Trade Show Planning and Budgeting in Uncertain Times

Let’s face it. Trade show planning and budgeting is hard. There never seems to be enough money to do everything we want, while also implementing new marketing technologies and methodologies. Edicts from the c-suite to manage spending coupled with internal stakeholders who rely on you for new business opportunities is a complex process in a normal year. But now here we are… in a pandemic world trying to figure out our next best move.  

Exhibitions are a $100 billion industry in the US alone, but you don’t really hear about COVID’s impact on the trade show industry. Those of us who rely on shows feel the loss deeply. Predictions are that trade shows won’t return until late 2021, so event organizers are rescheduling and extending sign-up deadlines. But you know you’ll still need to commit to, and at least partially fund, shows ahead of time and on a compressed schedule. It’s quite a conundrum.

We know you’re facing hard cuts to your budget and may not get the funding you want and need. Regardless, you’ll be faced with making some tough choices. So, we’ve put together some ideas to help you plan your trade shows in these uncertain times.

Define and Measure Your Objectives

This should always be at the core of your marketing and trade show planning. Write down your objectives for your trade shows, and then determine which shows best help you meet those goals. 

Do you exhibit for new leads? Distributor engagement? Customer relationship building? New product launches? Brand awareness? Whatever your reason(s), you should measure the effect of “lost” shows tangibly, and in a way that aligns with your business objectives. 

If counting leads is your only objective, you know what you stand to lose by not exhibiting. For those harder to measure, more implicit goals, you can still quantify. Consider how much revenue comes from that distributor or customer who frequents your booth. Estimate the number of brand impressions you receive based on registered attendees. Calculate the column inch value of subsequent media coverage of your booth, products, or services. 

As marketers, it’s up to us to find the best methods for getting the promotions job done. But when one of those methods is taken from our toolbox, it can be a daunting task. Try keeping the shows that have the most impact on your objectives. For the rest, consider tools such as virtual exhibits as a means of staying in front of your audience.

Calculate Your ROI

Return on Investment (ROI) is not just for capital. Having a positive ROI is a constant goal of good marketing. Knowing that ROI can make a difference when you need to allocate a budget. If you’ve never calculated ROI, it’s simply a matter of subtracting the cost of your events from the resulting revenue

Oftentimes, the constraint to get that ROI is in obtaining the revenue figure. If your CRM and ERP are connected, and your sales team keeps the CRM updated, then you’re exceptionally lucky! Generating a report of sales attributed to trade shows should be relatively easy to achieve. 

For those who have yet to reach that pinnacle of marketing measurement, calculating ROI is still possible. Try getting a list of new customers and their revenue, then compare that list against trade show leads. Just remember that no method is perfect – even for the fortunate marketers with all their systems connected. If you can determine a margin of error, calculate that in. If not, you can simply mark your ROI report as an estimate. And don’t forget to include those implicit values mentioned in the section above.

Marketing Budgets as a Percent of Revenue

Knowing how your company falls on the scale of marketing-budget-to-sales-revenue is a good bargaining tool with the c-suite. More importantly, ensuring your allocation of funds aligns with your revenue sources helps you plan your tradeshows with more confidence. 

To get started, simply Google “marketing to advertising ratio” to find the average marketing spend based on your industry. Once you have that percentage, you can evaluate your overall budget. Next, take that budget figure and evaluate your spending categories.

For example, if your industry typically spends 2% of revenue on marketing, check to see how your budget compares. If you’re below average, you can certainly lobby for more funding. However, if you’re maintaining the same percentage of sales despite overall reductions, you should probably work with what you’ve got.  

Then, look at your spending categories. If trade shows are 25% of your marketing budget and contribute 25% of your revenue, then you have a good balance. You might also consider some flexibility in this ratio for the value of the branding and relationship building at trade shows. If you’re not satisfied with the ratio of spend to revenue, then make adjustments. This doesn’t mean you’ll have to forego the shows you love, but you might need to right-size, send fewer people, etc.

Virtual Exhibits and Hybrid Events

If you haven’t already done so, embracing virtual events and virtual exhibits is a reality we all must face. 

Show organizers are going virtual, and even when exhibitions return, they’ll likely be a hybrid of in-person and virtual. You’ll be in a better position later if you get in on the game now. Virtual exhibits typically cost far less than a full-blown trade show, and rightfully so. Attendance is different. Engagement is different. The value hasn’t yet proven itself.  

Wise marketers are also creating their own virtual experiences and hosting them on their websites for the long term. We are all aware that buyer behavior continues to shift to online, and the pandemic has accelerated that shift. Virtual displays create an engaging and interactive space for your buyers, particularly if your products are not e-commerce ready.

Cut Costs

The phrase no one likes to hear, especially after submitting a trade show plan that seems right on target. But there are ways to reduce show expenses and increase your ROI. 

The most obvious place is booth size. We all love a big booth with big signs and beautiful graphics. Most marketers want to appear “larger than life” when at a trade show. And we all know there’s a price tag associated with that. But if you look at your objectives and ROI, you can likely still have a great presence in a slightly smaller space. 

Rentals and Portables are a good way to reduce the cost of exhibiting, too. Even if you already own booth properties, you might consider switching to these lightweight and portable options temporarilyThese can save on freight, drayage, set-up and tear down, and labor (your own and show labor).


Show organizers don’t typically allow you to sublet space within your booth. However, you can still work with your strategic partners to share in the costs of exhibiting. For example, a manufacturer can allocate marketing funds to its distributors in exchange for them exhibiting at regional events. And distributors can source funding from multiple manufacturers to display their products within their booth. This offsets the costs of exhibiting and may even create a unique revenue stream.

The Recap

Try using these six steps in your trade show planning to maximize your budget and strategically position your marketing now and in the future:

  1. Define and Measure Your Objectives
  2. Calculate Your ROI
  3. Evaluate Your Spend as a Percent of Revenue
  4. Embrace Virtual Marketing
  5. Use Creative Thinking to Cut Costs
  6. Work with Channel Partners 

On a final note, be sure to talk to your trade show vendor about all your options. At The Rogers Company, we’ve never met a budget we couldn’t hit. With 75 years of helping our clients achieve their trade show goals, we have the experience and support to help you, too!