How to Prepare for a Trade Show

Trade Show Trenches
September 2, 2021

We’ve all heard the quote by Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” Yet, the lack of planning before, during, and after trade shows continues to be the single biggest reason most exhibit programs fail. Too often: 

  • The marketing or sales goals are vague,
  • The pre-show preparation is last minute,
  • The booth staff training is non-existent, and
  • The post-show follow-up is slow and perfunctory.

As a result, many exhibitors are unhappy with the results. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Early in my trade show career, a mentor told me that “you can spend a lot of money figuring out how to be successful at trade show marketing. The smart exhibitor learns from someone who has already made those expensive mistakes.” 

How to Prepare for a Trade Show

Trade Show Planning requires three distinct individuals or teams: a project manager, a marketer, and a sales professional. No one person has all three skills, which means preparing for a trade show requires tapping into and coordinating their talents at every stage. In our experience, having too many “experts” is rarely a problem as you start your trade show planning. More often, one person is left to do all the heavy lifting which means details get overlooked, there’s no coherent strategy, and specific tasks/roles are undefined. Let’s divvy up those tasks so everyone pulls their weight. 

Project Manager

If someone says to you, what do you absolutely need to plan for the upcoming trade show? Say a project manager. The PM will be responsible for identifying, gathering, documenting, and communicating all the tasks necessary. This person will set timelines and remind everyone what needs to happen next and what’s lagging. A PM will question your suppliers and internal resources about the specific tasks, whether it’s an A, B, or C, and in what order they need to happen.  

For example: 

Pre-Show Show date, shipping timeline, graphics (sizes, due dates, proofs), reservations (air, hotel, transportation), show services (and deadlines), branded apparel, promotional products, installation and dismantle.

Show: Booth staff schedule. 

Post-Show: Return shipping, scheduling turnkey services, post-show wrap-up. 


At most companies, the marketing department manages the trade show program. Which is good… and bad. The marketers will start the ball rolling by identifying the goals and strategy for each show. Then they’ll work with an exhibit house to design the display, along with deciding whether to purchase or go with a rental exhibit.  

All the while, they’ll obsess about the branding and the messaging. They’ll design the graphics, create A/V material, and write email and social media campaigns. They’ll even work with Sales on promotions before, during, and after the show. If it all goes according to plan, they’ll drive attendees to the booth with pre-show marketing and social media. 

With all those balls to juggle, marketers aren’t always the best resource for less creative tasks, which is why having a project manager is so essential. Having a PM allows the marketers to be marketers and ensure that deadlines are met (and money saved). 

For example:  

Pre-Show:  Marketing goals and strategy, exhibit requirements, graphic design, promotional brochures or products, social media, determine key success indicators, plan events, coordinate advertising, and sponsorships with show organizers.

Show:  Manage collateral, assist with presentations, conduct training.

Post-Show:  Review success indicators/metrics, define and disperse leads, 

Sales Professional

All too often, the Sales Department’s role is limited to manning the booth, entertaining clients at the show, and then following up on trade show leads. That’s a mistake since the success of any trade show is about attracting the right attendees to the booth, determining their needs, and then working with them after the show. All that becomes more difficult if the Sales Team isn’t consulted early and often during the entire pre-show preparation. 

Trade show consultants often say that 70% of all sales leads are follow-up after the show. Which is alarming but also suspect. The real percentage is probably lower, but what isn’t debatable is that the Sales Department often receives incomplete or downright poor leads from shows. Too many are worthless because they weren’t qualified or are simply lacking details about the client’s needs or timelines. The sales team must be an active participant and owner of the show’s success. 

For example:

Pre-Show:  Sales strategy and goals, attendee profile, promotions, lead capture data/requirements, client outreach, invites, and meetings.

Show: Meetings, social events, booth sales coordination, intake documentation, and notes

Post-Show: Lead follow-up and documentation, reporting, show feedback.

how to prepare for a trade show with team

How to Set Up a Trade Show Booth

Without a doubt, one of the most stressful experiences at any trade show is the installation and dismantle (I&D). And it doesn’t matter if you’re setting up your portable display or you’ve hired an exhibitor-appointed contractor (labor provider) to do the install. There’s always a chance something can go wrong, especially if you haven’t done your pre-show planning or hired an experienced company to manage it all

Step #1:  What are the show hall regulations? You’ll need to familiarize yourself with what you can and can’t do on the show floor. Hint:  That would be an excellent task for your project manager who will check with your exhibit house. The rules can vary widely depending on the location, even between popular exhibition destinations like Orlando or Las Vegas. Your I&D plans may depend on the do’s and don’ts in that city. 

Step #2:  Ideally, it’s always best to inspect your booth after it returns from a show. That way, when you prepare for your next show, you have a checklist of items to be replaced or repaired. Even for portable displays, taking an hour or so to assemble it before shipping it to the show ensures there are no surprises (like a damaged graphic) and this process refamiliarizes you with how it goes together. 

In an often hot and chaotic show hall, the ability to be calm, confident, and speedy makes the experience much more pleasant. For a larger custom or rental exhibit, arrange for your exhibit house to stage the booth. It’s an expense, but it will save you time, anxiety, and ultimately money if there’s an unexpected glitch at the show site. 

Step #3:  It pays to have a long-term relationship with an exhibit-appointed contractor when you don’t plan to assemble the display yourself. These contractors are different from the general show labor. They are independent contractors whose entire business model is I&D at convention centers, exhibition halls, and event centers. 

Their goal is to provide you with a flawless installation and dismantle at a predictable price and to solve problems whenever issues arise. They want to see the setup instructions in advance, and they’ll guide your best options for installing flooring, electrical, and hanging signs. They know the in’s and out’s of trade shows, where to get answers fast, and how to navigate the insanity before the show opens and after it closes. 


how to set up a trade show booth

Trade Show Checklists

Speaking of planning, packing a few essentials whether you have a 10 ft. inline or 40 x 50 island can often save the day. Anything can happen on the trade show floor, so an emergency kit of booth essentials will help you douse the fires when they arise. A good trade show checklist supply kit should include:

  • Pens 
  • Sharpies
  • Scotch/packing/duct tape
  • Masking tape
  • Extension cords/power strip
  • Rubber bands
  • Stapler
  • Highlighter
  • Scissors
  • All-in-one mechanics tool or small toolbox
  • First-aid kit
  • Security zip ties/garbage bag
  • Business cards
  • Stretch wrap (small roll)
  • Hook and loop (Velcro)

Teamwork and Trade Shows Go Together Like Cake and Ice Cream

Have you ever planned a birthday party for an 8-year-old? It’s usually easier if you have help and much easier if you know someone who has done it before. There’s the theme. Arranging vendors. Inviting everyone. Scheduling the activities. Considering every “what if” and “anything else.” Then being a gracious host on the day and having the energy to clean up at the end and thanking others for making the day special. The reality is that planning, preparing, and having a knowledgeable team makes the event itself that much more enjoyable. A trade show is pretty much the same. Without the balloons, bounce house, and the tantrums (hopefully). 

From the Experts: How to Prepare for a Trade Show

Our experienced team at Exhibits Northwest knows the ins and outs of how to prepare for a trade show. We can help you develop an immersive, engaging trade show program whether you purchase or rent your exhibit. We start by having a conversation that will help us begin to understand your goals and brand identity. Next, we design and build an exhibit that meets your needs and budget. Lastly, we partner with your team to plan and execute each and every trade show on your schedule to ensure your next trade show will always be your best trade show. 

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.