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101 Proven Ways to Stretch Your Trade Show Budget

calculatorImagine you stood in a room with 393 fellow exhibitors, and asked them the question, “How did you stretch your exhibiting budget over the past two years?” Think of all the great advice they could share.

Well, now you have all their proven advice in one place — right here.

In late 2014, Skyline Exhibits, in conjunction with Red 7 Media Research & Consulting, received survey responses from 393 exhibitors who wrote in 514 answers for stretching their trade show budgets.

Some exhibitors simply did less – going to fewer events, taking smaller booth spaces, and sending fewer staffers. And some exhibitors even told us that they did not stretch their budget, while others said they had actually increased their budget.

Yet the best advice was from exhibitors who told how they reduced costs without significantly reducing their marketing impact, making smart cuts or smart actions that truly get you more with less.

Here is how we grouped their 514 open-ended answers. Let’s first look at the overall chart, and then look at each major budget-stretching category, and what exhibitors did to save money.


Exhibit Only at the Right Shows (23%)

By far and away the most popular (and likely most effective) way to stretch an exhibiting budget is to only go to the right shows. This was also the most popular way to stretch an exhibiting budget in a similar 2009 survey.

89 exhibitors shared many facets of how to exhibit only at the right shows, which we have distilled here:

1. Exhibit at fewer shows, which cuts your show booth space rental costs.

2. Exhibiting at fewer shows also means lowering your exhibiting costs overall — no booth to ship and install, no show services, no promotions, and no booth staffers for travel and hotel.

3. Even better, eliminate the wrong shows for your company. Eliminate the wrong shows by measuring your results and cutting shows that don’t measure up. Cut shows for reasons such as low ROI, low turnout, not meeting objectives, bad match between audience and your target market, and shows that are too far away. Don’t be afraid to stop going to poor-performing shows because “you’ll be missing out” or “you’ll be conspicuous because of your absence.”

#4: Keep the shows with the best ROI and attendees for your company, and shift budgets from poor-performing shows into new shows.

4. And even better still, rather than pocket the savings from eliminating poor shows, instead, shift the saved dollars into adding better matching trade shows that produce more results from the same budget.

5. Focus on smaller shows, like regional shows and niche market shows, that require smaller expenses to stand out and that get you closer to your target audience.

#5 & #6: Either go to lots of small shows, or put more effort into a big show – either may work for you, depending on your market.

6. Focus on fewer, bigger shows, so you can put more time into really marketing your presences and also get bigger visibility. (Yes, that contradicts the previous point, but exhibitors proclaimed their success both going smaller and larger. As they say, your experience may vary – test and find out.)

7. Staggered your participation level depending on the shows’ performance. If a show is working well, keep at it. If not, reduce participation by first getting a smaller booth space, then by only sponsoring, then by only walking the show, and finally by dropping out altogether.

8. Rather than exhibit every year at every show, put some shows on a rotating schedule and only go every other year.

9. Avoid new shows in their first year — instead, visit them and see what kind of traffic they are generating. Then exhibit the next year if you think it’s a good match.

10. And avoid potential poor shows altogether by researching the audience to see if there is even a good match with your target market.

11. Exhibit at partner & client events, where you can get by with a smaller exhibit yet still reach your target audience.

12. You can also stretch your exhibiting budget by going to more shows — you spread the cost of your exhibit itself over more shows.

13. Compare how much the show charges you to reach their attendees, compared to other, similar events, and go with the less expensive option.

14. Best client quote: “Took a good, hard look at our list of shows. Had a couple planning meetings to discuss importance and feedback from previous year. Tried to be smarter about the selection. Used a tiered approach when planning for the year:

  • Tier One – National conferences of strategic importance, full marketing support, exhibit and look at sponsorship opportunities.
  • Tier Two – Regional conferences, managed by sales. Marketing to provide “trade show in a box.”
  • Tier Three – Attend only.”

Reuse Booth / Display Materials (18%)

Exhibitors often shared that they stretched their budgets by using the same exhibit for years, either by delaying a purchase, or by using a reconfigurable exhibit.

There were 71 exhibitors in our survey who shared multiple ways to multiply the value of their exhibits:

15. Reusing the same display and graphics by not changing it from year to year, delaying a purchase, stretching out its useful life. (The more uncertain the economy, the more exhibitors do this.)

16. Look at what vertical markets, products, and divisions you will exhibit for, and then designing an exhibit with graphics that that will appeal to all of them.

