Tips for Attending or Exhibiting at Trade Fairs

Written by Jonathan Smalter

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In my last post, I promised that my next piece would focus on trade fairs, both from a customer standpoint, and an exhibitor’s perspective. These are important events for the overall health of the collectibles market. What are some ways you can turn these gatherings to your advantage and are there things you can do to help your local trade fair(s) thrive?


If you have never been to one of these events, a little background about how they are laid out will be helpful. Generally, a mid-sized event hall is rented by the show organizer. I have seen fairs held in university libraries, convention centers, hotels, re-purposed armories, and community center gymnasiums. Smaller trade and collector organizations, especially those related to niche collecting areas (e.g., stamps, breweriana, etc.), sometimes rent fireman’s auxiliary buildings, grange halls, or other more compact venues.

Either way, the space is usually split into booths of various sizes (usually either a set dimension, or a set number of tables), and exhibitors can rent these to display their merchandise. This is one way the show organizers generate revenue to fund advertising and cover expenses. Another way is charging admission. The fee for admission varies depending on the size of the show you are attending. For a smaller, regional fair you can expect to pay anywhere from $5-10 dollars at the door. Larger fairs charge higher admission, mainly because they are held in larger cities, at larger and/or more in-demand venues, and are often multi-day events. All these factors increase the cost to put together the show, so ticket prices are a bit higher. According to their website, the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair charges $25 for a single day admission or $45 for a pass that grants you admission for the run of the show.

Some admission tips:

Watch for promotional discounts in advertisements, which can save you a couple bucks.
Some fairs offer free or discount admission to students who present their school ID.
Often show organizers admit children for free, so if you plan to make this a day out with the family, check to see what the policy is for the show you are planning to attend.
Check online to see if tickets are available for purchase in advance. This probably will not save you money, but it can certainly be more convenient, and at larger shows may get you in the door a bit quicker.

Once you are inside the fair venue, you will want to develop a ‘plan of attack.’ This will differ depending on your goals. Maybe you know one of the exhibitors has some fresh material you are interested in seeing, and you want to make sure you see their display before these items are scooped up by someone else. If this is your first fair experience, though, there are some basic steps you can take to get your bearings.

Dealer names and booth numbers are displayed, and there is usually a program detailing who is exhibiting at the show, and where they can be found within the layout of booths. Some programs are brief, text-only pamphlets, others include maps of the layout, and larger shows produce slick, glossy programs with advertisements throughout. These are often useful items to save, as it can be difficult to keep track of the different businesses you encounter at such an event, and it helps to be able to get in touch later. They also make great souvenirs (and after all, if you are reading this, you probably collect things like this already!).

If the program has information about what sorts of material each exhibitor has on display, use this to prioritize your route. If not, it is probably easiest to make a full circuit of everything and survey what is available, and then make your extended stops at the booths that seem to match your interests best. Sometimes you will find that certain items ‘wink’ at you so that you notice them right away; others will escape your notice until you have time to carefully examine the exhibitor’s entire display.

Some program tips:

If possible, plan your route by circling which exhibitors you think will interest you most, or numbering your top five.
Take notes! If you see an item that interests you but decide not to buy it right away, mark down which exhibitor had it for sale. If their contact information is not in the program, make sure to grab a business card, or record their phone number or e-mail address some other way (bringing your own pen or pencil is a good idea).
Make note of which dealers have open shops. If you found great material at an event where only a handful of their stock was on display, chances are their storefront is worth a visit!

Knowing how to manage your time effectively is a skill you will develop as you attend more fairs. Just remember, this is one event of many, and even if you are not able to find anything for your collection this time out, it is always possible to gather useful information and make valuable contacts. This brings me to my next tip:

Talk to people!

Introduce yourself to exhibitors. Let them know what sort of material you collect and, if possible, what specific items you are currently trying to find. Most good dealers will know whether they have something that fits the bill, and experienced dealers may even be able to recommend something you had not considered. Some sellers have mailing lists to keep in touch with customers, too. Make sure to sign up for these when you locate dealers who trade in the sorts of items that interest you.

While in some ways you are ‘on a mission’ at these sorts of events, make sure to relax and enjoy yourself as well. In my experience, my best customers are those with whom I have an easy rapport. This allows us to chat about mutual interests in a way that facilitates the development of their collection — sometimes I will recall an item I have in stock that relates to our conversation; other times they will remember something they have been meaning to ask me to track down. In other words, taking a few minutes to shoot the breeze may end up bearing more fruit than silently browsing on your own.

A major benefit of these events is learning what drives value, which items are common or scarce (and why), and becoming familiar with handling and assessing things. I mentioned items that ‘wink’ at you earlier. This is not something that happens automatically; it is a type of skilled focus that develops with practice. Remember to ask questions. It is important not to abuse this privilege — after all, exhibitors are here to do business, and you are not the only customer in the room. With that in mind, though, asking about the historical importance of an item, the method of its production and the materials used, the provenance, etc… these are all opportunities for merchants to flex their muscles a bit. It allows them to show how thorough their research is (which can sometimes help validate their asking price), how familiar they are with their stock, and what their demeanor is towards interested customers.

That brings me to a question that is asked often at trade fairs. It comes in many forms (Can you do any better on this?; What is your best price on this one?; etc.), but all are requesting some sort of discount. It is certainly every customer’s right to haggle at these events, just as it is every dealer’s right to either accept or decline offers. As with many things, there is a right and a wrong way to go about it.

Some tips on haggling:

Rather than simply requesting a discounted price, make a reasonable offer. This indicates that you are genuinely interested, and have taken some time to consider an item’s value.
Consider the exhibitor’s position: They are in business to make a profit. They have invested time, money, and energy to purchase, research, and catalog the item. A portion (and sometimes a small one) of the selling price is profit, so depending on the item, what might seem like a small discount can have a large impact on margins.
Take into account that you and the seller may have occasion to do business again in the future. Paying full price, or not haggling too aggressively, on your first purchase or two may help build a relationship that gets you some great deals down the road.
Often bundling is an effective strategy. Personally, I would much rather sell five or six items at a discount than drop the price on a single item.
Be polite. Sellers are far more likely to treat you kindly if you do the same.


Much of the above information is useful to exhibitors as well, so as an exhibitor, make an effort to facilitate those customer behaviors. Also, make an attempt to promote your appearance at fairs. If you have a mailing list or an e-mail newsletter, make sure to notify your regulars about show appearances. If possible, post a list of items you will be bringing to the fair. Get the word out on social media (photos are great here). If the organizers have provided you with free or discount admission passes, distribute these as widely as you can.

Before shows open to the public, dealers need to load the materials they have brought to sell into the show venue and set up their displays. For most shows, this occurs the day before the show opens to the public, with a bit of additional setup time the following morning to allow them the opportunity to add the finishing touches. While this window of time is traditionally referred to as ‘set up’, it is more than just that. The opportunities availed by this window of time are twofold: first, it provides dealers with time to shop the wares of other dealers; second, it is a time when you can sell directly to other dealers. With both of these in mind, it is a good idea to arrive early. This gets you ‘first crack’ at the material as it is being unpacked by other dealers, and also puts you at the head of the line in terms of selling to colleagues.

Often information on participating dealers is available online at the fair’s website, and it is definitely a good idea to know who will be exhibiting ahead of time. It pays to do a little research on these dealers and to learn what sort of material they tend to offer for sale. Bringing a few (or if possible, more than a few) items to wholesale to other dealers is a great way to make shows worthwhile. Do not make the mistake of not viewing other dealers as customers; in reality, they are likely to become some of your most loyal buyers, and they are more likely to give you detailed information about what they want than most customers. If you are unable to find information on fellow exhibitors preceding the event, ask organizers if a fair program is available when you arrive. Try to talk to colleagues as much as you can: their needs will almost certainly change from year to year, so having up-to-date information on what they are buying is important. Chances are some of the material you bring with other dealers in mind will go unsold, and that is alright. It still provides you with information about how you can do better next time, and it lets other dealers know you are considering them when planning for these events.

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Make sure to keep in mind that this is a two-way street: other exhibitors probably have material they can bring to a fair that would be of interest to you. If you are in the market for items in particular subject areas or have specific requests from customers to track things down, distribute that information to colleagues in advance. This is an easy way to generate additional revenue from an event you were already planning to attend, and to acquire good inventory in your area(s) of specialty.

If this is your first fair, here are a few tips that might be useful:

Often during setup, dealers will find material at a colleague’s booth that they intend to purchase. In the event that that dealer is not present, it is customary to place the items, along with their business card, in a location that indicates their intent to purchase it. Depending on the way the fair is arranged, this can be under a shelf, or on a counter or chair. If you return to your booth to find this has been done, write up an invoice and deliver the item(s) to your colleague’s booth (for instances such as this, it is helpful to use receipts that have a carbon duplicate, or to keep a list of outstanding invoices).
Only bring material that you were able to price confidently. Experienced customers and dealers will quickly be able to discern (usually with one or two questions) if an item’s price is a shot in the dark, and that does not do you any favors.
Creating a mock display in advance of the fair will help you figure out which items show well, how easily customers will be able to browse, and whether you are bringing enough material. Taking a few photos of various layouts for future reference is also a good idea.
Be prepared. Bring materials you will need to facilitate transactions, create attractive displays, and record important information. Make sure to bring enough business cards, receipt books, etc., that you do not run out.
Test things ahead of time. Nothing is more stressful than waiting until the last minute and realizing that your mobile commerce app does not work properly, or the shelves you planned to bring are not sturdy enough. A little planning can help avoid a lot of difficulties, and avoiding these troubles helps you look more professional to colleagues and customers.
If something is amiss with your booth, speak with the organizer. There are a lot of moving parts with these events, and if you don’t speak up, no one will know you have a problem.

Have a plan for interacting with customers. Some of the strategies I mention above for customers interacting with dealers work just as well in the other direction, so make sure to engage in conversation, gather information, and showcase your knowledge. Failing that, be friendly: just because you didn’t make a sale doesn’t mean you can’t make a good impression. It may surprise you how frequently this pays off later.

Last but not least, expect to encounter hagglers and go over a few polite responses. Chances are one transaction will not make or break your business, so consider the overall impact of these negotiations on your reputation before deciding how to proceed. If you meet all offers with contempt, you will drive customers away, but if you welcome all low-ballers with open arms it will cause buyers to question the authority of your pricing. Try to be congenial, but stick to your guns where it is warranted.

Until next time, happy hunting!

Jonathan Smalter owns Yesterday’s Muse Books, located at 32 West Main Street in Webster,
and online at His bookstore has been in operation for ten years, and he has nearly twenty years of experience in the book trade. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the Independent Online Booksellers Association and currently serves as the head organizer of the annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair, which will be celebrating its 46th year next month.

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