The ultimate trade show planning timeline

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.

Use a conference and exhibition database like,,, or to search for trade shows by country, city, industry, and/or event date.

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:

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:

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?

Marketer meeting with a current customer to create a buyer persona.

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:

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.

If you need help creating your buyer personas, download these free buyer persona templates from HubSpot.

Request the attendee list from event organizers

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.

Prepare your budget

According to Trade Show Advisor, the average trade show booth display is around 100 square feet. Prices typically range from $10 to $100 per square foot, or $1,000 to $10,000 per booth space. However, your exhibit is just one aspect of your overall budget.

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:

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:

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.

Coworkers using their laptops to research trade show exhibit companies.

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:

Read our blog titled “How to Find and Choose the Best Trade Show Exhibit Company” for more tips.

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.

Plus, you can incorporate your own products in a totally unique way. For example, see how we constructed an entire exhibit for AWFS 2017 using only our client’s very own wood products.

6-9 months before the show

Consider the logistics

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:

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:

Coworkers planning their trade show marketing strategy.

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.

Devise a post-show follow-up strategy

“80% of trade show leads aren’t followed up,” says trade show expert Julie O’Connor. That means a whole lot of potential customers are slipping right through the cracks. That’s why you need to establish systems for:

Consider purchasing an app that’s designed for lead capture, such as:

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.

Group of coworkers working on their laptops.

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 get started?

Reach out to our team today to discuss your brand’s next live event, experiential installation, or trade show display.