You are here

Exhibiting In A Strained Economy

As the economy continues to struggle in its uphill battle, many companies have significantly slashed their exhibiting budgets while some have eliminated their trade show programs entirely. What many don’t know is that cutting a trade show program can be the equivalent of biting one’s nose off to spite their face as exhibiting often provides the best ROI compared to a multitude of other marketing initiatives.

Like all good investments, when money is spent wisely, exhibition dollars can be stretched further than one would expect resulting in getting more bang for your trade show buck. Exhibiting on a shoestring budget doesn’t just mean cutting corners; rather it comes down to being creative and resourceful.

Also for those new to the trade show industry, it is important to note that exhibiting is a surprisingly complex enterprise and it is a good idea to build up some experience before going all out with expenditures metaphorically throwing all your eggs into one trade show basket.

There are many ways to save money without sacrificing the quality of an exhibit program such as looking for shows that are nearby and don’t require hotel nights, travel or shipping. You can also consider sharing exhibit space with a partner or perhaps even recycling a sign from the office for your display booth.

Following are several ideas to save and stretch money when establishing your trade show shoestring budget.

Promotional Items

Expensive promotional Items do not belong in a shoestring budget; such giveaways are awareness and ‘good-will’ builders and in a thriving economy are essential in order to remain competitive. But in our current fiscal climate, they tend to be gratuitous, rarely providing any real value or ROI. However, many feel it is as required to bestow something upon booth visitors as it is to bring a gift for the host of a party.

Alternatives To Consider

Distributing an item that attendees will be likely to reference often such as a Tip or Fact Sheet relevant to your key prospects and company is a viable option to promotional gifting. This kind of giveaway is extremely economical as it can be printed internally at a nominal expense. For example, a public relations firm might want to give out a top-ten list of PR ‘Do’s & Don’ts.’ Such materials should always feature the exhibitor’s logo, contact information or website at the very least.

For savers who just can’t fathom the concept of not giving out more traditional promotional items should go ahead and order affordable items but obscurely store them at the back of the booth precluding indiscriminate distribution. Screen booth visitors first and only hand out giveaways to qualified attendees/leads. This way you can order smaller quantities and save your budgetary dollars.

Getting More Display Mileage

Besides the exhibit booth space, the actual display is often the most expensive part of a show. One thing that makes a display really expensive, reducing its cost efficiency, is changing messaging for specific shows/markets. This is conceptually not a bad idea in a marketing sense since you always want to focus and cater to a show’s specific target audience.

The best and most efficient way to accomplish this without having a lot of extra expenses is to have your main display feature only your logo, a tagline and some art/graphics. The specific messaging can be achieved through smaller, inexpensive add-on banners or on an audio-visual presentation you play onscreen. This way you can continue to successfully customize your message for each show eliminating the need to replace your large display as often.


Rather than printing and handing out countless data sheets and brochures which often get disposed of, send the information to attendees electronically after the show. Do not send out a ‘blast’ e-mail of generic information as this could come across as impersonal and lazy. Just as you would only hand out relevant literature in the booth, be sure to personalize the e-mail attaching only the pertinent product information for each individual prospect. Record which type of product or services he or she expressed interest on their lead form or business card. This is a great follow-up technique which also fashionably demonstrates your company’s environmental consciousness as well as providing insurance that the materials will make it back to their office as opposed to a hotel wastebasket somewhere in Las Vegas.

Show Services

Renting goods and services from in-show services, albeit convenient, adds up quickly and can be quite costly; especially when renting things like a card-board trashcan, which is often offered at around twenty dollars. Here are a few of the items you can save money on:

  • Bring your own garbage can, or buy an inexpensive one in the show’s destination city.
  • Paying to have your booth carpet vacuumed is an extravagant cost easily eliminated by using a lint roller or non-electric sweeper instead.
  • For furniture, if you have a partner company in the show city, ask if you can borrow a few items from them or visit stores such as IKEA, WalMart, Kmart, etc. to pick up inexpensive ‘knock-down’ furniture items. Weigh and compare options carefully.
  • Buy a large tablecloth that is consistent with your corporate color scheme rather than renting a skirted table or paying for a promotional printed table throw (if allowed).
  • Print your own lead form instead of renting the lead capture machine.
  • Buy floral and decorative items at Target, Walmart, Kmart, etc.
  • For smaller booths shipping and material handling fees can be virtually eliminated by bringing the items to the show yourself. If the show is local, drive the items to the show and carry them to the booth. If you are flying to the show, bring the items on the plane with you. If you need to ship several items, ship them to the hotel you are staying at and carry them into the show. That said, some hotels are starting to learn a lesson from airlines and are charging deterrable “handling fees.”


Most shows provide each exhibitor a complimentary 50–100 word description in the show’s guide and website as part of their exhibit package. A surprisingly large percentage of exhibitors don’t take advantage of this; be sure to do so. Also, publicize that you will be exhibiting at a particular show on your company website. Be sure to include the booth number, name of the show, as well as the show location and city. Be progressive and maximize your social media opportunities by posting your exhibition schedule and details on free sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and include in any company blog.

Public Relations

You can’t pay for good publicity and good publicity is often as easy as a good press release. Tailor and circulate a release announcing your company’s participation at a particular show and the product or service being touted or unveiled. Don’t forget to always include the show location and your booth number. Get more mileage out of a press release by printing hard copies and leaving them in the Press/Media Room at the show. Additionally, distribute the release online via free press release distribution sites, which can be found by entering ‘Free Press Release sites’ in search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.

Ask show coordinators for the registered press list and make contact with the media in advance to arrange meetings during the show. Be prepared to promptly turn around artwork, company literature or quote, upon request of a deadline-driven reporter or press rep to increase your chances of free publicity and media exposure. Always inquire with show producers whether they offer a free press-release distribution service for exhibitors. As with anything, if you don’t ask, you shall not receive.