Trade Show Planning Timeline: A 12-Month Strategy Guide

Written By:

Kathryn Mittelstadt

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trade show planning timeline checklist

Do you know how to plan for a trade show exhibit timeline? 

When you dive into a pool of water, you want to know the depth. The same goes for diving into a trade show exhibit project. 

Planning for your trade show can be confusing, uncertain, and stressful. A clear timeline for developing your trade show exhibit can help you avoid issues and get the best return on your investment.

With over 25 years of experience, Showcraft has helped thousands of clients successfully and confidently exhibit at trade shows. We know the ins and outs, as well as the process it takes from the moment exhibiting crosses your mind to the second you step onto the trade show floor. 

Regardless of your exhibit experience, we’ve outlined the steps to understand the project process and make your trade show event a success.

12+ Months Before the Show

Ideally, a trade show project timeline starts at least a year before your scheduled event. That might sound daunting, but this ensures you will have enough time to properly plan everything

Early steps will dramatically reduce stress closer to your event.

Starting roughly a year in advance, you should begin to outline some of the key goals and expectations for your exhibit.

Define Success

Think critically about why you are hosting a booth in the first place! When you have a clear goal, that north star can guide every decision. Simple examples of your main goal could be:

  1. Generating new leads for sales.
  2. Creating brand awareness.
  3. Entering into a new market.
  4. Display a new service or product.
  5. Network with other industry professionals.

When setting a goal, you want to be specific. If you want leads, how many? And what kind? Setting SMART goals is a great way to set yourself up for success.

Set Your Budget

Create a realistic budget that is right for your company. Your budget should cover, but not be limited to, the following expenses:

  1. Your exhibit, graphics, and other materials.
  2. Booth rental space.
  3. Installation and dismantling.
  4. Utilities: gas, electricity, water, etc.
  5. Travel.
  6. Exhibit transportation.
  7. Advertising and promotion.

Choose the Right Trade Show for You

Research and decide which trade show event you’d like to exhibit at. Not all trade shows are the same. 

They range from consumer audience, industry focused or ones that cater to both. Some are open to the public and others are knowledgeable professionals only. 

Some may fit your main objective and budget more than others. Resources such as EventsInAmerica, Exhpo, Clocate, or TopTradeFair will help you narrow your search and choose a show.

When you pick the right show, jot down important dates to be aware of throughout your planning. For example, application/registration deadlines and any early bird discounts.

9-12 Months Before the Show

Choose a Trade Show Exhibit Company to Hire 

Effectively executing a trade show exhibit can be overwhelming and difficult. A trade show exhibit company can help you plan, design, register, and strategize for your event.

A good exhibit company will help take a lot of that stress off your plate. 

If you’re not sure where to start, check out the Top 5 Trade Show Exhibit Companies in 2022. This will give you  an overview of some reliable companies and what they offer. 

Decide if You will Rent or Build a Custom Booth

There are advantages and disadvantages of both renting and buying. 

A custom build might be best if you have specific needs and you’re executing a rigorous show program. Renting an exhibit eliminates storage and repair costs while being more environmentally friendly.

Register

Register early for every trade show you plan to attend. Many shows and conferences offer early bird discounts for those who register in advance. 

Consider how the location of your booth inside the event positions you to hit your goal. Think about the surrounding exhibits, bathrooms, and food locations, as well as the distance to entrances and exits. 

Placing your exhibit near the entrance or as close to the main aisle as possible, can often lead to higher foot traffic. 

It’s best to have multiple options in mind, as events often grant returning exhibitors priority.

Create Specific Goals

Create goals for you and each team member to aim for that will help you reach your main objective.

If your overarching goal is to generate new leads, consider setting a goal for how many contacts each person should secure at the show. 

If your main objective is to network with others, set a certain number of business cards you would like to exchange during the show. Make sure all of the goals are realistic and attainable.

If you’re having trouble establishing these objectives, connect with a member of our team for a consultation

6-9 Months Before the Show

Start Designing Your Exhibit

During this period, you’ll work with your trade show exhibit company to design and create the right booth for your event. 

Size, functionality, features, and layout are some great things to consider when making your first steps. 

