A Beginners Guide to Building a Trade Show Budget

Category: Ideas, Strategy, Trends

What you’ve heard is true, trade show costs can be significant. But don’t let a fear of the unknown dissuade you from exhibiting. With a smart budget, you can engineer exceptional value by building a trade show exhibit that gives you a high return on your initial investment without going overboard. In fact, when properly executed, trade shows can deliver a higher return than almost any other marketing strategy. The trick is to prepare for every cost before you dive in.

So prior to using a trade show budget calculator, formula, or estimates that you’ve seen online, read this article. The actual costs and benefits might surprise you.

Here’s how to determine an accurate trade show budget estimate before you start planning your next event.

Know What You’re Paying For

Determining your total trade show budget depends on several factors, but there are a handful of constants that you can confidently begin with.

The Space You Rent

This will likely be your highest cost, and also the easiest to determine since this information should be readily available online. You can expect to spend approximately a third of your total budget on the space itself, so starting your budget with this large expense can help you estimate the rest of your plans going forward. For example, if your trade show is charging you $10,000 for the space itself, you will most likely need another $20,000 minimum for the other associated costs.

The Booth and its Materials

From the counter and walls to the custom graphics and hardware, a sturdy booth structure is another significant trade show cost. A custom modular display is usually about double the cost of an average one but comes with significant benefits. Since a custom display is built for you, every detail is designed to achieve your specific goals and express your brand’s distinct individuality. Theref0re before you discount this road, it’s a good idea to request an estimate. Remember, custom booths can be reused in the future, so if you do decide to go this route, you can cut the entire cost from your trade show budget the next time around. That’s what we did for Wusthof, which was not only one of the most stunning displays but also won an award at the International Home + Housewares show.

Show Services, such as Internet and Electric

Miscellaneous on-site services can really add up. These include electrical costs and wifi, as well as handling of materials, cleaning, and more. From lighting to flooring to live plants and more, your individual booth design will largely determine how high these costs will be. Keeping things simple can save a lot in this area.

Shipping Costs for Materials

Drayage is a term used to describe the cost of shipping your exhibit from a warehouse to the actual booth space itself. More on how to save money on shipping in the next section.

Your Team’s Travel Expenses

A local trade show is an excellent place to test the waters and remove a huge cost barrier. But if you’ve found a show that you just can’t miss across the country, be sure to estimate the travel costs for your entire staff including airfare, lodging, meals, and training.

Installation and Dismantle

Known as I&D services, the labor costs of setting up and breaking down large trade show booths are often quite costly. Working with an experienced partner with trusted third-party contacts can make set-up and break-down easier while helping you save money on somewhat unpredictable labor costs.

Marketing, Design, and Promotion

A top-notch design and marketing staff is an essential part of the process. And yes, you may have an in-house designer, but before you hire them for your trade show consider the following: working with an experienced trade show exhibit & design team can save you money in the long run. Experienced trade show agencies know how to be smart about the use of materials through value engineering and other similar methods.

Hidden Costs and Miscellaneous Expenses

From time spent planning to lead collection, and even hosting potential clients, your trade show budget should always include a good amount of wiggle room. After all, anything can happen at a live event. Expecting the unexpected-and putting it in your budget- will help you feel confident and ready for whatever.

How to Save Money When Creating Your Trade Show Budget

You may be thinking… “that sounds like a long list of costs, I thought you said trade shows could fit my budget.” Don’t panic! There are many ways to lower the cost of your exhibit, without sacrificing its quality. Here are a few of our tried-and-true tips.

Don’t Let Drayage Drain Your Budget

Deciding between tension fabric and an over-sized cardboard sign? Lightweight materials, even if they cost slightly more, could save you a lot of money in shipping costs. When it comes to large items such as furniture, look for stores that offer free shipping (there are many!). Additionally, the more you ship, the more you pay. Generally speaking, larger, albeit heavier, shipments are more cost-effective than multiple smaller ones. So plan ahead and don’t get caught shipping lots of little things last minute.

Consider Ditching Rigged Lights

Good lighting is vital, but you don’t have to go all-out if you can’t afford it. Opting for uplighting in your booth over rigged lights can save you a lot of money and set-up time.

Go Digital

Not only are digital signs the greener option, but they can also help save a ton on printing and shipping costs. Plus, the lifespan of printed graphics is relatively short whereas digital displays are easy to update and reuse. Another cost-saver in the long run. Have a look below at how we used digital displays at CES for some of our clients.


Rent the Booth Instead

Although custom exhibits will do more to achieve your specific brand goals, if you can’t afford one, there are other options. Talk to an expert about renting vs. building to determine the ultimate costs and benefits of each option.

Cut Down on Swag

Nothing adds up quicker than branded paraphernalia, and often, it’s just not worth the price. Yes, your staff needs to look sharp but branded shirts and hats may not add value. Anyone who has attended a trade show knows that many branded items end up in the trash, so choose yours carefully.  Many times swag can be banished in favor of valuable content, special show pricing, access to exclusive research or information, or a contest that provides a meaningful experience to prospects.

Say No to Shows That Aren’t a Perfect Fit

After all, this is a lot of work, and booth space doesn’t come cheap. If you’re planning to fly across the country on a whim for a show that you’re not totally sold on, it may be more cost-effective to search for something smaller, or closer before using up your whole budget.

Practice Value Engineering

Value engineering may sound like a complicated concept, but it’s really very simple. Instead of cost-cutting whenever and wherever you approach the money-saving exercise as a creative problem.  By analyzing the requirements of your trade show in terms of your specific goals, you can better identify ways to prioritize those associated costs and then cut back on others. A great example is eliminating bells and whistles such as extraneous graphics, lights, and any flashy technology that is not absolutely essential to the expression of your overall message.


There are a lot of companies that offer trade show services, but at MC², we look at the whole picture.  As a Brand Experience Solutions Agency and expert in value engineering, we solve for every pain point, including complex budgets. So whether you’re planning a blow-out trade show exhibit, or just dipping your toe in the water, we’re here to get you the maximum return on your investment.

Ready to plan a cost-effective trade show that accomplishes your brand goals? MC² can turn your vision into reality. Let’s talk!


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