The Essential Guide to Preparing for Your First Trade Show

Six Steps to a Successful Trade Show Exhibition

The largest trade show in the United States is CES, a consumer technologies convention hosted annually by the Consumer Technology Association. Held in Las Vegas, the trade show boasts more than 4,400 exhibitors and more than 175,000 attendees each year.

This is the reality at all trade shows, from massive ones like CES to smaller expos in specialized fields. We’ve all seen the show-stopping, well-organized booths drawing huge crowds situated next to booths that attract very few visitors.

Regardless of show size, two things are undeniable: exhibitors can attract a significant number of new leads, but they also have to work just as hard to set their booths apart from the crowd.

What's clear is that trade shows are big business. In the United States, trade shows earn more than $132 billion in 2017 alone. Attendees are also very likely to purchase products or services that they sampled or saw demonstrated, with 80 percent saying they made such a purchase.

The reason? Show-goers develop a better understanding of the products services when they able to connect and interact with them up close and personal. 

Still, with such a large number of companies competing for such surefire leads, companies need to develop a clear plan for a successful, attention-grabbing show. Here, we’ll describe the essential steps for designing your plan.

Step 1: Register for the Best Show for Your Brand

There are thousands of trade shows in the United States every year, but by no means are they created equal. To make a trade show worth your time, you need to know  what your main objective is, the most common being:

  • Lead Generation
  • Service or Product Launch
  • Market or Industry Presence 

Identifying your goal will help you sign up for the trade show that fits your objective. 

Once you’ve chosen a show, it’s all about location, location, location. When narrowing down the best spot for your booth, regardless of show size, the most-trafficked areas are typically near entrances, corners or intersections, bathrooms or food stations, and eye-catching attractions. You’ll want to reserve your booth space early on, before another company claims it.

Once you've signed up, read through your contract and exhibitor kit carefully. An extensive understanding of both of these documents will help to ensure that you’ll be aware of important considerations like move in and out dates and times, delivery schedules, and supply storage requirements that differ from show to show. 

We’ve also seen new exhibitors unexpected fees they weren’t aware of, including drayage (delivery of materials), service forms, shipping, and missed deadline fees.

Step 2: Budget to Ensure a Significant ROI 

If you’ve never attended a trade show before, there are lots of ways that you can successfully generate leads without breaking the bank. We recommend attending smaller, local shows when you’re first getting started. We also suggest training your current employees to attract/draw visitors to your booth, rather than hiring temporary staff.

You can also save on displays by utilizing your products as the focus of your booth. This inline booth that we designed for Honest Tea featured their products as front and center, highlighting the bottles with well-designed lighting.

Honest Tea 10x10 Inline Booth

When creating your budget, start with these general rules of thumb for allocating your resources:

  • Your booth space at a trade show should account for no more than 33 percent of your budget.
  • Booth design and creation should account for another 20 percent.
  • One-to-three percent of your budget should be used to invest in tools to track Return on Investment (ROI) or Return on Objective (ROO);
  • Staffing should make up a considerable part of your budget. How many staff members will work at your booth? Will they be temporary employees or your permanent staff? Remember, they will also need uniforms, food stipends, registration, and transportation.
  • Fees to exhibit at trade shows are often multifaceted and include factors like booth installation and dismantling, electric and technology considerations, security, and even carpet cleaning! Make sure you’re accounting for these fees in your budgeting process.

Step 3: Develop a Marketing Strategy that Differentiates You from Your Competition

If you’re exhibiting for the first time, you might feel overwhelmed by the prospect of establishing a marketing strategy. However, trade show marketing isn’t all that different from any other kind of marketing initiative. Here are some best practices to follow.

Before selecting a show:

What’s your objective for exhibiting? It can be helpful to attend various shows to see what works and what doesn’t from an attendee’s perspective.

