The outlook for attendance at trade shows next year seems to be looking up. That said, if you’re like most small business owners thinking about going to a show, you want to keep your costs down while still getting the most out of the experience.
As it happens, there are lots of ways to cut expenses, even if you’re setting up a full-fledged exhibit booth. And that’s a good thing because, according to many small-business experts, such events offer one-of-a-kind benefits. “Trade shows allow the most efficient way to see lots of customers and prospects all in once place,” says Ruth P. Stevens, president of eMarketing Strategy, a consulting firm in New York City.
In general, according to Stevens, the key lies in your planning. For one thing, make sure you’re attending the right show. “You won’t make any money if no customers or prospects are there,” she says. While that may sound like a no-brainer, companies often go to shows simply because they’ve heard their competitors attend, says Stevens. To that end, always ask show organizers for a list of the companies planning to come.
Also, to make sure an event is worth attending you need a systematic method of measuring the potential return on investment. Stevens recommends dividing your total expenses by the number of conversations with qualified prospects you’re likely to have. Compare that number to the cost of other marketing options. You can use this as a benchmark for contrasting the effectiveness of one trade show vs. another.
In addition, consider these specific cost-saving steps:
If you’re setting up an exhibit booth:
1. Think used or small.
Instead of building a new booth, get a pre-owned one. According to Stevens, you can save more than 50 percent of the cost of a new exhibit.
Take Levelwear, a Toronto-based seller of golf apparel. According to Brett Saunders, Sales Operations Manager, to get ready for the upcoming Professional Golfers Association of America trade show in January, he recently bought two used exhibits; one, which originally sold for $92,000, cost $4,500. Another was $40,000 new and Saunders got it for $3,800. Even with another $10,00 or so in renovations, says Saunders, “It was an amazing money saver.”
At the same time, trade shows charge by the square foot, so you can save by downsizing your footprint. Specifically, consider building up -- say, attaching a sign to the roof of your exhibit or even building a second story.
2. Use pop-ups.
To cut shipping and installation costs, buy booths that can be folded up easily into a carryon bag or mailed via UPS ground delivery. That way, not only do you eliminate the expensive charges for shipping the material, but you also avoid having to pay workers to unpack the stuff at the trade show location. Case in point: Jim Dowd, co-owner of Beehive Kitchenware, which makes handmade home, kitchen and baby items, uses a booth with such features as hanging curtains instead of a regular wall and furniture that can be broken down easily into three pieces.
3. Piggyback on someone else’s exhibit.
Large vendors often allow their business partners to station themselves in a corner of their booth. Or, share the real estate with a company selling a complementary product.
4. Look for subsidies.
If you’re in the right industry, you might be able to get a helping hand. Take Rebeca Krones, owner of Tropical Traders Specialty Foods in Oakland, Calif. She participates in the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association’s Branded Program, which, according to Krones, pays half of all trade show marketing and booth costs for products with 50 percent or more U.S.-grown ingredients.
If you’re just attending:
1. Host an event nearby.
Although show organizers frown on it, according to Stevens, you can eschew setting up a booth entirely by holding a breakfast at a nearby hotel. “That way you take advantage of the fact everyone has flown in the city and avoid paying for an exhibit at all,” she says.
2. Get a speaking gig.
If you can sign on as a speaker, you won’t even have to pay an attendance fee. You’ll have to contact the show organizers in advance with a proposal for your speech. To increase the chances of being accepted, says Stevens, you need original material -- and to make it clear you’re doing more than simply promoting your company. One approach: include a client in the presentation.
3. Don’t provide traditional give-aways.
Instead of the usual items, you can follow Denise Winston’s lead. The owner of Money Start Here, a Bakersfield, Ca., financial education firm, uses what she calls “financial candy” -- little strips of cut colored paper curled like ribbons with money and time saving tips and her website addressed, placed in an attractive candy dish.