As a small business owner and sewing and quilting hobbyist, I’m constantly bombarded—and tempted—by promotions for trade shows and conferences. There’s no shortage of them: the CIA resource published in the June 7 issue shows 26 events for the second half of 2016 and 2017. I could easily spend all of my business income attending just the seven or eight shows relevant to my niche! This begs the question: is attending conferences and shows a worthwhile addition to a business budget? And how should a craft business owner determine which shows to attend?
Photo by Kristen Link
Find Your Place and Form Your Purpose
This is old news for regular show attendees, but it’s worth a review: not all shows and conferences are the same. They each cater to different audiences, and if you end up at a show that doesn’t benefit you as an audience member (or as a vendor), you’ll be kicking yourself. Here’s a basic breakdown:
- Trade shows are open only to professional attendees; the general public is not allowed to attend. Popular craft trade shows include Quilt Market, Surtex, Creativation (formerly the CHA Mega Show), and NYNOW.
- Consumer shows are open to the public. Rather than marketing to businesses and buyers, these shows target hobbyists directly to offer demonstrations, promotions, and products for sale. Quilt Festival, Quilt! Knit! Stitch!, the Interweave Yarn Fest, and many others fall under this category.
- Conferences can cater to both industry professionals and consumers, but they always offer an educational component with workshops and lectures by industry leaders. QuiltCon is a good example of a consumer conference; it centers on classes and lectures but also offers a quilt show and a small consumer show. SewPro and Craftcation are popular conferences targeted to new and established industry members.
Once you know your options, ask yourself what you want to accomplish as a result of attending a show. Do you want to drum up some excitement among hobbyists for a new line or product? A consumer show is your place to be. Are you looking to buy or sell at wholesale, network with other businesses, or get your product into distribution? Then a trade show might be the right fit for you. Are you hoping to learn how to grow your business, enter into the industry, or make new contacts? Consider attending a conference.
Cotton & Steel team filming at Quilt Market.
Photo by Kristin Link
“It takes time to build genuine relationships, but I’ve found that it pays off tremendously in the end.” — Christa Watson
As a freelance writer and editor, it doesn’t make sense for me to attend consumer shows. My clients are publishers and independent businesses needing assistance with marketing, copywriting, and pattern editing. Trade shows are a better bet for me: at Quilt Market, I’ve networked with indie publishers and authors, small businesses looking for website copy, large businesses wanting to develop blogs and marketing materials, and editorial departments for large craft publishers. The people I need to meet are there, and I’m able to get my name out much more efficiently.
And of course there’s always overlap between education, promotion, and networking. Trade shows often offer classes and lectures targeted to business owners, and even business conferences tend to understand and celebrate the fact that we’re a creative industry.
Choosing an event that offers this sort of overlap can be a way to accomplish multiple objectives. Craftcation instructor Kim Werker describes the event as different from any other conference. “It offers both business workshops, panels, and lectures, and also crafty workshops. The organizers created the conference to be like a vacation for your business, and I think they pretty much nail it.”
CIA member Stephanie Capps Dyke found similar value in SewPro’s tighter focus: “It [was] a really unique event that was especially valuable for quilters and sewists…. The smaller class sizes and our ability to network—not only with the industry rock stars who taught our classes, but also with each other—was priceless.”
In January, CIA co-founders Kristin Link and Abby Glassenberg will travel to Creativation, a trade show presented by the Craft and Hobby Association. This year’s focus will be fabric and embroidery, an expansion of a show that has traditionally centered on paper crafts. The event will feature many classes, lectures, networking opportunities, hands-on workshops, and more. I’m very interested to see what they find.
Make the Most of Your Time
While two or three full days might seem like plenty of time to network and learn, it moves quickly! I’ve often forgotten to eat lunch because I was hustling up and down the show floor instead, trying to get from one meeting to the next. Once your trip is booked, here are some tips to help you fit it all in.
- Get a copy of the show program. Shows like Quilt Market, QuiltCon, and Creativation make their programs available as downloads ahead of time. These programs feature a full list of exhibitors, a schedule of classes for attendees, recommended restaurants or attractions in the area, and more.
- Set appointments. Rather than dropping in cold on booth exhibitors, scan through the program and identify the companies you want to meet. Send them e-mails or call ahead of time to find out who from the business will be at the show, and then e-mail that person directly to set up a meeting. Even if you don’t have a dedicated appointment, knowing the right person to talk to can make a difference.
Bari J demonstrating her techniques at Quilt Market.
Photo by Kristin Link
- Come prepared. Bring many more business cards than you think you’ll need, and trade them at every opportunity. Many attendees have gotten in on swapping pins or other swag, which is a fun way to get your name out there. Since I’m an editor, I hand out red pens printed with my logo. Spend a few minutes ahead of time putting together your 10-second elevator speech about what you do and how you might work with different types of businesses.
- Leave enough free time. Trade shows and conferences are a lot of fun, but too much engagement can be exhausting. Leave plenty of time to rest your feet, catch up with friends, explore, eat good meals, and get enough sleep. (Take it from someone who doesn’t follow her own advice and ends up exhausted and sick for a week after every show!) Plus, leaving free time can be helpful if you need to schedule some last-minute meetings.
- Explore other networking opportunities. Some of the best events I’ve attended at shows (including the CIA meet-up at Spring Quilt Market in Salt Lake City) weren’t put on by the show at all. See if any organizations you’re in are planning any mixers. These can be especially productive if you’re looking to connect with a specific subgroup of show attendees.
- Follow up. Once you’re back on your feet after the show, dig out the cards you’ve collected and send emails to get the ball rolling on business relationships. I try to do this within a week so that my contacts will remember me, but also so that they’ll know that I value communication and follow through on commitments. If you don’t hear anything back from a contact, send another follow-up a week or so later. Friendly persistence is fine; if any contacts don’t want to engage further, they’ll let you know.
I found that networking became a resounding theme with the industry members I interviewed for this article. Building relationships is an essential function of any event, and one that seems to be almost as important as a show’s “official” content. Especially in the craft industry, there is such interdependence and collaboration that forging connections is a fundamental aspect of doing business. As pattern designer and author Christa Watson explains, “Many of the opportunities I’ve been given in my niche have come as a direct result of meeting someone at one industry event, connecting with them at another, and having a longer conversation with them the next time around. It takes time to build genuine relationships, but I’ve found that it pays off tremendously in the end.”
Lauren is a freelance editor, writer, and recovering college English instructor living in Boulder, Colorado. Her business, Wordcraft, provides copyediting and writing services to the handmade industry. When she’s not saving the world one comma splice at a time, Lauren also blogs about quilting and sewing at Right Sides Together.