Back in spring 2020, right before the virtually overnight pandemic shutdowns, the Specialty Materials team was at a trade show like normal. “After being there just one full day, that night a county judge banned any large gatherings of more than 500 people,” says Liz Hood, marketing manager of the Tulsa, OK-based shop. “The next morning, all the exhibitors, including us, had to pack up our booths and get everything out by noon that same day. That was pretty surreal.”
Fast-forward to December of that year, The Decorated Apparel Expo (DAX) hosted a live event that Hood and her team participated in. “This went really well, and we felt we reached people we might not have talked to during an in-person event. We got our message out to a wider range of people.”
Lots of decorators and distributors participated in online events and trade shows during the pandemic to stay ahead of the networking curve. “Companies that stayed in front of their customers virtually, either appearing in virtual trade shows or on supplier webinars did the best during the pandemic,” says Kristine Shreve, director of marketing and outreach Applique Getaway. “Online educational offerings had a heck of a ramp-up during the pandemic and there were opportunities everywhere to appear on camera. The trick was to plan and try to offer the most professional session possible. As time went on, the tolerance for poorly planned or poorly done online efforts declined sharply.”
Once things started opening up, Hood and her team exhibited at several in-person shows. “However, the numbers are still not quite what they were pre-pandemic,” she says. “That’s getting better though as time goes on.”
Attending events may look different for your shop post-pandemic—especially if you’ve expanded to serving customers nationwide. We asked decorators for advice on how to choose the right mix of online and live events for the rest of the year, as well as for live printing at events.
Making the Shift to Social
During the pandemic, lots of shops turned to social media as a fast and easy way to stay in touch with prospects and attract new customers, a practice they’ll continue as life returns to normal.
“Companies that stayed in front of their customers virtually, either through appearing on supplier webinars or in virtual trade shows probably did the best during the pandemic.” Kristine Shreve, Applique Getaway
With online events and in-person networking at a sudden standstill in 2020, Fort Lauderdale, FL-based Say It In Stitches devoted a lot of time and energy to social media and educational efforts. “We wanted to ‘tease’ customers our way, focusing on areas that are uncommon or difficult for many of our competitors,” says Alex Fernandez, president.
For example, they created videos about the applique and puff embroidery processes and posted these videos on their social media accounts and added them to their arsenal of marketing materials. “We took advantage of the downtime to create these interesting, educational videos,” Fernandez says. “By showing our customers our process, they gain trust in us and ‘sell themselves’ on us.”
Say It In Stitches also created 250 sample booklets containing actual sewouts. The booklets created different types of embroidery, along with common embroidery issues, like small lettering, metallic thread, outline registration, gradient colorations and more. “These books cost about $60 to $75 to make,” Fernandez says. “We sent them out selectively to prospects who were at the point in the sales process where they needed to see our work first-hand to be nudged over the finish line.”
Finally, Fernandez’s team created an ebook, a collection of blog articles, that serves to establish their expertise and build trust. “We’ve also used the ebook in contests, as in, ‘Order your ebook, and if you’re one of the first 25, we’ll send you a free sample booklet of our work,’” Fernandez says. “That helped us get a lot of new prospects’ contact info.”
Over at Specialty Materials in Oklahoma, Social Media Specialist Elyse Lane came up with a brilliant idea to do a Facebook Live video from her home every Wednesday afternoon. “This was a great way to relate to people who were also spending a lot more time at home, and show them the fun of crafting using our heat transfer vinyls,” Hood says. “And even though we’re back at work, she’s continued the Wednesday Live videos on Facebook and Instagram at our studio here.”
Choosing the Right Events
As we move past the pandemic, it’s important to choose the right mix of in-person and online events to reach your target audience. Cyber events are key, especially as decorators expanded their footprints nationwide in the last year with online stores. And it’s clear that online events will still be a big part of the events scene for that reason, as well as the convenience of being able to network with others without leaving your shop.
“Now that people have seen the convenience of attending online events, there will be a demand for more of them,” Shreve says. “At a minimum, shops should make sure they have staff who are comfortable on camera and can explain or demo competently. For the next while, in-person events will ride on the sheer joy of being able to be with our peers, but after that wears off, in-person events will need to ramp up what they offer to compete with the convenience of online events.”
Here are some basic steps for choosing what events you’ll add to your shop’s calendar:
1. First, outline your goals.
In other words, why do you want to attend shows? If one of your goals is to generate new leads for your shop, you’ll want to look into shows where a large number of attendees are potential clients. The flip side to this one is if you want to sell a lot of merch or live-decorate on site, you’ll want to target events where attendees are excited to purchase merch. This includes events with high attendance numbers.