17. Choose an exhibit that allows you to easily change out the graphics for different vertical markets, products, or divisions.

18. Include digital monitors and screens to allow for changing messages for different vertical markets, products, or divisions.

19. Design your exhibit so it can be used in different booth sizes. Most commonly that means a 10 x 20 that splits into two 10 x 10s, or a back wall display made of banner stands that can be used together (3 in a row) or separately. Can also mean a 10 x 20 that expands into a 20 x 20 island exhibit, and flexing into other, larger exhibit sizes.

#20: Design your exhibit with modular systems that allow you to get multiple booth spaces from one set of components.

20. Choose a modular exhibit that allows you to easily change the look, space, design, and size.

21. Take a complete inventory of your existing assets to see if there are viable displays buried in your marketing closet.

22. Set a consistent size booth space you exhibit at all your shows so you can use the same booth property at all of them.

23. Repair or refurbish your existing trade show display rather than buy new.

24. Reuse other people’s booths, by buying used or renting.

25. Use your exhibit in venues outside of trade shows, such as events and in lobbies.

26. Best exhibitor quote: “By recycling & updating existing backdrops and using pull-up banners instead of heavier/bulkier 10′ backdrops for small shows, we were able to have time & budget to develop a whole new island display for next fiscal year.”

Changed Promotions (13%)

Exhibitors have changed how they invest in promotions to get more traffic into their trade show booths. They’ve found ways to get more value with giveaways, sponsorship, collateral, and advertising.

There were 52 exhibitors in our survey who revealed how they better spent their promotional dollars, which we summarize here for you:

27. The first level of cost containment on promotions is simply spending less on them: less sponsorship, less giveaways, less ads, less handouts, and even less candy!

28. Follow the shift that many other exhibitors have done, and shift your print ad dollars (used to support your exhibiting presence) into social media and email pre-show and at-show marketing.

#29: Reduce handouts, because attendees don’t want to carry them home.

29. Another common shift is to reduce your handouts and rely more on digital lead fulfillment, which also pleases attendees because they don’t have to carry literature home.

30. Price shop and negotiate more for your giveaways.

31. You can measure just how many promotional items and handouts you really need at your shows, and avoid over-ordering and paying unnecessarily for shipping both to the show, and back from the show.

32. Shift from lots of common giveaways to instead raffling off one higher value (and more memorable) prize, that actually costs less than the pile of giveaways.

33. Instead of giving away lots of regular promo items to everyone who walks by, give out fewer promos, ones with greater value, and only to truly interested prospects you want to impress.

34. Instead of giving away promo items altogether, host a great experience in your booth (drinks, snacks, and an engaging presentation) which one exhibitor said cost less and produced better quality leads.

35. You could selectively increase sponsorship with shows, ones that give you the best ROI, and ask them to include more advertising and promotional value along with your sponsorship.

36. Best exhibitor quote: “Speaking slots also provide additional conference passes that allow us to take more people to support the booth and network with leads. Memberships in industry organizations have also provided us with benefits that include exhibiting at national conferences as well as regional workshops and seminars. We choose where to sponsor and where to just exhibit based on our past performance with the conference and our relationship with the organization hosting the conference.”

Booth Staffing Savings (10%)

Booth staff spending is some of the most visible expenses for your trade show program, and thus often comes under the most scrutiny.

40 exhibitors in our survey gave many excellent ideas on how to get more value from their booth staff spending:

#37: If you bring fewer booth staffers, bring the people who actually WANT to staff the booth.

37. Lower costs by bringing fewer people to the show. You can reduce people more strategically by only bringing people who are there to staff the booth – and WANT to staff the booth.

38. Actively measure how many staffers you need so you d on’t overstaff the show. (The rule of thumb is one booth staffer for every 50 square feet of open booth space).

39. When you cut your booth size at some shows, cut your booth staffer counts accordingly.

40. Staff your booth with local people who don’t have travel expenses (assuming they are qualified and can be trained).

41. If you send fewer staffers, invest the savings into better staff training.

42. Plan further ahead on who will staff so you can get lower prices on airfare and hotel.

43. Use your corporate credit card miles to buy booth staffer airfare.

44. If airfare prices are the same, fly the airline that includes a free bag to ship the display on the plane.

45. Travel by car rather than airplane, to save on airfare and also display shipping.

46. Stay at the hotel the show is hosted at — it may cost more up front but will pay for itself with savings on cabs and gives you more time to network at the show.

