Surtex vs. Blueprint: Which Trade Show is a Better Investment?

Time sure flies when you’re busy! Between moving homes back in March, building 2 new Skillshare classes, and exhibiting at BOTH Surtex and Blueprint this year, you could say my blogging time has been a bit limited in 2019.

Surtex versus Blueprint: Which Trade Show is a Better Investment |

That doesn’t mean I’m out of ideas though. In fact, I currently have a lengthy list of posts just waiting to be written. But I wanted to cut right to the chase and get to the number one question I’ve been getting asked this year:

Surtex or Blueprint, which trade show is better?

What a loaded question! There’s many different factors that can affect your success at a trade show. It’s actually quite common for two exhibitors at the same show to have a completely different experience; one might say it’s amazing and the other thinks it’s terrible.

Of course if you’ve followed me for awhile, you know I have a lot more experience with Surtex; I’ve been showing there since 2017, yet this was my very first time exhibiting at Blueprint. And while I still want to share my thoughts on the subject (more on that at the end of the post), I thought it was important to share other designer's perspectives too.

So I asked 5 other designers who’ve exhibited at BOTH shows to share their own insights with you!

Amarilys Henderson

Exhibited at: Surtex 2018, Blueprint NY 2019

“From an exhibitors point of view, Blueprint doesn’t have the organizational polish that Surtex does, but that simply goes with the fact that Blueprint doesn’t have the price tag to back the manpower. I was impressed with the load of work carried by the two organizers—also fellow exhibitors no less!

In short: rather than an extensive handbook, a help desk, and grunting guys walking around with toolboxes as you’d see at the Javitz, we artists were forced to forge relationships via helping hands and spreading answers. Perhaps, though, this was a critical first step in breaking a culture of autonomy and competition.

A chill atmosphere with a sense of camaraderie is something Blueprint is known for. It’s an attractive point. But I wondered, could it retain the professional airs of Surtex... particularly in restored warehouses filled with tables and retractable banners? The vibe felt more business casual and pragmatic, “we’re looking for art. What do you have? Let’s make a deal.” I jive with that vibe. I admit that I miss those decorative extras, but only long enough for my practical business-mind to kick me back to reality.

I thoroughly enjoyed Blueprint. The camaraderie, the quality of clients, the simplified approach! Those three aspects are fostered, not organic in a realm of individualistic creatives eager to see a return on investment. It takes work, and they’re aspects to be greatly proud of.”

Amy Frazer

Exhibited at: Surtex 2016 Design District, Blueprint 2018 (NY & SF), Blueprint NY 2019

“I did Surtex 2016 in the Design District, so my perspective on it may be a bit different. Honestly, I feel, looking back that I should have just gotten a regular booth. For the money that I paid and the tiny size (think telephone booth), I could have been out there on the floor with everyone else.

I feel that the show promotors at Surtex didn’t do a great job of promoting the Design District, it was waaaaayyy in the back and I heard one comment that people thought we were students. Also, it was hard to find the contact information for registered buyers, but after much digging and a little luck, I was able to unearth a list and set up a few meetings. I did meet about 50 new contacts and a year later had 3 new licensing partners, including a fabric license. So was it worth it to me? Yes. It was my first show, it got me to get it together and I feel that by doing these shows, I meet way more people at them than just cold calling new clients.

I’ve exhibited at Blueprint 3 times now, 2 in NYC and one in SF last year. I like the atmosphere and booth structure, lower cost and new option to rent just one table. It’s definitely more relaxed than Surtex, but still the high quality of artists is there. I do think that by not being at the same time as Surtex this year, the show definitely feels like it was slower than the previous year and I think 3 days instead of 4 would be a better time frame. I’ve met a lot of great contacts at the shows and I think quality over quantity here.

The flow of information from the organizers at Blueprint sometimes is sporadic and could be more centrally located instead of sent via Facebook/ email, perhaps a password protected page for exhibitor information to be updated weekly. And day of operations could be farmed out and handled by a local events coordinator – hire someone for the front desk, day of logistics, etc. The organizers are kind and open to suggestions for improving the process along the way. I also love meeting a lot of my IG/FB friends in real life! That is what really makes the days and evenings fun!”

Exhibited at: Blueprint 2018 (NY), Surtex 2019 Design District

“From my experience, Blueprint is slightly more oriented to stationery, card designs and characters, where companies are looking to buy designs outright. Surtex is a much bigger show, both in terms of attendees and exhibitors, with companies looking to find designers and particular styles to potentially license them in the near future. In the end, Surtex was a much better fit for me.

One thing I learned from both experiences was that in order to stand out you need to have a unique style, otherwise you end up getting lost in the middle of so many talented designers that are showing more or less the same thing.”

Kate Aurelia Studio & Kasey Free Studio

Exhibited at: Surtex 2019, Blueprint NY 2019

Kate Aurelia Studio & Kasey Free Studio

“We are two design studios who launched our individual surface design businesses at Surtex: two artists, one booth! We then followed our Surtex debut with Blueprint in May. We are longtime artists/designers and friends, and knew immediately that sharing a booth was going to be the best option for us. As a result, we were able to share many of the costs for both of the shows.

We were happy with the connections we made at both shows. The layout of Surtex was nice because everyone was exhibiting in one section of the Javits, next to NY Now. At Surtex it was a mix of buyers, manufacturers, art directors, students, fellow artists and exhibitors from NY Now and The Stationery Show. There is a lot of energy around Surtex because it is combined with the other shows and the Javits Center is full and buzzing. As a result, you don’t get much - if any - downtime because people are always walking by, even if they don’t stop.

