What Is a Trade Show? (A Guide from the Pros)

Trade Show Trenches
April 25, 2023

Whenever someone asks me, “What do you do for a living?” I wince a little. It’s not because I’m ashamed of my job. Far from it. I love it and have worked in the trade show industry for over 20 years in a variety of sales, marketing, design, and senior management positions. 

I wince because although there are nearly 15,000 trade shows in the United States each year, everyone defines “trade show” differently depending on their personal experiences. Some think of their local boat, RV, or pet show. And those are most definitely trade shows. Others associate trade shows with professional events in Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago, or other major cities geared towards specific professions (medical) or industries (snack foods). 

Whether the show is large or small, local or national, the event requires professionals who manage the show, handle the logistics, coordinate the educational sessions, build the exhibits, and supply the convention center with pipe and drape, carpeting, tables, and labor. Just like any other profession, the trade show industry is an industry, albeit one invisible to most people. It employs hundreds of thousands of people and generates $21.7 billion in revenue (2022). 

What Is a Trade Show?

A trade show is an exhibition organized so that companies or organizations can showcase their products and services, meet with industry suppliers, attract customers, chat with clients, check on competitors, and learn about market trends. Many trade shows also include educational classes where attendees can earn professional credits or industry accreditation. 

Nearly every industry, hobby, or interest has one or more trade shows. Some are massive, like the Consumer Electronics Show or Natural Products Expo West with 100-4000 exhibitors and over 100,000 attendees. These are typically held every year. Others are held in multiple cities like auto shows or Comic Con. 

What Are Trade Shows Best For? 

Trade shows serve an important role for both new and established companies in marketing their products and services as well as networking with colleagues and potential clients. They attract thousands of attendees and exhibitors to one location for 2-3 days, making it much easier for an attendee to find new products and suppliers, and for exhibitors to meet thousands of potential customers.  

For exhibitors, trade shows can be a great way to increase brand awareness, and learn about new trends, whether you’re in a 10 x 10 incline or a 40 x 60 island trade show booth. It allows them to test new products or services and determine if there’s a market for them and obtain feedback for potential customers. It’s not uncommon for companies to change their design, refine their marketing pitch, or even kill a product or service based on the reactions at a show. 

For many professionals, trade shows serve as a rare opportunity to network with other professionals who share their interests. 

However, for most companies, it’s all about generating leads and new business. A trade show can “make or break” a company’s sales for the year depending on their success, which is why careful planning and pre-show marketing are important.  

what is a trade show model

20 Popular Events in the Trade Show Industry

  1. Consumer Electronics Show (CES)
  2. National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show
  3. American International Toy Fair
  4. New York International Auto Show
  5. SEMA Show
  6. JCK Las Vegas
  7. Pack Expo Las Vegas
  8. FABTECH International
  9. National Hardware Show
  10. Offshore Technology Conference (OTC)
  11. InfoComm 23
  12. Natural Products Expo West
  13. American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO)
  15. National Restaurant Association Show
  16. MAGIC Fashion Las Vegas
  17. World of Modular
  18. The Inspired Home Show
  19. The International Surfaces Event
  20. SHOT Show

15 Trade Show Industry Tips

Successful trade show marketers are planners. They obsess about their objectives at each show. They manage the costs, track pre, post, and during-show tasks, and identify ways to improve their results after every show. 

  1. Strategy. All too often, companies commit to a trade show on a whim. It seems like a good idea… but they don’t have a reason or a plan. It’s not like suddenly deciding to attend a baseball game or a movie. Trade shows are expensive. There should be a quantifiable return on investment or a qualifiable return on objectives. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Decide Whether to Purchase or Rent. There are solid reasons for both choices. In fact, many exhibitors do both depending on their show schedule.
  5. Exhibit Design. Design takes time. The designer needs to understand your marketing objectives, budget, and company personality. 
  6. Graphic Design. Ditto as Exhibit Design. 
  7. Show Services. Show services, like electrical, labor, rigging, etc., have multiple ordering deadlines. With each passing deadline, the price jumps. Often considerably. 
  8. 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. 
  9. 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. 
  10. Itinerary. Participating in a trade show isn’t a vacation. It’s work and an itinerary sets expectations including everyone’s schedule and responsibilities. 
  11. Social and Educational Events. Attending a trade show but ignoring the “meet and greets,” the receptions, the speakers, and the educational sessions are lost opportunities. Not just for potential sales or career opportunities, but also for your mental health. 
  12. 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. 
  13. 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. 
  14. 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. 
  15. Next Show. Planning for the next show should begin immediately after the show. It’s the best time to capture feedback, assign tasks, and prepare the exhibit, the graphics, and the marketing strategy.    

trade show industry

What is a Trade Show Budget?

A trade show budget is a financial plan that itemizes the costs of exhibiting at a trade show. It should include all of the direct and indirect costs, such as booth space, travel, marketing, staffing, and materials. A comprehensive trade show budget will track expenses and assist in managing the overall investment.  

Here are some of the key elements to consider when creating a trade show budget:

  • Booth: The cost of booth space will vary depending on the size space (inline vs. island), the show, and the exhibition hall location (Orlando vs. Boston).
  • Show Services: This includes freight, drayage, electrical, labor, cleaning, and rigging (for a hanging sign).
  • Travel: The cost of travel will depend on the distance, the accommodations, the per diem, and the airfare.
  • Marketing: The cost of marketing will include items such as print and online advertising, pre-show marketing, promotional products, sponsorships, and clothing.
  • Staffing: Who will attend, for how long, and their travel expenses.

In addition to direct costs, there are also indirect costs to consider, such as:

  • Lost Productivity: Employees who attend the trade show will be away from the office, which can lead to lost productivity.
  • Overhead: There are a number of overhead costs associated with exhibiting at a trade show, such as office supplies, shipping, and insurance.

Here are some tips for creating a trade show budget:

  • Start early. The earlier you start planning, the more time you will have to research costs and secure discounts.
  • Be realistic. Don’t overextend yourself financially.
  • Build in a contingency fund. Things don’t always go according to plan, so it’s important to have a little extra money set aside in case of unexpected expenses.
  • Get help from experts. If you’re not sure how to create a trade show budget, there are a number of resources available to help you, such as trade show associations, marketing firms, and accountants.

Understanding the Trade Show Industry?

Unlike most professions, there’s no trade school for trade shows, except for personal experience and the knowledge of trade show professionals. And that’s critical. Inexperience can be expensive. Don’t go it alone. At Exhibits NW, we have been guiding, coaching, and celebrating the success of clients for 30 years. It’s our passion. 

Before buying an exhibit or even considering which trade shows to attend, consult with an Exhibits NW Exhibit Professional to discuss your needs and marketing goals.

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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.