“For events like high school and college cross country meets, we offer a back print with the participant’s name. At some large events, there are more than 1,500 participants.” Jennie Livezey, Z Shirts
And don’t forget industry trade shows. While you’ll likely attend to see new products and equipment, you’re also there to network and become more visible in the wholesale print space. Applying to teach a seminar or two is also a smart way to gain visibility.
While many people missed the in-person aspect of trade shows during the pandemic, they saw the value of cyber events: You can attend them from your shop, without time away from the business or money spent on travel. Plus, you can interface with people across the country, instantly expanding your customer base.
That’s why you’ll also need to track whether in-person or cyber shows get you closer to your goals, or if it’s a mix.
2. Understand your target audiences
For example, if you primarily work in the healthcare and financial niches, what shows do these buyers attend? That’s a great start to deciding where to attend. You may find that you need to travel further to exhibit at these events if they’re held closer to home.
You may also work with local sports teams, so they may ask you to attend games or events and live-print merch for fans.
It’s always a good idea to investigate whether trade shows or organizations are also holding cyber events you can tap. Many event planners will be scheduling live and online events to accommodate more people in the upcoming year.
3. Consider B2C vs. B2B events (or a little of both).
B2C events are sporting events, rodeos, car shows, town fairs and the like where people go to shop, have fun and buy merch. If you attend events with a high attendance rate (and you market your presence in advance), you’ll get visitors and build up brand awareness.
When you exhibit at B2B shows, you’re either networking with industry colleagues or potential buyers in your target markets. When you think about your goals, if it’s to develop more customer relationships, the B2B shows your target audience attends might make the most sense.
However, for most shops, a mix of both types of events works best. You should also consider which shows are the most conducive for live-decorating, for demos and for selling personalized merch.
4. Do your research (and even visit the show).
Now it’s time to delve into the nitty-gritty of the shows and events you’ve got on your radar, so you can weigh out the pros and cons of each before making a final decision. If you can, especially for local B2C events, visit them as an attendee so you can decide if the attendance numbers are worth buying tent or booth space. You can even look for event staff to ask more questions about the cadence of the event.
Here are some ways to research different events:
- Look at past attendance numbers and exhibitor numbers to see if the show has grown or gotten smaller.
- Read testimonials and reviews from past exhibitors and attendees. (If you can, reach out to some exhibitors to ask about their experience.)
- Get audience demographics to learn whether you’re tapping into your best target pool.
- Take a closer look at past exhibitor lists to see if any of your competitors attend and how you stack up against them.
- Contact the event organizers to drill down into the who, what, where and when.
Live Printing Tips
Lots of shops find that they sell more products and score more long-term clients when they bring their decorating equipment on site at events to demonstrate printing in action, and give attendees personalized T-shirts or other products they can take home. “At private corporate events, we offer two preselected fonts and three preselected colors. Customers get options for a name, initials or event dates. These events are showstoppers, since people are so enthralled with the embroidery machines and excited to have their name on something!” April Forshee, Marietta Monograms & Embroidery
“At private corporate events, we offer two preselected fonts and three preselected colors. Customers get options for a name, initials or event dates. These events are showstoppers, since people are so enthralled with the embroidery machines and excited to have their name on something!” April Forshee, Marietta Monograms & Embroidery
Jennie Livezey, owner of Z Shirts in Shelbyville IN, packs a laundry list of equipment and supplies in an enclosed trailer to live-decorate at an event: two presses, two dryers, boxes of shirts, tables, chairs and tents. She straps down the presses and dryers so they don’t move in transit. “We put all shirts into reusable plastic totes after a freak rain storm blew up at a football jamboree we were printing at and the cardboard boxes turned to mush because the rain came in sideways under the tent,” she says. “We were more concerned with covering the equipment to keep it dry than the shirts that were still in cardboard.”
Hood’s team transports their show items inside crates, which is safer all around for large and heavy heat presses. “A forklift carries these crates, and we pack in display shirts and other soft items around the press to act as an extra barrier,” she says.
Z Shirts primarily prints at fundraisers and sports events, where the team prints designs preapproved by the event coordinator. “For events like high school and college cross country meets, we offer a back print with the participant’s name,” Livezey says. “At some large events, there are more than 1,500 participants.”
Before all events, Livezey determines what garments they want to sell so she can order them in time. “For events like basketball tournaments or football jamborees, we mainly offer short-sleeve T-shirts,” she says. “For cross-country meets, we offer T-shirts and long-sleeve performance tees.”
April Forshee, owner of Marietta Monograms & Embroidery in Marietta, GA, live-decorates at retail and corporate events. “At more retail-based events, we offer 10 choices of names or monograms—the less time customers spend making decisions, the better,” she says. “At private corporate events, we offer two preselected fonts and three preselected colors. Customers get options for a name, initials or event date. These events are showstoppers, since people are so enthralled with the embroidery machines and excited to have their name on something!”