By contrast, Blueprint was split between two buildings and multiple floors and in a smaller venue. The smaller venue made it more intimate and easier for set-up and logistics, but the energy was different because we weren’t all in one space. Therefore it felt quieter and there was more downtime between visitors. We also had the opportunity to chat and connect with a lot more of the other exhibitors at Blueprint than we did at Surtex, which was nice.

Both shows have their merits and we can’t say that one or the other was better for our particular businesses. While Surtex was costlier and more involved, it was definitely still worth the investment to us. We appreciated the professional atmosphere.

Blueprint was logistically easier and more affordable and we were able to re-use many of the items we had already prepared for Surtex. The community vibe meant we were able to connect with more of our fellow artists. We hope to attend both shows again next year and think that our preparation will become more seamless and easier with every trade show we do!”

Surtex vs. Blueprint from My Perspective

I’ve Exhibited at: Surtex 2017-2019, Blueprint NY 2019

Me at my Surtex 2019 booth | photo by  Scott Tsai

Me at my Surtex 2019 booth | photo by Scott Tsai

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have a lot more experience at Surtex, so my view is a bit biased towards Surtex over Blueprint. Still I hope you find my viewpoint helpful!

Communication & Organization

Amy touched on this point in her write up, but the flow of information (or lack thereof) and the unorganized booth setup at Blueprint were some big points of frustration for me.

Part of that comes from Blueprint only being around since 2015 (while Surtex has been around for over 3 decades). I think the organizers are still working through some growing pains of a quickly expanding show.

However, I truly believe most of the communication issues could be resolved by hiring a dedicated show coordinator year round.

Since the event organizers are based in the UK, yet all the shows are in the US, it might be helpful to have someone here that could take some of the pressure off of them.

But bringing on a full or even part time coordinator would be an added expense that would likely increase the cost of the show. Personally though, since there’s still a large cost difference between Blueprint and Surtex, I think a small bump in price per booth would be extremely beneficial to exhibitors and therefore, be absolutely worth it!

Surtex vs. Blueprint: Which Trade Show is a Better Investment? |

Boutique Style Trade Show

The main appeal of Blueprint, besides the lower price point, is the more relaxed, boutique-like atmosphere. However, the show expanded exponentially this year to almost 150 booths and because of that, they had to book two separate venues to accommodate all the exhibitors. The result was confusing for buyers and designers alike. And personally, I felt that Blueprint lost some of the charm it had when it was a smaller show.

I even heard from both buyers and exhibitors that Blueprint felt too big this year and it might be better to limit the number of exhibitors to 100 or so booths. I think that would go a long way to recapture some of the initial allure of Blueprint as a low-key alternative to Surtex.

Of course, limiting the number of exhibitors would require the organizers to curate who exhibits at the show, which would mean extra time and effort to sort through applicants, so who knows whether that’s a viable option or not. Though I do feel that if the show gets much bigger (even if it continues in a single venue), it will lose some of it’s original appeal for both buyers and exhibitors.

The Age Old Question: Quality Versus Quantity?

Beyond the logistics and communication, Blueprint felt very slow and quiet for a trade show. But it was my first time there so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. My solution was to keep in contact with exhibiting designers who had been there in past years too and they all confirmed that buyer traffic felt much lower. The effect was that many exhibitors (especially first timers, myself included) left the show a little disappointed.

To give you concrete numbers, I only filled out 18 intake forms at Blueprint, compared to 49 at Surtex this year (thats 63% fewer contacts). And of those 18, only 7 were new-to-me companies, as opposed to 36 from Surtex (which is nearly 80% less). And although the quality of contacts gained is ALWAYS more important than quantity, this business is first and foremost a numbers game.

It’s simple math: The more contacts you have and the more companies you send art to, the more likely you are to license your art and increase your design income.

My experience is especially skewed since I had great success from Surtex this year – I gained enough licenses and commissions afterwards to pay off all my expenses from the show in less than 3 months. I know that’s partly due to me being a repeat exhibitor; it was my third time showing at Surtex. So it may not be fair to compare my experiences at Surtex and Blueprint, but it’s impossible not to when it directly affects my business.

As it stands right now, I have yet to receive any contracts directly from new buyers at Blueprint. To be honest though, it’s still a little early to make a final determination. At past shows, it’s taken me upwards of 1-2 years of fostering a new relationship before any licenses or commissions come from it, so I’m still optimistic I can see a return on my investment at Blueprint.

Surtex 2019: Shannon McNab
Blueprint 2019: Shannon McNab

So, Surtex vs. Blueprint: Which IS better?

The only way I can answer this question is: Surtex is better for me.

Each show has it’s pros and cons, serves a slightly different clientele, showcases a unique vibe, and offers a different price point, but that doesn’t mean one show is any better than the other. It truly is an incredibly personal decision and the only way you’ll know which show is right for you is by exhibiting at one or both.

If you’re on the fence between the two, I’d suggest walking each show in person before you exhibit, because there’s no better way to get a feel for them without ponying up at least a few $1,000 dollars first.

As for me, I’ll definitely continue to exhibit at trade shows in 2020 and perhaps beyond – I still feel there’s no better way to meet new companies and expand my design business.

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? |

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.