Trade Show Tips for Exhibitors on a Budget (aka reflections on ABC Kids Expo in Vegas)

Shiny gets attention!

Some may call me cheap, but I prefer the term “creatively thrifty” when it comes to shows. I’ve been doing them for way too long. The first time I was put in charge of a booth was in 1996. It was for a job fair, but I was the marketing manager and had to buy gear that would be used for industry shows. The pops ups were all the rage, so we bought one, complete with the customary back lit header and years of Velcro hell. We met with the promo guy who sold us pens and stress balls with our logo at high prices. We brought tons of expensive 4 color process brochures displayed in shiny white folders with every press release our company had ever written.

What a waste! Maybe not so much then, but now it would be absurd. Yet, there are little companies STILL doing this.  Since my debut in ’96, I’ve worked for a variety of companies and industries with budgets from $200k for a cable tv show in LA to $200 for a table top 10×10 at a professional networking conference.  I prefer the low budget ones because they allow me to be creative.

So, if you are new to shows or looking for ways to do them cheaper, faster, and better, here are some great ways to be seen and get results:

– Have a strategy. Why are you doing this show? Sales, networking, to find distributors, to find business partners? Make a list of your goals. I will get 20 new customer orders, I will find two new distributors, I will get 5 mentions in national press, etc.

– Create a budget. Based on your goals, what’s it worth to you? Shows are pricey and you need to consider all costs: travel, booth space, pre-show marketing, giveaways, freight, post-show follow-up, samples, media kits, etc.  This is were the marketing term “cost of a lead” comes up.  If you spend $10k and only get 100 leads, that $100 per lead.  How much can you spend?

– Know your show guide. Mark the deadlines on your calendar and take advantage of all early pricing and all free marketing opportunities. If you can provide a company description and logo, provide them.


– Look professional, but stand out from the crowd. At ABC, it was not the booths with the pretty modern pastel colors and pictures of happy toddlers that stood out, it was the ones that looked different. One was dark brown, made of wooden shutters that created a great contrast for their products. Try a monochromatic booth that is simple and puts all the focus on your product.

– Skip the booth in a box. Those old pop-ups don’t add much anymore. They give you a place to velcro signs, but they don’t make much sense for 10x10s. Large items like popups need to be shipped to the show and cost more for the shipping and freight handling than for quality decorations. If you are in Vegas, San Jose, or anywhere with a car, go shopping instead. Grab nice drapes at Ross, and pick up dorm furniture at Bed Bath and Beyond or Walmart. Check first to be sure you can hand carry in items at the show, but I’ve yet to have a problem with this. One exception may be Chicago’s convention center where only labor union members can handle stuff.

– Practice booth set up before you go. If this is your first time, you really need to do this. Use masking tape to mark a 10×10′ square on the floor against a wall. Use the backs of chairs to give you a sense of where the side rails will be. Most booths come with a draped or undraped 2×8′ table. Consider where you will put that (against the back or on one side). Once you have a sense of size, experiment with decor and displaying your products.  If you’ve done shows before, sketch it out and reflect on what worked before.  Make a list of what you’ll need to buy.

– Make your message clear.  No one should have to guess what your product is or why they need it.  Don’t write a book or fill walls with text — just show how great it is in the simplest way possible.

– Have presents – sparkley, shiny, yummy, fun presents…  I could write a book on this, but I’ll stick to the basics. I know some people think giveaways are a waste.  They aren’t if you do it right.  There are three crowds at the shows you’ll need to separate: 1) freebie collectors/browsers, 2) your target attendees including customers, partners and press, and 3) the mass that falls between the other two groups.  Group 1 will avoid eye contact and generally go away satisfied with a piece of wrapped candy.  If they linger, you’ll have time to read the badge and decide what to do next (ignore the freeloaders or pull in the targets).  Group 2 needs to be pulled in AND remember you.  Everyone wants them.  So, intrigue them.  Have a basket, bin or jar of shiny things – candy or a small item wrapped with your business card/postcard in cellophane bag.  You’ll be amazed how the eye catches them and how many people will ask, “What are those?”  hand them one and start a conversation.  As you qualify the visitor, you may discover they are a member of Group 2.  Have special presents ready and hidden for them.  These could be product samples or nice promotional items (think small and useful or consumable).  Package them in nice bag with a small brochure and be sure to exchange business cards.  You can also offer to mail it to them so they don’t have to carry it.  After they walk away, note that you gave them the gift (or promised them one) and any comments you’ll want for follow-up.

– Don’t enlarge low resolution graphics or use cheap signs.  Yuck, yuck, yuck!  I can’t believe how many pixelated logos and product photos I saw.  So many exhibitors printed whatever graphics they had on large signs or banners and pinned them to the drapes.  No!  This tells your visitors you are cheap, didn’t plan ahead or are totally new to this game.  Your customers want to know you are competent and will deliver.

– Stop wasting brochures.  I was amazed how many exhibitors insisted on giving me press kits.  I only had one suitcase, so guess where they are now?  Save your kits and mail them later.  Or, go digital.  Hand out a post card or single page sheet with the basic info about the product and a link to a media page on your site where they can access press releases, article content, etc.  Then, for press, have some thumb drives/USB memory sticks with all your goodies on it that they can access right while they are drafting their articles.

– Use the Media room.  Most shows have media rooms, but some are better than others.  I was very impressed with the one at ABC because it was mainly used by media, not competitors seeking info or freeloaders looking for swag.  Exhibitors are responsible for replenishing their materials.  Again, don’t leave huge folders.  A simple one page brochure with an item attached is perfect.  Make display and have a sample (clearly marked as sample) of your product if it is a large or pricey item.  Printed pens and candy are good – bag them with your postcard.

– Be present.  This is often the most difficult part.  You have to be there and be “on”.  Initiate conversations.  Smile.  Be a little fun and make people feel welcome.  If you are a small business owner and not an extrovert, hire one for the show.  Train them to engage and filter people, but know they will not be instant experts at your pitch.  All serious prospects should be sent directly to you.  Avoid working on your laptop or texting at your booth.  Think about what others are seeing.  Do you look approachable?  Intimidating? Bored?  Passionate?  You are your brand.

– Give, don’t ship.  I was thrilled to see a group of workers from a local charity after the ABC Show.  They came to pick up product samples and usable items for children in need.  Many shows do this and it can be a tax write-off.  If you have left over product or promotional items that would be costly to ship, donate them instead.  Ask your show organizer in advance.

Questions about cheap ways to get around other costs at shows?  Want a critique of your booth?  Email me.


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