47. Or you can stay at lower cost hotels than the show offered one if it is in quick walking distance.

48. Best exhibitor quote: “We cut down on the number of people attending the show. We are only taking the people that actually contribute at the booth and schedule meetings.”

Shipping Savings (8%)

Your trade show booth is your temporary field office, so you need to ship a lot of stuff to get it prepared. This presents many opportunities to ship smarter.

There were 32 exhibitors in our survey told us how they saved on shipping, which we distilled to these tips:

49. Ship less stuff for lighter weight and less-expensive shipments: less equipment, less handouts, less giveaways.

#50: Ship ground rate and save compared to air freight.

50. Get better shipping rates, such as shipping earlier via ground shipping that lower costs compared to last-minute air freight.

51. If the timing is right, ship your booth and other items from one show on to the next show, rather than back to your facility and out to the next show.

52. Demo fewer products in your booth so you can ship fewer products. (It will also reduce clutter and be more inviting.)

53. Get smaller giveaways that cost less to ship, and get only enough to giveaways at the show so you don’t ship them twice.

54. Consider bringing a digital display of your heavy products rather than shipping the heavy products to every show.

55. Best exhibitor quote: “I traveled by car rather than by plane and hauled my display and materials with me.”

Plan Ahead and Order Early (7%)

Most trade show expenses have significant late fees. Not like the 1.5% late fee for paying an invoice past due, but late fees that can run up to 50%. So planning saves real money.

There were 28 exhibitors who said they stretched their budget through planning ahead and ordering early, which we review here:

#56: Order earlier to reduce costs on late fees.

56. Start planning and ordering earlier to reduce cost and avoid last-minute purchases.

57. Bid out projects to multiple vendors to get a lower price, and negotiate on pricing. Again, you have to start earlier to give yourself time to compare prices.

58. Order your show services before deadlines to avoid late fees on labor, material handling, electricity, cleaning, rigging, and other show services. If available, get early bird pricing.

59. Buy any airplane tickets early before the fares increase. This means selecting your booth staff months before the show.

60. Reserve hotel rooms early to take advantage of the show’s usually lower-priced room block.

61. Ask people in your personal network who they work with to find competitively priced vendors.

62. Order your show services directly.

63. Measure the value of main elements of your trade show program so you can add more of what works and remove what doesn’t.

64. Better track your actual usage of materials (promos, handouts, products, candy) so you can order only as much as you need.

65. Do a few shows really well (by not skipping great promotions, in-booth activities, and staff training) rather than doing too many shows poorly.

66. Plan your print materials with your entire show schedule in mind to lower overall costs.

67. Plan other meetings (with prospects, vendors, or partners) around your trade show travel.

68. Best exhibitor quote: “This year, in particular, I deployed a program that all expenses had to be approved by me in advance of the purchases being made. This way we tracked expenses before they were made and always knew where we were with our budget.”

More Lightweight / Easier Displays (7%)

Many exhibitors said they stretched their budgets with a lighter display, especially a portable display that cost less to ship and was easier to set up.

There were 27 exhibitors who said they stretched their budget through lighter weight, easier to set up displays, and they all said much the same thing:

#69 – #72: Portable displays such as this banner stand back wall reduce the cost of shipping, drayage, storage, and I&D.

69. Cut shipping, drayage, storage, with a more compact, lighter weight booth.

70. Get more portable displays, be it retractable banner stands, pop up displays, or tabletop displays, especially for smaller venues.

71. Get a display that can be set up by your booth staff.

72. Bring your portable display on the plane as luggage or brought by car.

73. Best exhibitor quote: “Building a mobile booth, reduces freight and booth fees thereby opening the budget up for additional events to attend.”

Smaller Booth Space (6%)

Rather than taking a strictly “go or no go” approach to a show, many exhibitors found a shade of gray by taking a smaller booth space to help stay at a show, but with a smaller, less expensive presence.

Of the 25 exhibitors who said they used smaller booth spaces to stretch their budget, most said just that. Some had other angles to why and how it helped them:

74. Choose shows to cut space where you have fewer leads, a lower ROI, or poorer attendance.

75. You can go to more shows with smaller booth spaces than you can with larger booth spaces, which allows you to try more shows and find new shows where you could have a better ROI.

76. Reducing booth space also reduces your booth staffing, shipping, and other exhibiting costs.

77. Best exhibitor quote: “We increased our ROI by reducing the booth space and increasing pre-show targeted invites to schedule meetings.”

