Michelle Spellman - Product Launch Checklist: Furnish Your Booth on a Shoestring Budget

You’ve invested a lot of time, and money in developing and manufacturing your product. Up next is unveiling your million dollar baby at an industry trade show.

But gosh – trade shows are an expensive proposition!  Expenses add up in a hurry, even for a modest booth presence.  By the time you invest in the booth space itself, fixtures, marketing materials and promotion, you can easily spend thousands of dollars – and that’s before you even factor in travel costs! 

If you are going to take the financial plunge of exhibiting at a trade show, do everything you can to make it count. 

As you prepare for the show, be careful of where you shave costs.  Being strategically frugal can save money, but you don’t want to take cheap shortcuts that result in a booth that just blends in, is shabby, or looks amateurish.  That can turn the whole venture into a colossal waste of time and money. 

Trade shows are visually noisy places.  You've got to stand out from the crowd!

Knowing where you should splurge and where it’s safe to cut corners will set you up for the best chance of success.  Follow these practical tips to prioritize your spending that allows you to create a professional, eye-catching booth display, while preserving your cash as much as possible.

Booth fixtures on the cheap

You have three options for trade show fixtures:  rented fixtures, custom new and used displays and DIY fixtures

- Rented fixtures

Rented fixtures are available from the trade show service contractor at each convention venue and can be a simpler option for beginners, but can easily become a huge expense, if you aren’t careful.

Some shows will offer a basic pre-furnished booth package to first time exhibitors. This is usually a barebones setup – booth space, floor covering, standard drape that matches the show colors, and a standard draped table and chair.  Anything else you might want in the booth would need to be rented for an extra fee. (If you go this route, a bold, colorful banner will become a valuable investment to add punch to what will be a pretty bland, generic display otherwise.)

One advantage of renting fixtures is the wide variety of choices. The service contractor will have an online catalog of various items including floor coverings, tables, draping, seating, shelving and other generic modular display components that can be ordered and will be waiting in your booth and ready for you to add product when you arrive.

Another upside to renting fixtures is that it allows you to experiment with your booth layout strategy without the commitment of a permanent purchase.

The downside is that rental fees are often cost prohibitive – prices can be nearly what a fixture would cost new to purchase outright! And because items are reused over and over, they may not be in the best physical condition, sometimes showing wear and tear that may not create the polished and flattering appearance you desire to best showcase your company and products.

But, if you are traveling to a show that is far from home, renting at least some of your fixtures to supplement what you bring with you – (rent floor covering, for example) – and perhaps a draped table and chairs – can be a smart move to save on cost of shipping heavy furniture. 

The time and stress involved with transporting fixtures is eliminated from the equation when you rent. Simply leave them in the booth at the end of the show and the service contractor takes care of it from there.  The convenience of not having to deal with fixtures can sometimes be worth the money – especially when you get to the end of a show, are completely exhausted, and just want to get the heck out of the exhibit hall and find dinner or trying not to miss your flight home!

- Custom new and used displays

If you invest in custom fixtures, you will need to budget for the expense of shipping them to and from the show.  You should also be prepared to do most of the assembly and tear down, unless you want to pay an arm and a leg to union workers.

Some displays are lightweight, portable and pop-up in minutes.  But anything large will likely need to be packed on a wooden pallet, then wrapped in shrink wrap and transported by a freight trucking company to the show. 

There will be varying handling fees involved at the show venue to transport your fixtures from the truck loading dock to your booth and back out again after the show.  This process is called drayage, and is generally governed by strict rules that require union workers to perform that in and out transport at the site. Be sure to budget for drayage fees as part of your expenses.

Companies that specialize in customized trade show displays can be found online and in your local community.  These displays are extremely professional-looking and can be taken from show to show and used over and over again.  And as far as design and price range goes, well, the options are endless. 

You should expect to invest several thousand dollars, minimum, for a basic new display. Used displays can also be purchased, but choices can be limited, and prices can still be high. 

If you decide to invest in a custom display, you may want to wait and do it after you have a few shows (and sales!) under your belt. 

You will discover that tweaking the design of your booth is a natural and expected part of the process to determine what works best for showcasing your particular products. Unless you have previous experience working trade shows or have the guidance of someone who has and is intimately familiar with your product, it could be a waste of cash to invest in a custom display in the very beginning, only to discover after your first show or two that the fixtures you chose don’t really work for your show objectives after all. 

Going custom once you see what works - and what doesn’t - will help avoid costly mistakes.

You might consider purchasing one or two smaller custom components to start.  A colorful, custom drape, screen printed with your logo, can be placed over a rented table.  A well-designed, colorful banner can add professional, visual interest to your booth without breaking the bank.

But there are lots of fixture solutions that are relatively portable and inexpensive – especially if you decide to drive to the show instead of fly.  Depending on what you are carrying, you might be able to load everything into a minivan.  So, let’s talk about….

- DIY trade show booth displays

Let’s just say you really only have a shoestring budget. Renting fixtures is out of the question, and a custom display is going to be out of reach until you have some sales under your belt.

In that case, here are some genius ideas and secrets to a great-looking booth and still have some pennies in your pocket.

