Trade Show Preparation

August 22, 2019 | Trade Shows

Tina Nicola, M.A.

Tina is the founder of and has been creating profitable marketing and exhibit strategies for startups, small businesses and nonprofits for over nineteen years. Her main goal is to broaden access to the techniques she has developed so anyone can benefit and improve exhibiting strategy, sales conversations and follow up.

Trade Show Preparation, Step #1— Research Trade Shows

We won’t mince words: Trade shows are expensive. That’s why the most important step in any trade show preparation strategy is deciding which trade shows are right for you.

Evaluating if a trade show can meet your company’s sales goals is the first– and critical– step to a solid trade show preparation strategy. We’ve seen companies blow literally tens of thousands of dollars because they did not heed this advice and thoroughly evaluate a trade show before committing.

  • When? 6-12 months before
  • How? Internet Research, Word-of-mouth, Industry Magazines

Has your sales rep insisted on attending this trade show? Still, do the research, or make them do it. Sales reps aren’t spending their own money to attend expensive shows. For them, a trade show’s ROI for your company is often a secondary consideration.

Review your Target Market

Before researching trade shows, review your sales goals. What target markets do you want to reach? Consider the following…

  • Who are your customers? (by industry)
  • Who are the decision-makers in that industry? What roles do they hold in their organizations? Example: Director? Tech Manager? Wife?
  • What trade organizations (and thus trade shows) serve that industry? Make a list.

Create a Spreadsheet

Create a spreadsheet to track your research. We like Google Docs because it is free and easy to share with any staff you need to work with.

Add each trade show you want to research in a ‘tab’ and include the same criteria for each like this:

The question you are trying to answer is: “Is this Trade Show right for me?”

Trade Show Criteria

Go to the trade show website. Get the answers to all the following questions.

This information should mostly be available in the Exhibitor section of the Trade Show website. It might be called ‘Profile of Attendees’ or ‘Exhibit Information’ or ‘Exhibitor Prospectus’ etc.

  • Who attends this trade show? Are the industries in your target market?
  • Who exhibits at this trade show?
  • What % of attendees are likely to be decision makers for your type of product?
  • What will it cost to attend? Use the spreadsheet.
  • ‘Official’ presentation opportunities—Are there any?

This should give you a snapshot of what industries attend and what roles the attendees have in their organization. These stats are based on previous shows. Here’s an example:

Trade Show Preparation by Researching ‘Profile of Attendees’

Look at the exhibitor list—are your competitors on it? If you are also a B2B company, you might also look to see if your customers are exhibiting. Just remember that exhibitors are there to sell, so pitching your wares to other exhibitors should be done by setting up meetings off the show floor.

Do the Math!

In addition to creating a profile for the Trade Show, you’ll want to estimate all the critical costs, including…

Estimate Trade Show Costs

  • Booth Cost – This is just cost for the exhibit space. You will need to calculate costs of signage, carpet and electronics separately.
  • Carpet – Is it included with booth cost? Is the exhibit hall already carpeted
  • Shipping Fees – Fees to ship stuff you’ll need in your exhibit space.
  • Union Fees – Read the fine print to see if any may apply
  • Signage – What will it cost to print signage and rent booth properties from the trade show? If you own already, what will it cost to transport that to your exhibit area?
  • Electricity – For lights, televisions, computers, etc.
  • Internet – Will you need access to internet?
  • Marketing Promo – Brochures, business cards, handouts, price quotes etc.
  • Hotel Cost – Trade Shows typically have ‘show rates’ during the exhibition. Rates can differ from night to night depending on when your staff arrives.
  • Travel Cost – Flights? Train? Car rentals? Taxis?
  • Email List Rental – Great pre-marketing depends on letting show attendees know where your exhibit is and what you offer. Cheapest and easiest way to do this is by email. Find out attendee email list is available to vendors and how much it costs to rent.
  • Exhibitor Attendance Fees – Hard to believe, but yes in addition to paying for exhibit space you may have to pay an entrance fee for each staff member working the exhibit. Sometimes there are a limited number of ‘complimentary’ passes for exhibitors.

Pricing Exhibit Space; Booth, Travel and Hotel Costs

You’ll quickly realize that calculating the cost of a trade show depends on the size of the exhibit space.

At small shows (a few hundred attendees), exhibit size is less important from a traffic standpoint. You still want to choose location well, but when the show floor is small, attendees will typically pass by all the exhibits at least once.

At large shows, exhibit size is much more important. Big players in an industry tend to spring for exhibit spaces. Bigger exhibit spaces are more often found along main aisles where traffic is more frequent. Without fantastic pre-marketing, a small poorly-located booth in this kind of venue could literally go hours without seeing a potential customer pass by.

Plan for at least two exhibit staff for every 10×10 exhibit space

In a small 10×10 space (usually called an ‘inline booth’) you can sometimes get away with just one staff. However, then you cannot accommodate food and restroom breaks, guarding valuables in the exhibit area, scheduled meetings with potential customers during exhibit hours, etc.

Below is an real-life example of a Trade Show Cost Estimation we did a few years back:

Trade Show Preparation using a Costs Spreadsheet

Decide: Which Trade Show is worth it?

You’ve created a snapshot for each Trade Show under consideration. You’ve done a rough calculation of what it will cost you to exhibit at each of these trade shows. Now, ask yourself:

How many of the show’s attendees are decision makers for your product/s in your target market?

Let’s say a show will cost $5,000 to attend. That trade show expects 300 attendees. Only 10% of attendees have ‘decision maker’ roles for any product (that’s 30 people).

