Exhibit Planning: Important Steps, Tips & Checklists

Trade Show Trenches
February 1, 2023

You’ve decided to exhibit at a trade show. Moreover, you want to do it right. Congratulations! Trade show marketing can be one of the most cost-effective methods for introducing new products or services, finding prospective clients, and gathering information about an industry and competitors. But it can also be expensive, so exhibit planning is imperative to maximizing your ROI (return on investment) and ROO (return on objectives).   

Successful trade show marketers are planners. They obsess about their objectives at each show. They manage the costs, track pre, post, and @show tasks, and identify ways to improve their results after every show. And while dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” may not guarantee success, it will improve your odds considerably.  

If you are new to trade shows, there’s a lot to learn from fully customized trade show booths to asset management and getting everything to the show on time. Some of that information is easily available via web searches or websites like Trade Show Tips. However, some trade show wisdom is best learned from exhibit professionals. They’ve already stubbed a toe or two along the way and know how to navigate around the pitfalls common to trade shows. Tap into their expertise. They want to share their wisdom because it’s in their best interest for you to be successful at your next show or event. 

Why Is Exhibit Planning Important?

As the saying goes, “you can only control what you can control.” That’s especially true with trade shows since you’re not in charge of the actual show and have limited options on who performs your show services. Smart exhibit marketers plan for success on the trade show floor by removing chance and making fiscally responsible decisions. Here are three examples:  

1. Specific Goals

When management, marketing, and sales identify and agree on specific goals for a show, those goals shape the design of the exhibit, the graphics, pre-show marketing, and show floor interactions with potential clients. They know what results they want to achieve and put actions and people in place to make that happen.


2. Expenses

Measuring ROI can’t happen unless expenses are captured. Some are easy to identify like the cost of the booth space, hotels, and travel. Others are more variable like drayage, freight, labor, and the exhibit. All of those however have windows or deadlines where it’s possible to save money. In general, last-minute decisions are almost always more expensive, often painfully so. Careful planning can reduce those expenses by as much as 40%.


3. Post-show

For many exhibitors, once the show is over, it’s over. They hand the leads over to the sales team and walk away. In reality, post-show planning is just as important as pre-show preparations, if not more so. Those theoretical “sales” before the show opened are now potential “sales” after the show. There needs to be a step-by-step process in place before the show opens on what information will be captured at the show, what information will be shared with potential clients, and how propects will be contacted after the show. 

10 Important Trade Show Planning Steps

1. Your Marketing Objectives.

Not only is this the first step, but it’s also the most important step. Make sure they’re specific and measurable. Otherwise it’s impossible to measure your ROI. 

    1. Create a budget.
      Start with a budget. Then adjust it as necessary. It’s a living document that should serve as a guide, not as a constraint. 
    2. Conduct research on trade shows. There are thousands of trade shows each year in North America, and 10’s of thousands around the world. Some are logical choices for your business. Others might be a stretch but lucrative with the right messaging. 
    3. Decide whether to purchase or rent. There are solid reasons for both choices. In fact, many exhibitors do both depending on their show schedule.
2. Exhibit Design.

Ever have to buy a car quickly? It’s not fun. Same with buying an exhibit. The designer needs time to understand your marketing objectives, budget, and company personality. 

3. Graphic Design.

Ditto as Exhibit Design. 

4. Show Services.

Show services, like electrical, labor, rigging, etc., have multiple ordering deadlines. With each passing deadline, the price jumps. Often considerably. 

5. Shipping.

If you’ve gotten freight quotes lately, you know that shipping has been a pricing landmine post-COVID. Give yourself time to shop for both the right price but also the right carrier. Oh yes, don’t forget to arrange for freight AFTER the SHOW before leaving for the show. Forced freight from the show hall by the General Service Contractor (GSC) will annihilate your annual trade show budget. 

6. Staff Selection and Training.

It’s OK to make some people unhappy. Not everyone should be at your booth and the obvious choices are often the worst candidates. 

7. Itinerary.

Participating in a trade show isn’t a vacation. It’s work and an itinerary sets expectations including everyone’s schedule and responsibilities. 

