The Ultimate Trade Show Planning Guide


The Ultimate Trade Show Planning Guide

Planning a trade show demands serious organizing chops. There are numerous marketing and logistical processes to undertake, most with multiple steps, and many occur at the same time. How confident are you that your resources and people can be put into lock-step to determine your goals and achieve them during and after a show?

No matter your level of experience running shows, seeing the big picture from the start can be a huge help. In fact, we consider it an essential factor for running a show that provides a clear Return On Investment. Follow along with the companion piece to our Ultimate Trade Show Planning Timeline infographic and make your next show the best yet!

Our trade show planning guide covers every single step you need to take, with clearly defined start times as well as milestones for completing various tasks that require sustained effort. This trade show planning timeline walks you through what we feel are the ideal timeframes for starting and completing the necessary deliverables. Don’t have this kind of time to plan? That’s okay! This trade show planning process can easily fit into a narrower window.


Choose Your Show

To identify the right show for your business and goals, investigate the following:

Show: Check the show’s history. How many vendors have exhibited in recent years? How many returned year after year? Are past exhibitors comparable to your own business?

Audience: Who attends? How much pre-show marketing is the organizer doing? Do they provide audience info or demographics? What speakers or other features are in place to drive attendance?

Value: Consider reaching out to past vendors to describe the audience, ROI, and the show’s value. Obviously, you should avoid your direct competitors. Try to find a business that’s different but targeting a similar audience.

Justify Your Choice

Whether you are the decision maker or you’re pitching to one, establish the “why”. Is this your first time attending this show? Clarify the value of attending.

NOTE: If you already have approval or don’t think your superiors will take convincing, do this once you have a clear picture of your budget and expected ROI. This takes place in the next two steps. If you anticipate a harder sell, broach the topic before investing time in a detailed budget and ROI projection.

Make a Budget

Consider the following factors (percentages are rough estimates):

  • Exhibit Space: 28%
  • Travel & Meals: 21%
  • Show Services: 19%
  • Exhibit Design: 12%
  • Shipping: 9%
  • Promotion: 6%
  • Miscellaneous Expenses: 5%

If some of these factors are already accounted for, you can leave more room for other items in your budget.

Consider how you’ll track expenditures when show time comes. Determining whether you stayed within or exceeded your budget after the show will be a pain without a plan to track spend from start to finish, for every show attendee on your payroll.

Establish Expected ROI

What do you expect to gain from the show?

  • Sales?
  • Leads?
  • Awareness?
  • Partnership opportunities?

Decide what you’re after and quantify its monetary value, as well as the number needed to break even. Then decide what it would take to consider the show a success beyond that break-even number. What’s your threshold for celebrating a victory?

Finally, create a plan for how you’ll log and track these metrics. Leads added to your CRM? Sales through event-related landing pages? Have a plan that covers how you’ll log every single conversion.



Plan Specific Objectives

Now that you know your expected ROI, break down the goals you want to achieve, prioritize them, and create goal totals for each.

You probably want a healthy mix of:

  • Quantifiable, bottom-line objectives
  • Communications and brand awareness goals
  • Logistical objectives (i.e. gathering intel on competition)

Again, create a plan for tracking these results.

Determine Space Requirement and Reserve It

How sure are you of the show’s potential ROI?

If the answer is “not very”, test the waters during your first showing with a smaller booth.

If you’ve attended the show before or know your audience will be there in droves, a bigger space might be in order.

Once decided, reserve the space immediately.

Create a Marketing Plan to Reach Prospects

Now that booth space is locked down, plan how to reach your objectives.

Focus on people: leads, sales targets, partners, etc.

How will you reach them? What channels will you use? How will you connect with them at the appropriate times?

Your plan should be divided into 3 sections:

  1. Pre-Show Marketing – Invite your audience to visit your booth via:
    • Direct Mail
    • Email/Newsletters
    • Social Media
    • Print Ads
    • Industry Publications
  2. At-Show Marketing – Enhance your presence and drive your goals with:
    • Lead Generation (plan ways to qualify and grade)
    • Client/Prospect Meetings (treat the most important folks to dinner)
    • Media Relations
    • Event Sponsorship
    • Speaking Engagements
  3. Post-Show Marketing – Close the loop and convert your prospects through:
    • Lead Management
    • Follow-Up Mailers/Emails (consider drip email campaigns to nurture leads)
    • Blog Recap and Other Content (include lots of high-quality images showing off your booth, visitors, and the show at large)
    • Social Media retargeting sequences



Write Your Sales Message

Keeping your goals in mind, create a short and sweet (< 30 seconds) message that captures your exhibit’s mission.

