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How to Plan a Trade Show: 15 Key Steps (+ Essential Tools)

Andrea Amorosi December 19, 2023
Table of Contents
8 min read

Trade shows can be an effective event and sales and marketing tool, stimulating networking, innovation, and collaboration. They also give vendors and your organization the opportunity to showcase products and services and meet new audiences and interest. 

If you’re a trade association, hosting your own trade show can help bring additional value to your members. In fact, 70% of businesses have seen a jump in new leads and brand awareness from trade shows. 

In this blog, we’ll cover everything you need to know to host your own trade show in 15 key steps, including picking your venue, creating your marketing plan, essential tools, and other trade show ideas. 

  • How long does it take to plan a trade show?
  • How much does it cost to organize a trade show?
  • How to plan a trade show

How long does it take to plan a trade show?

You’ll want to start event planning at least a year ahead. During your initial stage, take into consideration these elements:

  • Goals and objective
  • Target audience 
  • Type of show
  • Competitor research
  • Budget development
  • Marketing plan

How much does it cost to organize a trade show?

The best and most common way to estimate the costs for organizing a trade show is to triple or quadruple the amount you pay for the exhibit space. If your venue costs between $3,000 – $20,000 USD, you can expect your budget to range anywhere from $9,000 – $80,000 USD.

How to plan a trade show

We’ve laid out everything you need to do from start to finish in 15 essential steps. Consider this your essential trade show planning template.

1. Identify trade show objectives, goals, and target audience

Your trade show starts with sitting down with your team and key stakeholders and identifying SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), objectives, metrics for success and your target audience. 

For example, your goal could be to boost member retention and/or use events to grow your association’s membership

When it comes to identifying your target audience, decide if it’s your general member base or a specific subsect of it.

2. Research competitors and events of interest for target audience

Once you’ve identified your target audience, ask them about events and trade shows they have or plan to attend  through a survey in your members-only area or next member newsletter

Create a list from your results and then start your trade show competitor analysis:

  1. Examine their online presence (marketing, target audience, messaging, pricing, sponsors etc)
  2. Review their vendor listing and other participants/thought leaders
  3. Look at their exhibit layout
  4. Collect available event collateral like brochures, flyers, and maps
  5. Gather information in a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis and build your trade show plan.

3. Choose the type of trade show

Your ideal type of trade show depends on your industry focus and the kinds of booths included. For example, are your vendor booths for attracting new hires or for selling products or services?

Here’s a list of the 11 key types of trade shows:

  1. Technology
  2. Manufacturing 
  3. Healthcare
  4. Professional & B2B
  5. Education & Nonprofit
  6. Energy & Natural Resources
  7. Restaurant & Food Industry
  8. Arts & Crafts
  9. Agriculture
  10. Tourism & Recreation
  11. Integrated Housing & Building

4. Pick your venue

Your venue sets the tone for your event and impacts attendee and vendor experience. Here’s how to pick the right location for your trade show:

  1. Identify your needs. Know your audience, the size of your event, your preferred layout, budget, and required logistics. 
  2. Research other venues. Ask for referrals and research past venues of trade shows or events you’ve attended. From there, call around and gather quotes, availability, and venue policies.
  3. Visit the venues in-person. Evaluate each place for its atmosphere, accessibility, and suitability to your needs.
  4. Complete your venue comparison. Consider all aspects of your trade show, including your event goals and objectives. Don’t be afraid to ask for what isn’t stated outright. Some venues may be able to accommodate any trade show requirements you have.
  5. Confirm the final venue. Now that you’ve found the right venue, it’s time to sign your contract! Typically, that will include details like your payment schedule, venue policies, the liability clause, dispute resolution process, and more. 

5. Build your trade show budget

As mentioned earlier, the average budget for a trade show is about three to four times the cost of your venue. Here are 5 tips to cut trade show costs:

  1. Book your event venue during low season or off-peak dates. 
  2. See if the venue can provide equipment and facilities included in its cost.
  3. Get multiple quotes to negotiate with venues. 
  4. Use volunteers rather than staff.

Find event sponsors to supplement costs.

6. Create your marketing plan

Marketing at trade shows is crucial in generating leads, creating brand awareness, and growing and establishing relationships. 

Here are the 4 key steps for creating your trade show marketing plan:

  1. Identify your marketing goals. What do you want to accomplish? How will these help you meet your overarching trade show goals and objectives? Be sure to also identify KPIs.
  2. Plan your content strategy. How will content support your marketing strategy? How will blogs, landing pages, social media posts, emails, and other content help you meet your marketing goals? Publish content that nurtures and engages your target audience.
  3. Create your marketing calendar. Make sure you use the right cadence when it comes to the months and weeks leading up to your trade show in order to build excitement, interest, and engagement.
  4. Measure your success against KPIs. Check in on a regular basis to see how your marketing campaigns and initiatives are stacking up against your KPIs. Iterate and make changes as needed.

