How to Have a Great Trade Show Booth on a Budget

These trade show booth tips will help you reap the highest return on your trade show investment.

Small business, trade show booth, trade show budget

Walk the aisles of any expo or trade show, and you could be lulled into thinking that the only way to get attention is to have the best promotional products or be the biggest, loudest, swaggiest booth on the block. Sure, that stuff can help. But you can be just as effective with a less costly approach that's as compelling as it is budget conscious.

Here are six trade show booth tips for reaping the highest return on your trade show investment:

1. Choose shows wisely. Not every event is right for your business or your budget. That's why research should be the first item on your trade show checklist. "Identify the shows in your area or industry, then look at their prospectuses and understand the costs," says David DuBois, president and CEO of the IAEE, the Dallas-based trade association for the events and exhibits industry. Learn as much as you can about who attends the show to verify it's the right market for your business. "The best shows audit their attendance — that's how you know the numbers they're stating are true."

2. Split a booth with another exhibitor. Booth space can be expensive, especially at larger shows. But sharing the cost and square footage with another business owner may bring the price tag into your comfort zone. Ideally, the business would be complementary to yours (you make beautiful handbags, your friend provides personal styling services), but any non-competitor is okay as long as you clearly separate the two enterprises within the space.

3. Design an eye-catching banner. Your logo should be large enough to be visible from the aisle, and your tagline or business description in a font and size that's legible from a distance. "Rather than print large-format signs with show-specific details — dates, booth numbers, etc. — choose more evergreen executions," suggests Denise Blasevick, CEO of The S3 Agency in Boonton, NJ. "You can always modify in a cost-effective manner by printing out the details smaller and affixing to the larger, more permanent structure — as long as you design that in at the outset." A banner stand in the aisle also draws attention.

4. Create informative marketing materials. Instead of producing strictly promotional brochures, flyers and presentation graphics, include some genuinely useful content, recommends Mitchell Stern, president and CEO of Burning Bush Nurseries in Oakland, CA. "We offer our customers free brochures that include helpful information on useful topics such as how to best care for your plants, the medical uses for cannabis, and other topics of interest," he explains. "These materials are inexpensive to produce and easy to carry. Furthermore, they allow us to associate our brand with good information."

5. Consider video displays and signage. For products or services that require a little explanation, try looping a video on a big screen so passersby can see your solution in action — no salesperson required! "We tend to include a large TV in our booth with a video overviewing DataXoom's services," says Rob Chamberlin, the Berkeley, CA-based company's co-founder and executive vice president. "That way it's easy for someone walking by our booth to quickly and easily understand how we might help them with wireless connectivity." Screens are often available for rent, but it's frequently more cost effective to buy your own.

6. Be smart about swag. "Trade show giveaways that have nothing to do with your brand can be a real waste of money," says Barb Wells, senior vice president of marketing and direct sales for Staples Promotional Products in Framingham, MA. "Sometimes businesses choose promotional items for a low price or small budget, when spending a little more upfront on better products will make a stronger brand impact long term." Her advice: "Find a promotional product that ties into your brand or current marketing campaign. Make sure the product is useful so that your audience will be more likely to hold onto it and remember meeting you. You can also offer a bigger gift or chance to win one from potential customers willing to sign up for your email list or register for your service."

Though budget intensive, taking space at a trade show is worth the spend if done strategically.

"Trade shows are still an effective way to get in front of your potential customers, and an important opportunity for a small business to see 'up close and personal' how its products or services are being received in the marketplace," Chamberlin says.

Trade show veteran Neha Mittal concurs. "If you are exhibiting in a trade show, you are signaling that you have 'arrived' on the scene," says Mittal, head of strategy and business development for San Jose, CA-based Arrow Devices. "Thus you get taken much more seriously as a company by customers and partners alike."