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.


Surtex Announces New Dates for 2019

I'm sure by now, you've heard the news: Surtex 2019 is moving to February.

There were lots of mixed feelings about the change among exhibitors at this year's show. Frankly, it was the most talked about topic on the show floor. Many designers were already convinced they wouldn't return, while others were a bit more optimistic.

Surtex 2019: Will Moving the Show to February Be Good or Bad for Us? | shannonmcnab.com

No matter where you stand on the issue, I think it's important to take some time and think about how this change could affect us and our industry. That's why I put together a little pros and cons list of Surtex 2019 moving to February.

I complied this list based on my conversations with exhibitors and buyers at both Surtex and Blueprint this year and tried my best to remain neutral when discussing each point, even though I've already made my decision  (read to the end if you'd like to hear what I think).

Why Moving Surtex to February is GOOD

  • Cheaper Flights & Hotels: Every penny adds up when you're exhibiting at a trade show. Late May is the beginning of the summer travel season in NY and because of that, it's more expensive to fly to and stay in Manhattan. February, on the other hand, is considered "off-season", so it's possible to score better prices and save a little bit of money.
  • An Earlier Show Could Mean More Sales: There doesn't seem to be a consensus on this, but I've heard from several people (both designers and buyers), that May is simply too late in the year for many companies to look for art. By pushing the show back 3 months, it gives us an opportunity to connect with companies who's buying season is earlier in the year. 
  • Access to NY Now Companies: Instead of exhibiting with the ICFF in May, Surtex will now be at the Javits during the NY Now show. At the January 2018 NY NOW show, there were 2,300+ exhibitors from multiple markets like home furnishings, gifts, and children's products. Conversely, ICFF's May 2018 show only featured 900+ exhibitors within a single market: home furnishings. The breadth of NY Now means we have the potential of reaching a much wider range of companies.
     

Why Moving Surtex to February is BAD

  • Winter Weather in NYC: The average high during February in New York City is just 40 degrees – yikes!  It's also the time of year when bad winter storms strike, causing travel delays and canceled flights. If the right storm comes along at the wrong time, we may be stranded in Manhattan afterwards or worse, not even make it to the show.
  • Too Many Shows at the Same Time: There's an abundance of shows early in the year. Printsource takes place mid-January, as does the Gift Show in Atlanta, Creativation in Phoenix, and Heimtexil in Germany. There's also NYFW happening the week after Surtex. With all the shows happening around the same time, both exhibitors and buyers may have to choose one show over another because of time and budget restrictions.
  • Less Time to Prepare for Next Year: At this moment, there's exactly 7 months and 2 days until Surtex 2019. To put that into perspective, at this same time last year we had 10.5 months. Think of how much new work you could accomplish with an extra 3.5 months? Less time to prepare will mean having less new work to show.

Of course the decision to exhibit at Surtex will ALWAYS be a personal one – each designer must decide what's best for them.

But I hope that by discussing the potential problems and benefits of Surtex moving to February, it will at least make your decision a bit easier, especially if you're considering exhibiting next year.

Surtex 2018 | photo courtesy of @surtexshow

Surtex 2018 | photo courtesy of @surtexshow

My Personal Thoughts on the Matter

As I mentioned at the beginning, I've already made my decision – I plan on returning to Surtex in 2019. And while the thought that there's only seven months from now to prepare is freaking me out a bit.... ok, a LOT, I still believe I can have a successful show.

What's most important to me is to keep the overall view of my business in mind when making these major decisions. The fact is, I made great new contacts at this year's show and am confident that I'll meet my income goal by the end of 2018 (my goal this year is almost double my income from 2017).

I truly believe that if you put in the work and focus your energy where it needs to be (namely on consistently connecting with buyers and designing new work for my portfolio), it won't matter that the dates of Surtex have moved.

It's all in how you approach it. You can either look at it as an opportunity or a disadvantage. For me, I'd prefer to view it as an opportunity!


I'd love to hear what you think! What are your thoughts about Surtex moving to February? Love it? Hate it? Indifferent? Tell me in the comments below.


P.S. I hope to write up my thoughts on this year's show, much like I did for 2017's show, a little later this summer. If you have any specific questions about exhibiting, please feel free to post them in the comments below or email me directly.


The Importance of a Smart Marketing Strategy for Trade Shows

By all accounts, my first time exhibiting at Surtex in 2017 was a success. I reached the goals I had set for myself, connected with lots of new-to-me companies looking for art, and finally had a chance to meet countless designers I "knew" online.

But that doesn't mean there's no room for me to improve. On the contrary, my freshman experience at Surtex highlighted just how much more I have to learn about this wonderful industry. So as I'm gearing up for my second time at Surtex, I thought it would be fun to reflect on what I did last year and ways I hope to improve my experience this time around. 

This will hopefully be the first of several 2018 Surtex blogposts and just like my 2017 blog series, I hope to highlight aspects of the trade show experience that aren't as talked about so I can help others avoid the mistakes I made.