Banners

One of the most important components of a decorating a booth on a shoestring budget is an attractive banner or backdrop.

Have you ever driven along a highway that was littered with billboards? We all have. And did you slow down long enough to read every single one? NO WAY! Remember this when you think about the background of your booth.  Potential customers are cruising past, scanning each booth quickly.  Use bright color and a bold colorful graphic that communicates quickly what you offer and who it is for! 

Make your backdrop bold and simple.  Avoid putting a lot of text or images to keep it from looking too cluttered and busy. Instead, emphasize the name of your company and logo along with your tagline and maybe one or two large graphic images that communicate what you sell in a very large scale that passersby can’t miss. 

A good banner will stop people in their tracks. A ho hum banner will blend in with the noise.  (See our other article for tips on making sure your banner grabs people’s attention.)  If you have a banner designed already, printing it can cost many hundreds of dollars. Get a fantastic banner and save by ordering online. An excellent source for banners is StickersBanners.com for good quality and fast turnaround time at a price that can’t be beat. 

Flooring

Flooring is going to be a critical part of your booth because nearly every show will REQUIRE that you furnish your booth with some sort of floor covering. 

Renting floor covering from the show is a convenient option.  If you’re going to rent carpet, paying a little extra for “double padding” underneath is worth the splurge. Your feet will thank you after you’ve been standing for 10 hours at a time three days in a row!

You could purchase an inexpensive carpet remnant, but carpet can be heavy and awkward to transport. And it easily gets dirty and damaged!

Consider investing in interlocking foam floor tiles. This type of flooring is portable, lightweight, durable and easy to install and dismantle.  It can be purchased online, or from warehouse club and home improvement retailers.

Available in a wide range of colors and patterns (even faux hardwood!) to match virtually any design scheme, a bonus of foam flooring is that it will provide shock absorption. (see above regarding standing on your feet!) Just make sure you buy enough to cover the entire booth space. SoftTiles.com is an online resource with a huge selection to choose from, at great prices, right at your fingertips. Be sure to check out their clearance outlet page for even more savings.

Tables and chairs

If you can carry it, you can usually bring it into the exhibit hall yourself and save on expensive drayage fees. Warehouse clubs like Sam’s and Costco offer a wide selection of affordable, lightweight folding tables in a range of shapes and sizes that come with handles and have adjustable heights. The pricing ranges anywhere from about $30-100, depending on what you choose.  Add in a couple of folding chairs for $20-30 each and you are on your way to a booth setup that rocks.

Bonus resource: Overstock.com has an ever-changing selection of adjustable height, easy-to-assemble bar tables and other accent tables at bargain basement prices that work great in a booth for spotlighting and demonstrating product or writing orders. Visit the site and do a search for “bar tables” to find their current offerings. Prices often start under $100.

Table coverings

You MUST cover your table. A simple tablecloth draped over the table looks okay and works in a pinch. But if you take a few extra minutes, an ordinary tablecloth becomes a tailored, sleek covering by doing what’s called “boxing a tablecloth.” It’s a draping and folding technique that any bartender worth his salt can teach you, or can be learned in a matter of a few minutes by watching demo videos on Youtube. Catering tablecloths purchased from a restaurant supplier or warehouse club are durable, affordable and easy to achieve the “boxed” look.

Another option is to just go ahead and purchase fitted tablecloths or stretch tablecloths to fit your tables. These can be expensive elsewhere, but we’ve found great deals and lots of size and color choices at www.LinenTablecloth.com.

Shelving and other product display ideas

IKEA is a no-brainer for all sorts of inexpensive modular cubes, shelves, and other interesting tables and fixtures to add visual interest and create varying levels in your booth to draw the eye. WayBasics.com is also a great resource for all sorts of lightweight, easy-to-assemble modular shelves that are colorful, attractive and create all sorts of display possibilities.

Probably one of the best kept secrets for super-cool, affordable displays would be Cardboardexhibit.com. Check them out for unique, surprisingly attractive, pedestals and displays constructed from corrugated cardboard.  Inexpensive and lightweight, these fixtures can be reused a few times but are still economical, even if recycled after the show.

For the hardcore DIY hacker ONLY:  If you have a knack for building things, understand simple engineering principles, and are handy with an Exacto knife, you can actually build a your own three dimensional, disposable display, onsite at the show using sheets of 1 inch thick foam core poster board.  This is only recommended if your product is colorful, relatively lightweight and not fragile.  A roll of white duct tape, T-pins and a case of foam core can be cut and fitted together. Check out this how-to video to get started!

Trade show fixtures don’t have to break the bank. With some creativity, resourcefulness, and strategic prioritizing, you can furnish a booth you can be proud of on a shoestring budget.


Michelle Spelman is Editor and Inventor Relations Liaison for Chicago Toy & Game Group. She is a game inventor, and co-founder of Flying Pig Games LLC, creators of award-winning Jukem Football card game. She is also founder of Cincinnati Game & Toy Industry Professionals group, and is the National Children’s Toy Examiner. An independent marketing consultant providing contract services, executive coaching and strategic direction, she’s in her sweet spot when she is working with companies focused on women and family-oriented products and services.    Find her on Twitter!