Your main objective is important to keep in the back of your mind when discussing plans with your designer. Make sure to mention any features that will help you achieve your goal, such as a good place to sit and chat with clients or somewhere to showcase a new product. 

Place yourself in the shoes of the customer, and how they will experience your exhibit. 

Marketing and Promotion

Exhibiting at a trade show is only beneficial if you have attendants, and even more so, people who care to see your exhibit. 

A good marketing and promotional plan will help you achieve your main objective and secondary goals. To get there, consider splitting your marketing plan into the following three periods.

Before the show

How can you draw people to attend your show? This could be through postcards, email, social media, or word of mouth. 

At the show

How will you draw attention to your booth? Some examples include swag, new products displayed, or visuals that catch your eye. 

After the show

How will you turn attendees into customers? To capitalize on your interactions, consider preparing follow-up emails, call plans for salespeople, or discounts for attendees. 

Nail Down Logistics

Refer back to your budget and start planning your expenses such as:

  1. Exhibit installation, dismantling, and transportation.
  2. Utilities: gas, electricity, water, etc.
  3. On-site management.
  4. Travel.

3-6 Months Before the Show 

Finalize Design 

After going back and forth with your exhibit company, you will be able to lock in a design that meets your objectives and stays within budget. 

Launch Your Marketing Campaigns

The 3-6 months leading up to the show is the prime time to launch your pre-show marketing campaigns.

After the first month, check your analytics to determine which outlet is providing the best results, and consider adjusting your tactics. 

Boosting your successful outlets and downsizing or re-evaluating the lesser successful ones, will help you reach the greatest audience while maximizing your dollar. 

Book Your Travel 

Booking your travel in advance can cut costs, and will grant you time to address possible unforeseen problems. 

Along with booking your travel, it is time to create your “dream team.” Only a few members can attend the show, so consider who is going to be involved. 

Depending on the size of your booth you may need someone to greet clients, someone to present to them, and lastly someone to sell to them. 

For a smaller booth, the team normally just consists of salespeople. Those who know the product very well, are experienced in customer conversion and who have a friendly demeanor. 

Order Your “at the show” Marketing Tactics

Aside from your physical booth, you need to purchase everything you plan to bring for attendants.

This includes swag, booth interactions, business cards, and anything else you may want present at your booth. 

1-3 Months Before the Show

Confirm All Important Information

Life can throw you curveballs, so use this time to make sure you catch them. Double check all your travel information, custom orders, event reservations and registrations, and anything else that could spoil the event. 

Demo Your Exhibit

Check with your trade show company to see if this is something they accommodate. 

Here at Showcraft, we set up the exhibit in our warehouse before packaging it to be shipped. This allows us to test out all the details before it arrives to you. 

Our project managers often hop on FaceTime with partners to go over the complete layout, or bring clients in person if they’re local.

This is a great way to address any display or functionality problems and prevent possible at-the-show surprises. 

Consider how the attendants will interact with your booth, as this is your last chance to make changes.

Weeks Before the Show

Staff training 

You have created your dream team, but now you need to complete some staff training for the show. 

Go through practice exercises of sales pitches, customer service, and problematic scenarios. Make sure your team is familiar with the booth, the items you’re bringing, and the goals for your event. 

After the Show

Ask Yourself Important Questions

After every trade show, always take time to reflect on the event, and ask yourself a few important questions. Some great examples are:

  1. Did the booth function well, or how we wanted it to?
  2. How was our pre-show market success? 
  3. How much buzz was there surrounding our booth?
  4. How much did we network? Did we follow up?

Time to Get Started

Exhibiting at a trade show doesn’t have to be overwhelming, stressful, or confusing. Having a timeline allows you to stay on track and stress-free when preparing for your upcoming exhibit. 

Showcraft has helped thousands of clients through every step of the timeline. We’re reliable and trustworthy industry experts. We know how difficult trade shows can be, which is why our job is to make them as stress-free as possible. 

If you’re looking for guidance through the next step, or just have a question that needs answering, connect with one of our trade show experts.

And don’t forget to download our free 4 Steps to A Stress-Free and Effective Trade Show Checklist.

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