​Your Budget: Step One in Trade Show Planning​

by: Kevin Enebrad SHARE POST

When you are managing a trade show program, you are also managing what is probably the largest item in the marketing budget—and if not the largest, then the second largest. Because of that, the spotlight is on you. Here are some tips so you don’t get stage fright.

Determine whether you are going to the right show for your company

Don’t spend money going to a show for which your ROI looks iffy. Any shows that you are seriously considering should make audit data available to exhibitors. By studying this data, you will discover which job categories are represented in your industry at a particular show. You will learn where people live—and today that can be almost anywhere since trade shows are global in reach—and what the extent of their buying power. If there is no audit and the exhibitor prospectus does not give you a breakdown of attendee demographics, think twice about exhibiting at that show.

Create a budget

There is a rule of thumb that says you can estimate your budget for any given trade show by multiplying the cost of your space by three. If you have not been given a budget by finance, using that formula is as good a way as any to determine the amount you need, show by show. If you have data from attending a particular show in the past, you can divide past expenditures by the number of square feet in the space and come up with an average cost per square foot; use that number to determine a budget for the upcoming show.

Let’s take the budget breakdown for a single show. Do you know where the biggest expense is? Exhibit space, representing a whopping 39% of your budget. Here is the breakdown, on a cost per show basis and not including the purchase of an exhibit: (Source: Center for Exhibition Industry Research [CEIR] data)

Exhibit space39%
Travel & entertainment (T & E)14%
Show services11%
Exhibit design, including graphics11%
Shipping of exhibit materials9%
On-site promotional materials5%
Off-show floor promotional expenses3%
On-site sponsorship/advertising3%
Pre-show promotion2%
Lead management and measurement2%
Exhibit staff training1%

Building an exhibit

According to the Exhibit Designers & Producers Association (EDPA), you should expect to pay from $138-$154.50 per square foot for a custom exhibit while in-line exhibits cost approximately $1,000 per linear foot. Thinking of renting an exhibit? Exhibit rentals can be a budget-friendly solution. You don’t have to capitalize the expense, and you can save 25-40%. Exhibit rentals can be not only functional but very attractive.

Remember, this is an expense in addition to the per show costs, but with regular refurbishment, your exhibit can last as long as five years. Much depends on how many shows you attend. It’s a good idea to include a dollar amount for exhibit refurbishing when you aren’t actually building a new exhibit. Your exhibit builder can advise how much to set aside.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Don’t go it alone!

Don’t try to do this all yourself. Find an experienced trade show partner. You will NOT save money handling everything yourself. When and if disaster strikes, you will have experienced exhibit professionals by your side to help you correct the situation. People who have been part of the exhibit industry for years will know what to do if the truck carrying your freight breaks down or if a crate gets lost. Trade show managers intent on proving that they are indispensable because they do it all themselves get labeled as tacticians, easily replaceable by an outsource solution. Your trade show partner will take on much of the tactical work so that your time is free to do intelligent planning.

Moreover, a trusted partner will help you find the best resources for show floor labor, for shipping materials, for suppliers of AV equipment, digital media, furniture, etc. The people who work at an exhibit house know the venues, the labor situation from city to city, and the show management companies—and that’s for starters. A good partner will advise you on the weight of the exhibit and how you can save money by reducing the weight; on structures that will give you high identity without the cost of rigging; and on directing your dollars to support customer-facing initiatives rather than spending money on behind-the-scenes items such as transportation and material handling.

Plan the show, work the plan

The discipline involved in creating a written plan is necessary to justify the budget. The plan is what you show to senior management and/or finance when you are asked why you are asking for funds. Your plan should include:

  • Why you are going to the show.
  • What you hope to accomplish by going to the show.
  • How you are working with product teams to make the show successful.

Part of your plan should also include meeting deadlines. By making sure that you pay your service charges by the deadline date for discounts, you will save a lot of money. Your exhibit partner can be invaluable in setting up timelines.

Check your bill at the close of the show. There are many exhibitors getting their bills at the same time—and there are just as many opportunities for error.

Be a team player

The best way to start your trade show planning is to collaborate with the product and/or brand managers. Their budgets help fund your work, and you want to make sure you understand their interests so that you can represent them well. By getting their buy in, you will have additional support for your budget.

The same holds for sales. You are going to depend on the sales manager for good exhibit personnel and for overseeing lead follow-up, among other things. In case your sales team does not understand the value of face-to-face marketing, ask your exhibit partner for statistics that demonstrate how effective trade shows can be—and how trade shows integrate with other marketing channels to contribute to revenue. You might even suggest sharing budgets with sales on developing, for example, interactive presentations that can be used both in the exhibit and in the field. Collaborating across departments is a critical part of your job as exhibit manager.


From time to time, every company has to tighten its belt, and you may be asked to make cuts to your budget. A few hacks that can help are:

  • Use local reps to cut down on T & E.
  • Produce digital graphics instead of mounting images on substrates; you will not only save on production but also on freight.
  • Work with show management to see what kind of help is available; show managers want you to continue to exhibit, and they can help with cost cutting.
  • When in doubt, allocate funds to customer-facing initiatives.
  • Don’t cut the bottom two items—lead management and measurement and exhibit staff training. These two minor expenses will help you not only realize a positive ROI but will also allow you to demonstrate your success to the rest of the company.

About the Author

Kevin Enebrad Director, Client Services

Kevin is a force in Access’ west coast office where his sales skills win business in a cross-section of industries, ranging from medical to cosmetics and from technology to consumer electronics.