Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Exhibitor Booth Design

So you wanna have a booth at Comic-con?

I thought I'd talk a bit about and designing booth spaces and exhibiting at events like San Diego Comic-Con. I've been selling my T-shirts and art at conventions for about six years. I still have a lot to learn. But when I think about just how much is going on at Comic-con, it feels pretty great to know I get any heads to turn my way at all! After all, I'm am competing for attention along-side celebrity signings, top-name artists, illustrators and every niche of pop culture you can think of (and even more you haven't).

To have any success as in indie artist at these events, you need to have quality artwork and/or products AND an eye-catching booth design. One that presents your merchandise in a way that's appealing and easy (for you and customers). That's definitely it's own challenge and ultimately, it can mean your success or failure at con. Here are a few things I've tried and some tidbits I've learned.

The Wind-up

Having a super-cool, flashy booth won't help you if your artwork or products are not appealing. So before jumping in and taking on the time and expense involved in exhibiting, definitely make some amazing art, comics, toys, etc. Sure, show them to your friends. But also show them to people who aren't your friends. Try to step back and get an objective sense of how well your work will be perceived by people who aren't concerned with sparing your feelings. It might be good to try renting a table at some smaller events first.

The Pitch

Now that you have awesome stuff to sell, you need a good, quick pitch! One sentence that can let people know what you and your art are about. Trust me, the reason most attendees of Comic-con (etc.) walk 5 feet away from tables is because they know they are constantly at risk of being pulled into an endless sales pitch for something they don't understand and have no any interest in. Keep your pitch quick and friendly and let them browse in peace. If folks want to talk with you more, they will.

In the past, this has been tough for me because I do a lot of different work and it's hard to sum it all up. Still it's good to have one sentence that will communicate what it is you do, what you're comic is about, etc. Hopefully most people will get it. Many won't. That's OK. The audience that's right for you will at least ask you to elaborate. For my indie art book Portraits and Tales From Remington Ridge, I would say,

"Check out my new book. It's like Bonanza meets Twin Peaks."

Again, not everyone "gets it." But the right people will. In other words, it's a safe bet that if someone has never even heard of Bonanza or Twin Peaks, they probably won't be interested in my work. That's OK, go find that Twilight cast signing or whatever.


I've always made my own signs. Hand-painting your own name across a 6 foot banner can feel kinda narcissistic but you'll have to get over it. Once you're set up in a convention hall that sign will look like a postage stamp. Signs should be bold and relatively simple for a quick, easy read. 

My first time as an exhibitor at San Diego Comic-con was in the Small Press area. There isn't much room for flashy booth design here. Just a 6 foot table and some space for you to stand behind it. I had my name on a hand-painted sign which was strung across the front of the table. It's a good thing to have but honestly, people may not see something down there. I also brought a 0 budget display consisting of a hand-made "gun" attached to a cut-out of a bear (found at a garage sale). No artist or company name. Just a bear with a gun. I think the mystery was a big part of what made it appealing. And of course if someone got curious enough to ask about it, I could show them all of my art prints and T-shirts depicting bears with guns. 

The Armed Bear became a photo-op for attendees and neighboring exhibitors. 
Photo by Darlene Horn

For the 2010 launch of my Snake Oil line of T-shirts, I made this sweet boom-town storefront sign with a shingled awning. It was made with PVC pipe (which I had been avoiding for years), hand-painted canvas sign and faux-painted foam shingles. Plus plastic antlers for extra old-timey appeal. I also attach a rope of Christmas lights under the awning to light up my T-shirts a bit. The sign and awning goes up and dismantles pretty easily. It's lightweight, big and bold. Perfect!  

Get it up!

The best thing you can do for yourself as an exhibitor is to get your product(s) up and in people's line of sight. Don't wait for people to walk right up to your table and look down at your comics, T-shirts, etc. That usually doesn't happen. People like to walk by at a safe distance and if something peeks their interest they will move in for a closer look, maybe even turn around after the awesomeness of what they saw sinks in. 

I've sold a lot of different "merch"to sell at conventions: Originals, prints, T-shirts, buttons, etc. I try to get as much of it up and vertical as I can. At least some attention-getters to bring people in and browse through the rest. I own a lot of little easels. even one to prop up my postcards (Oh yeah, always have awesome business cards and postcards out for people to take. if you are super organized have your booth number on your card so people can find you later).