Next, set objectives and SMART goals for your show. Some of the factors on which you may want to collect data include the following

  • Leads gathered
  • Cost per lead
  • New customers
  • Average sale
  • Closure rate
  • Social media reach
  • Website traffic
  • ROI
  • ROO

It's important to decide how you’ll measure the achievement of your goals before you even register for a trade show.


Once you’ve chosen a show, make sure that you use all your social media channels and other marketing platforms to boost interest in visiting your booth. It’s also time to train your staff about how to engage and inform visitors. 

Finally, you want to decide what collateral you will or won’t bring to the trade show. Here are some considerations for choosing collateral

  • Consider replacing environmentally-unfriendly brochures or other printed materials with digital materials, such as LED displays or touch-screen kiosks.
  • Decide if you’ll be handing out giveaways. These are a great means for attracting visitors, opening conversations, and increasing brand awareness, as its something that’s hopefully used beyond the show floor. These incentives should align with your company’s brand and are useful for the recipients.
  • Prizes are a great way to attract visitors to your booth, but you need to decide what and how often you’ll give away your products/services.

During the show:

The real value of trade shows comes from the people you meet and the connections you make. You can do this by networking at a variety of opportunities beyond the expo floor


Talk to your sales and marketing team about what worked in your exhibiting and what didn’t. A team retrospective will help you analyze your results, get feedback from your team, pinpoint potential problem areas, and improve future exhibition strategies.

You should also have a plan in place for following up with leads generated at the show. It's important to finalize this strategy before you leave for the show, so that you can hit the ground running upon your team's return.

Step 4: Select a Responsive Exhibit House

A full-service exhibit house is a company that specializes in the design, production, and management of your trade show display. Core services will include the custom design, fabrication, storage, transport, and logistics for everything related to your booth. 

So, how do you select an exhibit house? The process of selecting a vendor may include multiple rounds of requests

  1. A Request for Information (RFI) is first sent to multiple exhibit houses, where you detail your expectations, budget, and timeline to see if an exhibit house can accommodate your request. 
  2. Next comes the Request for Proposal (RFP) to provide more specific information, including what you want to avoid, your goals, and additional details about the event. 
  3. And finally, the detailed Request for Quotation (RFQ) is sent to your final choices, and lays out the specific expectations and services required.

These documents are designed to build on one another and will ensure you are thorough, but all three may not be necessary for your project.


  • What services they offer, and are any contracted to outside companies? The more in-house services, the better. It means the exhibit house will be better equipped to respond to your needs, which is vital when you’re working against strict show deadlines. 
  • What is included in their quote. One exhibit house might give you a more attractive price point for the design and fabrication of your booth, but you realize that it doesn’t include shipping and storage. The amount on your final invoice shouldn’t be a surprise and everything you’re charged for should be disclosed upfront. 


  • Let your exhibit house know your need-by date and budget. Reputable houses will let you know if they can finish your project in time and if they’re able to work within your constraints.
  • Tell a potential exhibit house about any space limitations and design requirements. Be upfront and honest, as this will set expectations for a booth that fits within your parameters.


  • Select a non-responsive exhibit house. If you haven’t heard back from an exhibit house within a few days, cross them off your list. A house that’s non-responsive in the early stages doesn’t bode well for a successful collaboration.
  • Give the new house on the block, or one that’s changed hands many times, a chance. Exhibit houses come and go, but there are so many moving pieces in the business that the newest house isn’t always the best one. Further, many companies have had bad experiences with houses that keep changing hands. A good rule of thumb is to choose an exhibit house that has been in business for at least a decade; has had few (or no) changes in leadership over that time; and has a large percentage of repeat clients.
  • Choose an exhibit house that doesn’t offer full-service solutions (especially if you’re new to trade show exhibiting). You might think that you can handle non-design elements of exhibiting, but in our experience, it’s much easier to let a full-service exhibit house like Exhibit Options take the lead behind the scenes. 