Share Costs with Partners (6%)

This was one of the more creative ways to stretch exhibiting budgets, where exhibitors reached out to a wide variety of groups to share costs. Chances are you have similar partners who may be willing to share.

There were 25 exhibitors from our survey who took the team approach to exhibiting, and whose tactics we summarize here:

#78 – #83: Share exhibiting costs with other groups that you have a partnership with, both inside and outside your company.

78. Partner with other operating units, departments or divisions within your company, or sister companies outside your company.

79. Partner with your dealers, either by sharing booth space or by co-oping the cost of their smaller shows.

80. Partner with your existing strategic business partners, to share costs and to expand the reach of communications about your exhibiting at the show.

81. Partner with other companies and organizations that share your mission or target market.

82. Partner with show organizers by providing a speaker or through sponsorship to get additional promotional opportunities.

83. Partner with your vendors who want to see you increase sales so they get more business.

84. Barter services or products with trade show vendors and the show where possible.

85. Best exhibitor quote: “We invited guest experts to share resources in our booth. Guests align with our overall goals.”

Do It Yourself (4%)

Some exhibitors stretched their budget through rolling up their sleeves and doing it themselves.

Of the 17 exhibitors from our survey that went DIY to lower costs, almost all either did their own brochures or their own I&D:

#86: Create brochures with your in-house marketing team.

86. Use your own in-house marketing for brochures, literature, flyers, and collateral.

87. Do your own install and dismantle of your displays.

88. Make your own booth props.

89. Best exhibitor quote: “We focused on using our in-house creative team to come up with most of the designs and marketing collateral, therefore eliminating third party design firms.”

Digital Presentations versus Printed Graphics (3%)

Some exhibitors used technology to increase their appeal and lower shipping costs.

Of the 11 exhibitors from our survey that highlighted their use of technology, these are the benefits they talked about most:

#90 – 92: Digital content can save on shipping compared to exhibits and collateral, and allow more targeted messages.

90. Less exhibit components, more technology, such as videos and other digital content on flat screen TVs, to save on shipping.

91. Use digital content on an iPad or other digital device to provide more detail to a prospect, to save on shipping compared to bringing a pile of collateral.

92. Appeal to each vertical market with targeted messages that are easily changed on digital monitors.

93. Use a 3D interactive presentation rather than the actual product, to save on shipping and drayage.

94. Best exhibitor quote: “We invested in items that are versatile and reusable, such as a digital screen that can be programmed specifically for each show and used for a good length of time given proper storage/upkeep.”

Other Budget-Stretchers (11%)

There were many other comments that fell outside of the previous budget-savings categories.

Of the 42 exhibitors who brought up other ideas, these are the best ones to help you stretch your budget:

95. If you do a show outside of your home country, compare prices with using a local provider, and save on shipping and custom costs.

96. If you can, consider not buying electricity for your booth, if you can get by on battery power.

97. Reduce spending on furniture rental.

#98: Use your own wireless connection to the internet.

98. Use your own wireless connection to the internet.

99. Sell your old exhibit or trade it in on your new exhibit.

100. If you do enough shows, buy rather than rent your display, carpet, table and chairs.

101. Best exhibitor quote: “We do not sign up anymore for the lead scanners – they are too expensive. We do our own giveaway in our booth and collect business cards.”

That’s 101 proven ways to stretch your trade show budget, shared by your fellow exhibitors who know these methods work, because they did them themselves and saw the results.

Interestingly, the percent of answers for the broad savings categories are fairly close to the percentage they are of an average trade show budget! Exhibitors put forth more effort in the areas that they spend the most money.

There were also 36 exhibitors who said they did not stretch their budget. Another 20 said they actually increased their budgets, mostly because their company was growing and they wanted to take more advantage of trade show marketing.

Trade shows are a great way to market your company and reach a large group of buyers at one time. We hope that armed with these 101 methods, you can now get even more value from trade shows.

measurement-cdAt the root of all these budget-stretching methods is measurement. You need to measure your results to know what is working and what isn’t. That’s why Skyline offers you, for free, the Measurement Made Easy CD, a computer program to help you measure and report your trade show results. Click here to get you copy.


About the Author

Mike Thimmesch was Skyline Exhibits' Director of Customer Engagement, for over 25 years. He is now retired and spends his time freelancing, traveling, and enjoying time with his family.

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