Last week I took part in the Autumn Fair at the NEC (3rd of September until the 6th.) I feel like I should write about my experience, because I met so many incredible people and had so many great things happen to me whilst I was there. It wouldn’t be right for me to write about it without over analysing it though, would it? So here it goes…
The Autumn Fair is one of the UK’s largest and best known trade shows. It is a wholesale gift and home trade event, showcasing ‘amazing brands, new products, retail insight and bucket-loads of inspiration.’
I signed up on a whim because I had just got back from holiday and wasn’t feeling any pressure. Because I don’t work well unless I’m totally stressing out, I thought that it would be a really good way to push myself to make new stock and to move myself and my business a little bit further. I wasn’t expecting much though, I just wanted to see what the next stage of Rattycatcat might look like.
I researched a lot into the do’s and don’t’s of trade shows, but struggled with finding any advice on exhibiting at a trade show with a creative brand. The only stand references I could find by brands that I felt I could relate to were: A) much bigger than mine (at £200-and-something odd a sq. metre these things aren’t cheap!) and B) dare I say it – not particularly inspiring or different. For a while, I worked on the basis that my stand would look like the others that I had seen, which were very linear and simple, with neat clean branding and not much else. This didn’t sit right though, and I found myself getting demotivated. So I scrapped my original idea of keeping everything very straight and neutral, along with all of the advice that I had read online and decided to go with my gut feeling of making up for what I lacked in stock and experience by making a display that stood out.
I created a display based on the concept of a 1950’s chaotic kitchen. This is because I print all of my cards, books and prints using a vintage laundry mangle, and I wanted to take that with me to really draw people into the fact that everything I make is truly handmade. I’ve learnt from organising craft fairs that people LOVE a process – once they can see it for themselves they’re instantly drawn in to the work that you produce.
I sourced bits of 1950’s furniture and household objects and sprayed them all to match my dress (and that AMAZING wallpaper I’d found online.) I used a record player I already owned which was coincidentally the same colour, and obviously I took the mangle up with me to demonstrate exactly how I made my cards. I arranged my stock so that it was jumping out of the toaster and the vacuum cleaner. I purposely did this so that I wouldn’t have to rely on shelves to display everything – by this point I was trying to create the exact opposite of everything that I’d seen other brands do with their trade show stands.
Walking past stand after stand with their perfect shelves and their tiny pieces of retail perfection on the set up day was terrifying. Every stand had digitally printed cards in meticulously placed rows, most stands with various ranges in different styles aimed at a different company to ensure that there was something for every buyer. (If I was going to be obnoxious then I’d suggest that an awful lot of them had gone for quantity over quality but I’m not.) It was extremely intimidating setting up, I could feel the eyes of the seasoned exhibitors watching every prop being put into place and I felt as though I was being judged. But anyway, the set went up and we thought it looked pretty good.
The next four days were incredible. We met so many people who loved Rattycatcat and described the stand as ‘a breath of fresh air.’ At one point I burst into tears as three women kept giving me compliment after compliment. One of them was Ellis from Pastel Elixir who makes beautiful cards and badges with gorgeous illustrations on them. Go see.
The number of people who got excited by what I had created made all of the hard work worth it. It wasn’t just about the hard work though – all of the days that I’ve spent feeling sick to my stomach because I don’t know where I’m going or whether I’m doing the right thing by sticking to my guns with the whole handmade thing are now worth it because I was told time and time again on my little adventure that I was doing the right thing, that people were impressed with the cards.
I’d been told not to expect any sales on my first fair, and just to try and gain as much experience as I could. That wasn’t the case though, and I’m still getting sales coming in now, a week later! I also got nominated for an award, got featured on this blog, will be featured in two magazines next month and very nearly got on This Morning!
This isn’t me just showing off by the way. (Okay so I feel proud of myself for the first time I can remember which is amazing, and I’m now super excited about the future of Rattycatcat because I know I’m on the right track.) The reason I’m writing this is because I am a very small person with a small business in a sea of bigger and better businesses who went and exhibited at the NEC and I think that more little independents should be doing it.
I couldn’t find any information online that gave me any idea what to expect at the event, and I had to fight the very real feeling of not being good enough to be there, and I very nearly pulled out several times. If it wasn’t for my bestie Bob being that goon voice on the other end of the phone then I wouldn’t have gone. She also helped throughout the fair and I couldn’t have done it without her (ta love).
I would like to be a voice that someone accidentally finds on the internet that says ‘DO IT! FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!’ Because I did it and now I’m looking at Rattycatcat seriously hanging out with the big boys, and I’m dead set on making it work for me because that little voice telling me that I’m being dumb and who even buys handmade stuff anymore anyway has been drowned out by all of those total strangers telling me that they loved seeing something different. So yeah, it’s super scary, and some of the other exhibitors did try to intimidate me, but then, if I wasn’t a threat then why did they bother? Hark at me, being all confident and stuff! It’s addictive, this achieving malarkey.
Let’s also take a second to talk about Liz and Treeve from Jupp Illustrations. They are a power couple who sell cards which are reproductions of the paintings that Liz makes. They’re nature inspired and really gorgeous – please go find them and have a look. They became our best friends, we even stayed at their house because our Airbnb was a disaster. I’m wearing the slippers that Liz gave me as I write this. They became our family over those four days and guys, we love you.
Now GO FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS.