Booths, Banners, and Budgets: How to Prep For Your Next Conference Exhibit

Booths, Banners, and Budgets: How to Prep For Your Next Conference Exhibit was written by Meigan Montoya in

In the marketing world, conferences and networking events are considered some of the most lucrative marketing opportunities available. But to non-marketers, they can look like a money pit. Events embody the “gotta spend money to make money” sentiment, which can be scary–how do you know you’ll actually make the money? When you do them the right way, turning a profit is a very achievable goal.

Step 1: Determine Your Conference Exhibit Budget

Determining an event marketing budget can be challenging. It’s hard to know what to order, from where, and when. All of these details factor straight into the budget (yes, even the when), as does the fact that these are (mostly) not single-use products. You want your budgeting to take into account a lot of factors, rather than assessing the face-value dollar amount of all of the components it takes to table. 

As a general rule, the cost of actually getting the conference exhibit booth space is going to be the largest part of your expense. That may include the cost of the booth, but it will also include the costs of additional tickets for staff that are not included in the booth space. As a general rule, you can expect to spend around 3x the cost of the booth space rental as your total budget.

The easiest way to start is to break down your event budget is with the Five Ws. 

Choose your event. Every event you attend as an exhibitor will have a flexible cost attached to it. Knowing how much of your budget will go to the event will depend on several factors, many of which we’ll get into next. But at the base level, size and visibility will make a big difference in the cost of tickets, lodging, and overall expenses.

As an example, SalesForce has one of the most prominent product events in the country. Last year, Dreamforce drew 40k in-person attendees and nearly a quarter million virtual attendees. Spanning multiple days and bringing in famous keynote speakers like Dr Jane Goodall and Spike Lee. Attending giant events like these means you get a lot of value but as a conference exhibitor, that can come at a pretty sizable cost.

In contrast, smaller, single-day events will knock that price point down significantly for budgets on the leaner side, but you will gain access to far fewer prospects. When those prospects are highly qualified, or your dream audience, you may even find the smaller conference is a better choice for your business.

Then figure out Who. This is actually a two-part process: Who are you going to be selling to at this event, and who are you sending from your company to do the job? The first question is going to have a lot of influence over the second question (but so will a myriad of other factors).

If you’re going to a major event for your industry (for example, CAI National, a staple for service providers in the CAM space), you should have a relatively robust team on the floor–sales reps, product demo runners, account managers, and executive leadership will all fit in nicely at an event with high traffic and visibility. But if you’re eyeing a smaller, more niche conference, one that is specialized to a specific audience, a one or two knowledgeable representatives is often the right call.

Once you sort out the event’s scope, knowing who to send will be simpler, and you can tally that attendance cost from there.

Sort out the What. Knowing what you want to bring to an event is…hard. There’s no real right or wrong answer (unless you’re thinking of bringing an inflatable kiddie pool and live ducks, I suppose, which would almost certainly be wrong), and every event will be a little different. Your answer to “Who” will influence this list very heavily, as your audience should always inform your inventory.

For example, if you’re an insurance brokerage firm looking to attend a 1-day, out-of-state conference, skip the giant booth, and opt for a couple of banners instead. And leave the trifold brochure about your hometown-specific insurance requirements at home. Instead, bring things that will help your audience remember you, like a clever piece of swag and printed materials that go into detail about your services, the types of clients you serve and have testimonial quotes from satisfied clients from around the country.

Next, the Where. The event location is crucial for a couple of different reasons. The obvious is travel expense expectations. If the event is local, you won’t be spending on high-dollar items like plane tickets, so you’ll have more wiggle room for things like swag. You can maybe even get away with attending fewer conference days to avoid lodging expenses as well.

A less obvious is “Where” cost is the shipment of your products. Most of your event goods cannot be taken with you personally while traveling–at least not cheaply. You can get away with a batch or two of pens or stickers, but anything larger than that will come with a hefty checked baggage fee.

And even for local events, a 10’x10’ booth isn’t going to fit in the back of your minivan. Shipping the supplies comes at a cost, but is your most efficient way to get them into and out of the venue with minimal friction. 

Consider every When. Timing is a major factor in the overall budget of attending an event. And using this same outside-inward model, you can start looking at how those costs shift. For example, the event will likely have price tiers for tickets. The further out from the event you sign up, the cheaper the ticket costs.

Travel costs always skyrocket the closer you get to the date you want to depart, and hotel blocks book up quickly, leaving you with roughly two options: pricey-but-mediocre hotel rooms, or average-priced-but-suboptimal lodging options.

For the marketing and booth materials for your conference exhibit, product ordering varies with time also. Rush orders will always cost more, as the resources needed to make the order have already been allocated and will need to be overbooked to accommodate. And rush shipment is another beast entirely.

And finally, the Why. This can feel like a dumb question, but it’s crucial. The obvious “why” of attending an event is that you want to get more clients. But if you use that answer as your motivation for event attendance, you’ll sign up for every single one, which is not budget-friendly, or necessarily effective.

The opportunity to sell on the vendor floor isn’t a good enough reason to attend an event–that is just the (pricey) seat at the table. Ask what additional benefits are coming from each specific event?

  • Is it in an area where your company really wants to secure a new foothold?
  • Will you be getting access to the email addresses of a large number of new leads from the event planners?
  • Are you able to sponsor a major activity like a happy hour or brunch that will get more of your branding in front of attendees?
  • Will a potential partner be tabling, giving you a chance to meet face-to-face and about a potential business venture?

Think outside of the vendor floor when considering why you should pay to attend any event on your list. 

Step 2: Build Your Ideal Inventory

Once you establish your maximum spending limit, you need to start looking for your conference exhibit materials. This can be time-consuming and frustrating because the specifics of each event will heavily influence what kind of materials you get. 

Start with the basics:

Banners. Banners are great additions to every event inventory a company can create. They enhance everything from a giant 15’ wall on a stage right down to a single 4’x4’ card table. It’s a great way to convey the important details without ballooning your budget for your conference exhibit, and they’re incredibly portable.

The one downside they come with is that they can be fragile, in the sense that a single piece lost or damaged can effect the entire booth. This isn’t vendor-specific–it’s just the nature of the beast. Pop-up banners are a convenient and popular option that is relatively cheap and replaceable. As long as the event attendees are properly trained to set up and break down the materials, you should get a good lifespan out of the product.

Swag. Swag is a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s certainly going to be your best friend at every event where you have a table or booth, but it’s also a cost driver. The chances of making a sale from even one of the thousands of pens you’ll give away are microscopic, but that doesn’t mean you skip swag to pinch pennies.

Vendors who show up with nothing but sales pitches are forgettable at best. At worst, your sales-only conversation approach makes your business seem pushy and unfriendly. So accept that the cost will need to be eaten, and find some truly memorable freebies that are sure to keep your brand on the brain during and after the conference. 

Sales Assets. As nice as they are, you’ll want to hand out more than just branded pens and stickers. Those are great for promoting brand awareness, but they don’t sell your services or products. This is where event specificity will play a big role.

The type of audience you’ll be in front of should influence the kind of marketing and sales assets you offer. On average, you’ll want to have two to five different sales pieces handy, depending on the type. What we like to recommend is one cheap item (like a sales 1-pager or trifold brochure) that you can give to everyone, and one expensive piece (like a printed book, fancy folder, brochure, etc) that you only give out to serious prospects that you think will convert to a lead. If you follow this pattern, plan to bring the cheap materials at around 75% of the total number of registered attendees, and the expensive materials at around 25% of registered attendees.

Branded Gear. While not completely necessary, giving your floor team matching t-shirts, jackets, ball caps, or other identifiers is a simple way to represent your brand. These also don’t necessarily need to be branded items with logos or company names emblazoned across the front and back. A ‘uniform’ of sorts with matching shirts, ties, etc. in your brand’s colors can do the trick, too.

Anything a random conferencegoer can visually use to identify your staff as someone they can chat with for information about your products or services is great to help establish your brand as a unified presence.

Fishbowl. Even if you are getting a full list of attendees from the conference organizer, it helps to have a smaller list of those that have expressed direct interest. Those business cards are your future prospects.

A fishbowl giveaway can feel a little gimmicky, but it can absolutely pay off. After all, who doesn’t want to toss in a business card to try to win a gift card or other giveaway? So for the low price of a one-time giveaway, you’ve got a verified contact list that you can start working on the moment you return to the office!

One of the easiest things to do here is to buy a TV when you arrive to the event so you can use it during the show to demonstrate your product, then give it away at the end of the show by picking a business card. That way you don’t have to pay to ship a TV back and forth and risk it breaking, and you have a valuable gift local attendees want to receive.

Step 3: Set Realistic Expectations

Conferences are wonderful in many ways, but setting your expectations correctly is important. While not every conference will deliver immediate “results,” they will set your business up for very long-term success.

