We recently returned from the Chicago Gift & Home Show, a trade show for retail buyers to come and stock their stores. I’d like to say that we signed an account with Marshall Field’s and will be appearing on Oprah in May. To be honest, it was quite a brutal and depressing experience. Perhaps some background on the overall trade show experience is in order: The tiny 10×10 space is extremely expensive, and for a small, young business, it is quite an extensive investment. Most established manufacturers are happy to break even on a show, using it to connect with customers, find new ones, and plan to make money on reorders throughout the year. A company like ours is up against giants like Ty, Lang, and The Virginia Candle Company. They spend millions on their trade shows, and usually have no less than six 10×10 spaces. I remember the first show we did last January was so intimidating. Such a huge investment; such a leap of faith. The show was so overwhelming, much of it was spent wondering if we even belonged there and if we stuck out like a sore thumb. It didn’t take long for us to believe that we were supposed to be there, and many veterans were blown away when they heard it was our first show. They said we carried ourselves with the professionalism of a established, um, pro. We didn’t break even, but we landed some great accounts which attributed to a big chunk of our annual revenue. July’s show was a bit slower, but still produced some highlights. This show was also slow, as we verified from other exhibitors with a long history in the trade show scene. Anyone who has had to staff a trade show knows how exhausting they are. You’re on your feet for most, if not all, of a nine hour day. But for me, the worst part of it is the grueling mental anguish. As buyers walk by, some of them not even acknowledging your presence, your mind starts to race. Why aren’t they stopping? Do they hate us? Do they even understand what it is we’re selling? Did they just have a chili dog and are in search of the facilities? If the slow pace continues, you start to question everything about your booth and yourself. Is our booth too complicated? Too plain? Should the prints be moved? Am I blocking the sign? Should I sit, or should I stand? Is it bad to have my hands in my pocket? Should we buy more advertising next time? Should we get a bigger booth? Should we ever do another trade show again? Should we throw in the towel? Should I offer to work as a sales rep for Ty, and at least have something to do? Is it socially acceptable to tackle people in the aisle just so I can explain for ten seconds what were all about? And on and on and on… From a sales perspective, I wish we would’ve done much, much better. But there were buyers who were very interested and went home raving abut our stuff and our catalog. It’s now our job to follow up and see if we can establish a nice long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationship with them. We’ve received several genuine notes of praise from industry experts, who acknowledge the extreme quality and uniqueness of our product. And considering this is only our third trade show, we’ve developed some pretty strong bonds with other exhibitors. Everyone knows how hard the shows can be, and we all share a common disdain for them. And it is really hard to put a value on the network that we’re a part of and the information we continue to gain. So it was the toughest show yet; one that had me questioning my sanity once again. More than once did I consider stapling my head to the carpet just to see if it would draw attention. But my faith is strong, and I believe God had us there for a reason. There were some key marketing ideas I’ve come away with, and I’ve been hashing them out ever since. Bret Nicholaus and Paul Lowrie, the best-selling authors of The Conversation Piece and The Christmas Letters, offered us some valuable advice throughout the show. I told Bret how much I appreciated his insight, and he said, “Sometimes a particular show doesn’t go very well, but something you learn there may end up making a big enough difference that in a year or two, you can look back and realize that it paid for the show.” I have a feeling that those words will end up proving to be very prophetic. Until then, we push forward, and stay clear of staplers.