Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

VisuaLingual at Signature Mix

VisuaLingual, our passion and bread and butter, recently had its trade show debut at Signature Mix in NYC’s Javits Center. Since it was our first time doing anything remotely like this, the booth design and logistics took up a lot of our time and energy, so today I’m sharing a behind-the-scenes look at what we did and why.

We decided to exhibit at this show exactly two months before it opened, so all of our preparations happened within a compressed time frame, which was pretty stressful. We had to establish tasks and deadlines immediately, and we made all of our decisions quickly, without being able to second-guess ourselves or spend a lot of time exploring alternatives. There was no time for mistakes; luckily we didn’t encounter any major problems.

Above is our initial attempt at organizing our booth display. For the past five years, we’ve been best known for our seed bombs, but we’ve been broadening our scope to include home, garden and outdoor products. Our work is fairly small, and it immediately made sense to group similar products, and to visually organize them to suggest connections between product types. This guided most of the decisions we made regarding our booth design.

For the booth structure itself, we had several options: we could rent one of several booth packages, hire a company to build the walls to our specifications, or tackle the work ourselves. We went with the third option, which was the least expensive but a lot of work.

Side note: as we were working our butts off to construct our booth, we were pretty jealous of our neighbors’ fancy rented walls. They showed up much later than we did, but most seemed upset at the wall finishes and/or dimensions. There was a lot of unexpected, last-minute painting and reorganizing of wall displays. It made us happy to have total responsibility and control over our booth walls.

Any of the fixtures — lighting, furniture, carpet, etc. — can be rented as well, but it made sense to us to build and purchase things that we could reuse. We decided to build custom floating shelves of varying lengths and depths, each of which was the perfect fit for every group of products. Here you can see us mapping out the placement of the shelves and towel rods:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

Javits exhibitors are not allowed to use ladders or power tools [you have to hire union labor for that], so we pre-drilled all the holes and used nuts and bolts for the wall panels and shelves. On the back side, we labeled all the holes and wrote super-duper important notes to ourselves:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

We’re lucky to have enough space in our Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati production studio for a full dress rehearsal. I can’t imagine not doing this! We taped off a 6×10-foot area [the size of our corner booth], placed the crate right smack in the middle of our booth, put everything into our crate in the proper order, and then unpacked and assembled everything as we would at Javits, timing ourselves and taking notes as we went along:

VisuaLingual at Signature Mix

There are three ways to get all of your stuff to Javits: shipping a crate beforehand, pulling up to the front door for the “hand-carry” option, or delivering a crate to the loading dock. We went with the third option because we were going to drive to NYC anyway, and we were wary of committing to hand-carrying our stuff in. In reality, there’s a porter service available at the front door, so that’s probably a good option for us. In any case, the crate protected our stuff from the rain, which worked out well.

We built the crate to fit the inside of the back of Michael’s truck, and its dimensions determined the size of our wall panels. The crate held everything except for the stools:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

The crate fit with a whole inch to spare! It’s a good thing we know the best forklift operator in Over-the-Rhine, and maybe beyond:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

Delivering your own freight means that you get to check out the ass end of Javits. Load-in started on Friday at 8am, but we arrived at 6:30 because we were worried about the wait:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

We were actually second in line for drop-off, and our crate was delivered to our booth almost immediately. In our dress rehearsal, we put the crate inside of our area but, as it turned out, all crates, boxes and garbage live happily in the aisles, which are near-impassable during set-up:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

Seriously, there’s no AC and chaos rules, with forklifts and cherry-pickers zooming around everywhere:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

Side note: our neighbors’ rented walls were installed by the time we were allowed to start setting up. So, we had to assemble our corner wall panels, mount the shelves, towel rods and lights, and then move the whole thing into position. Luckily, we had practiced this during our dress rehearsal.

We’d split our set-up into two days, although we could have gotten everything done in one day. We left around mid-afternoon on Friday, having done all the big stuff:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

On Saturday, we dealt with all the pretty stuff — laying out the product displays and collateral, adjusting lights, and hanging our signage. That was also the day we bought our potted plants, which were a nice touch in this artificial space.

