Trade show on a budget

Are you planning to attend a trade show or expo to showcase your product or service? Costs surrounding these events tend to run into the ridiculous category, even for established companies. If you’re a startup, it’s quite the juggling act. We recently had a very lively discussion on the matter on the Philly Startup Leaders mailing list, chock full of hints, tips, and suggestions from those who have been there/done that. First here’s the original inquiry…

We’re going to be attending our first tradeshow this November and need to figure out how to put together our booth on a budget (or lack thereof). We’ve got a 10x10 booth along with a few hundred other vendors. Thankfully, we managed to snag a decent location on the floor. We ultimately need something pretty simple. We plan to bring 4-5 workstations for people to use our website and put a 50" LCD on the back wall to run some demos. The whole goal is to get people in the booth, on the computer and signing up. Everyone we’ve talked to is saying it is going to take more than $10k to build and deliver a booth (this is to buy, not rent as we’ll likely be at several more tradeshows over the next year). We literally don’t have a budget for doing this, but we’ll figure out how to do it somehow, and we do plan on having as professional a presence as possible. Does anyone have any suggestions and/or good exhibit companies they have worked with before? Typically, are exhibition companies willing to negotiate on price? Also, if anyone has any practical advice on tradeshows that they’d like to share, please do. We need to gain as much exposure as possible. – Jameson Detweiler, Green Konnect

And here are key excerpts from the discussion (edited for content, spelling, etc)…

The most important part of show prep is to write down your measurable goals for the show (X number of leads, X number of orders, etc.) and to plan your follow up process for during and post show. Also think about pre-show marketing and which prospects and clients to whom you want to send a free pass. And consider any p.r. opptys you can create while you’re at the show. The post show work is critical in my mind. Otherwise any money you spend on the show is wasted if you don’t plan your follow up and execute on it. Can’t tell you how many companies I’ve seen waste $’s for lack of follow up.
For the booth, shop around online. When I set up the trade show program for one company I think we spent about $2500 to buy our very good quality 10x10 booth, plus some amount for the artwork for it. It was a basic concave back w/ basic lights. That was 4 years ago so I don’t know where prices are now. I think I used Exhibit Deal. The short answer is that you want your booth to look professional, not like one of the companies that can’t afford to be at the show (they have no chairs, no carpet, no lights and use a cheap back drop). To do that, make sure you go thru the exhibit book carefully to see where you can shave costs. The exhibitor companies typically hit you for everything, electricity, carpet, daily cleaning, chairs, tables, fabric, etc. Also if you’re in a union exhibit hall you’ll have to read the rules carefully to figure out how to package your samples and stuff so you can load them yourself and not be crushed by the union rates. We rented the table w/ fabric and carpet, paid for the electric outlet, were allowed to plug in our own electric devices and not have the union electrician do it b/c we were a small booth, and brought out own good looking folding chairs. We also brought our own booth box w/ all sorts of stuff that came in very handy. We also spent money on logo’d button-down shirts for a booth uniform, booth shipping, product samples, marketing collateral, air fare, hotels and meals for 3-5 people over 4 days, 1 rental van and other incidentals. […]

I’d take a careful look at the exhibit rules to see if they say anything about using computers and video screens. While you can figure out a way to get a 50" big screen set up w/o buying the expensive backdrops needed to hang them, the set up you describe - 50" video w/ lots of computer terminals - is the kind of set up that would require union workers. Make sure you see if that’s an issue for you as you shop for a booth. That killed our plans to do the same kind of thing. – Bruce Segal, E*S*Q Unlimited

[singlepic=6,200,200,,right]My wife and I built a 10x10 trade show on a budget. It was super simple, but only cost $2K to make. * Postcards to hand out, $185 (from modernpostcard.com) * Fabric for table & sides, $50 (from Jomar’s in Philly + my wife) * Sewed big pieces together really quickly * 3 Posters (2 with lights), $1560 (from postergarden.com) * Fishing line held the software boxes up

Gabriel Weinberg, Duck Duck Go

Also, I would recommend having some good swag. It draws people into your area.

