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Trade shows, exhibitions and conventions: A quick how-to guide

Written By | Aug 4, 2019
trade shows

Trade show floor. Image via Public domain, CC 0.0 license.

WASHINGTON. This column is a little different from my usual stock market reports, performing arts reviews and occasional scurrilous political commentary. It’s a short primer on the general tasks one needs to undertake – early and often – in order to contract for and set up an exhibit booth at local or national trade shows and conventions.

This and occasional future columns on practical and political matters have an interesting gestation.

Every so often, I share some of my vast treasure trove of knowledge on Quora. Sadly, many of the questions Quora users and members ask are often transparent clickbait, obviously encouraging nasty assessments of President Trump. But a number of queries that pop up in my email involve real problem-solving questions. Since a number of Quora users have found my answers at least somewhat useful in the past, I thought it might be useful to our readers here to go through these responses from time to time and post expanded versions of them here.

Hence, today’s brief column offering general tips on how to go about getting and setting up a tradeshow or convention booth.

Advance planning is important.

When it comes to what’s involved in setting up a booth at trade show sor conventions, the size and location of the event is important. For a local Chamber of Commerce-style trade show or exhibit, you’ll probably find out about it maybe 6 months or less in advance.

On the other hand, for some of the bigger national trade shows, you’ll need to get involved a lot earlier, as much as a year in advance. Why the difference? Small local shows tend to be looser, more informal, and easier to prepare for.

Local exhibits and shows are simpler to deal with

If you do a little dialing and smiling, you can make an appointment with one or more of the folks involved in supporting the exhibit, drive your car across town to the appointment, and pick your friendly target’s brains for what to do and how to do it when it comes to setting up a successful booth. That’s because local events are a lot less rigid than big national ones, particularly if they’re not located in a big city. Otherwise, “big exhibit” rules and regs probably apply.

Getting ready to set up a booth at a big national exhibition or convention

First and main issue is reserving space. Cost and square footage are your primary concerns. You need enough room for your planned exhibit(s) You should already keep the contents and focus of your exhibit in mind. Is it simple or complex? Do you need a small amount of space to exhibit? Or do you need extra space due to the size of your planned exhibit?

trade shows

Convention floors and even some sporting tournaments can offer outside floorspace for product and trade show material. Image via, public domain, CC 0.0 license. Image link:

When it comes to exhibit space and cost, size matters

Needless to say – but I’ll say it – space is actually your first hurdle when it comes to setting up an exhibit. You need to measure out, in real time, just how much space you’ll need to set up all the books, props, gear and live demos you want to show.

But then, reality meets desire. Big national shows often offer a variety of relatively small to fairly gigantic exhibition spaces to suit the needs of customers / exhibitors large and small.  you also have to adjust your budget, because the bigger the convention and the bigger the space, the more the cost. Any company whose exhibit you’re planning will have a budget for the show. Or else you’ll have to negotiate one. And if that budget turns out not to match your plans, you may have to adjust your ambitions downward, particularly when it comes to expensive booth space.

Personnel, travel and shipping costs

Also consider: You’ll probably need at least one compatriot to help you man the booth. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck there for much of each day, and that can get grueling, particularly if you need some grub or desperately need to “hit the head.” So, in addition to the cost of space, you’ll need to factor in travel costs (airline tickets, etc.), shipping costs for your exhibit, and on and on. That will strain your budget even further, so be prepared to sharpen your pencil.

In the bigger and more sophisticated national shows, while you have to arrange your own travel and accommodations, shipping and handling of your material can often be handled by designated contractors working with the company or agency handling the show. Be sure to ask. Costs vary. But sometimes, you’ll have no choice, as unions have contracted to handle this and that service and you’re required to use their personnel. Welcome to the Big City.

Your exhibit material

Your exhibit itself – including (and especially) any product demo must be virtually ready to go. And actually works at the time you’re putting together your plans. (But keep mind, your great new product might malfunction at the convention anyway. It’s the way of the world sometimes.)

You generally have to work directly with the convention people, either directly or with the firm they’ve contracted the work out to. Or both. Dealing with the union in charge of doing set-up work, including bringing stuff in from the dock is also something you’ll need to get clear, as I’ve already indicated. They can stop you cold, and that’s an aggravation you don’t need, so you’ll have to play by their rules. These guys are actually quite good at what they do. But they don’t like second guessing. So play it cool and get along with them

Also, make sure you deal with the issue of electrical power. That’s another line item. The unions generally need to do this for you and it can be an extra charge. You’ll have to know how much power you’ll need, but you’ll probably need some, at least if you want to have lights in your booth. Computerized or electronic exhibits and live machinery need more juice and will cost more accordingly. Get this straight in advance or you’ll end up with a big headache at the show.

Advance information on shows

Really big exhibitions / conventions used to send out pamphlets and forms to interested parties at least a year in advance. Now, just keep an eye on their site (sites) on the internet. The moment they announce material for their next convention (probably 2020 now), you need to get going. Read the material – thoroughly. And before you start doing anything, if you have any questions at all for the convention manager(s), call them ASAP and discuss it. (Sometimes emails work, but if you can develop a personal relationship or two that’s a good thing.)

Finally, be sure you obtain details on shipping materials. You may need to deal with books, tech spec sheets, handouts, exhibit material, shelving, etc. So factor in the costs. (Usually, you’ll get one or more tables as part of the booth fee, but make sure that’s spec’d out, too.)

Final thoughts

As noted earlier, smaller conventions, like local Chamber of Commerce events are much easier and simpler. And may not involve unions. Usually a phone call will get you started. Better yet, detailed planning doesn’t need to get underway so far in advance.

Every event is different, but the above info should get you started.

Above all, prepare to be patient, but also methodical. Something always screws up, and you need to be ready for any contingency.

And finally, don’t piss off the union guys. Very bad idea.

Shows, exhibitions and conventions can be great fun and a terrific learning experience. But to succeed, you’ll need to have your game plan down pat, your staff in place and guaranteed to be dependable, and your exhibits ready to go and pre-staged before the show.

Hope this helps. And good luck!

— Headline image: London trade show floor. Image via Public domain, CC 0.0 license. Image link here.




Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17