The Pros:

You are building brand recognition. Showing up and putting your brand out there helps those in the industry to get to know your brand and your products. That doesn’t just mean being a vendor behind a booth, but finding a way to be memorable – even outside of the conference hours. You can capitalize on this by getting together with other vendors, and joining them at parties or celebrations to introduce your brand to their clients and prospects.

You are gaining educational value. Major industry events typically include several days of classes, including classes that offer Continuing Education or certification credits. Though it will cost a bit extra to get those perks, the value is almost always worth it, as everything can happen in the same space, minimizing travel costs or additional class costs throughout the year.

You’ll get your money’s worth. Assuming you follow proper care instructions for your materials and don’t overhaul your brand imaging or messaging every four weeks, the banners, swag and marketing materials you create for an event will continue working for you in the long run.

A quality booth or banner can last dozens of shows, and is valuable for plenty of other uses outside of trade shows or conferences.

Leftover swag can be used at other events, to raise employee morale, or to gift to prospects

Brochures, books, and other printed materials can be repurposed for a number of other marketing needs, and given away to prospects, made available for download on your website, and saved for future shows.

You’re building connections. Event attendance isn’t all work and no play. Yes, the days are long and tiresome, but the nights are chock-full of good vibes you can’t fake and give you a two-for-one special on rapport. You’re not just getting your internal staff together for a good time, you’re building relationships with potential future partners and clients.

For really big events, major exhibitors often sponsor parties or mini events like bowling or golfing tournaments. Others will go all out and throw the party you’ll be talking about for the rest of the year. You know, before we were Frontage, our team was known to throw some spectacular bashes, like a glam Speakeasy at Ceasar’s Palace. Everyone walked away floating on a few quality drinks with more than a few business cards traded away for a future sober chat.

The Cons:

Events take serious planning. While event attendance and exhibition is exciting, it’s also work, and lots of it. As our lists above indicate, exhibiting at an event takes a great deal of planning, but what you don’t see from those bullet points above is the time it takes to develop everything.

Every banner, tablecloth, booth, t-shirt, pen, brochure, etc takes time to visually design, write content for, order and ship. And the closer you get to the big day, the more expensive everything is to do, especially if it’s for a popular event. Too many people make the mistake of waiting until the eleventh hour, meaning production teams are booked up, and you are less likely to get your inventory in time. 

There is no guarantee you will see immediate ROI. While it’s certainly possible to sign a major client at a conference or networking event, the likelihood that the deal will cover every dollar you spent for that event is very low. Remember to keep your expectations about events realistic.

Just as the booths, banners, TVs, and tablecloths will all eventually get enough use to have been worth the cost, the events you attend will slowly build a profit that will offset the event costs as well. Like all good marketing, this pipeline is slow and takes time, but is worth it in the long run.

Rules can be restrictive or confusing, so remember to brush up before each event. Running an event takes an immense amount of work, so a lot of rules are often put in place to keep everything running smoothly, all of which you and your staff will be expected to follow. “Suitcasing” is a big one to be aware of, as it can be easy to engage in the act accidentally.

Suitcasing is when you show up as a guest or attendee (rather than as an exhibitor) and in some way promote your product or service. Not all events have rules prohibiting the practice, but others have rules so strict you can be banned for even handing out a business card, and the consequences can be steep. Not knowing isn’t an excuse, and can throw a big wrench into your event marketing budget.

YOUR DEFINITIVE RESOURCE

Bonus: The Best Benefit

Every business wants ROI first and foremost on any investment it makes. But getting there can be a journey, especially with conference attendance. The biggest benefit any company can get from a conference is not a single massive contract (although we certainly won’t say no to one of those!)—it will be the list you generate during and receive at the end of the event. Those lists are how you make the event cost worth it–by making sales after the exhibition is over.

That means that when it comes time to debate which events your company should attend or exhibit at, the first thing to determine is whether your ticket price includes access to a verified list of all attendees and what information that list includes. At the very minimum, you’ll need a name, company name, and an email address. Any event that doesn’t provide a list with this information should fall lower on your list of potential events to attend, as the full ROI will be significantly less. 

The property management industry has a ton of events across the country year-round. We’ve put together a list of some of the biggest conferences that go on. When your company is ready to start prepping for an event exhibition, we’ll be right here. We’ve done everything from simple pop-up banners to full-on multi-day event planning with multiple stages and dedicated rooms. We are also able to help you build your budget and plan for your event. No matter where you are in your exhibitor journey or what event you’re looking to show up to, we’re here to make sure you make the right first impression.

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