Interview with Surtex Manager Penny Sikalis

d sBy Carolyn Edlund

Penny Sikalis, manager of the art licensing show Surtex in New York City reveals what artists need to know about exhibiting.


Floor of the Surtex Trade Show in NYC. Learn more about art licensing at

The Surtex art licensing trade show takes place in New York City.


Surtex, the “marketplace for original Art and Design” is a major art licensing trade show which takes place in New York City every May. Show manager Penny Sikalis graciously agreed to an exclusive interview, which ranges in topic from trends to marketing to what a new exhibitor can expect. Could this be a good trade show for your career?

AS: We know that today the economy is really tough and going to a trade show is very expensive. Artists also have a much bigger presence online where they can attract business. Why should they come to a trade show?

PS: Many reasons – one, it’s the only venue where they can actually physically present themselves to a multitude of professionals in the industry, all prospective clients of theirs – manufacturers from all over the country in all different product categories. It’s a face-to-face venue which is quite different from all of the online venues that are in existence today. So there is a huge benefit for them to be physically present, to meet face to face, and show their artwork to thousands of manufacturers in three short days.

AS: Who do you think would be an ideal candidate to come to your shows as an exhibitor?

PS: There are many ideal candidates, per se. The show is filled with artists, designers, licensing agents, and design studios. The latter two represent a number of different artists, designers, brands, properties – they are all ideal for being here. They can all expand their businesses here as they are able to meet with potential clients,  nurture relationships with existing clients and also get a real sense of what is going on in the industry to stay on top of trends and industry issues. There is so much that people can do at Surtex.  Manufacturers, retailers, and product developers come to Surtex to find a real diversity of art – cutting edge art. They want to find the latest and the best surface designs that are going to make their products very special and sell off the shelves.

AS: It sounds as if someone coming here as an exhibitor is connecting with a lot of different people.

PS: They are connecting with every aspect of the industry, exactly. Retailers are doing more of their own product development, so we have found over the last several years that there is an increase in retail attendance at Surtex. Those retailers are looking to buy or to license artwork as well.

AS:  In your opinion, for new artists coming to Surtex, what would be a reasonable expectation for results?

PS: It really depends on the individual, and how far along they are in their business, what their business plan is, and what their goals are for their business. For somebody new to the licensing industry, someone new in business in general, their expectations need to be realistic their first time here. It will be very much a learning experience, as they are meeting a variety of people and understanding how the industry works.

We would encourage them to take classes throughout the three days. We offer a fabulous conference program. For anybody who is new in the business, I would encourage them to do a lot of homework beforehand, so that they know what to expect, but then also once they get here, they will continue learning. They will make a lot of contacts. They will likely not close any deals, but if they do, that is terrific. It will be more of an exploratory “learn and see, get your foot in the door, get lots of leads and follow up.”

AS:  So it takes some time to get traction at these shows. I’m sure part of that is that they need to be credible, that they have to have been “seen”. Would it be reasonable to say that you need to come to the show two or three time?

PS: Absolutely. We generally say it takes about three showings to become credible, to really know what you are doing with your business and how to establish yourself within the industry. The second year the expectations will be different and the results will be different. The third year, the results will be much better as well.

AS: You talked about people doing their homework. What would you suggest that an exhibitor do as pre-show activity so that they can get the most from Surtex?

PS: There is a lot that they can do, and a lot that we offer them so that they can be best prepared for the show.  I think they need to read trade publications, whether they are printed or digital. It’s very important to get an understanding of what’s going on in the industry and also look at the various videos and other media that give a bit of a sense of what Surtex is like, so that they are not walking in without having a good idea of it. We also offer webinars for all of our exhibitors before the show. The webinars start from the very basic “OK, you’re in the show now, here’s a primer on licensing, let’s make sure you understand all of the steps.”

We also offer webinars on marketing and how to promote yourself through your own types of marketing vehicles as well as those that we offer at the show. And we have several logistic, more operational webinars as well so that people know what to expect, how to set up their booth, how to send their materials here, when they should be here, etc. Also one thing we do is we calm people down. Everybody is very nervous and excited about their first showing. We give them as much information as possible so that they can be prepared.

AS:  Are you seeing any changes in the makeup of the buyers who are coming to the show?  You mentioned retailers. And what about attendance, how has that been affected recently?

PS: For this show in 2011 we are anticipating a very strong show. The economy is turning around, and there is more excitement and more interest and more positive feedback that we are hearing from our customers, exhibitors as well as from attendees. Manufacturers are looking for new art.  They need new art to put out there to get the consumer excited and meet consumer demand. Yes, the last few years have been tough for everybody. Product did not sell through as well at retail, which did impact those folks who are licensing their products. Those royalty checks weren’t coming in as quickly as they had been.  This past year, things have definitely turned around, and from all indications are moving forward. There is a lot of activity right now taking place in this art and design community. That bodes well for manufacturers as well as all of Surtex exhibitors.

AS:  Could you tell us about any design trends that are coming in right now?

PS: What you are seeing on the floor at Surtex is a very big picture of what is trending. These people are ahead of the product curve. They are helping develop products, so what’s here on the floor is what you will see at retail in another year. What I’m seeing is fresher colors, unique combinations of colors, more graphic designs. Slightly less on the floral side. Some bold geometrics. There really is a variety of styles. I think that is what makes the mix of exhibitors here so unique – that there is something here for everybody, and for every product category.

AS:  If you were a buyer walking the show today, what would you like from exhibitors? What would make it easy for the buyer to say “yes”?

PS: Exhibitors need to be cognizant of how their designs will be interpreted on a finished product, and when walking the floor, you will see that some exhibitors actually take that to heart. They will present their designs on mocked-up product, or they will show illustrations of their design on product. So they are not only showing a flat piece of art or surface design, but they take that surface design and engineer it for specific end uses. I think that becomes very helpful for buyers so that they can visualize how that design will appear on their product. Some exhibitors bring in their “past successes” and actually show the finished product. They show what they have been able to do and how their product lines have been successful for manufacturers and retailers.

AS:  Do you have big plans for the future? Where do you think your show is going?

PS: It’s something we are always thinking about – how we can enhance the show and meet the needs of the market. We pay very close attention to what is going on in the industry. We have an advisory board that’s comprised of both exhibitors and attendees. And since we hear their thoughts, we really know where the market is going. We’re developing plans for next year, and expect the show to continue growing. Another indication as to where the economy is – last year we had 225 exhibiting companies. This year our show floor has 277 exhibiting companies. That’s an increase of 23%, so it’s quite nice to see that business is starting to thrive again. I think it will continue. I think we will bring more and more talented artists and designers and there will be more and more surface design on all kinds of products going forward.


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