What can you say to make your audience convert? What constitutes a conversion and how can booth workers influence your audience?

Choose Graphical Elements, Layout, and Lighting

a) If outsourcing these aspects, get proposals from at least 3 vendors.
b) In-house designers or savvy users of online booth design software can take a more hands-on approach and then find a suitable producer.

With either approach, consider capabilities, cost, and delivery times.

Keep things simple and clutter-free. Distill your sales message into a brief aesthetic description, similar to voice and tone as used in branding and marketing.

Looking for a reliable source of trade show booths, equipment, and design? We have more than 15 years of experience in the industry, serving clients including NASA, BMW, Twitter, and Apple. Shop our store or call 800.419.3561 for expert insight on gear for running great shows.

Choose Giveaways (Free Swag!)

Use something of value to your audience that reflects your core message.

Attendees will get a lot of swag, much of it irrelevant junk. Consider this step carefully so you’ll stand out and resonate. Don’t order items yet, but start brainstorming.

Decide on Literature and Materials

Determine collateral you’ll need at the show. Plan to only give materials to the most qualified leads, with the option of a digital brochure downloadable with a QR code.

Then start designing materials and plan for printing time.



Order Your Giveaway Promo Items

Review your ideas from the customer’s perspective.

What would they find most useful? What are they likely to use most, keeping your brand top of mind?

Consult other stakeholders including sales teams, executives, and marketing pros.

Make your selection and order the item(s).

Follow Up with Vendors

Touch base with every vendor partner: designers, display manufacturers, printers, etc.

Confirm delivery dates at least 10 days in advance of the show.

Plan Staff Requirements

What staff will you need for setup and manning the booth?

Develop booth schedules and plan training sessions. Be sure to spread training over several sessions to ensure mastery of the message and necessary skills.

Establish Technology Needs and Nice-to-Haves

  • Computers or tablets can provide interactive information or lead retrieval and tracking.
  • QR codes can help users find your home page or download informational materials.
  • The soon-to-be-released apps InGo and Mingl promise to bring exhibitors and attendees together in real time.
  • Find out what technology solutions the show offers, like a Facebook group for participants.
  • Electronic picture frames can display dynamic product and company information.
  • Tech-savvy firms can use VR to create truly immersive experiences (as in Lowes’ Oculus Rift -based “Holoroom”).
  • Blogging, though not new, is drastically underused at most shows. Capture search traffic related to the event with blog content hosted on your site.
  • Charging stations draw in and keep visitors, and ensure repeat visits.
  • Decide what you’ll share on social media and how you’ll engage with each target audience segment throughout the show.

Review the “Show Book” and All Literature

The “show book” is a document or web page with details and forms for all show services. Review yours as soon as it arrives. Locate what you’ll need and make a list of order deadlines to qualify for discounted rates.

Many shows offer marketing support as well. Review these and any show literature. Learning everything you can about the show and its audience at this point can spark new ideas and fill in marketing gaps.

Plan Shipping Logistics

Plan how you’ll ship your display and other materials.

Make sure you have the appropriate packing materials for your entire inventory. Learn how to complete your MHA, which describes how everything should handled after the show.

Begin Travel Arrangements

Start planning now!

  • Hotel accommodations
  • Air travel
  • Taxi pickup or rental car reservations

Do this ASAP to get the best rates.

Launch Pre-Show Marketing

Attendees are already getting excited and prepping for the show.

Be the first exhibitor engaged with the show audience:

  • Use social media to engage with specific groups and tease what you’ll present with video content.
  • Blog about how attendees can get the most out of the show.
  • Start acting on the marketing plan you created for months 12 to 9.
  • Get the ball rolling now, or set a specific date for launching your pre-show tactics.


Continue Pre-Show Marketing

Your pre-show plan should already be underway. Build excitement. Pique interest. Consider running an online contest for giveaway items to be passed out at the show.

Create Post-Show Packets and/or Digital Engagement Sequences

Get to work on materials for post-show marketing including traditional mailers, email blasts, email drip campaigns to nurture leads, or a mix. No matter your approach, create a detailed plan for following up with show leads.

Confirm Travel and Accommodation Arrangements

We’ve all had logistical challenges while planning a trip. Don’t let critical details fall through the cracks. Be completely sure you’ve got a means to reach the show, a place to put your head at night, and a way to travel around the city if needed.

Schedule Staff Training

Update everyone’s calendars to get their gears churning and put them in the exhibiting mindset.

To ensure your presence is on point and on message, schedule several trainings over a few weeks. Create a formal outline for training materials that breaks down what your people need to know to reach your objectives.

Check in with Show Organizer

Check for last-minute details.

Schedules change, sponsors and exhibitors drop out or sign up, and prices change for on-site services.

Finalize Booth and Materials

Finish designing AND producing booth components and marketing collateral. The last thing you want is a delay from a backed-up printing company or booth producer a week from your show.

Schedule Dinners and Meetings

Make the most of your show by setting meetings with important targets—prospects, distributors, partners, customers, etc.

This should be a major priority. Buying dinner for a key prospect can go a long way in learning about their needs and how to land a deal.

Finalize Travel Plans

You really can’t revisit this enough.

Check in again to make sure everything is covered. If needed, confirm rental cars, cab fare, or reimbursement plans for services like Uber for off-site travel or prospect meetings.



Finish Staff Training

Hold your final session 7-10 days before you depart. Tie everything together and test for gaps or issues. Treat this as a “dress rehearsal”, with booth setup and role-playing interactions with target personas.

Confirm Shipment Arrivals

Double-check arrival dates for promo items and other materials.

Verify All Steps

It’s list time!

Go through every step and create a list of steps and subtasks. Have you covered them all?

Make a checklist of everything that needs to happen before you head to the airport.



Make the most of your investment!

  • Check the most up-to-date version of the show directory.
  • Dress the part. Know your audience and ensure you aren’t over- or underdressed.
  • Network, network, network! Even if you aren’t the type to attend mixers at home, mingle as much as possible at your event.
  • Gather intel on the competition, including booth literature. Sort later for quality. Become a “lead” for your competitors to see how they follow up and bring targets into the funnel.

If the owner or manager is attending, they should spend the first day at the booth overseeing execution, tweaking throughout the day, and reviewing in the evening. On day two, execs and managers can walk the floor to absorb ideas and competitive insights and drive traffic back to your booth. Day two is critical for reaching your audience and assessing competition without the chaos and crowds of day one.



Follow Up with Leads

Analyze and qualify leads, then follow up according to priority.

Push contacts into the appropriate funnels. Send follow-up messages. Where appropriate, have sales people make personal contact with your hottest prospects.

Compare Budget with Actual Spend

Hopefully you had a plan in place for tracking show expenditures. Now that the show is behind you and your marketing plan has run its course, see how well you did keeping within your budget.

Evaluate Your Results

How do the results match up with your goals?

Take a look at the expected ROI and specific objectives you laid out in the beginning. Tally completions of your various goals.

For some metrics, it may be too soon to tell. If that’s the case, plan a follow-up date.

Once all data is in, create a report outlining the results and takeaways.

Decide Whether to Return Next Year

Did the show provide positive ROI, or could ROI improve in future years based on the lessons you learned?

If you can prove the value of returning, suggest enhancements based on competitor observations and comments from customers.

If not, be clear as to what was gained and how you can use that knowledge to run better shows in the future. Look into other trade shows that might provide greater benefit.


Now you’re a trade show planning master. As you go through this process, think of ways it can be tailored to fit your team and workflow. The more people you have involved, the easier it is to narrow the window for planning and executing the essentials of a successful event.

Need supplies to help run your show? We offer more than expert trade show advice. You can find both cutting-edge and traditional booths and equipment in our online store. Find out why BMW, Twitter, Apple, and NASA buy supplies from us!

About the Author

TradeShowPlus administrator

Comments Are Closed!!!

The Ultimate Trade Show Planning Guide

by TradeShowPlus time to read: 10 min