How to Maximize Your Trade Show Budget

January 7, 2016

This blog post comes from guest contributor Mel White, of Classic Exhibits. In many ways, trade shows mirror the financial demographics of a nation. There is the upper echelon––those companies with massive (40 x 50 or larger) island exhibits at industry shows, like Sony, Caterpillar, or GE. This type of company, though relatively rare, can have a trade show budget that most of us envy. Then there are the regular corporate exhibitors, i.e. the middle class of exhibiting. They have smaller islands or in-lines which are equally creative, visually exciting, and practical, but may not have all the “bells and whistles.” They are the largest group at most trade shows. Finally, there are the working class exhibitors. They have smaller trade show budgets and smaller displays, typically no larger than a 20 ft. inline. Like their larger corporate cousins, their exhibits can be creative, exciting, and practical on a smaller scale. Many are battle-hardened exhibitors. Others, however, are testing the trade show waters. These newer exhibitors are often reluctant to invest too much into their display, fearing their investment may not reap immediate results. It’s a Catch -22. The challenge is to find that middle ground:  invest enough to show results without losing money. But what’s enough? And how do you ensure you maximize your trade show budget?

How to Maximize Your Trade Show Budget

1. The Display.

First-time exhibitors spend 80% of their time thinking and worrying about the display. It makes sense. It’s usually the single biggest cost of that show. Researching, planning, and buying the display can become all-consuming, especially if you’ve never been through the experience before. They want to get it right and not pay more than they should. However, most first-time exhibitors buy less than they need, either because of budgetary restrictions or because they don’t understand what they’re getting. That means they’re rebuying another exhibit in a year or two. So what should you do? Ask yourself this… “If I’m standing in the booth, does it accurately represent the best of our company and allow us the greatest opportunity to show our products and services?” If your answer is “no,” then you have a tough decision to make -- namely, not to go to the show, go to the show with a non-optimal display, or make changes so it accurately represents your brand.

2. Marketing.

Sadly, this is the most neglected part of trade show exhibiting. Which seems odd. Modern trade shows are all about getting attendees to your booth space long before the trade show opens. Few first-time exhibitors have the budget for ad campaigns or sponsorships, but they do have access to their existing customer base and for a reasonable cost, access to the show attendee list. Tap into your customers. They should all get personal invitations with a solid reason and call to action to visit your booth. The attendees from the list should receive some communication with, once again, a compelling reason to visit you. It could be a phone call, an email blast, a mailing, or social media outreach––or all of the above.

3. The Club.

Maximizing your trade show budget also involves an investment in staking out a firm position at each show by building new relationships. No one tells you this, but industry shows are like country clubs: you’re an outsider, a newbie, or a full-fledged member. Don’t expect to be a full-fledged member just because you paid for space and brought an exhibit. You’re new, and that makes you suspicious to established exhibitors. Your goal is to become a full-fledged member as quickly as possible without being seen as a pushy know-it-all who doesn’t respect their elders. That doesn’t mean you have to kowtow to “the veteran exhibitors,” but it does mean you should try to learn from their experience – good and bad. Introduce yourself on the show floor when appropriate, don’t launch into an aggressive sales pitch, and attend all the social functions and mingle. It may take a year or two or three, but those relationships will blossom and bear fruit the more you cultivate them.

4. Ego.

You’re a successful sales and marketing professional, so planning for a trade show shouldn’t be a problem in theory. But for most marketing professionals, trade shows are not something they dabble in every day. They’ve learned a thing or two, but they’ll (reluctantly) admit that it’s not a core competency. Don’t wing it. Tap into the expertise of your local exhibit house/supplier. They’ve consulted with hundreds of clients about their trade show programs. They’ll save you money, almost immediately, simply by guiding you down a well-worn path and not making rookie mistakes. Pick their brain. Rely on their insider’s experience. The challenge will always be to invest enough to show results. Increase your odds by buying the right exhibit, conducting pre-show marketing, embracing The Club, and relying on your local exhibit professional’s knowledge.

Author Bio:

Mel White is the VP of Marketing and Business Development at Classic Exhibits Inc., a manufacturer of exhibits, engineered aluminum extrusions, and rental solutions. For over twenty years, Mel has worked with exhibit manufacturers, distributors, and end-users to develop new products, refine their branding, and sharpen their trade show marketing.