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How to Really Budget for a Trade Show

Whenever I have a meeting with a potential client who is looking to rent or purchase a new exhibit, I do what is called a complete “discovery” of their needs, requirements, likes and dislikes; so I know what they want others to learn about them within their space on the show floor. One of the most important of those discovery questions is budget (your gut just had a spasm didn’t it?).

It is interesting to witness the reactions of some people, when I ask them toward the end of the Q&A, what their budget is. Some people come right out and tell me. They provide not only the dollar amount, but what that has to cover; is it exhibit only? Does it also include I&D, show services, storage? Others look at me as if I’ve asked them to show me their personal income tax returns and confirm their authenticity with a signature in blood.


Talking about money is awkward

At some point in my career I learned this about people: talking about money is an awkward situation; among friends, among family and with your potential products and services vendors. Yes there are the veterans who have been in this industry for years and are cool with “the talk.” But others, who may be new, or are used to just buying from vendors they’ve always used, suddenly feel vulnerable because they’re talking about that thing that can make a root canal seem like a walk in the park (no disrespect to the dentists out there).

Here’s a little secret: I’m not asking because I want to put you on the spot. I ask because I don’t want to waste your time, or that of my designer, by creating something in the size you need, with all of the requirements you’ve requested, but it’s $35,000 over your budget and now you have to go back to your boss and explain why. Wouldn’t you just feel better getting it all out there and letting us work our magic for you?

Here’s another thing I’ve learned over the years: Many people don’t know what a proper exhibit budget looks like. You book a trade show, you get your space and now you need to decide what goes in it. But what does it all cost? Let’s explore this together.

Where does your budget go

So, your boss tells you that you need to expand your exhibit space from a 10×20 this year to a 20×20 for next year’s show. Great! A bunch of Exhibit Marketing Consultants within your WiFi coverage area just got all giddy inside. The word is out and there’s money to be spent. But how do you know you can afford all that goes with this expansion? You need to stop and figure it out before you book your larger space. It’s great to feel all that extra square footage of double padding and carpet beneath your feet, but if your booth will only have a monitor on a stand and a table with four chairs, because you spent your entire budget on the space, you will fail miserably. Here’s the basic breakdown.

According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), 36% of your budget goes to the floor space. That’s a huge chunk and you must be aware of that before getting into all of the other necessities for a successful show.

The second biggest chunk of your budget is going to go to show services; 17% of it as a matter of fact. Show services include the carpet and padding, electric, cleaning, rigging garbage pails etc. So, you’ve already used up more than 50% of your available funds and you don’t have an exhibit, no staff to man the booth and, oh yeah, your purpose for being there in the first place; lead management and measurement. So what’s next? The exhibit is going to figure in at around 11%.

Here’s how I look at it. You’ll come to me and tell me you need an exhibit for your show. I take all the information you provide in our meeting, you tell me your budget is $40,000 and it has to include “everything”. I like when I hear that. What is “everything”? Does it include show services, I&D, AV?

If you want to rent an exhibit it can be done for that price but it will most likely be just the cost of the exhibit rental with graphics, the associated pre-production fees, project management and shipping. The cost of show services is still looming and don’t forget someone has to put this thing up and take it down.

In 2011 TSEA put out these rental estimates; they don’t include graphics, furniture, AV and field services. They are just the exhibit hardware numbers.



20’ x 20’

$15,500 to $25,000

20’ X 30’

$22,000 to $38,000

30’ X 30’

$34,000 to $57,000

30’ X 50’

$56,000 to $94,000

40’ X 40’

$60,000 to $100,000

50’ X 50’

$94,000 to $156,000


Now you’ve got to hire your general contractor for the install and dismantle. The national straight time average is $86.98 per hour. Go to Chicago and you’ll pay $119.35 per hour but head to Orlando and you’re in for around $74.88 per hour (CEIR 2011).

Estimating a straight-time build, using the national average for 1 ½ days or 12 hours, you’re going to pay around $1043.76 (install only with one hanging sign, no crazy monitor walls or clowns on a tightrope). Of course the components associated with the actual exhibit will increase or decrease that build time. Blow your budget on the booth space and it takes about an hour to set up that single monitor stand and table with four chairs. Please also be aware that many installs and dismantles take place on a Saturday or Sunday…Ka-ching!

