Your Trade Show Budget: Understand Where the Dollars Go


One line-item on the corporate marketing budget always stands out as either the largest or at least one of the largest expenditures: ‘trade shows.’  To explain where the dollars go, you need to explain cost allocation. The best way to do this is to review the top budget items for a single show.

Do you know what the biggest expense is? Exhibit space, which represents a whopping 35% of your budget. After space, show services, exhibit design, and shipping are next.

Exhibit space35%
Show services13%
Exhibit design, including graphics11%
Shipping of exhibit materials9%

Here is a primer to help you spend your budget wisely and well. (Source: Center for Exhibition Industry Research [CEIR] data)

Exhibit Space

According to a report conducted by audit company BPA, more than fifty percent of CMOs and marketing directors believe space and location on the exhibit floor are the two most critical factors in maximizing ROI.

With the right location, an exhibit is likely to attract the lion’s share of attendees. The higher the number of visitors, the greater the opportunities for raising awareness, collecting qualified leads, and building and solidifying relationships.

However, selecting a prime location can be complicated. You must determine how much money you have at your disposal and how much space you really need. More than that, you have to learn how space is allocated, particularly in the case of applying priority points.

Cost-Saving Tips

  • Evaluate your space options. If your dream space is beyond your reach, study the floor plan and ask:
  1. Where are the entrances? Will these doors be open during show hours?
  2. What path do attendees take to get from educational sessions to the show floor?
  3. Are there networking areas or snack stations that will provide traffic for the exhibits nearby?
  • If your heart says 40 x 40, but your head says 20 x 30, can you use a deck in your exhibit to increase your floor space?
  • Select your space as early as possible. Many shows offer space selection for next year’s show during the current show. If you receive a time slot to pick your space, show up!
  • If you are a small or new-ish exhibitor, talk to show management about your needs. They are your ally. You might select a space at your appointed time but mention that you would prefer a more visible location should something open up. The truth is, if you’re selecting space a year in advance, anything could happen. Show managers want exhibitors at their shows, and they want them to be happy—they will help you.

Show Services

The term “show services” represents a combination of essentials for your exhibit and optional add-ons. There is usually an Official Show Contractor (OSC), but you can also use other companies, known as “EACs” or Exhibitor Appointed Contractors. The official show contractor usually provides services that are not competitive with EACs such as freight, material handling, and hall signage. Often, they provide rigging and utilities.

The pricing of show services takes into account many factors, including local union rates and the pricing model set by the show organizer. You may presume that what you spent at the show last year when it was in Orlando will be the same this year when the show is in Philadelphia, but that’s not the way it works. Union jurisdictions, what local labor laws allow you to do on your own, and a host of other considerations determine what you will spend in each venue. 

Cost-Saving Tips:

  • Study the show manual so you’re aware of event information, rules, and regulations.
  • The show manual will also give you dates for ordering your services. There are significant discounts for ordering early.
  • Depend on your exhibit house for guidance. 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. The right partner will tell you how you can save money by:
  1. reducing the weight of the exhibit
  2. achieving high identity without incurring rigging charges
  3. directing your dollars to support customer-facing initiatives rather than spending money on behind-the-scenes items such as transportation and material handling.
  • Although you may be tempted to order show services yourself to save money, that’s not a good idea. When and if disaster strikes, having experienced exhibit professionals by your side to help you correct the situation is well worth the small incremental cost. People who have been part of the exhibit industry for years know what to do if the truck carrying your freight breaks down or if a crate gets lost.

Exhibit Design:

Creating a memorable exhibit experience that facilitates engagement is a significant part of your brand promise at trade shows. Size is not a determinant. Your budget, whatever it is, can provide an experience that resonates with your attendees.

When you begin working with an exhibit designer, communicate your goals and how you want the environment to work. Sharing your strategy from the onset of the design process will help keep everything on track. Your exhibit is more than properties that fill the space; it is a backdrop for an interactive experience between your brand and attendees that will bring about engagement and loyalty among your target audience.

Don’t forget that the word ‘interactive’ implies both analog and digital experiences. If your budget does not allow you to adopt the latest and greatest technology, the person-to-person encounter is still the pillar of the trade show experience.

Cost-Saving Tips:

  • Consider the pros and cons of both buying and renting an exhibit. Ask your exhibit partner to help you with the decision.
  • Ask questions about the choice of materials. If your company’s brand promise includes a sustainability initiative, make that a part of your conversation.
  • Talk about the weight of the specified materials. Make every effort to keep your transportation and material handling rates in line.
  • Be mindful of customer-facing initiatives as opposed to the hidden costs of exhibiting. Where you can, minimize the latter.
  • Digital graphics will allow you to make changes to your messages from show to show.

Shipping and Transportation

You have two options when you ship to a venue: advanced warehouse delivery or on-site delivery.

  1. If you can work it into your timeline, advanced warehouse delivery is a great option. With advanced warehouse delivery, the OSC can store freight at its warehouse for up to 30 days in advance of the show. You can also rest easy knowing that your shipment has already arrived on site.
  2. Alternatively, you can have your freight delivered on-site directly to your space on the day(s) of setup, at a time specified by the organizer. On-site delivery can be more expensive due to the costs of expedited carriers and freight forwarding.

Cost-Savings Tips:

As a rule of thumb, you can save up to 15% with advance warehouse delivery over on-site delivery. If that is not an option:

  • Consider packaging your inbound and outbound shipping needs and choose a provider with trade show transportation experience
  • Confirm inbound shipping. Shipments sent from your facility to the event require certified weight tickets.
  • Confirm outbound shipping. Shipments sent from the show back to your facility or on to the next show require a material handling agreement.
  • Avoid rush charges. Earlier is better.

Once again, rely on the expertise of your exhibit partner rather than trying to figure this out yourself. Most exhibit houses have negotiated rates with trusted carriers, and if your shipment and another exhibitor’s shipment are going to the same show from the same warehouse, you will experience economies of scale. You will also have an advocate who will provide recourse if something goes wrong on the way to the event site.

Wondering what to do with the leftover budget dollars? CEIR’s findings tell us that exhibitors spend on the following:

On-site promotional materials5%
Off-show floor promotional expenses3%
On-site sponsorship/advertising3%
Pre-show promotion2%
Lead management and measurement2%
Exhibit staff training1%
Travel & entertainment14%

Let us help you get the most from your exhibit dollars. Schedule a free strategy session with us today.

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