamble and you never know whether it's going to work out. However, three months post-show, I can tell you that exhibiting for a second time at Surtex was absolutely the right decision for me.

 Surtex 2018 Recap: Thoughts on my Second Show | Part of my Surtex Blog Series at shannonmcnab.com

It's been about a year since my last recap from Surtex 2017's show and nearly everything I wrote in that post is still relevant this year. However, there were a few things I learned in my sophomore show at Surtex that I thought would be helpful, especially for those of you on the fence about exhibiting (or thinking about coming back to exhibit after taking a year or two off).

Six Lessons Learned from my 2nd Show

In some ways, my second year at Surtex felt much like it did the first time: setting up the booth was still exhausting, several of the same exhibitors and buyers from 2017 were there, and Surtex was still using that awful orange carpet (and it still cast a weird glow on all my photos).

But there were lots of changes I noticed too: it was cooler because we were on the 1st floor of the Javits instead of the 3rd, the Design District was split up and flanked both ends of the show, and instead of an after show mixer, they handed out beer and wine during the last two hours on Sunday and Monday. Sipping red wine at 4pm in my booth was quite the treat!

However, most of that stuff is pretty frivolous when looking at the bigger picture. Exhibiting at Surtex is first and foremost about getting your work in front of art directors and buyers. It's about gaining momentum, licensing your work, and building a business you can eventually sustain yourself on.

With that in mind, here are the six lessons I learned from exhibiting at this year's show:
 

#1: Protect Your Time Pre-Show

Unsurprisingly, it takes a LOT of time to prep for a show – especially in the final 3 months leading up to it. That's not something I gave much thought to when prepping for 2017's show, as I was new to surface design and didn't have any major clients at the same time.

Instead, I poured all my time into creating as much portfolio work as I possibly could and designing everything needed for exhibiting at the show. Never at any point did I get overly concerned about not being able to finish everything on my to-do list.

Fast forward to February 2018. I was busy prepping for the show again, however, I also had client projects (several with late March or April deadlines) and I ended up feeling very frazzled when May finally came along.

Don't get me wrong, having client projects is great AND it's a crucial part of my business to continually receive commissions throughout the year.

My big mistake was poor scheduling and setting unrealistic expectations on what I could feasibly accomplish at that time of year.

 Surtex 2018 | Photo courtesy of @surtexshow

Surtex 2018 | Photo courtesy of @surtexshow

So for Surtex 2019, you can bet I'm going to do things differently. Especially since the show's date has been moved up 3 months, it's now even more important that I protect my time and make sure I'm not overextending myself in the months leading up to the show.
 

#2: Booth Location is Important

It makes sense that the closer your booth is to the front of the show, the more foot traffic you'll get. However, it's not a theory I could test until I had done the show for a second time.

In 2017, I was about 15 booths back from the front of the show. I remember at the time feeling like the traffic was slow (mostly due to discussions with friends that had booths near the front – they saw many companies I never did).

Compare that with 2018. The booth I got was much closer (about 6 booths from the front) and I noticed a huge difference, especially on the first day. By the end of the show, I had filled out over 50 intake forms (compared to just 37 last year).

So my advice is to pick a booth as close to the front as you can.

I should note here that Surtex does give priority to exhibitors based on the amount of years exhibited at the show (which seems fair) – so if it's your first time, don't be alarmed if you're placed near the back of the show.

With that in mind, I also want to reiterate that even with the slow traffic, 2017's show was still a success for me. So your booth location isn't the only thing that matters.

 My 2018 Surtex 10x10 booth | shannonmcnab.com

#3: Each Year is Unique

One thing I was genuinely concerned about when returning for my second year was the attendee traffic. I don't just mean the volume of people I'd see, but also whether they'd be new companies or mostly those I'd already met or worked with from last year's show.

However, my fears were misplaced because at least 80% of those who stopped at my booth were new contacts. More interestingly, many of those people also attended last year's show and were surprised to hear that I had exhibited in 2017.

The lesson here is that you can never predict who will stop by your booth and that the ever changing landscape of attendee traffic is actually a GOOD thing.

Going into my third year, I realize that I will see different companies at the 2019 show and although not all of them will pan out, I know I will likely gain many valuable new contacts.
 

#4: The Show is Still Nerve-wracking

You'd think that after your first show, you'd get over the fear of talking about your work and the first day jitters wouldn't be as intense. That's what I thought anyway. Boy, was I wrong! 

I was just as anxious this time around. Putting yourself out there is both mentally and emotionally exhausting. There are moments of pure joy when a buyer swoons over your designs, but there's also times when you want to hide under your counter after a really uncomfortable interaction.

However, knowing that each show will give you butterflies and you can expect both negative and positive experiences is a bit freeing.

And of course the good news here is that you're likely to have many more positive experiences than negatives during the course of a show.

 Chatting with potential clients in my booth | Photo courtesy of @surtexshow

Chatting with potential clients in my booth | Photo courtesy of @surtexshow

#5: The Surface Design Community is Everything

The easiest way to sum up this lesson is to quote the caption from the last photo I posted of Surtex 2018 on Instagram:

"More than ever, I feel like I’ve found my tribe: people who are warm, supportive, and exceptionally talented. To every single person I met and talked to, I’m grateful to have shared in your design journey, even if only for a brief moment."

 My booth buddy, Lizzie Clark, and I in my 2018 Surtex booth | shannonmcnab.com

This year's show definitely convinced me that I'm in the right industry. Not only have I had the pleasure to work with some great new clients that I saw at Surtex, I've met some of the most kind-hearted and brilliant people on this planet through surface design. I am talking, of course, about my fellow designers.

Of all the interactions I had at Surtex this year, nearly ALL of my favorites were with fellow designers, most especially with Lizzie, my accountability partner (and booth buddy).

It's so rewarding to be part of an industry filled with friendly, talented people. And it's something I never want to lose sight of!

#6: Follow Up is Still the Key to Success

My main focus in previous blogposts has been about the prep work that's involved with exhibiting, but I haven't really shared much about post-show work. And that's a something I want to change because I think it's actually the MOST important part!

During this year's show, I'm happy to say I sold/licensed 2 designs. However, since Surtex I've worked on commissions from 4 new companies and licensed 6 designs. To put that into another perspective, the pieces sold during the show accounts for about 6.5% of my income for the year, yet my deals post-show account for nearly 40% (with the possibility that the percentage could be even higher come Dec 31st).

This illustrates just how important it is to follow up with all those juicy leads from the show as most of the action happens in the months (and even years) following it.

So even though you may be exhausted after coming home after exhibiting (rightfully so), don't shrug off that post-show work. Instead, set aside a few weeks and strategically work through all your contacts. You won't regret it!


There's so much more I could say about exhibiting at Surtex, but I'm going to stop before I get too long winded (maybe it's already too late for that).

As always, I hope you find my insights helpful for your own creative journey. I wish there was more information available to designers about exhibiting and I aim to do what I can to change that.

If you have any questions about the show or any topics you'd like me to discuss, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.