Surtex 2014: Exhibiting for the First Time

Posted by on Jun 10, 2014 in News, Surtex | 17 Comments

Cultivate Art Collective Artists at Surtex 2014 (Pictured Left to Right: Tatyana Starikova Harris, Aileen Tu, Diane Hunt [top], Mary Sterk, Rachelle Panagarry, Jami Darwin Chiang, and Elena Lai Etcheverry of Charity Wings)

Well, I did it! I exhibited at Surtex, one of the largest art licensing trade shows in the United States, for the very first time last month. If you want to know what made me jump in feet first, I wrote about my decision in an earlier blog post. I’m happy to say that my booth with the Cultivate Art Collective received a lot of positive comments, and most people were surprised it was our first time exhibiting.

The first day of the show was a Sunday, which started off a little bit slow. But by the afternoon, the show was starting to buzz with people. Anytime someone stopped by to look at my portfolio, I felt a little thrill. It was exciting to have my work seen by potential clients and to get feedback on my work. The actual deals often happen months later, so I may not know for a while whether or not someone will license my work, but I felt like I won half the battle whenever someone sat down to look at my book or gave me a business card. My main goal for the show was to make contacts, and so for me, the show has already been a success.

I learned so much from the process of preparing for the show and exhibiting my work that I thought I would share some of my thoughts and insights in case it helps anyone else new to exhibiting.


Cultivate Art Collective Booth at Surtex 2014 (view of the left side)

You Are Your Banner

At a large show like Surtex, attendees only take a few seconds to glance at your booth. Since the largest item in your booth will most likely be your banners, that’s what most people use to decide whether or not your work will fit their needs, and whether or not they should take the time to stop by your booth. This year, I chose to create an impactful banner with a single image, but I realized this only showed one aspect of my work. Though my banner did draw people in, I think I may have missed out by not including more images which could draw a wider variety of people to my booth.

What I would do next time:
Put three or more images on my banner to try to appeal to more people while at the same time making sure to balance the space so it does not look too cluttered or overwhelming.

Engage The Attendees

It’s really important to engage the show attendees as they are walking by. A smile is nice, but a “Hello, what are you looking for today?” goes a long way. I started out a little on the shy side, but by the end of the first day I had talked to more people than I had in the last month. Our collective was also fortunate to have two wonderful artists, Margaret Applin and Diane Hunt, who were skilled in engaging conversation and drawing people to our booth.

What I would do next time:
Forget about being shy and start off engaging people from the start.

Present Your Work Any Way You Like

When I was thinking about how I wanted to show my work, I thought it might be more eye-catching to present my work on large 13″ x 19″ sheets, so that’s what I ended up doing. But as I watched attendees looking through everyone’s work I realized it really doesn’t matter how you present your work. It didn’t seem like anyone cared what size the art was or if they were flipping through a bound book, loose sheets, or an iPad. As long as they could look through your work quickly and efficiently, any format was fine.

What I would do next time:
Ditch the large sheets and get a bound book printed with designs arranged according to themes. I might also consider having an iPad portfolio on hand as a second portfolio.

Target Your Promotion

Before the show, I sent postcards to a targeted group of attendees. And I was pleased to see that some of the people I sent postcards to stopped by the booth. At the show, I prepared postcards and buttons as giveaways as well as a bunch of business cards. Though many people stopped by our booth, I thought more people who were just walking by would maybe grab a giveaway or a business card for their files. But that didn’t really happen. If someone wasn’t interested enough to stop for a longer look, then they weren’t going to take the time to pick up a business card either. One of our artists, Mary Sterk, discovered that one way for us to get our business cards into the hands of potential clients was to proactively hand out a packet of all our business cards. This also helped if someone sat down to look at our work but didn’t have time to look at every artist.

What I would do next time:
Focus my promotion towards sending out targeted pre-show and/or post-show promotional packets including a lookbook and giveaway items, and have fewer promotional materials to give out during the show. I would also create a press kit for the press center since I didn’t do that this time around.

Set Up Appointments Before the Show (If You Can…)

Though it’s ideal to set up appointments to meet with potential clients during the show, I’ve heard from some of the more seasoned exhibitors that many people don’t tend to want to make appointments except with people they already know, since they use that time to catch up with their current contacts in person. Though some people came to my booth based on the postcards I sent out, they all dropped by rather than making an appointment.

What I would do next time:
Still try to make appointments.

Say Yes To Product Mock-ups

Mock-ups help to take the guesswork out of what your designs might look like on a product, and can be helpful in convincing potential clients in selecting your designs. You can mock-up a physical product and/or create mock-ups of products in your portfolio. Since I had one display shelf available to me, I decided to create a variety of physical product mock-ups. I decided to make a throw pillow, messenger bag, cosmetics bag, jewelry box, and mug. However, I think the most eye-catching item ended up being my throw pillow because it was the largest, and could be seen easily from the aisle.

