Whether you’re planning to exhibit at your first or fiftieth trade show, it’s never too late to devise an event marketing strategy made up of repeatable actions you and your team can improve upon each year.
Below, we’ll break down the steps you should take to prepare for your next event—from 12+ months prior to the exhibition to the last few weeks leading up to it.
This ultimate trade show planning timeline will help you determine when and where to focus your efforts so you can avoid missing crucial deadlines and boost your return on investment.
12+ months before the show
Select the right trade show for your company goals and budget
It’s no secret that exhibiting at a trade show can be expensive. From the booth space itself to the cost of travel expenses and promotion—and everything in between—there’s a lot to consider. That’s why it’s important to make sure the first event you attend as an exhibitor is the right event for your goals and budget.
Once you have a list of potential shows, you’ll need to gain an understanding of the efficacy of the show in terms of your industry and audience. If you sign up as an exhibitor for a show your target audience doesn’t attend, then you’re wasting your time, budget, and resources.
Perform your own research or contact the organizers of the event to find the answers to important questions like:
How many years has the trade show taken place?
How many people attend this trade show every year?
What are the job titles and demographics of those attendees?
How much does it cost to exhibit at the trade show?
Are there opportunities to become a speaker or a sponsor?
These are just a few of the questions you need to ask event organizers (and yourself!) before officially becoming an exhibitor of any industry trade show. To see more essential questions, check out our blog.
Register for the event as soon as possible
Once you’ve chosen the best trade show for your brand and you have buy-in from key stakeholders, you’re ready to register as an exhibitor. Do this as soon as possible so you can take advantage of special rates or other early-bird discounts. You’ll also have the best chance of snagging an ideal location for your booth.
Be aware of any important deadlines and use a task management app like Trello or Asana to set reminders for yourself as the event draws closer.
Important deadlines to be aware of may include:
Registering for a booth space
Signing up to be a sponsor
Committing to speak at the event
Enrolling in a specific seminar
Get to know your target audience
Consider the different types of people who typically attend this trade show. These attendees may be marketers, salespeople, executives, vendors, etc. Which of these groups are most important to your business? Who is the target audience for your exhibit? How will you design your display to appeal to them?
One way to ensure your sales, marketing, and design efforts are geared toward the right audience is to develop buyer personas. The marketing experts over at HubSpot explain buyer personas as “fictional, generalized representations of your ideal customer.”
Your buyer personas should be based on industry insights and market research as well as the insights you generate from:
Trends you uncover in your contact database
Feedback provided by your sales team
Form fields on your website
Surveys and interviews with current customers and prospects
Once you’ve developed your buyer personas, you can use them to tailor your website content, email, graphics, and display to appeal directly to their specific needs and show them how your product or service will solve their unique set of problems.
Most trade show organizers provide exhibitors the opportunity to request (or purchase) a list of trade show attendees. Use this list to determine who is most likely to be interested in your product or service. Then reach out to these prospects via email or social media to promote your booth prior to the event.
Make sure you’re not sending spammy or too-frequent messages that might turn your prospects off to your company or your product offering. Use your buyer personas to craft personalized messages that will appeal to each segment of your target audience.
You can also entice prospects with an irresistible offer so they’ll want to open your messages and read what you have to say. For example, if you work for a kitchen appliance company and plan to showcase a new line of blenders at the event, you may promise a free smoothie or a 25% discount to anyone who stops by your booth.
That’s why you’re encouraged to prepare your budget as far in advance as possible. No matter how you choose to record and keep track of your expenses (Excel sheet, Google sheet, etc.), you’ll want to make sure your list is itemized, detailed, and flexible. Both you and your stakeholders need to know exactly where your money is going so you can accurately measure your results and determine where to make improvements for next year.
If you need help creating your budget spreadsheet, download HubSpot’s "Event Marketing Template" and modify it to meet your needs. This template includes categories like venue, refreshments, program, promotion, and miscellaneous—all broken down into further categories and color-coded for your benefit.
9-12 months before the show
Establish specific trade show goals
For your very first trade show (and every show thereafter), you’ll want to establish SMART goals to help you focus your efforts. What are SMART goals?
SMART goals are objectives that are:
Specific — Clearly defined with little room for confusion
Measurable — Tied to a specific number you can track and measure
Attainable — Realistic and achievable
Relevant — Applicable within the current climate of your industry
Timely — Based on a specific time frame
For example, if your goal is to generate website traffic, then one of your SMART goals may look something like this: “Increase website traffic by 25% in the two weeks following the show.”
Review your trade show exhibit requirements in detail
The last thing you want is to spend several months of your time and thousands of dollars on a display that doesn’t meet regulations. That’s why it’s so important to review the complete list of trade show exhibit requirements and provide this information to your booth designer or manufacturer.
If you weren’t provided with a trade show exhibitor manual when you signed up for the event, reach out to its organizers and request these requirements.
