Trade show attendees walking on a red carpet, carrying bags

This week, I’ve been working on one of my least favorite things: the budget. Specifically, next year’s trade show exhibit budget. I’ve got this activity down to an hour or two, but when I was just starting out it took me days to create the first trade show budget. Why? Trade shows have hidden costs–things you never know about until you start the paperwork.

If you’ve exhibited at a few conventions, you could write this post. This is for those who haven’t been there yet; it’s the post I desperately wished for while drafting my first trade show budget.

This list assumes a few things. You’ve already talked with your sales people and management, and you have an exhibit strategy–a reason you are going to these shows, and the “go-ahead” to dig into the pricing. You have a booth, or at least the hardware to put your graphics on. You have a plan for following up on the leads you collect (if you don’t have this, don’t bother going).

Read the fine print for every show. Some shows include a table and chairs with your booth rental fee; others include nothing. Electricity is rarely included. You might be required to provide proof of liability insurance. You will probably be prohibited from hand-carrying anything into the exhibit hall or using tools to build your booth.

I am providing the numbers below from memory, and nearly a decade of experience with exhibit paperwork. The numbers are estimates. Your best guide to planning next year’s expenses is this year’s actual costs. But if you’re just getting started with trade shows, you’ll have to estimate. At the least, you can probably find the booth rental costs on the show websites, and use the current year’s as a placeholder.

Trade show expenses fall into a few categories: services, giveaways, the booth itself and staffing. The cost to rent your booth space is just the beginning of your trade show budget. This post will cover services, things you will need to purchase in addition to renting your booth space.

Services

In the exhibitor kit, look for the forms with these names. (Trade shows require lots of paperwork.)

  • Material handling – Whether your show is in a convention center or a hotel ballroom, you will almost certainly not be allowed to bring in your own supplies. Don’t expect to back your car up to the loading dock to get your booth there. Due to union labor restrictions, you’ll have to pay material handling fees for your shipment. Overtime is extra, and many shows require set-up on evenings or weekends. “Special handling” is extra too–if you send shipments via FedEx or UPS, you’ll have to pay this. If you carry a box to the exhibit hall door, you’ll have to pay it too, because they’ll have to call someone to carry it in for you. Material handling charges are by the pound, in 100-pound increments (called CWT). If you have a small booth and a few boxes of giveaways, budget for about 200 pounds of freight. Remember that the charges will be in both directions–to the show, and home again. Budget ~$300 each way for a small, basic booth (and be thrilled if your actuals are lower).
  • Shipping – You don’t have to use the show carrier. You can pick a carrier (I’ve used Distribution by Air for years), and request actual quotes for future shipping from their websites. I use the same carrier for all of my shows, so I can use a blanket purchase order; if your company requires purchase requisitions/orders for every expense, this will help you cut down the paperwork. Like material handling, shipping is by the pound. Be sure to budget for driver waiting time for large shows; you’ll be charged by the hour for the driver’s time while he queues up at the loading dock. Budget varies widely depending on locations of your shows. Get actual estimates from a shipping company, and ask them about any extra fees/time for clearing customs for international shows.
  • Furniture – If your booth doesn’t include a table, chairs and wastebasket, you’ll need to rent those. You’ll need to choose the color for your table draping (included), or bring your own tablecloth (I recommend this–you can get one with your logo for a relatively small investment). Costs are per day, anywhere from $25/day for a trash can to a couple hundred for a table. Budget $350/day for a basic table, two chairs and trash can, but note that fees vary widely depending on the exhibit service company. Sofas and fancy furniture cost more.
  • Cleaning – Want that trash can you rented emptied? That’s extra, as is daily vacuuming of your booth carpet. Add a couple hundred dollars for these services, charged by day, for the length of your show.
  • Carpet – If your show is in a hotel ballroom, you can probably skip the carpet (but read the fine print to be sure). If it’s in a convention center, you’ll have to rent carpet. And padding. I cannot stress this enough: pay for the best possible carpet padding you can rent. It’s the only thing standing between concrete floors and your increasingly tired feet for 8-to-10-hour stretches. If you have good carpet padding, people will come talk to you just to stand on it. Budget $250/day for carpet.
  • Electricity – Power is not usually included in your booth rental fee. Don’t assume you’ll be near an outlet; even if you are, you can’t just plug in your booth light (union rules again). Budget $125/day for one power outlet.
Those are the basics. Be sure to fill out the “method of payment” form from the exhibit services company; this form recaps all the services you are ordering, and provides your credit card information to the vendor. Note that electricity, AV, internet and floral vendors are usually separate companies/forms.
Now, the extras.
  • Internet – If you require web access for your booth, you’ll pay dearly for it. My last major convention in DC charged $1,000 for in-booth internet. If you can live without it, do. Cost varies widely by venue; haven’t seen one yet that offers free wi-fi. 
  • Lead retrieval – Electronic lead retrieval (badge scanners) are a good investment for large shows. They will save you a lot of time after the show on data entry, and make follow-up much easier. Budget $1000/show to rent one. (And be sure to install any software before the show.)
  • AV rentals – If you need monitors, TVs, microphones or other AV equipment, you’ll need to rent them separately. Cost varies widely based on what you need. 
  • Flowers – If you want to dress up your booth, you can rent flower arrangements by the day. Budget $100/day to rent a couple basic mums. (And be sure no one walks off with them–I had to stop a show attendee once from absconding with my potted plant.)
  • Labor – If building your booth requires tools, you’ll have to pay for union labor. Cost varies widely depending on your setup; you won’t need this if you have a basic, small pop-up booth.
More on the giveaways, booth and staffing later. In the meantime, you might find these 6 Trade Show Marketing Tips from Siobhan Connellan or the Skyline Trade Show Tips site helpful.
Have you encountered other “hidden” trade show fees?
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