Surtex 2018 Blog Series | Marketing Strategies for Surtex: Lessons Learned from Last Year's Show | shannonmcnab.com

Of all the aspects of Surtex preparations, the one area where I feel I have the potential to improve the most is my marketing efforts. Last time around, I spent very little time marketing myself to companies and looking back it was a huge missed opportunity. 

So I spent a few weeks at the beginning of the year, taking a closer look at what I did in 2017 and developing what I hope is a stronger marketing plan that will pay off for me at Surtex. But before I dive into what I'm doing differently this year, let me recap what I did last year and the lessons I learned.
 

A Heavy Focus on Social Media

I spent a LOT of time creating lots of square Surtex images (seriously you guys, I made 11 of them) to post to Instagram in the two months leading up to the show. 

Of course they're pretty and visually represent my design style very well, but I'm not sure there was any benefit to doing so many simply because most of my IG followers are other designers and not brands I hope to work with. Looking back, I wish I had spent less time on creating these Instagram images and used that time elsewhere.
 

A Lack of Company Connections

I spent a couple of weeks last March creating a spreadsheet of companies I wanted to work with, researching their current product lines, and tracking art directors down with a month long LinkedIn Premium trial.

But after all that hard work, the ONLY thing I did with the information I'd obtained was send them a single postcard in the mail announcing my Surtex debut. Ok, that's not entirely true. I actually did InMail message a few of them on LinkedIn, but didn't send a single email to any of them to introduce myself and my art prior to the show (mostly because I didn't have their email addresses).

Surtex 2017 Marketing Mailers | designed by Shannon McNab

It's funny because at the time I was so incredibly proud of myself when I put the big batch of postcards in the mail, yet I didn't realize that the effort, time and money I spent was mostly wasted because A) many of the contacts I had weren't even the correct person to talk to and B) I didn't try and cultivate a relationship with them first.

So if I had to pick one regret from last year's show, it would be that I didn't dedicate enough time to find the correct company contacts and start a dialogue with them prior to the show.
 

Not Identifying My Strengths

The back of my marketing postcards that I sent to art directors had my booth number, contact info and then simply said:

"I'm Shannon, a surface designer from sunny California! I'll be in New York making my Surtex debut and I'd love to meet you!"

It can't get much simpler (or more boring) than that! I mentioned in my May 2017 blogpost that I kept things simple for a number of very good reasons, but what I failed to realize at the time was that I wasn't giving these art directors any important information about how I work or what makes me different from other designers.

The surface design industry is incredibly competitive, with talented designers around every corner, so I was doing myself a HUGE disservice by not addressing the reasons why an art director should work with me over another designer.
 


My Marketing Plan for Surtex 2018

There is a steep learning curve in figuring out certain parts of this industry and although I feel my marketing efforts in 2017 weren't all that effective, I feel the experience I gained was worth the lack of results. So with that in mind, here's my plan of attack for this year's show:

Cultivating More Client Relationships

Since the beginning of the new year, I've been contacting new companies every other week. By starting earlier and working to build a relationship with them prior to the show, my hope is that more art directors and buyers will come to my booth and I'll receive more licensing and commission inquiries as a result.

I feel it's equally important to build upon the client relationships I already have, especially for those I met at last year's show. I send out a newsletter with new art once every two weeks and also send individual follow up emails to my contacts once a month. By staying on their radar and showing them I'm still interested in collaborating, I hope they'll continue to work with and buy art from me.

My Surtex 2017 Booth: Counter Closeup | shannonmcnab.com

Being Laser Focused with Targeting Marketing

This one is the biggie! It is so important to me to make sure I'm contacting the RIGHT person. Tracking down contact information is time consuming enough as it is, so it's a waste if I'm taking a "shot in the dark" hoping I've found the right person.

The reality of this is that it's going to push me outside my introverted comfort zone as I'll likely have to resort to calling companies to obtain the correct contact (which honestly terrifies me because I hate talking on the phone). But as Neale Donald Walsch said:

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

That's going to be my mantra anytime I get anxious about this process. I just have to keep in mind that it's a worthy endeavor and one that could potentially have an enormous impact on my career.
 

Demonstrating my Talent to Potential Clients

My approach to my mailer is going to be a bit different this year as I want to make sure to articulate my strengths and what sets me apart from other designers.

Of course that's nearly impossible to achieve in a single postcard, so my current plan is to create a small booklet with a little bit about my design strengths. It will showcase new art, cover some accomplishments I've made over the last year, and most importantly, have a space for me to write a hand written note to each recipient explaining why I'd love to work with them and their company.

By being clear about who I am and what I can offer, my hope is that art directors will give my art some serious consideration and will decide to make the trip to Surtex to meet me in person and chat about surface design. 

Only time will tell if my new approach this year will pay off, but you can be sure I'll be blogging about it after the show!