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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

4.15.99  
The Hidden Costs of Trade Show Exhibiting
Plan wisely — they can be a big cash drain for little return

Q: Can you give me some advice on how to work up a budget for exhibiting at a trade show?
--M.R., New York, N.Y.

A: Trade shows can cost a bundle, and you have to weigh whether the investment is worth the contacts and sales leads. A small business should count on spending an average of $7,000 to $10,000 on a trade show, according to Margit Weisgal, president of Sextant Communications Inc., an exhibitor-training and -consulting company.

Industry surveys show the major money burners are renting space, creating your booth, and paying for show-related services, such as electricity, labor, furnishings, and carpet. Other expenses include travel, lodging, and meals for you and your staff, entertainment, exhibit promotion, shipping expenses, and customer follow-up.

Tradeshow Week's 1998 survey reported the average space rental was $14.12 per square foot. But, depending on the industry and the size and popularity of the show, space can run from $9.50 to $42.85 per square foot. The smallest booth is typically 10 feet by 10 feet.

Some estimates put such costs much higher. Exhibitor Magazine, another industry publication, reports that designing and constructing a new exhibit -- excluding graphics and crates used for storage -- run an average of $99 per square foot for an "island" exhibit and $156 per square foot for an "in-line" exhibit. The magazine put the average size of a new exhibit at 1,457 square feet. The average cost: $107,149.

Douglas L. Ducate, president and CEO of Center for Exhibition Industry Research, recommends that small-business owners and first-time exhibitors take advantage of turnkey package deals offered by most show organizers. They generally include your space, a basic sign, the pipe and drape that defines your space, table and chairs, and carpet. A plain-vanilla exhibit can cost as little as $2,000.

Even with discounts or deals, if you don't get potential customers to your exhibit, you run the risk of spending lots of money and time for little return. So promotion is vital. Most experts recommend you purchase a pre-show mailing list from the event manager and send a mailing with your booth number and hours.

You might also want to send a two-part promotion to your clients who will be attending the show. In addition to the mailing, have small gifts available for them when they visit your booth. You'll also need fliers or brochures to distribute while you're there. But don't go overboard on your handouts -- most of the time, they get tossed.

Here are some resources for trade show attendees:

  • Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago, 312 808-2347, www.ceir.org
  • Trade Show Exhibitors Assn. in Springfield, Va., 703 941-3725, www.tsea.org
  • Tradeshow Week in Los Angeles, 323 965-5300, www.tradeshowweek.com (including surveys and how-to articles)
  • Exhibitor Magazine in Rochester, Minn., 507 289-6556, www.exhibitornet.com (including surveys and how-to articles)
  • Exhibit Surveys Inc. in Red Bank, N.J., 732 741-3170.
Companies that offer trade show consulting and management:
  • Sextant Communications in Silver Spring, Md., 301 871-7103, www.thevine.com/sextant
  • The Freeman Cos. in Dallas, 214 670-9000, www.freemanco.com
  • The Adventure of Trade Shows in Federal Way, Wash., 253 874-9665, www.theadventure.com.

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