Exhibit Hall Survival Skills
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By Tammy M. Cardwell
Exhibit hall...book fair...vendor room&... Whatever you
call it, it's the place to be when you're ready to do your homeschool
shopping. The exhibit hall can be the most exciting of places. It
can also be the most intimidating and financially dangerous, especially
for the new homeschooler. The quality of your exhibit hall experience
will be determined in large part by how well you prepare for it,
so I've compiled the following list of suggestions in hopes of strengthening
your exhibit hall survival skills.
Know Your Homeschooling Style &and Needs
The new homeschooler's temptation is to "Get it bought
and be done with it", but easy/quick purchases often result
in the worst possible match with your homeschooling learning/teaching
Experienced homeschoolers face a temptation too. It's the "This
was okay last year, so I guess we'll keep on," temptation.
But you need to ask an important question. Was it only okay? If
so, maybe your curriculum or methods need tweaking. Of course, experienced
homeschoolers also face the opposite temptation - to abandon what
they've been doing and seek out something new - but as much as you
may enjoy change, you really need to take an honest look at what
has and has not been working in your homeschool. As has been said
before, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Learn enough about your basic options first, before compiling a
shopping list. School at Home, Delight-Directed Studies, Workbooks,
Unit Studies, Principal Approach, Computer-Based Education, Online
Classes, Umbrella Schools... If these words and phrases are alien,
examine the workshop schedule and exhibitor list to see if any can
help you learn a little about the variety of options that are available
before you decide what path to take.
Realize that not all needs are equal. Some courses require more
expenditure than others. Some students' needs may also require
more expenditure than other students' will.
Strive for balance. A history fanatic may be tempted to spend the
whole budget on history products. This is not a good thing, unless
you figure out how to make these new purchases work as the focus
of your curriculum. (I, your typical history buff, did. All our
high school studies are built around a chronological study of history.)
Consider whether extras really are extras. They may well be necessities
in disguise. For instance, if you're using a dry elementary math
curriculum you may need to purchase manipulatives; they're
Set a Budget
Don't just decide how much you can spend. You should also decide
where to spend it. Prioritize.
Make sure to allow for food and travel expenses.
Be flexible. Allow flex room for finding such things as that "perfect"
math program - the one that is slightly more expensive, but worth
Remember sales tax. Some exhibitors include tax in the asking price,
but not all do. Don't get caught off guard.
Don't just think curriculum. Sometimes we find things we especially
like, but we wonder if we can really excuse buying them. Not everything
need necessarily come from your homeschool budget, though. Do you
have a clothing budget? Homeschooling t-shirts are a fun encouragement
to your young homeschoolers and can be excellent, inexpensive conversation
starters. You can also shop exhibit halls for birthdays and special
events, thus saving yourself an extra trip to the store. Educational
items make great gifts, and the recipient need never be told that
Having decided how much you can spend, take only that much. Unless
you have tremendous self-control, leave your checkbook and credit
cards locked in the car so that you must think before you use them.
If you do take your checkbook, keep your drivers license handy
for ID purposes. If you take a credit card, keep a sticky note on
it for recording purchases and keeping a running total of your expenditures.
Know Your Schedule
If this is a conference, look at the workshop schedule first, then...
Block out time for desired workshops.
Block out time for lunch with friends (or alone).
Block out time to talk to specific exhibitors. This one step will
help you avoid having an important conversation interrupted by an
equally important workshop.
Allow for flexibility. You never know what will happen in a homeschool
conference. You may well encounter an especially helpful person
and not want to end your conversation early. If you're not overly
regimented in your schedule, you will have more freedom for such
Have at Least a Basic Shopping List
Prioritize it. Time and money are both valuable; take time to establish
your priorities before seeing foot in the exhibit hall and you will
save both time and money while you're there.
If you know you want certain things, buy them first; they may have
sold out later. They may be a pain to carry, but shipping adds up,
especially on heavy items, and many conferences have book-check
rooms or curbside pickup. And yes, the line may be long, but will
it be shorter before the product sells out?
Know what you don't want. Don't waste time on sales pitches
for things you cant possibly get any time soon. If you think
you might be interested in a product later, request a catalog instead.
