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Was exhibiting at Surtex 2023 worth it ?

Are you a surface designer considering exhibiting at Surtex in 2024? Information on trade shows can be hard to come by. Especially if you are looking for some honest opinions. That's why I wanted to write this blog post so badly! Because I myself didn't find the infos I was looking for.


I have also reached out to some of my artist friends and contacts and I will turn this into a series of interviews. This way you'll hopefully get a better insight into the industry. So keep your eyes out for those interview-style blog posts!


But for now, let's jump in and read on about my own experience exhibiting at Surtex, New York, in May of 2023!


 

Which Trade Show did you attend?

Surtex 2023, New York, USA



What’s the show's main focus or theme?

Surtex is a Trade Show for designers and art buyers. Attendees come to the show to look for new talent and visit artists they have previously worked with to look for new artwork to license. The exhibiting designers design for many different categories, such as bolt fabric, home decor, stationery and more.



In what role did you attend the show?

Exhibitor


exhibiting at Surtex 2023; Trade show for surface designers in New York

Me and my booth buddy Tawn ready to set up my booth



Why did you decide to participate?

I have been to another trade show before, but didn't gain much from it. My style was very out of place there, because the show mainly focused on fabrics and home decor geared towards a sophisticated, elegant and timeless market. Whenever I saw pictures of exhibitor booths at Surtex I knew I wanted to exhibit one day. And I had heard from designers and their success stories. It felt like a step in the right direction for my business to do it now and see where it would lead me. My main goal was to leave with plenty of leads and contacts to companies I wouldn't get otherwise.



What did you gain from participating?

First of all, I finally met my accountability partner Tawn in person for the first time. We started meeting regularly about 2,5 years ago, but we live too far away from each other to meet up locally (She is from Canada and I'm from Austria). She flew over to be my booth buddy during the show. I honestly didn't expect it would make such a difference having her there, because I am usually by myself at shows and markets and can manage just fine. But having her by my side made a big difference and the whole experience was something else entirely. She was the one taking down notes while I could concentrate on talking to clients and getting to know them better. She also calmed my nerves when needed and helped me set up my booth the day before the show.


Me and Tawn from Tawnart sitting in my booth at Surtex 2023

Tawn from Tawnart, who joined me at Surtex as my booth buddy



Another thing I gained was a number of leads to various companies. Usually, when you reach out to companies by yourself, you never know if they are actually looking for new designers or if they can envision your artwork on their products. But whenever someone stops at your booth, you know it's because of your artwork! So I believe the leads I generated are of great quality and might lead to a collaboration down the line.


I also gained insights from talking to other designers. Some of them stopped at my booth, others talked to me while I walked the show and others were neighbouring exhibitors. It's amazing how freely some artists share their knowledge with others. I've also experienced this at another show, not just at Surtex! It was also great fun to spend time with them (That's actually one reason why I wanted to give something back and offered to take some pictures for them, as I had my DSLR camera with me).



How did you prepare for the show?

I knew that prep work would take up a lot of my time (because I've done it before), but I didn't expect it to be that time-consuming! I stopped accepting any new client work in the months leading up to Surtex. My main goal was to make the best possible version out of my portfolio, which meant re-working existing pieces and creating new artwork alike. I also knew I had to fill in some category gaps. I just wanted to get myself to the best possible starting point and show myself and my work from its best side.


my banners and booth setup, mocked up for Surtex 2023

Booth mockup



Figuring out how to design my booth was a task I kept pushing until I couldn't anymore. The deadline for sending my banners to the printer came closer and closer, so I had to decide on a booth layout. I didn't just have to decide on the right artwork to draw in possible clients, but also make sure I could bring everything to the show. I was flying in from Austria and all my booth stuff had to fit in one large suitcase. So I had to consider size and weight. It got even more complicated, because our first flight was from Austria to Ireland, which allowed a maximum of 20kg, but Ireland to New York allowed me to bring a 23kg bag. This made me lose out on 3 whole kilos! Also, each booth panel was 100cm wide, but my suitcase could only fit banners with a maximum width of 75cm. This meant, my banners would be narrower than the panels and I had to figure out a layout that would work for my designs and the size restriction. Luckily, the booth’s back panels had only little gaps in between them and no protruding elements.


sitting in my booth at Surtex 2023, after setup is complete

Everything is set up for the show!



And because the show was in the US, my fiancé and I had to get our ESTA sorted and check for any regulations (there were still some Covid-related measures in place).



What's your must-have to bring to a show?

For me it is foods and drinks I can eat easily, which are filling and not at all messy! Markets and shows can get very busy and I usually don't want to step away from my booth in case an attendee stops by. This can happen at any time and I don't want to have half a burger still in my hands with grease dripping down my elbows. So usually I bring light snacks like small pretzels and milk. It's easy to eat and it fills you up until after the show.