Specialty Materials often does pre-printed DTG shirts that the team adds some HTV flair to for trade shows. “We also print the name of the trade show and the location, and these have been great,” Hood says. “These items give people something to take with them to remember your name. Plus. they can see for themselves how durable our materials are after they’re pressed.”
Tip: If you want to live-decorate at events, keep this in mind when purchasing equipment. “Check the weight and footprint of the equipment, including the stands for any equipment,” Forshee says. “Can you move it by yourself or do you need help? If you need help, how much will that cost and will that eat too much into the profit?”
Trade Show Tips
Whether you’re heading out to a larger or small trade show event, there are some key ways to prepare. First up? Deciding what kind of signage and setup to bring. For example, Livezey has a retractable banner stand with the Z Shirts logo, banners for the table fronts and ground signs with her shop’s logo and a graphic that says “Event Tees” with a pointing arrow. “We plan on getting a fully sublimated tent for the future that will have our logo on all four sides,”she says. “We also have stickers, logoed pens, brochures and business cards set out for people to take.”
For Specialty Materials, the setup depends on the event. For example, if Hood’s team is headed to a distributor open house event, they bring brochures and business cards, a tabletop display, and a tablecloth with their logo pressed on it. “Of course, we bring lots of mini-tees with different materials pressed on them to show people how the material looks in action,” she says.
Tip: Gathering things for a trade show can be as stressful as packing your suitcase for a long trip. “That’s why it helps to visualize the end result and work from a list that you build on and perfect,” Hood says. “I look back over the checklist while the event is still fresh in my mind, and review what I needed and what I didn’t, or if we forgot anything.”
1. Post on social media.
“What’s great about posting from the trade show floor is that your current and potential customers can see that you go to trade shows to improve your business and craft,” Atkinson says. “Bonus points here, if you had discussions with your customers about what you might see, and this becomes part of your research.”
“For distributor open house events we bring a table top display and a tablecloth with our logo pressed on it. And then of course, printed brochures, lots of mini-tees with different materials pressed on to show people how the material looks in action, and then business cards.” Liz Hood, Specialty Materials
Plus, mix up posting photos and videos. Use the event hashtags along with a few of your own so people can find the posts if they search for your name or your business.
For example, when Livezey attended a show, her team asked attendees to take a picture of their purchase or a picture in front of their booth. “We randomly picked a winner from the people who posted the photo with our hashtag,” she says. “The winners got a hat of their choice at the end of the event.”
Hood has been successful giving away a giveaway when an attendee likes her Facebook page while at the booth. “It helps to have something you can give out in order to ask for engagement,” she says. “We’ve also had photo booths with our hashtag all over (#lovewhatupress) and then we shared those photos.”
2. Teach something.
Lots of decorators opt to teach courses at industry trade shows. ”This is a big industry, and it’s full of shiny new faces,” Atkinson says. “You can look at them as your competition, or you can view them as colleagues. If you’ve had success, it’s important to send the elevator back down for those that want to come up.”
If you’re attending a non-industry event, live printing is a form of education, and you can also educate people about how branded apparel is one of the best forms of advertising.
Tip: Going to a networking event? “Ask questions with the people you are shaking hands with, and I’ll bet you can help them,” Atkinson says. “These interactions and exchanges are one of the things that I believe makes attending an event incredible. Knowledge bombs get dropped in line when you’re getting coffee or waiting for something to start.”
3. Meet up with potential clients.
Will any of your clients be attending any of the trade shows on your calendar? What about the ones that you wish were your clients? “Either way, arrange a time to meet up and spend some time with them,” Atkinson says. “These days, our customers can be a few states away, so getting some personal facetime in the same room with them is difficult.”
What To Do Today
Do a group huddle with your team to talk about your overall goals for events:
- What mix of industry and non-industry shows do you want to do?
- What mix of in-person and cyber events make the most sense to you?
- Do you want to do live-decorating at any shows?
- Will you be giving away or selling any decorated items to attendees?
- Does it make sense for you to do any educational sessions to further connect with prospects or partners?
- What events do your target audience attend? Can you commit to a mix of in-person and online events so you can achieve more of a nationwide reach?
Then, take a look at the events scheduled out that fit these criteria, and proactively plan out your next six to eight month event calendar.
If you want to drum up more engagement before a show, Jennie Livezey, owner of Z Shirts in Shelbyville IN, suggests creating an online store for pre-orders and having those items printed and bagged, and ready for attendees at your live-print tent or booth. “The designs we offer in the online store are typically the same designs we print at the live event, but with more colors and shirt options not available at the live event, like tie-dye shirts or hoodies,” she says. This drums up excitement for attendees, plus they visit the booth, while being able to skip the long printing line to pick up their order.
Sometimes, Livezey even offers a post-event online store where people can order and have the shirts shipped to them. “We’ve started printing a QR code with the website address and people can easily scan the code to get to the site to order vs. having to type in the website.