8. Pre-show Marketing.

Most exhibitors think the show organizer is responsible for driving attendance. That’s true and false. They’re tasked with getting attendees to the show. They’re not tasked with getting them to your booth. It pays to market to existing and potential clients LONG BEFORE the show starts. Think of your space in the show hall as a corporate event and you’re in charge of driving attendance to the event from the moment the doors open.  

9. Post-show Marketing.

Pre-show marketing includes post-show marketing. You can’t be successful at post-show marketing unless you’ve gathered the right information before and during the show. Then there needs to be a plan for contacting leads and measuring the results. And holding departments and people accountable for measuring those results. 

10. Storage.

You bought an exhibit. It has to be stored somewhere between shows. It can be in your warehouse, your offices, or at your exhibit house.   

Exhibit Planning Guideline & Checklist

It’s a good idea to have an exhibit planning checklist. Fortunately, someone else has already done the work for you. In fact, 100’s if not 1000’s of obsessive, compulsive planners like you have already done the heavy lifting. A casual search of “trade show checklist” will get you started. ExhibitDay has free subscription templates available. There are exhibit planning templates in Google Docs and Excel sheets. Most exhibit houses have planning tools available, some are customized for specific shows or industries. A checklist can be as short as one page or a spreadsheet with hundreds of entries. 

exhibit planning guideline

You can download our full trade show planning checklist here!


Common Convention Exhibit Event Planning Mistakes

1. Relying on Common Sense and Logic.

Experience is a great teacher on the exhibit floor. Not every choice will seem reasonable or logical. Learn quickly, ask for advice, and be willing to fold when someone has 3 aces and you have 2 nines. Anger is not your friend on the show floor. 

2. Not Staging Your Display Before Shipping It to the Show. Not Carefully Packing Your Display at the End of the Show.

Your $75,000 exhibit is almost perfect, except for the two critical pieces that you forgot broke at the last show. Now what?

3. Assuming the Rules and Regulations are the Same for Each Show.

They’re boring but important. Rules and regulations vary from show to show and convention center to convention center. Knowing the rules will save you both money and embarrassment. 

4. Food and Beverages.

Many convention centers make money on food and beverages. They can get testy when you serve drinks and snacks which cuts into their profits. This is another example of knowing the rules. Frankly, some are just dumb. 

5. Ignoring Early Bird Deadlines.

General Show Contractors have to plan for labor and equipment. As a result, they offer price breaks for people who complete their requests in advance. 

6. Not Creating a Plan for Lead Management.

See the previous section. 

7. Not Scheduling Meetings Before and After Show Hours.

See the previous section. 

8. Not Attending Social Functions. 

It’s often said that more deals happen off the floor than on the show floor. Whether that’s true or not, receptions and mixers are ideal for chatting with potential clients, suppliers, and even competitors. You might be surprised at what you learn after someone has had time to “relax” after a tiring day on the show floor.

9. Not Holding Staff Meetings Each Day Before and After Show Hours.

Have you ever asked someone about a conversation from two days ago and they can’t remember the details? Now multiply that by 50 conversations in one day. 

10. Getting Too Comfortable with Your Trade Show Marketing.

Change is inevitable unless you choose to ignore it. Just as your marketing messaging changes, so should your trade show marketing messaging. Plus, there are always new innovations to attract attendees to your booth and technologies to make tracking and reporting results easier.  

Exhibit Planning Support with Exhibits NW

There’s no need to go it alone. You can rely on an experienced supporting cast with Exhibits NW. It’s often said about trade show marketing, “that you can spend a lot of money getting it wrong before you learn to get it right.” The Exhibits NW team will guide you toward success whether it’s your first trade show or your 400th. 

Whether you’re looking for a custom, modular, or portable display, or just a trusted partner to ensure your success, contact the Exhibits NW creative team so we can ensure you exceed your trade show goals!

Schedule a Call

If you’re ready to take your trade show exhibits to new heights, fill out this form, and we’ll contact you shortly.

Schedule a Call
If you’re ready to take your trade show exhibits to new heights, fill out this form and we’ll contact you shortly.