By JANE APPLEGATE

Exhibiting at a trade show can be an expensive gamble.

But the gamble paid off for Terces Duet, founder and president of Field Flowers Inc., a small, Healdsburg, Calif. stationery company. In 1997, Duet and her partner, graphic designer Kathy Gonzales, invested thousands of dollars to debut their line of inspirational notepads and greeting cards at the National Stationery Show in New York. At that first show, they landed a $22,000 order from a major food distributor.

"I never thought a company looking for ways to package food gifts would be interested in us," said Duet, whose first name is "secret" spelled backward. "I would have never thought to contact them. You need to be (at the show) to have your vision expanded and reflected back onto you."

Although most entrepreneurs can afford to attend an industry trade show, traveling across country, shipping samples and renting exhibit space is another story.

"You have to create a display, pack up, get your products there, show up every day and create a selling environment," said Duet. "You can't get into a show for less than $5,000, and that's if you do most of the work yourself. If you're at a venue that requires you to work with their contractors, it can be $7,000 to $8,000."

Being in a high-traffic area is critical for a positive trade-show experience, according to marketing consultant Randy McDonald. "Many times, I've moved to a better location because someone didn't show up," said McDonald, who suggests that if you are assigned an unappealing space, ask if a better booth is available before you unpack.

"Most entrepreneurs don't spend enough time looking at the competition (at the show)," said McDonald, founder and president of Magnum Marketing in Tiburon, Calif. "They also don't look at their own booth and say, 'How can we improve it?'"

Small-business owners often fail to follow up on valuable trade-show leads, McDonald said. "Entrepreneurs really need to take the time to develop a plan of action relative to what they're doing at a trade show," he said.

Like many small businesses, Field Flowers was started at home. A single mother working as a waitress to support her two children, Duet began making handmade, recycled paper greeting cards on her living-room floor in 1991. She authored the inspirational sayings while Molly, her teen-age daughter, did the calligraphy.

By 1994, Field Flowers had built up enough regional retail accounts to attract the attention of two venture capitalists who were regular customers in the restaurant where she worked. They believed there was enough investment money floating around Silicon Valley to turn Field Flowers into a full-fledged stationery products manufacturing company.

"They were my mentors," said Duet. "Under their guidance, I wrote a business plan and got a lawyer." She also kept her costs down by working at home.

Although their first attempt at fund-raising failed, Duet managed to keep the business growing over a two-year period. She teamed up with Gonzales, landed out-of-state retail accounts and sold enough cards so that in 1996, her mentors were able to value the company at $250,000. Based on that valuation, Duet was finally able to raise $120,000 by selling 40 percent of the company to investors.

Once they had some money to spend, Duet, Gonzales and their kids headed off to trade shows in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and nearby San Francisco. The Field Flowers crew also lined up their first sales reps at a trade show in Atlanta.

"Sales reps won't see you if you're not at the shows," said Duet, adding that a trade show is a great way to get your products seen by corporations and catalogues. "All the big purchasers are there."

Field Flowers' trade-show circuit snagged some lucrative and high-profile corporate accounts, boosting revenues from $98,000 in 1997 to $500,000 in 1998. The company now has a national team of sales reps and products on display in permanent showrooms in Atlanta, Seattle, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"Deciding to attend a trade show makes you get your act together," said Duet. Visiting with retailers at shows also helped her understand what they needed to sell her products in terms of signage, packaging and paperwork, like re-order cards.

"Trade shows are expensive, but only because people don't know how to work them," said Duet, who recommends a personal touch. Although the company now has a sales team to represent it at shows, Duet still shows up to work the crowd.

"When I'm in the booth, I can support the salespeople," she said. "But there's no one who can sell my product better than me." (For information on Field Flowers, visit www.fieldflowers.com or call (707) 433-8771).

Trade-show tips

? Set specific objectives and goals, i.e., number of sales leads, appointments made, etc.

? Send prospects invitations to your booth before the show. Offer an incentive or benefit for them to drop by, like a free gift or service.

? Create an inviting, attention-grabbing space that's easy to navigate. Provide your sales force with the materials, displays and the order-writing space they need. If you need them, be sure to order electrical outlets and phone lines in advance.

? Bring along your best people. Booth staffers should have excellent people skills and product knowledge. They must be well-groomed. Don't allow any smoking, eating or gum-chewing at the booth. Name badges should be worn on the right side, so names are not blocked when you shake hands.

? Make a list of everything you will need for the show, and assign a staff member to be responsible for each task or item. Check your list again before you leave the office. Having to improvise or make purchases at the show will result in unnecessary costs and stress.

? Follow up on leads immediately. Try to develop strategies at the show to make those follow-ups more effective, i.e., distributing leads to the sales force at the show.

? Learn all you can from more experienced exhibitors. Make contact and maximize your networking opportunities.

For more information on marketing at trade shows, contact Randay McDonald at (415) 435-5550. Also, be sure to check out a complete list of trade-show tips offered by the Piccirilli Group, a Bel Air, Md., marketing consulting firm, at www.picgroup.com/marketing.html.

Reporting by Robin Wallace. Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business." For more resources, visit jane@janeapplegate.com.

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