The colors and textures in our booth were directly inspired by our home, since that’s where we design our products. In a brightly-lit, saturated environment, we wanted to have a clean, simple, subdued presentation that put the focus squarely on our work:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

We got the stools from Overstock, storage cubby from The Container Store, table base and towel rods from Ikea, tabletop from a restaurant supply place, and carpet tiles from Flor. We really wanted to avoid the “Ikea look” that’s so common at these shows.

Since our work is small and not easy to understand from a distance, we made the most of our corner with large-format photos that also acted as our booth signage. We were really happy with these cross-category prints, so we didn’t include the booth number in case we want to use them again:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

The booth numbers were on separate, smaller panels:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

Our live-edge floating shelves got a lot of positive comments. They struck the right balance between sleek and raw, which really complemented the products:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

The plants and our brand-new Camp Cloth loosened up the grid arrangement:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

Here’s a detail of our bistro table, which held our various print collateral, giveaway swag and order forms:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

The show ended at 1pm on Wednesday. Three hours later, we were eating lunch and waiting to get our crate back from storage:

Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

By the way, the booths in our show were separated by cheap-looking black curtains. I wouldn’t recommend using those in your final presentation! For us, hard walls made sense. A lot of stationery booths had foam core walls [like our neighbor Ten Four Paper], and we also saw some custom-made, heavyweight curtains. Our show also provided ugly office chairs that we immediately ditched. It’s really important to consider the visual impact of every single aspect of your booth [which is why we avoided buying all of our fixtures at Ikea]. Everything should support your brand, and nothing should feel default.

We were really happy with our trade show debut and grateful to have avoided any major issues or surprises. The practice and planning seemed to pay off; we felt like a well-oiled machine during set-up. Next time around, we’ll probably skip the crate and use the porter service instead. In terms of our booth, padded carpet would be nice, and we would definitely get some more storage!

When we decided to do this, we did a ton of online research. While there are many photos of inspiring booths out there, few people described the logistics and challenges of transport, set-up and break-down, which is why I focused on that here. Our hard walls were loosely based on this example [Megan’s Designing an MBA site is full of great tips, including pointers on booth sight lines and collecting business cards, for instance].

Design-wise, we were inspired by the simplicity of this Pigeon Toe Ceramics booth. It seemed like an elegant oasis in an environment that we knew would be visually overwhelming. Many booths were more elaborate than ours, but we wanted to be stream-lined, not gimmicky. A trade show is a huge spectacle, but we feel that our brand never “screams,” which is how we approached designing our booth as well. Ultimately, you have to follow your own brand voice.

Since this was our first time exhibiting at this show [or any trade show], we didn’t really feel pressured to show a lot of brand-new products, but we designed two tea towels specifically for a change of scale in our booth. I think that’s really important when considering your presentation and, in the context of stationery, which was the bulk of Signature Mix, there was a never-ending blur of same-sized rectangles tacked onto walls which made the individual cards difficult to distinguish after a while.

Side note about our personal presentation: this is a fairly casual event, and a suit would seem odd. We decided on a business-casual look — it’s important to be comfortable and, in our case, we also felt that dressing up a bit would give us more poise.

VisuaLingual booth: Maya and Michael

[photo by our neighbor Jen of Plastique and Paper Trail]

Was it worth it? Hard to know! Our focus was on securing wholesale orders for the holidays, most of which won’t be placed until August or September. We were happy to have met tons of retailers who were unfamiliar with our work, and now we need to follow up and stay in touch with everyone as they begin to plan their holiday assortments.

Would we do this show again? Signature Mix is three shows in one: Gift>It, Creative & Lifestyle Arts and the National Stationery Show, which is the largest and best-known of the three. Over all, it seemed that many people were looking for paper products, and ours was one of very few booths that had absolutely none. Our products were well-received, however.

We were really excited to be in #fresh, a juried section for emerging designers, but it was tucked in the back corner. I think our section had some of the coolest products and most interesting booths, but also a few people who didn’t really seem ready. On the one hand, our section was branded as trend-setting but, on the other, we were all lumped together as “newbies.”

From veterans, we heard that this show keeps getting smaller, and that it seemed less well-attended than last year. NY NOW is larger and a more obvious fit for our products, though the retailers who attend may be more likely to already be familiar with us. In general, trade shows seem less critical nowadays, but there’s a lot to be said for meeting people and examining products in person. As an added bonus, retailers who didn’t walk the show were checking out photos online, and we got a few requests for line sheets that way.