7. Create your exhibit layout

Research common layouts from other trade shows. From there, figure out what works with your physical space and your number of vendors. The goal here is to be efficient with space while also creating an enjoyable attendee experience. Leverage tools like A2Z Events to help you create and manage your floor plan more easily with seamless features like:

  • Floor plan configuration manager
  • Booth management
  • Real-time plan view
  • Exhibitor list
  • Detailed reporting

8. Reach out to vendors and sell your booth spaces

Contact relevant businesses and organizations to register as a vendor at your trade show through:

  • Email campaigns
  • Phone calls
  • Social media promotion

When you reach out to potential trade show vendors, make sure you are:

  • Including key event details and examples from past events
  • Providing value like offering early-bird discounts
  • Keeping their business objectives in mind
  • Following up in a timely manner

9. Utilize Trade Show Management Software

Technology is a key part of your trade show’s success. In fact, event technology can decrease costs by 30% as well as increase planner productivity by 27% and boost attendance by 20%. In some cases, event tech can bring your event to the next level. 

When picking the right trade show technology, consider your:

  • Event goals and objectives
  • Budget
  • Ideal features

Here are 3 types of trade show technology you can choose to invest in:

Membership management software
If you’re a trade association or chamber of commerce, you may be interested in investing in all-in-one membership software, like MC Trade, that includes comprehensive features to support your events while also streamlining other aspects of your member organization.

All-in-one event management software

If your organization hosts events regularly throughout the year, an all-in-one event management software, like A2Z, is ideal for you, giving you access to:

  • Floor plan management
  • Exhibit and sponsorship management
  • Revenue generation
  • Mobile event app
  • Conference management
  • Lead retrieval
  • Badge printing & check-in

Event management software for events of all sizes

If your member organization hosts events of all variations and sizes, an event management software like RegTech may be right for you. Get features that gives you flexible event support like:

  • Online registration
  • Check-in and badge printing
  • Lead retrieval
  • Attendance tracking

And more!

10. Select and train your staff or volunteers

Use your number of vendors and attendees to help you figure out how many staff members you’ll need for your trade show dream team. You may want to use existing staff, a hiring agency, freelancers, or volunteers. Then, train your staff and volunteers so they’re prepared to carry out their assigned tasks like setting up equipment.

11. Create a promotional campaign for your trade show

According to an Exhibitor study, pre-event promotion helps increase booth traffic by 82%, boosts sales by 32%, while also improving the quality and quantity of your leads by 37%. 

Here are the channels to target with your trade show promotion: 

  • Social media. Use an event hashtag, host lives with vendors and thought leaders in attendance, and host giveaways. 
  • Blog/website. Create an event landing page and relevant blog posts to build excitement about vendors and live events. 
  • Direct mail. Create a list of key accounts, prospects, and customers. Send your direct mail through a multi-touch campaign that’s made up of a series of different contacts like an email and/or phone call.

12. Create material for the event

Put together any event collateral, including maps, handouts, and vendor kits. Send your vendor kits out one month before. Include information about set up and tear down, space restrictions, and pre-written promotional copy (social and email).

If you’re using event tech like A2Z or Regtech, make use of its on-site badge printing software features. 

Don’t forget to build your trade show mobile app with your event software, such as A2Z’s immersive, branded mobile app technology. Creating an app for your trade show helps:

  • Give your attendees a better event experience that meets their needs and expectations
  • Increases attendee engagement
  • Boosts your sustainability
  • Reduces costs while boosting revenue
  • Gives you insightful analytics and reporting to improve events and better meet attendee needs

13. Set up trade show space

It’s time to prepare your venue for your trade show. Make sure to:

  • Double check that all the necessary trade booth displays, print materials, and other equipment are set up and ready to go. 
  • Test all equipment and make sure there are extra chargers and extension cords. 
  • Conduct a run-through with your staff and volunteers. Be sure to encourage and thank them!
Click through to learn about MemberClicks’ membership management software tools, MC Trade and MC Professional.

14. Thank attendees and vendors

After your trade show, thank your attendees, vendors, and any sponsors, staff, and volunteers. Send out post-event survey questions in an email and use the responses to evaluate your trade show and improve future events.

15. Conduct trade show postmortem

Gather your team and conduct a trade show postmortem. Evaluate its success against your post-event survey data, your goals, objectives, and KPIs. Make note of where you can improve as well as areas of success.

Diversify Your Events With a Trade Show

As a chamber of commerce, trade association, or other member organization, trade shows can bring value to you and your members through networking opportunities, non-dues revenue, market research, training, collaboration, and more. Expand your member events with a trade show, and see how it can impact your organizational goals and objectives.

Ready to increase attendees and event profits? It starts with optimizing one thing: here’s how to set up registration for an event. 

With extensive features that anticipate your needs and maximize your revenue, A2Z is your number one trade show management software that understands you and your organization, every step of the way. Learn more about A2Z here.

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