First you will have to find the show that is right for you. Bridal shows are generally held between January-May for Winter/Spring shows and August-November for Summer/Fall Shows.
The Internet is a great place to look for bridal shows in your area. When searching, be sure to visit the producers site. There you should be able to determine how many vendors they will have, the location and other pertinent information.
In California, go to: www.californiabridalevents.com
Wedding Associations, local magazines, and newspapers can be another source.
I hate to say it, but the old story rings true... you get what you pay for. When a producer offers a free show, you can bet that not only will there be brides and grooms seeking services for their event, but there will also be folks just looking for free goodies, taking up the time that you really need with exhibitors in the hopes that they will win a prize. If you can, head to shows that have a small fee, it does weed through the "prize seekers". Generally speaking, bridal show entry fees range from $5 - $20, depending on the market you are in.
If you are going to attend the latest trend of bridal shows, "wedding planning seminars" you can anticipate an entry fee costing $30 - $150. Normally they include a meal (a champagne brunch, or dinner), seminar speakers on the how-to's of wedding planning, a fashion show, and some provide live entertainment.
The Fashion Shows:
Check the producer's website to get the fashion show schedule, whether you are looking for a gown or not.
If you are looking for a gown, this will help you plan the time that you will need to spend at the show. Most fashion shows are 20 minutes to an hour, depending on what other activities the producer has planned on stage (prize giveaways, contests, entertainment, etc.) Plan on giving yourself at least 1-3 hours before the fashion show to talk with exhibitors, unless you are only going for the fashion show portion.
If you are NOT LOOKING FOR A GOWN:
If you are not looking for a gown, the fashion show is a great time to talk with the exhibitors, because most everyone will be seated at the stage, giving the exhibitors a better opportunity to give you the attention you are looking for from them!
Make a list (either yourself, or with the help of your wedding consultant) of the products and services to add to your shopping list. Be sure to write the budgetary allowance for each line item, so that you are prepared to stay within your budget.
At the Show:
Cell phone: If your camera has a photo feature, you can snap a few shots of the fashion shows when a gown you just love comes down the runway! Be sure to write teh designer's name down in your notebook. It will help when you call the boutique that is hosting the fashion show as they will know exactly which gowns were featured.
Focus on the products or services you need and stay on track. Just like any form of shopping, straying from your shopping list can take up precious shopping time time from you and from other brides who do need those services...
Self addressed labels with your contact information and wedding date will save you A LOT OF TIME at any show. They are handy and a brilliant way to breeze through the tedious task of writing the same information 100 times in a day! Your labels should include your name, address, email address, phone number, and wedding date. If there are services that you have already secured, you may want to write on the labels (do not need a photographer, dj, etc.)... Most producers will have a note's area for the bride's list and will insert that information, saving you from receiving unwanted mail from providers of service you already have.
Bring your check book in case you would like to secure services with a deposit on site.
ASK QUESTIONS ! Make sure you ask a lot of "what if" questions and questions regarding their expierience (how many clients per year, how many years in the business, is this their full-time position, will they bring assistance on the day of your wedding, do they have pictures of their work, etc.)
Wear comfortable shoes. If the show is a large show (60 or more vendors) you will want to plan on spending 3-5 hours visiting with vendors, watching fashion shows and participating in contests. You don't want your feet to give out just when you are finding what you need.
Bring lots of water!
Relax . This will be a great time for you to spend with your fiance, mom and bridesmaids to have some fun!