Another must-bring is garbage bags. They have bins at the location, but they are usually inconveniently far away from you to use for small bits and pieces. Having your own garbage bags just helps keep your space tidy and clean and makes me calmer having the backside of my booth sorted - even if it's just me seeing it.



Did you notice any trends at the show?

I walked the show once very briefly, so I didn't have enough time to look at everyone's artwork in detail. I only got to see the designer's style and choice of media and subject matter, rather than individual pieces.


Showing my crab pattern and other designs and  illustrations to attandees and possible clients at Surtex 2023

Showing my patterns and illustrations to attandees and possible clients



Have there been any challenges you had to overcome?

While in planning mode I am very meticulous. Sadly, I can't say the same about the organizers of the show. Some of the information came quite late or I had to ask them myself (Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten the info at all). We were sent various booth layouts with mismatching sizes or informing us of changes per mail. I needed the measurements as precise as possible for printing my banners. I didn't want to end up with weird gaps or overlapping designs. I wasn't just flying in from Austria, my fiancé and I also flew in early for a one-week holiday. Their communication was one of the most stressful things about planning for the show, to be honest.


They also sent out an invitation to submit items to their 100 VIP gift bags. They sent out this information on the 18th of April (with the deadline being 10 days later). The deadline was the day after leaving for our holiday, so I knew I had to bring 100 items and there was a chance of me not even being selected to participate. In the end it all worked out, but it stressed me out so much! And because I had a weight limit, I didn't want to bring any unnecessary goods.



How much did you invest?

I anticipated to spend 5.650$ and it ended up being 6.115$ in total. To be honest, I'm surprised how close I am to my initial calculation! Here's how I spent the money:

1. Booth Fee: 3.910$ (I had picked the 6x10 booth - or 1,8x3m)

2. Booth Insurance: 63$

3. Printed Materials: 640$ (Portfolio: 84$, Banners: 336$, Business Cards: 60$, Promo Cards: 70$, Give-Aways: 90$)

4. Accommodation: 352$ (my share was 88$ a night for 4 nights – only a 5-minute walk away from the show!)

5. Transportation: 940$ (Flights from Vienna to New York via Dublin - and back)

6. Miscellaneous: 210$ (Internet access, food, booth candy and a candy bowl)


I already had a few displays, intake forms and invoices from a previous show. I also brought products from my own product line, which meant I could save a few bucks here and there.


Whale shark pouches from my product line MilkyRosa Collection , presented at my booth at Surtex 2023 for companies and wholesalers


What's your résumé of the show?

I had heard from other designers who had exhibited before, that they left the show with a lot of new leads. So I was a bit disappointed that my number wasn't close to the 30-50 other people had talked about. I left the show with 14 new leads. One of them was an agency and one a manufacturer who tried to sell me on their products. But I still believe the quality of my contacts is promising. The show was a bit over two months ago now and I have followed up with my leads once and need to follow up again soon. So far I've got some positive responses back and I'm currently preparing to submit new artwork for one of my leads in a few days. They reached out to me, sharing they want to work with me. They sent me some current mood boards and want me to show them any artwork that fits those themes. We'll see how it goes, but there's definitely some traction coming my way.


After Surtex, I also saw an increase in followers on my Instagram page and subscribers to my newsletter. It's hard to say if this is really show-related though, as other things happened simultaneously.



Are you considering attending again?

The show was much slower than anticipated and other designers reached out to me afterwards and told me, they wouldn't attend again next year because of this. The show organizers also shared their price list for 2024 and they increased the prices again - without extending the duration of the show. Personally, I felt like two days was very short and not enough time.


My main reason to not attend next year though is, first and foremost, funds. Having to spend 6k on a show like this ate up a good chunk of my business savings, which I need to earn back first before considering exhibiting again. It is hard to say at this particular time if it was worth it, because it can take months or years until a lead turns into a client. So for now I'll nurture my new contacts and reach out to more companies myself.


Showing my pattern and illustration portfolio to companies, attandees and possible clients

Showing my patterns and illustrations to attandees and possible clients



Anything else you want to share?

Overall, it’s a dream come true, even though it didn't turn out exactly as expected. But I would have regretted not exhibiting, because I would have kept thinking about the what-ifs. This way I can say I gave it a shot and maybe, looking back on the situation in a few months or years, I can tell a different story.


Nevertheless, I had a great time with my booth buddy Tawn and other designers and I got to see the beautiful city of New York with my fiancé. Running a business, we all have to make decisions without knowing if they are worth it. Exhibiting at Surtex was an experience and one step in my business journey which no one can take away from me. And I am proud of myself for taking action and working towards my goal of running my dream business.


 

I am Nina, founder and creative director of Upper Austrian design agency MilkyRosa

Written by Nina Schindlinger


Hi, I am Nina - the founder and creative director of MilkyRosa Design Agency. I specialise in branding and product design for companies that are young-at-heart. My design style is bold, playful and charming, which I use to make the world a little bit more colouful and to make your company tangible for your customers and create an experience they will remember.



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