Be flexible. (I've used that word a lot, haven't I? It's an important
key to a good exhibit hall experience.) Exhibit halls are for exploration
and discovery; you never know when you will find that perfect something
that either wasn't on your list or is just right to replace
another product that was.
Don't Go Alone
If you are new to this, try to take a veteran with you - someone
who knows the ins and outs of exhibit halls in general and, hopefully,
knows this particular conference. Even if you're an experienced
homeschooler, consider taking a friend with you. There is something
about being able to share the excitement that makes such a day much
Know the Exhibit Hall
If there is a map, mark important booths first thing; that's
why you have it!
If possible, walk the whole exhibit hall one time without buying
anything. Get a feel for the exhibitors and their wares before shopping.
Having walked the hall, go back and look at your schedule and exhibitor
list again. Are there more exhibitors, now, who might require longer
stays? Have you found that you can eliminate some exhibitors from
your earlier list?
At two day fairs - sleep on it. (Note: This does not apply to things
you know you need.) We usually need time for our thoughts to gel;
waiting until the second day to make our purchases gives us this
time. Get information (catalogs of interesting items) on day 1 -
then dig, read, talk, pray...
Prayer is the Christian's best option in any decision-making
situation. Also, God made a special promise to the Israelites that
I've learned through experience can be applied in this type of situation.
He told them, "I will lead you out in peace." Remember
that confusion and doubt are not of God and your path often becomes
more clear. You may consider following the two rules I live by.
"Follow after peace," and "When in doubt, don't."
Wear comfortable walking shoes.
Bring a calculator.
Grab your preprinted address labels; they're perfect for catalog
Keep all money in your pocket or a fanny pack and leave your purse
in the trunk of your car. (Yes, sad as it is, there are even thieves
wandering homeschool conferences.)
Backpacks or canvas bags are great for carrying purchases. Rolling
luggage bags can be good, but can also be in everyone else's
Don't lay purses, packages, etc. on vendor tables. They tend
to get in other customers' way, they're more easily forgotten
when you leave and they are more easily stolen. I tend to place
my packages on the floor between my feet. That way they're in no
one's way, harder to leave behind (I'll trip over them), and
harder to steal.
Watch out for brain fry and exhaustion. Do not underestimate how
much a homeschool conference, or even just a visit to an exhibit
hall, can take out of you. Conserve your resources! Take periodic
breaks; even sitting on the floor in a wide hallway helps. If brain
fry sets in, stop - sit down in the quietest spot available, nibble
on a snack (or real food) and drink some water, "Check out"
for at least a few minutes.
Your biggest potential enemies are low blood sugar (from lack of
food), dehydration, exhaustion and frustration. Frustration may
not seem like a real enemy, but it can lead to strife between us
and our neighbors and the Bible says that "Where there is strife
there is every evil thing". Evil things do not make for good
exhibit hall experiences.
Beware of impulse purchases. Consider these questions... It's
wonderful, but will it work in my home? It's wonderful and
would work, but will we use it? It's wonderful, will work,
and we'll use it, but is it really a non-essential toy that I want?
Now, buying non-essential toys that you want is not necessarily
a bad thing, but first make sure there's room both in the budget
and in the house. Also ask yourself these questions. Can I afford
to get it today? Would it displace a legitimate need? Is it worth
credit card debt (if I'd have to use a card)? Would I be better
off ordering it later?
Don't let an enthusiastic exhibitor/workshop speaker sell you
on something (either a teaching method or product) you don't
need. The speaker and what they're sharing may be wonderful
and their curriculum or methods still not work in your home. Again,
know your needs before you shop.
Thoughts From the Exhibitor's Side of the Table
Let me preface these thoughts with this. I began homeschooling
in 1991 and have been working around homeschoolers and homeschool
conferences ever since. I run a booth for my publisher at least
once a year and work in friends' booths at other conferences just
because it's a thing I love doing. In all my years of working conferences,
I have seen that certain things happen all too often, things that
make life harder on everyone. If you will, seriously consider the
following notes and suggestions.
Please remember that you are not the only one needing attention.
Yes, this sounds simple, but when you're frustrated or in a hurry
it is very easy to forget.