I have bought my share of display items and hardware but I've never had anything  custom-printed or produced for my convention displays. By hand lettering canvas signs and incorporating old ammo boxes and other objects I might find at an antique store, I can achieve the home-grown, "old-timey" look and feel I'm after. It gets the right kind of attention and keeps costs pretty low. The downside is that these things are often heavy or breakable. I'm always looking for ways to make my booth designs easier, lighter, and more appealing. 

My price cards are printed and stickered onto the backs of playing cards. My buttons are displayed on a toddler's jean jacket. The rest are safe in a bead-organizer bin. If you put buttons in a bowl people will think they are free and walk off with a handful of them.

Under The Table

I wish I had pictures of what goes on under the table and behind the scenes stuff when exhibiting. In the past it's been pretty ugly: Suitcases full of extra T-shirts, prints, postcards, snacks and coffee, garbage...Where's the cashbox? It's the one place I haven't been good about being prepared for. Here are some things that we artsy exhibitors tend to forget about until we are set up at a  convention. Show up with a plan for this stuff!

The Money: Hopefully you will be making a lot of sales. When things are going well, it will be so busy for me that two or three of us will be to talking with attendees, finding T-shirts in the right size, and taking payments. Everyone behind the table needs to be able to quickly access the place where you keep your cash and make change. So put it somewhere consistent and easily accessible for you and your help. It also needs to not visible or tempting for anyone else. Oh, and bring a lot of ones and fives for making change, at least $80.

A way of taking credit card payments is worth having if you can use a system that's cost effective and People at these events run out of cash quickly so being able to take a credit card payment often means they will buy more from you. I've had bad experiences with iPhone based apps, but that was before Square so I'd be curious about using that. The biggest issue is that with the quarter of a million attendees and exhibitors crammed in the convention hall (all carrying their own mobile device) you may not be able to get a signal. Boo. I would recommend having a back-up system for taking cards. Having a "knuckle-buster, some sales slips and a Paypal Merchant account has worked out pretty well. The down side is filling out these forms takes way too long.

Something for your garbage: Many convention centers don't provide exhibitors with a trash can. Getting out for a "garbage run" isn't always feasible. Bring some plastic bags and a small collapsible box that you won't mind throwing away after the Con.

Chairs: The chairs at convention centers suck. They are plastic and get in way. I've heard some conventions, like New York Comic-con don't even provide them for free. It's a pretty good rule of thumb that you won't sell much sitting down anyway, so I say get rid of them. You do have to eat and rest sometimes so I bring one or two camping chairs. They are nylon and collapse instantly, which is super handy when you need to quickly make room.

Organization: Depending on what you are selling this can be a non-issue or a huge debacle. If you have T-shirts it's going to be ALL about having a good system for organizing them and accessing them quickly and easily. If you can't find what a customer wants quickly, you will lose that sale. Lame. I like having a few T-shirts out in every design so people can hold them up and get a feel for them. Most of my stock is folded neatly in plastic envelopes and kept in bins behind the table. If there is room, its nice to have them up on my own table, arranged by size. If someone wears a medium I can quickly see exactly what designs are still available in his size.

Have a tracking sheet: You will want to track everything you sell. This way you'll know if you are out of stock on something and you will be able to easily see what sells well and what doesn't. I have a print-out listing everything I sell in boxes. If I have 12 XL men's shirts in a particular design, I'll make 12 "XL"s in the box for that design. Then as each shirt sells we can just tick off one of the "XL"s. When they are all ticked off, I know I'm sold out.

Lots of water and snacks: Nuts are easy and full o' protein. Coffee is tempting and pretty nessessary. but stay hydrated for real! Comic-con (or any other) is exhausting. You're off schedule and tired from being "on" all day for 6 days straight. Coming home foggy-headed and dehydrated is a bum-out and can kill an extra week of your life. Drink water constantly. Have a buddy at your booth for potty breaks. Oh and go upstairs if you want to go in uh, privacy. Nobody goes up there.


I hope this info is helpful to you. If its your first convention, Good luck and have fun! If it's your 20th, The same! Thanks for reading.

-Ben Walker


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