If you’re considering exhibiting at Signature Mix or another massive trade show, we hope you’ve found this post helpful. If you had a booth or walked this show, we’d love to hear about your experience!


15 thoughts on “Signature Mix 2014: Anatomy of a Trade Show Booth

  1. Awesome that it went so well – congrats. I would have been eaten alive with stress. Glad to hear you didn’t run into any union troubles.

  2. Aaron, I’d say that we were too stressed out to give ourselves permission to panic — there was so much to figure out and do for the first time that we just had to stay focused and do it. All in all, it was a great experience, and we learned a lot and avoided major problems, so we’re happy with how things went.

    The union limitations make sense, but we’re so used to just rising to any occasion and doing everything ourselves.

  3. Thanks for the inside scoop, you mention a lot of things I wouldn’t consider. Being tucked away in a far corner, is there any way to use scents to lure people in your direction? Subtle but powerful, like your products 🙂

  4. Themodernidiot, that’s interesting! There’s a bazillion-page exhibitors’ manual, but I don’t remember reading anything about using scent. I can imagine it driving one’s neighbors crazy, though!

    I should explain that, though the #fresh section was in the back corner, our booth was toward the inside of that group, so we had an okay location. Plus, I’m really glad that we splurged on a corner booth — we didn’t need a lot of wall space, but we wanted high visibility, which worked out well.

  5. Great recap and tips for newbies, I wish I had this info before building my own booth! I was #1369 in the far back corner. I walked past you a few times but you were with people so I didn’t want to interrupt. Maybe I’ll catch you in person next year? 🙂

  6. Thanks so much! We tried to write the post we wish we had come across a couple of months ago, knowing that everyone’s situation and needs will be different. For us, it was difficult to imagine how all the behind-the-scenes stuff happens — we’d walked shows at Javits but, once we were planning our booth, we just tried to anticipate every worst case scenario possible and figure out a plan of action. It might have been overkill, but at least we didn’t have any surprises!

  7. For having only two months to plan, you executed a badass booth! I plan on blogging the same info but it’s taking me a while because I have so much to write! We could start our own tradeshow boothcamp 😉

  8. Heh, almost! 😉 I can’t wait to read more about your experience! For us, the big trick was prioritizing and making sure that we weren’t biting off more than we could chew, since we didn’t have much time to prepare, it was our first time, and spring is always already very busy for us. Under the circumstances, I think we pulled everything off really well. Next time around, we’ll make sure to give ourselves more time!

  9. Time was the biggest issue for me too, I had no idea what I was doing or how long it would take to check off each item on my list. Now I know the catalogue will take up the majority of the process and to fly in at least a full day before the show starts, lol. D’oh. I’m almost done my part two, thanks for reading and following along!

  10. Queenie, you’re absolutely right! We figured that giving ourselves two full days to set up was most likely overkill, but it gave us a cushion in case something went massively wrong — it didn’t, and we ended up with a bit of time to hang out before the show, which was awesome.

    As for all the print collateral, that was one item on our to-do list, but it took up so much time! We had a few different printed pieces, and all of them had their specific photography and copy-writing needs, plus we decided to start fresh and make everything consistent. The other day, I noticed a typo on one of our pieces. It was so frustrating but, to be perfectly honest, if that’s the only mistake we made, we still did pretty well. The printed materials were a total time-suck for us!

  11. You’re SMART! I shouldn’t have assumed everything would go according to the ideal plan in my mind, lol. Better to be safe than to be stuck at the airport cursing at yourself for cutting it so close! I wish I had spare time before the show started so I could walk the floor a bit and meet everyone I connected with online leading up to this crazy adventure. Well, next time!

    And oh man, tell me about it. Never did I thought creating all of the materials would be such a headache, especially from scratch. Photographing everything consistently was the most challenging. It took me a full month to finish my catalogue because I kept changing the cover and setting up that one shot took a few hours IF the sun was cooperating that day. Time-suck is right! LOL, I told everyone not to tell me if they see mistakes in any of the printed items because I would’ve cried.

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