– Tracey Welson-Rossman, Chariot Solutions

I would recommend against trying to mount a 50" display on a pop-up. You’re going to have some stability issues. Instead, get a floor standing monitor mount. Here’s a cool one with place for keyboard/mouse at a decent price. You’ll also need a table for your workstations. With a handful of workstations, you’re going to need some room. Cramming all of this in to a 10'x10’ space is going to be very tight. Of course, it also depends on how many people you plan on manning the booth. Generally, shows prohibit you from lingering in the walkway between booths. So, let’s say you have the booth back, the floor stand with 50" monitor, a table with 5 workstations and 3 people in the booth, you’re going to be tight for space. Add 2 or 3 attendees and you’ll literally be on top of one another. As far as show strategy goes, it always helps to have something interactive going on (more-so than just your product). Having some kind of gimmick, giveaway, contest, prize, game, etc., goes a long way to drive more traffic in to your booth. Now, of course, you don’t want this to be the main attraction of your booth. Nor do you want it to be tacky - so as to detract from your presentation or harm your brand. Here’s a good example of bad interactive execution. I was at a show about a year ago and outside of a 20x20 booth, lingered an attractive, scantily clad female, who was encouraging attendees to come over to the booth and take a whack at a golf ball with her putter and land one in the hole to win a prize. I stood there and watched as one person after another lined up to take a crack. What I found interesting was that once the attendee took a shot at the ball, they disappeared instantly… wanting nothing to do with what the company had to say about itself. Also, not one female approached the booth. It was a disgrace. So, some ideas for things you can do that will draw attention, give you a chance to talk to an attendee and avoid detrimental branding:
    * Grab 10 ipod Nanos and give away one every hour on the hour. Ask attendees to drop their business cards or sign up with one of your pre-printed entry forms. This way, you can talk to them while they’re signing up to win - you can talk to them again if they come back later to see if they’ve won… and you can tell them to come back every hour to enter again if they don’t win. You’ll get a lot of repeat traffic. Also, word of mouth will spread around about the contest. * You could have a grand prize - for example, everyone that “signs up” on the spot for your product/service gets entered for an end-of-conference/show giveaway where you give them the 50" TV from your booth. * Give away a decent show bag. While attendees almost alway throw away 99% of what they stuff in to those bags, if the bag itself is nice, they will keep it. I probably have 10 of them at home in my closet. (Good for groceries, etc.) This way, your brand sticks around with the attendee for an extended period of time (post-show).

If you want to look professional and do this right - I would expect to spend ~$6k-8k. I don’t think the $10k estimate was off base. For the last big show I did with a client (show in DC with ~20K attendees), the client spent ~$55k on the booth, $10k on personnel in the booth (we hired actors and put on a whole production in a 20x30 booth), and ~$15k on giveaways, prizes, take-homes, etc. We also put in four small movie rooms inside the booth, where attendees could sit down and watch a short video presentation we created about the product. They could pull the curtain shut and enjoy a few minutes alone. This went over very well. This client wanted to go all out for a new product/brand launch and make a big splash, which they did. Microsoft’s booth was right next to them, and the Microsoft guys were jealous of all the attention they received. Another one of my clients used to have a singing Elvis in their booth every year. They did this for about 8 years straight (until I came along and got rid of him). It was interesting, though… people remembered the singing Elvis and would come back to their booth year after year to hear him sing. It got attention and was memorable (just not the kind of attention I wanted for my client). If you do something creative, something different, you will get attention. – Aaron Haydn McLean, Eight Eleven Inc.

Check the prices on anything you plan to rent or ship, chances are that you’re find that many items can be purchased locally near the show for less than the rental/shipping. This goes for most furniture/supplies and even some LCD displays. We did CES a few times and typically arrived a little early to buy a lot of stuff locally versus renting or shipping. Also, we bought a used booth at a local booth maker which saved us a lot of $ and dressed it up with new artwork. – Rick O'Brien, SemperCon
Hand-me down wisdom from an advisor with many startup success stories: Don’t get a booth - just go and sell to people with booths. Still have the same goals in mind, but only pay for a day-pass to walk around the exhibition areas. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s worth considering going commando. – Jordan Epstein, Philly Startup Leaders
Update: And if you happen to be in the social networking or registration businesses
Try working out a deal with the conference, such as being the official networking site for conference attendees. You would pitch the conference on the value to attendees, show them what they would normally have to pay, then offer to provide it to them at no charge or a discount. You’ll do all the work and the attendee marketing. They would just need to send you the attendee list with e-mail addresses. We’ve worked ticketing deals like this with success. It gets you better exposure than you could pay for and shows off your product doing what it does best. If they are interested, be sure to ask for the extras that don’t cost them anything – including a booth in a premium spot, a speaking opportunity, ads in the program, on the web, etc, and a final attendee list so you can continue marketing to them. – Blake Jennelle, TicketLeap