Home and Garden Show Basics

February 5, 2010

This past weekend, I spent three days at the Northern California Home and Garden Expo in Sacramento.  This particular show is one of the biggest in the state, regularly receiving over 30,000 people each year.  Shows like this one, running for varying lengths, take place at regular intervals throughout the country, so there is bound to be a venue in your area.

We had a booth at the show to promote the California School of Garden Design, as well as my own landscape design practice.  While I was there, it got me to thinking that shows like this are a great venue for beginning landscape designers.  It is a perfect place to meet potential clients, hand out your cards and fliers to thousands of people, network with others in the field and in related fields, and potentially get your phone ringing throughout the year.  It certainly has paid off for me – in past years when attending one of these shows, I could always count on getting enough clients during the year to pay for all my expenses plus a respectable profit.

That said, having a booth at a home and garden show is not for the faint-hearted, and not something to undertake without careful planning and knowledge about what to expect.  Forewarned is forearmed, so read on for my pointers to make these shows successful for you:

  • First of all, determine what landscape and garden shows take place in your area, and which are the most successful.  You can do this by researching on the internet or contacting your local chapter of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD).  Once you decide on a venue, make contact with the show organizer and establish a relationship with that person.  The show organizer or manager wants you to be at his or her show, and will be a great source of information and help for you, especially if you explain it is your first time at a show.
  • I recommend all graduates of the California School to become a member of APLD, and this is one reason why:  The cost of renting a space for a booth at a home show as well as outfitting it with counters, carpet, chairs, backdrops, etc. can be prohibitive, especially if you are just starting out and do not yet have a lot of capital to work with.  My advice is to get together with another designer (or two) and share the booth, and the expenses.
  • Keep your booth simple – remember, it is not necessary to create a “landscaped” area at a show to impress potential clients (although many Designers do – I have found it to be not that critical) – a good portfolio, professional-looking business cards and fliers, examples of your work with colored graphics and a positive attitude will do perfectly well, and be a lot less work to put up and take down when the show is over.
  • Decide what you will charge for a consultation fee, and stick to it.  If someone asks you how much you charge to come and look at their property, tell them your consultation fee.  It should be an hourly amount plus transportation costs one way.  Do not agree to go to someone’s house and look at their yard for free; by charging a consultation fee, you show that you take yourself seriously as a professional, and they will, too.  Most clients expect this now, anyway.
  • Do not give away free landscape advice at the show.  Many people will go from booth to booth with a grubby sheet of paper in hand with a poorly-drawn plan of their house and property on it, and perhaps a few photographs.  They will come up to your counter, lay all these things out and ask you to tell them what they should do with their yard.  They are, in effect, looking for free advice (this happened twice at this past show).  These people will waste your precious time and nine times out of ten, will not listen to a word you say, anyway.  Find a way to politely sidestep their questions, explain that without actually seeing their site in person you cannot offer any suggestions, give them your card and send them on their way.
  • Decide on a geographical area within which you will be willing to travel to look at a site.  Consider that if you sign a contract for a landscape plan for a property that is sixty miles away from your home or office, you will be making multiple trips to that property for client meetings, mapping the site, presentations, etc.  If you are willing to commit to traveling a long distance, be sure to calculate gas expenses and add that into your bid.  When meeting potential clients during the show, find out where they live and if they are outside your geographic travel range, let them know it is too far for you to go.  Should they live too far away, do your best to refer them to a designer in their area – always work to be a resource, you never know how this can benefit you in the future.
  • Home and garden shows are great opportunities to meet other designers, nursery staff, hardscaping suppliers, pool installers, and all the other myriad businesses that you will be interacting with as a designer.  Be sure you have a chance to leave your booth and circulate around the show (without leaving your booth empty).  Take some cards, introduce yourself to others, take their cards, find out what they do and how they might be of use to you later.
  • Do not leave your booth unmanned – ever.  Make sure you and the person or persons you are sharing with work out a schedule for manning the booth so that at least one person is always there.  You never know when a potential client is going to walk up to your booth, see there is no one to talk to, and wander off to talk to someone else – a missed opportunity.

Home shows can be exhausting, because you have to be “on” all the time, and the hours are long.  But they can also be fun and very rewarding.  It raises your profile, which is never a bad thing.  Just bear in mind that so many people pick up your cards and materials, tuck them away, and six months later decide they are ready for a design and then give you a call.  So you cannot measure all at once whether or not the show was “worth it” for you – only time will tell.

Good luck!

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