Testing the Waters at the New England Products Trade Show

By Gigi Guyton,  Special to the Bangor Daily News

For those entrepreneurs who want to launch into the wholesale market, the New England Products Trade Show (NEPTS) is the place to test the waters. This year’s show is March 17-19 at the Portland Sports Center. Newcomers must first meet eligibility requirements, and once selected, they are highly encouraged to meet with a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) counselor for an evaluation to assess the exhibitor’s readiness.

John Entwistle, director of the Maine SBDC in Portland, has been involved with the show since 1988. He says first-time exhibitors must understand that a trade show is wholly different than the retail craft shows they have done in the past, “from the set-up of the booth, to how you display your product, on down to the details of how you conduct sales from the booth.”

Buyers often don’t purchase at the show. Purchasing decisions are often made after a buyer has attended several venues across the region. “That’s why sales materials have to well represent the product, and exhibitors must collect contact information and follow-up with buyers who show interest.”

Kelly Barham, owner of Bound For Glory Textiles, will be exhibiting at the NEPTS for the first time this year. She says Entwistle was helpful in getting her ready.

“John helped me think about the needs of the buyers. They need something to stick in their minds to remind them later of my product, my story, me.” Barham fine-tuned her product information, terms, and worked with a graphic designer on her brochures.

“I was really nervous about the booth fee because it’s so much more than my retail craft fair fees,” Barham said. “But then I realized it is such good exposure, that it may be worth it. I feel ready.”

One thing Entwistle helped her understand was even though nearly 2,000 buyers are expected at the show, only about 10% will be a good match for her product, be interested, and actually take her information.

Colleen Macklin, owner of Seamack Design, agrees. She’s returning for her third year and says don’t go crazy with collateral material. “I went out and bought 500-700 brochures the first year. I didn’t need that much. You want to screen your prospects… find out if they are really truly interested, and then give out the full packet of information.”

Macklin says getting ready her first year was nerve racking. She was in retail mode and overstocked, which wasn’t necessary. “The next show I concentrated on my booth set up, and my samples, and my collateral materials.” Macklin won an honorable mention for her booth last year.

A must for first-timers is attending Bruce Baker’s annual workshop called “Gain The Trade Show Advantage” which is sponsored by the SBDC.

Patricia Flynn, owner of Birch Bark Maine, will be exhibiting for the second time. “You can’t underestimate the importance of good lighting to highlight your product,” she says. “In order to draw people into your booth, lighting is really important.” She says if you’re not a visual person, get outside input on your booth design ahead of time. “I had somebody help me select colors and that was helpful.”

Other advice for the newcomer?

Be professional. “The bar is pretty high,” Flynn says. “You’re going to stand out like a sore thumb if you don’t have your act together and you don’t look really polished.”

Network before the show. Both Flynn and Macklin agree you should let people know who you are, and that you’re going to be there.

Have confidence and stay committed. Macklin says many buyers look for you three or four years to make sure you are in this for the long haul. “The second year my sales went up over the year before with new customers.”

And most importantly, relax and have fun. “It’s more intimate than a retail show,” Macklin said. “Buyers want to know more about packaging, display, and advice about how to sell your product. Just have fun, it’s a really fun show.”