Step 5: Design a Show-Stopping Exhibit Booth that Conveys Your Brand Message

After you’ve landed on your goal, budget, and exhibit house, it’s time to start considering the most important piece of exhibiting at a trade show–your booth.

The first step in the booth-design process is to decide if you want to rent or own your booth. New exhibitors who aren’t sure about their futures in trade shows may decide to start with renting. However, if you plan to attend many trade shows over time, buying is a more financially savvy option. Though keep in mind that if you want a highly-customized, one-of-a-kind booth, renting is typically not an option.

If you’re going the custom route, many exhibitors have a vision for their booth and then work with their exhibit house to flush out the design.

For example, Café de Costa Rica had two goals for exhibiting at SCAA:

  1. Educate attendees on climate change, while emphasizing the theme of transparency
  2. Sample and present their products

This would require a sampling area and presentation space, so our in-house design team collaborated with the client to produce this result:


Keep in mind that your original vision may be restricted to your reserved booth size or type, such as:

  • An inline booth, which has exhibitors on either side;
  • A peninsula booth, which is open to your exhibit on three sides, with a fourth side abutting another exhibitor on the back;
  • An island booth, which is open on all sides;
  • A two-story booth, which has more than one level;
  • A portable booth, which is movable enough that you can take it around with you for easily assembly.

Your exhibit house can let you know how they can build your vision based on your budget, time, and space allotted.

There's one more often-neglected aspect to booth design: transportation and storage. And keep in mind that the more complex booths will require more complex shipping arrangements, which will increase an already sizable expense. 

Your booth will have to be delivered, constructed, dismantled, and stored. Factors like size, weight, show requirements, and special handling must be considered from the very start of the design process. All of this should be regularly communicated and explained by your exhibit house.

Step 6: Prepare a Knowledgeable, Go-Getting Staff

Booth Staff:

You could have the most heart-stopping booth on the trade show floor, but if your staff isn’t well-trained to interact with potential leads, that doesn't matter. Whether you choose some of your most dynamic employees or employ temporary staff, your team needs to be outgoing, friendly, and knowledgeable enough to capture trade show audiences with the benefits of your products and services. 

A well-trained floor staff should know how to answer the following questions:

  • What’s in it for me?
  • How does it work?
  • How are you different?
  • Where’s the proof?
  • Where do I sign up?

Before the show, you should train your staff on product specs and guest-interaction expectations (this includes dressing and grooming). What’s more, give them time to practice engaging with your products in mock scenarios before they even set foot on the trade show floor.

Further, your staff needs to be able to collect and organize relevant information about leads who visit your booth. Depending on the lead retrieval software you use, your staff should know how to collect demographic information, product/service interest, and engagement strategies. Your time at the trade show will be wasted – and your ROI diminished – if you can’t actually deploy your leads into conversions.

Laborers and Vendors:

While the most visible people in any trade show booth are the staff members connecting with potential leads, other labor is also necessary to operate highly-technical exhibition booths. These can include electricians, AV personnel, freight experts, security staff, housekeepers, as well as supervisors to manage operations.

It’s important to read your contract to determine if you should – or even can – provide your own laborers. Some shows only allow personnel from certain unions to work with attendees, while others have on-site laborers that you’ll be required to use.

Take the Next Steps for Trade Show Success

According to Exhibitor Magazine, 93 percent of companies feel “hopeful” or “optimistic” about using trade shows as part of their marketing in 2019. With the right planning and exhibit booth design, even first-time exhibitors can reap the benefits of a successful show. 

But if you’re concerned about available resources, or could use some extra guidance throughout the planning process, we’re here to help. Whether it’s design, budgeting, pre-show promotion, or advising on the newest trends, our team is ready to guide and serve you on your trade show journey from start to finish. 

Ready to explore your options? Let’s Chat.

download our planning timeline & checklist

This simple checklist breaks up key tasks to stay on top of over the course of your trade show journey.

From pre-planning to post-show, refer to this timeline to ensure that you cover all of the bases for a successful trade show.