Missed Opportunities

by Carolyn Edlund

Are you making the most of your trade show experience by engaging with your audience, or are you missing out?



This past spring, I had the opportunity to walk a wholesale trade show at New York City’s Javits Center. The show was pretty quiet while I was there. I looked forward to meeting artists and designers, learning about their work, and getting business cards. As readers know, I profile artists frequently on my blog. This often leads to publicity, more connections and sales for those artists – which is one of the reasons they are written.

Wearing a press badge, I slowly walked through the show checking out the trade show booths. Frequently I would stop in front of a booth to check out the artist’s line. And the artist — well, far too often, they were looking the other way. No one was in their booth, but they would not make eye contact.

As an experiment, sometimes I would enter the booth if it was empty, and take a look at their line, waiting for them to make a move. One young man, a new exhibitor, could barely speak to me, even though I specifically asked him about his extremely cool furniture designs made from unusual materials.

Was this the way he interacted with buyers? How many opportunities had he missed? Why did he spend so much money to attend a trade show when he couldn’t adequately speak about his work, let alone sell it?

In contrast, there were professionals in other booths who relished meeting new visitors. They smiled, shook my hand and knew what they were going to talk about. I wasn’t getting the hard sell, just an invitation to come in and check out their line. They presented their products in an interesting way. And they were versatile enough to talk about any aspect of their business – or mine.

Having been an exhibitor myself at too many shows to count, I understand the anxiety in approaching potential customers. Perhaps what you don’t know, though, is that it makes visitors more uncomfortable dealing with your projected anxiety than if you spoke to them despite your hesitancy.

Avoiding eye contact or ignoring booth visitors is about the worst mistake you can make at a show. The more you fail to greet visitors and speak to them, the more empty and lonely your booth will be. It feels terrible, feeds on itself, and makes for lots of missed opportunities.

I won’t be writing any more about that anonymous young designer with the unusual furniture designs. There is no story except for this unfortunate one. I got materials from and connections with fascinating artists who want to tell their story, and I will help them to do so.

Does this situation sound familiar? Have you felt overwhelmed and stressed out when meeting potential buyers? Do you try to become invisible or even hide yourself in a book? Next time, resolve to make eye contact. Take that chance. Don’t miss the opportunity. You may never know where it could lead.


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  1. I noticed the same, at a recent art fair. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t pursued art fairs for myself: I would find it difficult. There’s clearly a lot of interpersonal skill involved in engaging with people; other booths went too far in the other direction, talking on & on about subjects I hadn’t asked about. Focusing on the opportunity is a great way to present this. I’ll keep that in mind during openings & receptions, where it also applies, just for fewer hours in a row!

    • You are right, Liz. There are definitely interpersonal (and sales) skills involved in speaking with prospective customers, but it can be learned. It was easy to spot the professional salespeople at the trade show; they were easy to speak with … but, on the other hand, sometimes you can feel snowed by too aggressive of an approach. It’s finding that happy medium that works best.

  2. Bravo, Carolyn! I will be addressing this issue on my blog at some point as well. I frequently visit art fairs and gallery shows, and love meeting new artists and seeing new work. I am always thrilled to connect with an artist and take time to help them promote their work.

    But this is a two way street! I cannot tell you how dumbfounded I continue to be when I approach an artist to compliment their pieces and can’t even get a “Thank You,” or when an artist can’t get up out of their seat to engage in a conversation when I’ve asked about their work. I occasionally have the same problem Liz mentioned, where the exhibitor goes on and on about a topic I haven’t even asked about.

    Simple social skills really aren’t that hard to develop. You don’t need to have a savvy sales pitch, just be open and friendly. Artist’s can be unconventional, but they aren’t exempt from these common courtesies.

    I appreciate this article and will link to it when I write mine!

    • Thanks, Erin! I appreciate that …
      I agree that social skills are pretty basic, but there actually is a method to making connections with prospects which is a sales technique. Followed by other steps in the process, which leads to increased orders and business relationships. I will have to post a few articles on this topic.

  3. Really great points made in the article and in the comments. I can’t tell you how many clients and artists I’ve worked with who have absolutely zero concept of a selling process, let alone know how to actually engage in one.

    One of my mentors once summed up what a sale is:
    A sale is the transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another.

    It’s really that simple. I love what I do, I love talking about it and I engage everyone with the simplicity of of a smile and asking “Hi, how are you?” It works.

  4. Brilliant, Terri! Love what you do-love talking about it, and transfer the enthusiasm to others. I don’t think it can be said better than that!

  5. Carolyn, very well said! I know many artists who read a book or worse eat lunch in their booth. My last exhibit was of my “Mermaids Tale” paintings which chronicled my cancer journey. A local news paper reporter wrote an article about me, a man read it and bought my whole exhibit. My next show is in Weeki Wachee State Park in Florida in November stop by my booth I’d love to show you my work and tell you all about it.

    • Congratulations on selling out your show! That’s a great example of excellent results from you being willing to talk about yourself and your work.
      I don’t live near Florida, but you should get in touch with Sarah Dees – friend her on Facebook. She is an arts reporter in your area for the Examiner and may be able to give you some great publicity!

  6. I understand perfectly! I recently attended a street fair/art show in my capital city. It was a big deal in our art -deprived little state (WV), yet not one artist spoke to me or even looked up as we strolled through the tents. There were a few artists that I would loved to have spoken with about their art, but most, if not all, of them really gave off an air of general snootiness. One (very well-known) artist was a man who’s work I was familiar with, having had him as an art teacher in high school. He sat there in his little beret and read a book…didn’t even look up when I spoke his name!
    The only art I bought that day was a notebook with a hand-painted cover that was made by an eight-year-old. She was raising money for a local kids’ center, and she was a lot of fun and willing to talk about her art:)

    • Jimelle, I’m sure you were just shaking your head at this type of response to visitors. Why were those artists even at the show if not to sell?
      I actually doubt that those exhibitors were snooty, and think that “lacking confidence” would describe their behavior. It’s a shame because they lost good customers and the opportunity to build relationships with them.

  7. Thank you Carolyn, I will friend Sarah Dees on Face Book. I greatly appreciate any help you or any one else can offer me. This is a hard business to make it in. I think that many artists fear the rejection and wait in the shadows for someone to “Discover” them. As for me I’m letting the light shine! Have a great day!

  8. Actually, this is a really good article. I remember one show where a fantastic watercolor painter’s booth was jammed packed with people. However, he was sitting down working on a water color painting. He didn’t look up at anybody or talk to anybody. So… needless to say, never saw him sell one piece.

    When doing a booth, I make sure that I smile, joke with the people, get out of my chair, etc… However, my issue is the closing of the sale. Would love to see an article about that.

  9. Carolyn-

    Great article! I think it’s often the most obvious that gets us. One thing that made it easier for me when I started was to remember, the people coming by are there to explore and possibly buy your art or they wouldn’t be there. Most are only too happy to chat for a while. The ones I get a tickle from are the ones walking the aisles that get the “deer in the headlights” look when you simply say hello to then. I often follow-up with “What are you looking for today?” Most times this simple opening works, but every so often I get “Nothing”. I want to say “Really!!” You are hear with a retailer / manufacturer badge and are looking for nothing? Come on..” I am sure they have run into the hard sale a little too often.


  1. […] Be present. Hiding out in the dark recesses of your booth, or doing a demonstration, but never looking up, speaking or […]

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