What I would do next time:
Create mock ups in my portfolio and focus on creating larger physical mock-ups for the shelf.

To Sell or License? Or Both?

Though Surtex is largely a licensing show, I was surprised by the many people who wanted to buy outright. I was open to buying outright, but wasn’t prepared for the number of people that requested it (at least half, if not more). This gave me a lot to think about regarding the future of my business.

What I would do next time:
Be more precise about how long it takes me to create my designs and whether or not it makes sense for a design to be licensed or sold outright. Create a sell sheet in advance for reference.

Being Part of a Collective

While it would have been nice to have my own booth, being part of a collective is one of the main reasons I was able to show at Surtex this year. It made it more affordable and less intimidating. It was great to be with such a supportive group of artists. There was always someone around to take notes for you if you were meeting with a potential client. And you didn’t have to worry when you took breaks, because someone would always be around to show your work.

What I would do next time:
Continue on with the Cultivate Art Collective!



  1. Claudia

    Great tips! I’m saving this post so I can refer to it later 🙂

  2. Rachel

    Thank you Aileen for generously sharing your insights and experience in exhibiting at Surtex. I found it extremely helpful and hope to make it to Surtex 2015! Fantastic job on the Booth, it looked amazing!

  3. aileen

    I’m glad you found it useful!

  4. aileen

    You’re welcome! Good luck at Surtex next year! 🙂

  5. john beach

    I am so proud of you! Seriously! Aside from doing great work, which is only half the battle, you learned how to promote yourself and jump into the scary world of Surtex. I’m teaching Surface again this semester, and I would totally love it if you’d come and share your insight. Assuming you aren’t too busy!

    We’ll talk soon, and again, congratulations! You are the best!


  6. Perunoto

    Hi aileen! So cool that you made it to the show! !!!
    Your post was super interesting and extremly helpful And gave me a lot of answers to questions which I was recently thinking about! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! I will asave this for later when one day I also will be there with my work! All The best for you And your business!

  7. aileen

    Thank you so much John! You know it all started with your Surface class – I’m not sure if and when I would have stumbled upon this field if it hadn’t been for your fantastic class. I would be happy to stop by and share what I’ve learned. 🙂

  8. aileen

    Thank you Petra! I’m glad you found it useful. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask. Your work is wonderful and I bet you would enjoy exhibiting at Surtex.

  9. Renske

    Hi Aileen,
    Thank you for posting about your experiences at Surtex, it’s really helpful. Your booth looked amazing!
    I was wondering about the buying outright, since it seems more common here in Europe. Do they offer a Price? Or should you be prepared and have priced every design in advance?
    With licensing it’s the buyer coming up with the contract, but how about the buy outright thing? Would really appreciate if you could tell me more about it. Thanks for the great post!

  10. Chiara

    Thanks, Aileen, this was so interesting and helpful. Your booth looked really great. Good luck, hope those contacts come through.

  11. aileen

    You’re welcome, Renske, and thank you for your kind comments on our booth! I’m not an expert in buying outright, but I think it’s good to set prices for the designs you sell. Buyers may also have their own prices in mind, but then you could try to negotiate. As I understand it, there’s no contract for buying outright since it’s basically a sale.

  12. May Leong

    Thank you Aileen, your sharing is very informative and helpful. Love your booth and the photo posted too !

  13. debbie whalen

    Hi Aileen.

    Great advice. I’m not nearly ready yet to do this but you give a lot of valuable insight–so much appreciated. Wishing you much success with your beautiful work!


  14. Amy Reber

    I JUST started contemplating Surtex and came across Cultivate Collective Art, and that led me to your blog post. The idea of doing Surtex like this for the first time sounds very appealing. I was wondering when you said you sent out postcards to targeted groups of attendees prior to the show, where did you go about getting their information, and also could you elaborate more on when you said you want want to do pre-show-/post-show promotional packets etc…… what would the packet entail. Also, do you feel like Cultivate Collective Art was a good way to go for your debut……

  15. aileen

    Thank you May!

  16. aileen

    Thank you Debbie!

  17. aileen

    Going with the Cultivate Art Collective was a great way for me to go to Surtex for the first time. It enjoyed exhibiting with other artists and sharing a booth made it more affordable. As for sending out postcards, I did that several months before the show, and it is possible to purchase an attendee list from Surtex. Promotional packets would be just whatever you want to include to promote yourself including your business card, bio, samples, etc. It’s a big decision to go to Surtex, but if you end up doing it, I wish you success!