Of course, only a fraction of those 30 people will be decision makers for your type of product based on the industries you see are attending.

In this case, you need to decide: is access to around 10 potential customers worth a $5,000 investment? How many ‘sales’ would that trade show have to result in for the ROI to be worth it to your company?

Choose wisely. When Less is More with Trade Shows!

The cost of deciding to exhibit at a trade show too hastily goes behind the money invested. Believe it or not, there is often a PR price to be paid for deciding NOT to exhibit the following year.

For you, the decision to not exhibit again at a trade show might be purely economical—it wasn’t profitable or you want to invest your marketing dollars elsewhere.

For them (your potential customers) this is the message that not exhibiting again often communicates:

  • “They aren’t prioritizing our industry!”
  • “They can’t afford to attend this year—The company is in trouble!”

It takes very little to start the rumor mill flying in many industries. You can be sure that your competitors who ARE still attending the trade show will spin your absence any way they can to their benefit.

This can be especially frustrating if your company is a start up. The first time you attend a specific trade show is just considered an introduction for risk-averse customers. They are waiting to see you at that trade show repeatedly to confirm to them that you are a real player.

That’s why it’s often better to exhibit at less trade shows, but choose them wisely. Especially if you are a new company or introducing yourself to a new market!

Trade Show Preparation, Step #2— Book Exhibit Space

You’ve evaluated trade shows and picked one or more that promise to be a good investment for your company or organization. Now what?

Location, location, location! Foot traffic to your exhibit is critical to having a profitable trade show. It helps immensely to be along a main aisle, on a corner or near an attraction.

Choose Exhibit Space

When it comes to exhibit space, the early bird gets the worm. In fact, it’s not uncommon for regular exhibitors at a trade show to start putting exhibit space requests in at the end of the previous year’s show. Sometimes, regular exhibitors do get priority in picking spaces.

Trade shows handle exhibit space booking in various ways. Some large shows actually run a ‘lottery’ for choosing exhibit space. Research as early as possible how exhibit spaces are requested for the trade show you are interested in.

Decide on Exhibit Size

Cost of exhibit space may in large part dictate what size of space you can consider. Keep in mind: the larger the booth, the more staff are required to run it. We typically plan for 2 staff for each 10x10ft of exhibit space.

That means your cost calculations should have taken into account staff needed, with travel and hotels estimated accordingly.

How to Choose an Exhibit Location

  • Get a Show Floor Map – This map may be online, a downloadable pdf on the show site, or available by request.
  • Determine what is still available – Make sure you understand what spaces are actually still available.
  • Find out where the main aisles are – You want to be near foot traffic. Ask the show reps but also try to talk to previous show exhibitors if you can. If there are multiple entrances on the map, where is the main one? Where are entrance badges checked? What are the routes to snacks and eating locations?
  • Find out where your competitors are – If a venue is big enough to have themed areas, try to secure a space in your industry area. If you are looking for a small exhibit space, being within eyesight of a competitor with a large space can help drive traffic to YOUR space. If you are considering a large booth space, you may want to steer clear of direct competitors to avoid them poaching your traffic.

Corner spaces are particularly attractive for the simple reason that you have the chance to catch traffic from two directions.

Talk to the trade show organizer and ask questions! Understanding a trade show floor map and how traffic flows at that venue is often something better explained by the trade show organizer.

Ask other exhibitors (who aren’t direct competitors) for their advice on picking a good exhibit space location for that trade show venue.

How Choosing an Exhibit Space Works

Usually, choosing an exhibit space is a matter completing a form with your top 3-5 booth spaces listed in order of preference.

You may also be asked if there are any companies you do NOT want to be located near on the trade show floor. If you are prepared to fork out big bucks for a large exhibit space, feel free to make your preferences known.

No good spaces left?

If you cannot find a space that meets your criteria, skip the show! Your exhibit space should be…

  • In your budget
  • In a location likely to see traffic
  • Good ROI for your company

Trade Show Preparation, Step #3 —Create a Schedule

After you’ve decided at which Trade Show you plan to exhibit, it’s time to get organized! That means creating a calendar in whatever way works best for you.

An effective trade show preparation strategy depends on organization. There are many important deadlines you must plan for in order for your trade show exhibit to be a success.

  • When? At least 6 months before
  • How? Calendar or List with auto-reminders

Trade Show Preparation, Step #4 — Staff Training

If you’ve been following along, you know you are spending big bucks on whatever trade show you attend. Sadly, at this stage many companies fail to invest adequate resources in trade show staff training. Want your trade show to be profitable? Trade show training cannot be an afterthought.

It is highly likely you may have staff who are not full-time sales professionals working at your trade show exhibit. This means, without training, these folks are likely to be no more than warm bodies. They will not have the slightest clue how to actively work a trade show exhibit to maximize your ROI. At the very least, your staff should be trained in Trade Show Etiquette, however a list of do’s and don’ts is not enough.

Luckily, trade show staff training — even for beginners— does not have to be complicated. At, we’ve developed Tradeshow Basecamp™ to help you prepare your team to sell like pros.

Read our article on trade show staff training to find the Tradeshow Basecamp™ solution that’s right for you! With eBooks and online video courses, there are solutions for every budget.

Tradeshow Basecamp™

Our acclaimed course series, a complete program designed to help you have profitable trade shows. Get instant access to the full course series (101, 102, 103, 104).

Be fully prepared for your next event and earn your  Certified Tradeshow Basecamp Exhibitor™ (CTBE™) today!

Training a team? Check out our For Teams course series.

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