In the meantime, here are a few common types of trade show restrictions to be aware of:
Type of booth
Height of your display
Lack of accessibility
Obstruction of attendees’ line of sight
Light and electrical regulations
Music rights and permissions
Research and select a trade show exhibit design company
Unless you choose to rent your trade show display—see pros and cons of rental booths vs custom booths here—your next step is to find the right company to help you design and manufacture your booth. Google searches, trade publication recommendations, and colleague referrals are great places to start.
Once you have a few potential trade show exhibit design firms on your list, browse their website portfolios and case studies as well as online reviews. Then reach out to your favorite options to learn about their:
Work with your trade show booth manufacturer to design your custom display
Custom trade show exhibits mean you have the opportunity to tailor each and every aspect of your design to fit with your brand guidelines and appeal to your target audience. You can customize everything from the dimensions and floor plan to the lighting and technology.
As you work with your chosen design firm to turn your rough idea into a high-end concept, be sure to keep key logistics—and their costs—top of mind.
These logistics may include:
Production of your exhibit
Freight (how your display is transported from the warehouse to the trade show loading dock)
Drayage (movement of your booth from the loading dock to the event space and back)
Setup and installation
Utilities (electricity, water, gas, etc.)
On-site booth management
Storage or repurposing booth materials
Note that some trade show exhibit companies, like BTWN Exhibits, will take care of many of these crucial logistics for you.
Identify how you plan to draw visitors to your booth
Trade shows are full of flashy gimmicks, which means it can be difficult to stand apart from the crowd. That’s why you need to start developing a strategy for attracting visitors to your booth at least 6-9 months before the show.
High-quality product demonstrations, one-of-a-kind displays, and unique creative stunts are a solid jumping-off point. If you’re ready to begin brainstorming, head on over to “15 Ideas for Attracting a Crowd to Your Trade Show Exhibit” to get some ideas for activities, contests, and entertainment that will draw visitors to your booth like moths to a flame.
3-6 months before the show
Plan your pre-show marketing strategy
There are plenty of ways you can reach out to prospects and market your booth prior to the show.
Here are a few ideas to consider:
Postcards — Mail out postcards that include the show name and date; your company name, website, and contact info; your trade show booth number; and bulleted benefits of your product or service. You can also entice people to visit your booth by promising a free sample, discount, or free swag.
Email campaign — Send an email announcement to current customers and any prospects you already have in your database who may be likely to attend the show. Personalize the emails if possible and invite your recipients to visit your booth.
Social media — Announce your attendance at the upcoming trade show on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Order your marketing materials, promotional items, and giveaway prizes
Create and order business cards, brochures, one-page flyers, prospect inquiry forms, and any other marketing materials you wish to hand out to interested prospects at the show.
You’ll also need to order any giveaway prizes, promotional items, or swag you plan to hand out to your lucky winners in order to spark interest in your exhibit and draw a crowd.
Gathering leads (including relevant demographics and psychographics)
Taking notes on these leads and the issues they aim to solve while their challenges and pain points are still fresh in your mind
Quickly following up on hot leads (“hot leads” are leads that have enquired about your product, have the necessary budget, and are ready to buy)
Consider purchasing an app that’s designed for lead capture, such as:
Cvent LeadCapture — Offers the ability to scan badges, take notes on leads, and rate leads on the spot
Quick Tap Survey — Surveys that allow you to collect contact info, qualify leads, and gather feedback
iCapture — Contains the option to score leads yourself or have the system do it for you
Use your notes to craft a personalized message for each of your leads that demonstrates how well you understand the problem they’re trying to solve and entices them to give your product or service a shot.
1-3 months before the show
Assemble your dream team
Next, you’ll need to assemble your team of staff who will attend the show on behalf of your company and interact with your current customers and prospects. This group of representatives should ideally be equal parts motivated, friendly, and professional. They should be well educated on your products and services and be comfortable conversing with leads.
Try to create a diverse group of talent with complementary skill sets. For example, marketers will know how to appeal to prospects and generate leads while salespeople will be skilled in closing sales. Meanwhile, it’s important to have some technical staff who can assist with technical questions and issues.
This team will attend the event as the face of your company, so it’s important that they’re well-groomed and instantly distinguishable as representatives of your brand.
Finally, make sure they know they shouldn’t be caught lounging around, eating, drinking, or using their cell phones for personal matters within your prospects’ line of vision.
Make your travel arrangements
Lastly, don’t forget to make your travel arrangements. This may mean booking a hotel or Airbnb, purchasing flights, reserving a rental car, reviewing your parking options and/or public transportation options, scheduling important dinners, and anything else you deem necessary for a safe and successful trip.
A few weeks before the show
Complete staff training
Now it’s time to gather your representatives for some final training exercises. You’ll want to hear their sales pitches and provide any last pointers. Ensure they know the ins and outs of your products and services and discuss the branding and messaging you want to present to your prospects.
Also reiterate your trade show goals and procedures and make sure each staff member knows what you expect from them in terms of appearance and decorum as they interact with leads.
Ready to create your next global brand experience?
Reach out, we’d love to help get your first exhibit underway.