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Exhibit Hall Survival Skills

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By Tammy M. Cardwell

Exhibit 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 style.

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 not fluff!

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 it.

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 he's learning.

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 driver’s 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 things.

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 can’t 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 more fun.

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?

Miscellaneous Suggestions

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 requests.

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 way

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 usually sufficient.

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.

Final Notes

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

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