NSS/SURTEX Tips for Exhibitors – Part 3, Booth Behavior

So, you’re at NSS or SURTEX. You have all your gear and product samples, not to mention your booth furniture and accessories. It’s all set up beautifully, and is sure to draw people in.

Sure to draw them in, that is, if you are as welcoming as your booth is.

It pained me to walk the show last year, and see all the folks who’d put countless hours (not to mention many, many dollars) into designing and creating their gorgeous products and phenomenal booths, only to turn show walkers off completely, because they didn’t present themselves well. Presentation of yourself is as important as presentation of your products.

Now, let me clarify here: I’m not talking about people’s physical appearance, here. As long as you’re tidy, clean, and not wearing something outrageously inappropriate, you’re fine.

But, if someone walking by glances at you and thinks “Whoa, not friendly,” you may as well just pack up and leave.

I’m including a list of specific tips on how to avoid this at the end of this post, but before I do, let me address some of the categories of folks who could have used some help last year.

The Inner Creative

It’s a common stereotype: the pensive artist. The secluded thinker. And, it’s not completely unfounded. Creative people often fall on the more introverted end of the spectrum. And, given the number of creative people at the shows, you can bet there are a fair number of introverts.

For those of you who are really far over to the introversion side (like me), manning a booth at an international trade show can be—shall we say—a wee bit intimidating.

I know the feeling of cold sweats and “seriously uncomfortable” jitters of putting yourself in front of people. (In college, I once had to do a presentation in front of my peers. Aside from hyperventilating my way through it, everything went fine except for a loud, rhythmic clacking sound the whole time I was speaking. Yeah, that was my shoe heel hitting the floor about 4,000 times per minute, because I physically could not stop my body from quaking.)

So, I know how hard it is to take that breath and reach out and shake someone’s hand, and try to say something lucid.

I know the total exhaustion that hits like a wrecking ball, once you’ve managed to survive mingling in a large group of strangers.

I get it. I really, really do.

So, here’s my advice to all of my fellow introverts who are terrified by the interaction aspect of exhibiting at the show:

Suck it up.

You have no choice—not if you want anyone to come into your booth. Because, if you hit panic mode and hide inside yourself, it will be like hanging a neon sign on the booth saying “Don’t come in.” It is booth suicide to stare intently at the floor and hug yourself into a corner, or quickly avert your eyes, should someone meet your gaze as they walk by.

The Are-We-There,-Yets?

Yes, the show can be long. And, if things are slow, it can be reeeeaaallly long (especially if you’ve been up all night). But, if your expression of unsuppressed boredom or exhaustion shines through, no one’s going to stop and wander in, which will make it seem even longer.

I understand that the white noise of the Javits, and the act of standing in essentially the same spot for three and a half days can glaze you over pretty quickly. It has a sort of numbing effect after a while.

This is my advice for those of you who are susceptible to zombie-ism (I mean the out-of-it, blank-stare aspect of zombie-ism—not the brain-eating part):

Suck it up.

Don’t let people walk by your booth, simply because they feel you’re not really interested in being there.

The Surly Girls (and Boys)

Some of us have faces that convey an emotion different from the one we’re actually feeling. Some people seem to wear a perpetual smile, even when they’re feeling blue. Others look as if they’re considering violence, even when they’re completely at peace. I tend to look scowly when I’m lost in thought.

My advice to this group of people?

No, not suck it up. Hey, it’s genetics, folks, so try not to sweat it too much.

That said, you should at least be aware of these tendencies, if you have them, and try to address them if possible. Usually, this sort of stuff crops up when you’re not completely engaged, when your mind is wandering. If your face tends to go grumpy/sour/surly when you’re day-dreaming, you need to try to keep your mind from drifting too much. (Even if your face looks perfectly fine when day-dreaming, you should try to avoid it; you want to look present at the show.)

So, how can I avoid looking surly, or bored, or as if I’d prefer to be alone on a deserted island, fighting off various forms of poisonous wildlife?

