Perspectives of a First-time CHA Exhibitor, David Billings a.k.a. Sparky Firepants
CHA – The Craft and Hobby Association – trade show came to a close on February 1st. This is one of the four shows that has a section specifically created for artists who license their work. Fellow Portland artist, David Billings, exhibited for the first time this year and I asked if he’d share his perspectives on the show. Here is what he had to say… I think this will be helpful for any artist exhibiting at any show. Great information about how he got ready to exhibit and his experiences at the show. This is proof that art licensing takes time, dedication and a bit of homework to hit the ground running! Thank you David for this great information!
Perspectives of a First-time CHA Exhibitor
As I packed up my table, I reflected on what a great show it had been…
Wait. I should back up.
As I set up my table, I had high hopes that I would…
Oh. Sorry. I need to back up a little more. In fact, I’d like to go back to May of 2009 when I walked the floor of SURTEX. This is important, because all the work I did beforehand set the stage for exhibiting at the CHA Winter Trade Show, my first.
The Back Story
Last year I walked the SURTEX floor for three days, absorbing all the pretty colors and drinking gallons of coffee. More importantly, I paid attention to how it all worked. I observed how artists designed their booths and how they presented themselves. I watched the flow of traffic and tried to see what booths visitors were attracted to and how they spent their time with the artists.
Here are a few key notes I made to myself:
- Dude. Don’t eat in your booth.
- Don’t have your head buried in a book or laptop, but don’t give people the fish-eye.
- Show the art! Big, bold, clean. Easy to see style at a glance.
I made many more notes, but these were the biggies that I carried with me to my own table at the CHA Trade Show. We’ll see if I followed my own advice a little later.
At the end of last year, I reread Tara Reed’s ebook “How to Find and Work with Manufacturers.” I looked into more shows and found the CHA show, which I noticed was coming up fast. I took a plunge and decided to get a table at the Winter show.
Okay. That sounds super easy, like it took 5 minutes to decide. It didn’t. It was important for me to look at my budget and plans for 2011 very closely before deciding if it was the right decision.
Some factors I considered were:
- I’m already planning the Expo in June. Will this show get in the way of those plans?
- Do I need a whole booth at CHA? Can I afford that with a comfortable margin?
- Who will I meet at the CHA show? Is this truly my audience?
- What do I expect to get out of this show?
- Can I afford this travel right now?
- I’ll have to drop everything and start prepping now. Will my clients still be handled?
- How long will it take me to walk to Los Angeles? Can I survive without food for three days?
Just kidding on that last one. Wanted to see if you were paying attention. I flew and ate, of course.
You can probably guess that the answer to most of those was “yes,” because I did the show. One thing I did was opt for a table rather than a whole booth. Why? It has to do with what I expected to get out of this show.
First, I saw this as an opportunity to do a trial run for the Licensing International Expo, where I’ll be exhibiting in June. That doesn’t mean that I could half-ass my prep or presence at the CHA show. It means that I had an opportunity to test some marketing ideas and get a feel for what standing behind a table for four days would really be like. Walking a show is very different from being “on” eight hours a day.
I also expected that I would not be signing contracts at the show. This isn’t pessimistic, it’s realistic. My sales philosophy can be summed up in two words: creating relationships.
This is how I’ve run my business since I started. It’s a little like dating. Sometimes it takes a lot of chatting before you even go to dinner. If you whip out an engagement ring when you meet, you’ll freak them out.
I narrowed down my expectations to simply meeting art directors and manufacturers and letting them walk away with a good impression of my company. This really helped me chill out and I think I appeared very natural and relaxed at the show.
As little time as I had, I did a lot of prep for this show. I took advantage of all the marketing and contact opportunities that the CHA people made available. I also created a few of my own. My mission here was to simply get the word out. I wanted the right people to know I would be there, because nobody knew or cared who I was until I told them. I also looked to another art licensor, Khristian Howell. Her Showstopper program helped me through a lot of this. Between Tara Reed and Khristian, I was steeped in a ginormous cup of information tea.
Here are some things I did to get the word out in a short time:
- Looked at the list of attendees and researched all of them. Many were not suited to my style of art, but this was valuable to know. No wasted effort!
- Handcrafted and mailed invitations to select art directors I knew would be at the show, who I really wanted to meet.
- Used the CHA Showbiz Connections system to contact manufacturers directly.
- Wrote a few blog posts where I mentioned the show. I also put banners up all over my site, telling visitors I would be exhibiting.
- Sent out a press release to announce that I would be exhibiting.
- Created a Valentine’s Day contest to promote my show presence and get traffic to my site in a relevant way.