Have you ever heard of Drayage? In trade show terms it is moving exhibit materials within the confines of the exhibit hall or at the general contractor’s warehouse. You may also see it called “Material Handling.”

Assuming you are going to the Advance Warehouse, the national average for Drayage (sounds terminal, doesn’t it?) is $83.51 per CWT. CWT means per hundred weight of the exhibit and materials moved. Orlando is $65.76 per CWT and Chicago is $90.80 per CWT. Lucky for you, Skyline makes lightweight exhibits so this little add-on won’t leave you without a food stipend for the entirety of the show.

What’s the Point
There are several:

Know all of the costs involved in going to a trade show

I’m not talking specific dollars and cents; I mean make a list of everything that will cost you money (and most likely have to be paid for pre-show).

Be realistic with your budget

Don’t ask for a 30×40 exhibit with a $25,000 budget and a laundry list of wants and needs. Look at the national averages, the research is done for your benefit.

If you don’t know your budget, don’t make the appointment with the exhibit vendor until you do

You wouldn’t walk into a Ferrari dealership with a Prius budget and expect them to come down to your price. There is haggling and there is “you’ve got to be kidding.” Don’t be the latter.

Before you ask the guy or gal with the purse strings to give you a number

Know what the national average is for an exhibit in the size being requested. TSEA did estimates for both rental and purchase.

Don’t cut corners on your exhibit because you’ve spent all of your money on the booth space

Do a rental instead of purchase. Ask about lease to own programs. If it’s a rental, find out what the cost to rent would be over 2 or 3 years. Since you’ll own the graphics after year 1, you’ll pay less for years 2 and 3. A bigger booth with a useless exhibit means colossal failure for your company.

Consider all of the factors involved with the exhibit design

You might be able to get an exhibit cheaper from one vendor over another; but if the exhibit has to ship in (6) 4’x4’x8’ wooden crates compared to an exhibit that breaks down into smaller parts and uses less crates, you’re going to pay more in the end for shipping and drayage (sorry, I can’t say that word without italics) and anything else that is priced by weight.

Your brand is what counts

Setting up a large, interactive video wall in your booth to get customers may be the popular thing among your colleagues in the office but how will it help you get qualified leads? You need to make money to pay for that booth, remember?

Ask questions

Most exhibit houses are not in business to rake you over the coals. They have sent their reps to workshops and industry specific training courses. They keep up on all of the latest design trends and they would all love to work with you to create a great booth experience for your organization; so ask about their services; can you contact them 24/7 should an issue arise during install? Can they replace a large fabric graphic in an emergency because someone drove over yours with a scissor lift? Are there extra charges for this type of service? You should know.

Use your resources

Finally, there is something that my company does, free of charge that everyone should be taking advantage of; we offer seminars several times a year. We give you workbooks and a hot lunch, and we teach you things like budgeting for your shows, profitable exhibiting, design ideas; the list goes on. Please take advantage of these free seminars. We want you to succeed. We want you to come back to us and tell us that your boss was thrilled with the cost of the exhibit and how well it presented on the show floor. The right combination of knowledge, design and price makes all the difference.

WWEAs you prepare for your future event and trade show planning, learn from your peers in the What’s Working in Exhibiting Benchmarks and Best Practices white paper. Learn how exhibitors have improved results, stretched their budgets, and reduced risk. Click here to request you free copy and learn more.


About the Author

Lisa Maniaci is a Senior Account Representative with Skyline Exhibits NJ.

5 responses to “How to Really Budget for a Trade Show

  1. Thanks for the article Lisa, I always seem to struggle to keep to my budget regardless of how big or small it is, so good to have some advice.

  2. Thank you Lisa for this great article.
    The truth is, most companies never budget for their trade show participation the right way.
    Booth space & decoration is just part of the total bill. You must consider samples price, logistics, marketing & printing, staff salary, plane tickets, hotels, internet, etc. Have you considered the (ridiculously high) price of a lunch at a trade show?

    Great article, it goes in the right direction – monitoring your event expenses precisely.

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