Build Your Business:

How to Shop a Trade Show

Even in this Internet age, where you can instantly get information, there still are valid reasons to attend trade shows. A trade show allows you to see, touch and gain a better understanding by asking questions directly from the supplier.

January 7, 2013

Whether you’re new to the industry or shopping for equipment, trade shows — such as the Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) — are the best sources for seeing machines in action, making contacts, establishing relationships and gaining useful information that only happens when you are standing in the right place at the right time.

While there’s no question that the Internet also is a valuable tool that continues to grow in usefulness, it will never replace the amount and type of information you can gather over the course of a few days during a single event.

This is especially true for apparel decorators just starting their businesses. Though newcomers likely have some understanding of the equipment, products and partnerships they’ll need, they often don’t know how to effectively search for that information online.

Every industry has its lingo, which isn’t easy to learn through Internet research. It takes interaction with real people in the industry to sort out all the intricacies, and to learn how to ask the hard questions and get real answers.

Also, just because a person or company posts something on the Internet does not mean the information is accurate. There is no Internet police making sure posted content on websites is 100% honest or accurate.

When trade show exhibitors seem to be over-promising on their products, it is much easier to ask for proof face to face than to discern fact from fiction on the Internet.

While the thought of a show floor packed with hundreds of exhibitors may make your back and feet ache prematurely, if you develop and adhere to a well-thought-out plan of attack, trade shows are one of your best resources for getting a lot done in a short period of time.

Before the Show
Once you’ve decided to attend a trade show, all you have to do is register, book a hotel, plan your rental car or flight arrangements, and you’re set, right? This thinking is a common mistake made by trade show attendees.

Most decorators arrive at a trade show full of good intentions, but will not accomplish much if they have not planned and scheduled appointments. Once the show floor opens, they will walk in and wander the floor aimlessly. This behavior is repeated on each of the subsequent show days, and unfortunately not much is accomplished.

The first step of trade show planning is to browse the event website to find the exhibitor list. Reviewing this information can save precious time on the floor.

While looking through the exhibitor list, sort by category so you can pinpoint the vendors that are applicable to your business. For example, if you are getting into heat printing, you‘ll be interested in speaking with transfer suppliers, heat-applied graphics materials companies, and heat press machine vendors. You also may want to meet with digital direct-to-garment suppliers.

A word of caution: Be sure to click through to the websites of vendors you’re interested in to verify that they offer the product for which you are searching. Sometimes, a company may not actually stock a product, but they can get it for you.  

As you evaluate each company, sort them into “A,” “B” and “C” lists. The companies on the A list are the vendors you definitely want to see, the ones on the B list are the exhibitors you’d like to see and the ones on the C list are the ones you’ll stop to see if you have the time.

As you go through the exhibitor list, keep a printout of the show floor plan (also found on the show’s website) handy so you can highlight the booth numbers you want to visit. You’ll get a clear idea of where exhibitors are located, and then you can schedule your daily appointments with exhibitors who are in close proximity to each other. This reduces running back and forth from one side of the hall to the other to keep to the schedule.

When choosing vendors to meet, also take note of where companies are physically located in relation to your facility. Shipping costs and delivery times are important details to consider when selecting suppliers.

Once you’ve chosen those you want to meet with, I recommend calling ahead of time and booking appointments. It’s best to book in 30-minute increments during the first three hours of the day (except for day one … more on that soon). If questions arise after your initial meeting, you can always return for follow-up information.

Opening Day
Now you have a plan in place for day one. Arrive early so you can hit the floor as soon as it opens. By arriving a half-hour early, you can grab a hard copy of the show guide and floor plan, and check the addendum to see if any new exhibitors have signed on that interest you. And, you can check your marked-up floor plan against the show program’s copy to make sure scheduled exhibitors haven’t relocated to another space.

Make your first-day appointments between noon and 3 p.m. instead of within the first three hours of opening time. This only applies to opening day, as exhibitors will be caught up in the rush of day-one traffic for the first two hours or so, and may not be as attentive to appointments.

