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How to Avoid Being Surprised by Your Trade Show Expenses

August 25, 2015

It happened. You came up with the perfect theme. Your graphics looked great. You even got tons of leads. You could not be happier….until all the extra bills start coming in. What happened?  More importantly what can YOU do to make sure it does not happen again?

Here are some simple tips to keep in mind to avoid being surprised by your trade show budget:

Before the show:


  • Have an approved budget ahead of time and stick to it as much as possible. It will be tempting to say yes to cool ideas that come at the last minute, but make sure they are not beyond what you were planning to spend in the first place. Look for early bird pricing on your orders to get the best pricing available and budget according to those dates.
  • Get your budget approved before you even start planning or ordering anything. You don’t want to spend time researching rigging alternatives, or money paying for entertainment deposits, only to find out that your boss will not approve those line items in the budget, or that they are well outside the scope of what you can afford.
  • Keep an eye on currency changes on international shows. Right now the dollar is strong, which helps U.S. exhibitors, but that can change significantly between when you book a show and when you have to pay for it. Plan for possible currency shifts in your budget and make sure to communicate any risk to management


  • Plan as far in advance as you can. We recommend at least 3 – 6 months in advance.  Make sure that includes reserving hotel rooms before the block fills up, and buying those airline tickets while they are still reasonable.
  • Closely review the dates that purchases need to be completed before prices increase. This will help you avoid late charges or rush fees. Having a project calendar laid out months in advance with the key dates and reminders a week or two in advance can be the saving grace to missing a deadline, especially if your approver travels frequently.
  • Look out for shows that move location. You may think that because you’re exhibiting at the same show the costs should be the same the next year. But if the show has moved to a new city or new convention center, the prices for the same show may be considerably higher. This can be especially true for shows moving to cities where union regulations are more stringent which can translate into higher labor costs.
  • Plan the timing of your show labor, electrical and rigging. Ensure your plan avoids crews standing around waiting for their turn. Don’t schedule labor after normal hours or over holidays, as prices are drastically higher or paid at time and a half.


  • Set expectations with management. Be clear with members of your management team that last minute changes will have drastic effect on your overall budget. Keep them informed of deadlines and any significant cost changes so they are abreast of the budget situation.
  • Outline travel budgets and guidelines. Set expectations with the team attending regarding what their individual budgets are for meals, airline tickets etc. If possible, plan for some team dinners ahead of time by making reservations at restaurants that are less likely to blow your budget. Communicate what expenses will be covered, or not, ahead of time.  Will you pay for one alcoholic beverage per person, more or none?

Logistical Issues – Shipping, Drayage & Tech Costs

  • Double check dimensions and weights before shipping. Shipping and drayage can add up and costs can go up significantly as you increase the dimensional weight of the crate you are shipping to a show. Check the increase in price before you decide to bring one more think that will require you to go up in crate size or weight.
  • Last minute add-ons add up. Tech costs can go up significantly if you add WiFi or touch screens at the last minute.  Make sure you know the full costs of adding any of these from set up, dismantle, troubleshooting and more.

After the show:


  • Prevent forced freight and the costs associated with it. According to Exhibitor online: “ …the time at which all carriers must have the freight loaded after the show. Any freight remaining on the show floor after that designated time will be forced, or moved to another location.” Make sure you have all your material handling agreements and labels properly filled out and everything appropriately packed before you leave the show. If you don’t your exhibit may be moved off the premises and not shipped to you on time and you may be charged penalty fees, material handling, shipping and storage.
  • Double check drayage weights before you leave the exhibit. You may not think much about going to a bigger case or pallet or adding the literature you shipped separately to the crate but it may put you at a different shipping rate if you are not careful. Make sure you know if you are close to the next fee bracket.
  • Poorly packing your booth. If you don’t pack your exhibit assets properly they are more likely to get damaged and require repair or replacement. While that may not bust your budget for that particular show, it will hurt your budget for future shows when those boxes get unpacked and you discover that some of the assets need to be replaced. Use sturdy cases and ensure you follow instructions if possible.


  • Check all of their receipts from the show/vendors before the end of the show. Occasionally items may be billed incorrectly, and some shows or vendors have the policy that there are no credits or refunds once the show is over. It is also more likely you will remember what was budgeted and expected at that time than several months later when you are on to your next project.


  • Don’t forget to return anything you have rented for the show on time. Most items can be shipped directly from the trade show to the vendor (make sure those assets are labelled correctly). Also, your exhibit vendor can help sort out your rented and purchased components and make sure they all go back to the appropriate spot.  If you have rented technology, usually the vendor will come and pick up the assets. However, sometimes you will have the option to pack and ship those assets yourself. When you exercise that option be sure to do so in a timely manner to avoid late return fees.

Ultimately, it all comes down to careful planning, timely communication and follow up. Remember to set your calendar ahead of time with plenty of reminders so you will be sure to meet all the deadlines and double check all your facts and forms before moving on. This way when you compare your actual costs against your budget you will breathe a sigh of relief, rather than a groan, when you see you did not exceed your budget. Once you do that you can relax and catch your breath long enough to recuperate before your next event.

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