Wait patiently; no, he may not know you've been waiting longer
than the woman who just grabbed him.
If he leaves to get an item and doesn't come return quickly,
he probably got nailed by another customer and is doing his best
to get back to you. If he has forgotten you, a polite reminder is
Save your life story for later. The exhibitor is there specifically
to help you and he can do this more efficiently if you stick to
telling him what you need and why, rather than going into extra
details like how you got into homeschooling, the long route of reasoning
you took before you chose your homeschooling method, or how frustrating
it is that your Aunt Jane just doesn't understand. Exhibitors really
do care, but they are also well aware that both you and they are
short on time.
"The worker (exhibitor) is worthy of his hire." If an
exhibitor sells you on a product, buy it from him; it's only right.
You may save a dollar or two at a different booth or by ordering
from a discount catalog, but isn't his time worth at least
that much? Frankly, exhibiting costs a small fortune and product
markup isn't as much as you might think. Where the exhibitor is
concerned, time really is money.
Returns are bogus. Conferences are where many exhibitors make their
living and having product returned hurts. Also, checkout lines tend
to be long enough already; returns make them longer. Most importantly,
if you obey Rule #1, "Think before you buy", you will
almost never find yourself having to make returns.
Regarding "I'll take it now," vs. "Ship it please,"
many vendors offer free shipping on items ordered at the book fair
and this is an excellent offer to take advantage of. If they have
an item at the show, however, you need to take it with you unless
they ask you to let them ship it. This sounds obvious, but every
time I run a booth for my publisher I have several people who ask
us to ship everything they want instead of taking what we have in
stock and leaving us to ship only the out of stock items. This makes
sense to the customer because they don't need it today and will
avoiding having to carry the product around, but if those in stock
items don't sell before the end of the show the vendor is then stuck
having to get everything back to the home office and then back to
the customer. Since my publisher has always shipped books to me
at the fairs I've worked, that would mean them paying shipping three
times - to the fair, back from the fair, and then to the customer.
As I mentioned earlier, the profit on books is not what most people
think it is (even if you are the publisher); this type of multiplied
shipping can literally consume every penny of profit, especially
if you are not the publisher.
Open drink containers don't belong in booths. How many times
have sodas spilt and harassed exhibitors tried to be nice about
it? I couldn't even begin to count that high. It can be hard to
smile and stay gracious when you're watching your product's value
drop like a rock due to soda, or even water, damage.
Courtesy rules in all situations - "Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you."
Put that book back where you found it. Keeping everything in its
place makes for much less mess. It also ensures that the exhibitor
doesn't think he's sold out, leaving him to disappoint
someone else and possibly experience bodily harm. I type those words
with a smile on my face, but I'm actually serious. I worked a fair
last year where the end-of-fair story was about the exhibitor who
had to tell a customer that they'd sold out of a book (because there
were no copies where the book was supposed to be), only to have
another worker stumble across a copy while she and the customer
were speaking. When the other worker called out that she had found
a copy, the customer hit the exhibitor. In fact, the customer hit
her so hard that the bruises were big, ugly, and stayed for days
on end. Yes, the customer was seriously in the wrong, but taken
back to the beginning of the problem, we're talking a potential
assault case (No, the exhibitor did not even consider filing charges)
that would never have come about if someone hadn't carelessly buried
that one book.
Look out for the other guy. If you bump into someone, apologize
(right, most people don't), and don't fight over the last item;
it's not worth it.
The exhibitor is your friend. Ask the questions you need answers
to. Listen to the answers. Ask and listen more if necessary. The
exhibitor really is there specifically to serve you and is more
than willing to give you everything he can.
Your fellow homeschooler is your friend. Talk to the homeschoolers
around you and listen to what they have to say. Lunch and break
fellowships can also be invaluable. Be open to striking up conversations;
you never know where they will lead.
I love exhibit halls, both shopping and selling, and meeting all
the wonderful homeschoolers who fill them. I sincerely hope that
your exhibit hall experience is a great one!
Tammy Cardwell is the editor of the EHO Product Reviews Department
and the author of Front Porch History, a guide to researching and
sharing your family's heritage.
Copyright © 2002 Eclectic Homeschool Association