Posses, Posers, and Pushers – An Entrepreneur’s First Tradeshow

by Julia Kastner

The hardest thing about being the little guy (or girl) at a big, bad trade show is that you have no idea who is who. I went to the MAGIC trade show in Las Vegas – one of the biggest events for fashion and retail in the world. The way I’ve been describing it is that it’s a department store for department stores – a place where buyers for Macy’s, Nordstrom’s, Saks, and thousands of boutiques come to see what brands are offering for the season a year from now - Spring/Summer 2013. As an entrepreneur with no sample (or prototype) yet, I went to observe, learn, find producers for the denim company I am building, and hopefully meet some customers (as per our note on Customer Visits). I wanted to meet some retail buyers who could give me feedback on denim designs I outsourced. I achieved many of my goals, but the buyers proved elusive. These were my observations:
  • People seemed to travel in packs – each company moved in its own little posse – making it hard to introduce myself or start a conversation. 
  • More than half the crowd were trying to sell something – their own products, services, or agenda. As I walked around, I couldn’t pay attention to the actual content of the show because I had to keep deflecting flyers and pamphlets and business cards. Even at my hotel at night, while getting onto the elevator, a fabric supplier from China insisted I take his business card and visit his booth the next day! 
  • Most of all, though, it was impossible to tell who was who. Everyone (and I mean everyone) was hunting for SWAG. Students visiting from a fashion institute were pretending to be buyers just to walk away with a few extra tote bags and cosmetics pouches. The fancier brands, like AG or Seven Jeans or French Connection, had their own VIP areas for buyers with free alcohol – there were crowds outside trying to get past the model/bodyguards outside – probably not the real buyers. They were inside the VIP areas getting sales done. 
So, given this hostile environment, what should an entrepreneur do? These are my main takeaways:
  • First and foremost, have a booth. Even if it’s cheap and tucked in a corner, a booth of any kind is better than nothing, because it makes you an “exhibitor” instead of a nobody. I’d plan to be away from my booth as much as possible to mingle at seminars, etc., but I think having a location written on your business card is invaluable as proof that you matter. 
  • On the note of seminars, I found workshops and speaker panels to be great places to actually mingle. I actually met one potential supplier at a seminar – a session on the future of denim. It was a room full of self-selected people, almost everyone there was either a supplier or a brand like me in the denim space. During the session, one man asked a question and introduced himself as an “organic cotton producer”. It was great – I knew who he was and could easily approach him. Once I had a booth, I would do that too – ask a question while introducing myself.

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