- Kept talking about the show on social media sites I frequent. Not everyone cared about the show itself, but all my contacts knew I was going and supported me.
For my table at the show, I created the best display I possibly could. The idea was to attract attention, to get visitors to my table. Once there, they could explore a little more and look at my catalog. People aren’t spending hours at a booth or table. They’re busy and have their own agendas. So everything I created served to communicate what I’m about and what kind of art I produce at a glance.
And of course, I created take-aways like business cards, as well as a couple methods of collecting contact information from interested people.
Showtime at the LCC
I know. At this point you’re dying to know how this all played out in real life.
The License & Design section was on a lower level from the main show. So we didn’t get the hordes of traffic that booths on the main floor like DCWV or EK Success Brands got. This was to be expected, because the bulk of attendees were either retailers or crafters. Those people had no interest in buying or licensing art.
The good news here is that it was easy to spot the people who were in a position or had a need for art. Many of them came directly to my table, either from one of my prior marketing activities or just because they were attracted by my display.
The people who walked by with a scrunched-up face, mouthing, “Sparky… Firepants??!” were clearly not interested in my art or not buying art at all. Either way, I didn’t worry about them at all.
The people who did visit my table got my full attention. Even if I was playing it relaxed, inside I was totally “on,” tuned into the conversation. I didn’t miss a word. Again, my intent was not to wrestle a contract out of every art buyer. I asked questions, learned about their company and their needs. I gladly led interested buyers through my catalog and answered questions, but no pressure. Think cocktail party rather than Marrakesh street fair.
As soon as they left the booth, I whipped out my pad and jotted notes. This was invaluable later as I entered leads into my database. With the long, full days I sometimes had trouble remembering who wanted what and where they were from.
I also made friends with the other exhibitors around me. We all had very different art styles. Rather than set ourselves up as competitors, we helped each other out by watching a booth during bathroom breaks or steering relevant buyers to someone we thought was a good fit.
Even with all my prep, there were art buyers I invited who didn’t come to my table. The reason was simple. They were busy working their own booths, talking to retailers about their products. Rather than get offended or hurt, I decided to bring the Firepants to them.
I had to be careful here, because I didn’t want to get in the way of their sales flow, just as I wouldn’t want vendors hogging my time at my table. My approach was simple: just stop and say hello. This was a new thing for me. I am not a born salesman or networking type dude, so I was nervous. I think I circled some booths more than a few times, getting my courage up. But it went very well. I ended up having some great, no-pressure conversations and I think I left a good impression. Mission accomplished.
A few good mistakes
Of course I made some. But only good ones. Here are some things I will do differently next time:
- Print more brochures and press kits
- Bring more business cards (I blew through 200 before the last day)
- Better shoes (maybe converse shouldn’t be my shtick)
- Hire or entice someone to work the booth with me
Okay, so I bent a couple of my own rules. For instance, I ate in my booth a couple times when traffic was slow or non-existent. I made sure I took tiny bites of a Cliff bar instead of filling my face with a forkful of saucy pasta. I rationalized that it was better to be chewing a small snack than to be passed out cold on the floor. Next time if I have someone with me in my booth, I’ll go somewhere else to eat.
I also used my laptop a few times to connect with art directors and handle some trade show business. I just made sure I was ready to close it and smile when someone approached.
I hope by now you can guess that the CHA show was a huge success for me. I connected with some great buyers who I never could have by sitting in my studio. The internet is handy, but it can’t replace being there in person.
So far, those people have a positive impression of Sparky Firepants. From here, it’s about following up and continuing to create those relationships that will hopefully turn into business at some point.
Even though I didn’t expect to land a contract at the show, I did get one after doing my post-show follow-ups. At this writing we’re still negotiating, but I feel like my hard prep work and relaxed, yet attentive attitude paid off.
Now it’s time to turn my focus to the June Expo. I’ll be bringing these new lessons with me. Hmmm. I may need a bigger bag.
David Billings is the creative brain behind Sparky Firepants.
Over the past ten years, David’s illustration work has appeared in Highlights High Five magazine, The Electric Company, Blue’s Clues, language textbooks, e-learning kits, and children’s products sold in stores all over the U.S. His work has won several awards, including a Daytime Emmy nomination for his work at Nickelodeon.
He lives near Portland, Oregon with his wife, three children and 50 alpacas. Learn more on his website: http://sparkyfirepants.com
Thanks again David! Always fun to read and lots to learn from any of your blog posts.
– Tara Reed
P.S. If you are getting ready or considering exhibiting at an art licensing trade show, hop on over to http://artlicensinginfo.com/shows.html and see all the info and resource choices to help you make the most of your investment.