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An Introduction to Interior Design Show Houses: Part 2

When is it Worth it to Design For a Show House?

In the second of a three-part series, we look at the cost versus potential benefits of participating in an interior design show house, plus offer a strategy for maximizing the outcome of the investment.


Now that you’ve learned the fundamentals of interior design show houses, you’re naturally wondering if participating in a show house is the right move for your interior design business. Before applying to be considered – or, if you’re so lucky, accepting an invitation to design a room for the show – it's important to know the risk vs. reward. 


Here, we’ll analyze the costs, how they compare to the potential benefits of participating in a show house, when in your career to make the investment, and which smaller show houses provide the best opportunities for first-timers, as it can take multiple tries over several years to be accepted by one of the major players. 


How Much Does It Cost to Participate in a Show House? 

Taking part in a show house is a substantial investment for an interior designer. Some costs are obvious, while others are less so and can add up to a surprising amount. If not properly planned, joining a show house can be a highly stressful experience. 


Before taking the plunge, assess the financial realities by doing the following: 

  • Tally up all of the potential costs of traveling and showcasing
  • Ensure you have the liquid funds to invest, as the process moves quickly over a few short months.
  • Make sure you still have room left in your marketing budget for the year, since you’ll need to step up your marketing and public relations efforts before and after to maximize the exposure you receive from the event. 


There are a few primary costs associated with participating in a show house, including the following:

  1. Participation Fees: The first cost to consider is the fee some show houses charge to participate. Not all of them have a fee, but others do, particularly smaller, regional show houses with fewer sponsorship dollars to support the cost of running the show. 
  2. Furniture, Lighting – and Everything Else: Most show houses offer the space as a blank canvas with white, gallery quality painted walls, and the labor for electrical installations. Many also facilitate access to the vendors that are sponsoring the event, which can be helpful to less experienced designers seeking donated or borrowed decor. After that, it falls on the designer to source the furniture, lighting, wall coverings, paint, etc. that will populate the designated space. Most designers receive the majority of materials as donations from vendors with whom they already have a relationship, and access to pieces is directly correlated to the strength of the relationship. Designers may have to pay out of pocket to rent, or even buy pieces they really want for their designs but cannot get on loan. Of course, with such a short lead time, all items used will have to be available for quick ship. 
  3. Shipping Fees: Speaking of shipping, regardless of whether the items are paid for, borrowed, or donated, the designer will have to pay for shipping and handling, which can rack up well into the mid-five figures in locations like New York City. Designers will also incur costs for certain specialties in installation or painting, like a wall mural. 
  4. Your Time: Not to be taken for granted is the cost of your working time as a designer and that of your employees, if applicable. How many hours is this project going to take? What is that worth in payroll dollars? What projects will you be putting on hold while you’re participating in a show house? As an interior designer, it’s crucial to always know the dollar value of your time

How Does an Interior Designer Benefit From a Show House?

The most powerful benefit of participating in a show house is the exposure it will bring to your design practice. Your colleagues, industry movers and shakers, and other high-profile purveyors of design will directly experience your work in-person and get to know your personality, which alone can elevate your career to new heights. Add the media exposure – which can cast a wide net across various national and main-stream outlets, depending on the show house – and your brand will get a huge bump in visibility and awareness with both industry insiders and the public at large.  Not to mention the boost you can give your own website and social media pages.  

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Of course, a lot of what you’re doing at a show house is networking – it’s your job to mingle, make connections, and impress as many people as possible with your talent, charm, and wit. And while networking is a soft skill, it’s you who can measure it by tangible results. You'll know pretty quickly if your experience was worth it based on how many new connections, or strengthening of existing relationships, you experienced as a result of the show house. In terms of tracking its generation of new business, track new clients you were able to secure through the show house over one-month, three-month, six-month, and one-year intervals. Track the income earned from these new clients and how long it took to recoup your investment, and how much overall return the experience yielded over one year, three years, and five years. Keep this information to compare to future experiences.  


Timing the Investment to Maximize Boosts to Your Career

Participating in a show house can be the right choice throughout your career as a designer, for different reasons. One of the common misconceptions about show houses is that they only accept portfolio submissions from known or highly experienced designers. The truth is that the organizing committee is looking for a mix of designers that are experienced, yes, but also for buzz-worthy participants with less experiences and fresh faces with the potential to be future stars. 


Participating in a show house can be an explosive way to launch a career in interior design‒ just make sure you have the operational infrastructure in place to handle the large volume of inquiries you will (hopefully!) be flooded with at the very early stage when you don’t have a lot of hands-on experience working in the field. It may also make sense to make the investment of participating in a show house when you’re established and ready to get to the next level in your master growth plan, or when you seek to revive a career that has been declining or plateauing for a while.  


Which Show Houses Should You Apply To?

If you are seeking to land a room in a show house for the first time, by all means apply to the big names and see what happens, but you can also apply to smaller, regional show houses to secure an entry point into the show house circuit. There are hundreds of regional show houses, so it helps to strategically target those that will reap the most benefit to you. If you are seeking to build your reputation and client base locally, target the closest show houses to where your business is based. If you are seeking to take your business into new regions, target show houses in cities that have a thriving design culture that are within a reasonable distance from your home base. Some of these include the following:


Now that you understand the economics of participating in an interior design show house, you can decide if you’re ready to take the risk to reap the rewards. In the next installment of this three-part series on interior design show houses, you’ll learn how to master your first show house experience without running out of time, resources, or sanity- which can be tested during the hectic weeks leading up to the big debut. 

Margot LaScala
Margot LaScala
Margot is a writer and interior designer based in the NYC area. She is passionate about keeping up with the latest architecture and design news to not only stay informed, but inspired.

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