When it is time to meet with a scheduled vendor, limit yourself to about a 15-minute session (giving you 15 minutes to get to your next stop), and be sure to take notes and get a business card of the person you spoke with so you can follow up.

In between appointments, try not to stop and graze at booths that are not applicable. Also, try to resist leaving a booth with an exhibitor’s literature. If you take a brochure from every vendor you see, you’ll end up with a heavy bag of printed materials you will never look at. (Been there, done that.)

If you want more details, just have exhibitors scan your badge and let them send an email with product specifications or other information after the show.

When your first-day appointments are complete, take a seat in the café and review the information you learned while it’s fresh in your mind. You’ll have additional questions come up during this review process. Write them down and return to the show floor to see if you can get a quick answer or schedule a second appointment.

Day Two
Your second day on the show floor will be comprised of more appointments, but today is your chance to ask the harder, more technical questions.

After your appointments on day two, you should understand the price and feature differences on similar products from various vendors. Armed with this knowledge, you can approach exhibitors and see if they’re willing to bargain with you to earn your business.

In addition, day two is your chance to get supplier recommendations. Say you’re meeting with six custom transfer suppliers; take the time to find out about their products, but also ask them what heat press machines they recommend.

The second show day also is when you should ask equipment suppliers to show you the inside of a machine in which you’re interested. You may have seen 10 videos of a digital printer in action on YouTube, but nothing compares to watching the machine operate right in front of you.

Other than that, day two will be fairly similar to day one, with the exception that today is when you should consider making a purchase straight off the floor if you are in the market for a new machine. Equipment vendors usually run specials on the machines they’re exhibiting at the show to save on the cost of shipping heavy items back to their warehouses.

If you are attending a show with the intention of purchasing equipment from an exhibitor’s booth, you may want to reach out to the vendor ahead of time and express your interest, as the floor-sale pieces can go fast. Or you may even influence an exhibitor to bring the machine in which you are interested.

Day Three
The final day should be reserved for deal closing and pure research. You should have hit up the vendors on your A list, and possibly some on your B list, and returned to ask additional questions of the ones that most impressed you. On day three, you are ready to let your chosen vendors know of your interest in pursuing business with them.

If you plan to make a major purchase at a trade event, make sure you have your financing plan in place before you attend. Get a letter from your banker or credit union stating you’re pre-approved for “X” amount of dollars — that way you will be able to close the deal on the show floor.

If you are considering leasing equipment, make sure that you understand all the terms. This includes who insures the equipment, who pays the property taxes, what happens when the lease term is over and what the true time value of money (TVM) is on the leasing deal offered.

Day three also is your opportunity to take in all the equipment and products on display at the show. Even the least bit of knowledge about the decorated apparel industry as a whole will help as you launch your business in a particular niche.

Going back to our heat printing example, day three also is your chance to stop at a few screen printing and embroidery supplier booths to drop off your business card and ask if they can recommend a screen printer or embroiderer in your area who does contract work. These recommendations will help three or four months down the road when a customer asks if you can fulfill an order outside your present capabilities.

In closing, trade shows are what you make of them. Plan ahead, be sure to see a wide assortment of products and equipment so you can make accurate comparisons, and lock up a good deal or business decision when it presents itself.
Greg Kitson is founder of Mind’s Eye Graphics, Decatur, Ind. For more information or to comment on this article, e-mail Greg at or visit

Prepping for Appointments
After you’ve scheduled your appointments with selected vendors, don’t just show up and expect them to know your business. Be prepared to answer the following questions:

• Who is your target market?
• What products are you looking for?
• What equipment do you need?

In fact, it may be beneficial to both you and the vendors if you prepare a one-page brief so they can address your specific needs. A brief also reduces the need for you to repeat the same information over and over each time.

In addition, have your list of questions handy. One question you should always ask is, “What haven’t we talked about that you think is worth discussing?” You don’t know what you don’t know, so asking this question could open your eyes to a product, machine or service of which you previously were unaware.