Keep These Thoughts and Tips in Mind

  • Look up. The new shoes you bought for the show are fantastic. Now, stop looking at them. Your gaze should be directed at the traffic walking by your booth.
  • Smile. I’m not saying you should plaster some sort of jack-o’-lantern grin across your face. That’s creepy, and creepy is worse than any of the other categories I’ve already mentioned. But, if you catch someone’s eye, smile at them. One simple, genuine smile goes a long way toward engaging someone enough to enter your booth.
  • Say Something. There were several booths I visited last year that, to be honest, I normally wouldn’t have. Their personal style was simply different from mine. But, they said something to me, and drew me in. And, I learned something interesting and useful from every single one of those people. A simple “How are you doing?” or “How’s the show going for you?” is all you need. Or, just a “Hi.” You’ve now created a connection. Will it lead to someone stopping every time? No, it won’t. But, maybe one in five or ten will, and that’s better than if you say nothing.
  • Stand, or Sit, High. It’s a long show on your feet. But, someone who is standing is much more involved in the action, and much more approachable. For those times when you need to give your body a break, perch yourself on a high stool. Standard-height chairs are way too low to keep you at eye level with your audience, so try to make any seating in the bar- or counter-height category.
  • Be Present. This sounds a little New-Age-y, I know. But, it’s important for you to recognize what’s going on around you. This is an exciting experience! You are part of a huge event in your industry! Pay attention, and don’t miss it! And, for crying out loud, do not read a book, look at your phone, or surf online while on booth duty. What a colossal turn-off.
  • Don’t Glaze. This one is so hard to avoid, especially by the third day of the show. Keep your eyes active; if there’s a slow stretch, don’t settle your gaze too long on any one thing—instead, focus briefly on objects at different distance points. Also, move around your booth. This will keep your body awake. If there’s absolutely no one else around, make crazy faces to keep your face from settling into the dreaded gape-mouthed zombie mask.
  • Get to Know Your Booth Neighbors. This is a fantastic opportunity to meet new people who share a lot of the same interests and passions. I know plenty of people who’ve created lasting business relationships—and friendships—with the folks they shared a booth wall with. It’s also a good way to keep your brain active during the lulls in activity.
  • Wear Comfortable Shoes. It’s the piece of advice you’ll hear most often, because it’s a good one. If you’re in pain, it will show on your face. And, who wants to walk up to someone who looks as if they’re passing some kind of stone? I don’t care how cute the shoes are; if they’re not comfy, leave them behind.
  • Eat and Drink. These shows require a lot of energy, so be sure to keep hydrated and fortified throughout. Keep a bottle of water with you at all times, and have snacks on hand you can eat quickly, easily, and tidily in the booth. If at all possible, have someone else man the booth while you eat your bigger meals in one of the dining areas. No one wants to feel like they’re interrupting you while you’re scarfing down your chicken salad wrap, and many will walk on by so as not to disturb you. Who knows if they’ll ever make it back? (Be sure to check out the “Sustenance” section of my “What You’ll Need” post for more tips on food and beverages.)
  • Walk the Show. If you’re lucky enough to have someone else to man the booth for a while, go for a stroll. Soak up all you see; get inspiration and discover trends. It’s a truly remarkable group of people and work and creativity, all under one roof. Plus, a walk ’round the show helps break up the monotony of booth duty, and gives you something to discuss with your booth mates and booth neighbors, when you get back.
  • Take Some Pictures. And, by this I mean, not only the pictures you take with your camera—of course, you’ll take those—but, also the kind you take with your mind. Every now and then, stop for a moment, look around you, and take a mental snapshot of what’s going on. This is a monumental event, and you should give yourself the gift of remembering it for the long haul.
  • Have Fun. Take advantage of the networking opportunities, everywhere—on the shuttle, in the line for food, in your hotel lobby. Attend the seminars. Go to the parties. This is one heck of a big hurrah! So, take advantage of it!

Now, a reality check: It’s important to understand that even when you follow all of the above steps, not everyone will come into your booth. In fact, most people won’t. That’s just the way the shows work. And, the folks out wandering the show are often just as tired, distracted, and introverted as you, not to mention lost, late for a booth meeting, or just plain unfriendly. So, don’t feel defeated if you meet someone’s eye and they look right through you or scowl or look bored. It has nothing to do with you.

Final Thoughts

Even if you’re in a back corner, without much traffic. Even if you don’t know anyone at the show, and are feeling a little at sea. Even if you’re having second thoughts on the financial and time investment you’ve put into exhibiting. Even if you have horrendous blisters from the new shoes you didn’t break in properly, or the roof is leaking, or that chicken salad wrap isn’t sitting with you as well as you’d like, you are in a wonderful place. The Javits Center is a remarkable space to show your work. The people you are among are inspiring and creative and have so much in common with you.

And, the fact that you made your booth happen—that you designed, produced, and coordinated everything in that space, so that you are standing there, at that show, sharing something awesome that you created…. Well, that means that you absolutely, 100% belong there. You should be proud and delighted with yourself.

Congratulations to all of you remarkable exhibitors, and may this year’s shows be fantastic and lucrative and fun for you all! And, remember…

…Everything. Will. Be. Okay.


  1. Millie Farrell
    May 17, 2014

    Great advise Jess, even for those of us only involved n volunteer fairs. Also , as someone who attends art shows what you say really is true. The artist who wants to talk to you about his/her work or technique is the one more likely to make a sale and/or get more visitors to their booth.

  2. Sofia
    September 2, 2014

    Wonderful advice. It sure looks like a very intimidating experience but I’m sure it’s worth the challenge. Thank you for sharing this advice 🙂