How to Reduce Trade Show Setup Costs


Trade show exhibitors know first-hand the expense and trade show setup, as well as investment, of attending a trade show.

renting space

Companies spend the majority of their budget — around 28 percent — on renting an exhibit space. Because this cost isn’t flexible, as the exhibit hall sets it, businesses have to look elsewhere for lowering their trade show costs.

Lowering your trade show expenses does more than save your company money. It also boosts your return on investment (ROI), which is a key factor when setting an exhibit budget and planning a trade show booth. So, how can you save on your trade show setup costs?

One way you can reduce your trade show costs is by lowering your shipping, drayage and setup fees. Together, these three factors make up around 19 percent of your trade show budget. Their overall costs, however, are easy to reduce through planning and early preparation.

Reduce Your Trade Show Shipping Costs

Shipping costs are unavoidable when it comes to trade shows. Even if the exhibit is local, you need a safe and reliable transportation method to deliver your display in one piece. Several tactics can help keep your shipping costs low while ensuring your exhibit remains in pristine condition:

A shipping case can also help reduce your trade show costs if you’re using a pallet for your items by signifying your brand to the trade show decorator. If your cases and packages, for example, have a large decal of your company’s logo, it’s easy for handlers to identify your packages. They can then deliver them to your booth together, which allows contractors to set up your exhibit without delay or working overtime.

If you’re using a shipping crate, include your company card inside in case your package becomes lost in transit or loses its shipping labels. This step can help return your exhibit back to your company faster so you can resume your trade show attendance.

  • Reuse packing materials. Initial packing materials, included with display purchases, are often foam padding or bubble wrap. These materials are generally only usable once, which leaves your company to buy new packing materials.

Reusable packing materials offer the benefit of being reusable, but they also ensure your exhibit remains undamaged and help reduce setup and packing times. Reusable materials included with displays have numbered components to help you and your team pack items faster.

One way to obtain reusable packing materials is by contacting your exhibit producer. Many will provide the materials if requested, especially if you recently purchased your exhibit. If you’re unable to obtain reusable packing materials from your display maker, you can then invest in materials to use with your exhibit and reduce your trade show costs.

paper costs

  • Pack fewer paper items. Paper items are a common feature throughout trade booths, yet they often go unused by booth visitors. They also add a substantial amount of weight to your packages, which raises your shipping and drayage rates.

Reduce the number of paper products you and your team bring. Instead, pack tablets or laptops to take to the show. They’re excellent for not only displaying the same information as your paper brochures and other items, but they’re lightweight and likely won’t even be packed with your trade show shipments.

Tablets and laptops can also be used to enter contact information — which can save a step when calculating your ROI — as well as emailing out reference materials to interested parties. They’re also easy to update with new product information, versus printing out new materials.

  • Consolidate your shipments. Sending multiple packages, even without bulky paper items, won’t help lower your costs when it comes to drayage and trade show material handling. It may even raise it depending on the exhibit hall’s established rate, which is why it’s important to consolidate your items when possible.

Focus on packing similar items together, but don’t risk damaging your products. You may save on your shipping and drayage costs, but repairing your damaged exhibit will likely exceed your initial savings. Pack smart and try different arrangements to see what works best.

photo packaging

Take photos of your packing layout, or packing stages even, for future reference so you can save time when preparing for your next show. They’re also helpful if you’re unavailable for an upcoming trade show and a teammate will be preparing the shipments instead.

  • Provide a detailed shipping label. A comprehensive shipping label doesn’t necessarily save you money, but it does save you time after you’ve arrived and are waiting to set up your exhibit — especially if paid-by-the-hour contractors are handling your setup.

Include on your shipping label and bill of lading key information, such as your exhibitor name and booth number, as well as the trade show and service contractor’s name. This information is essential for your carrier when delivering your item.

Listing the number of containers in your shipment and their weights also help ensure your shipments are sorted and delivered to your booth for setup without delays.

If you’re using a shipment case — hint, you should — remove any previous shipping labels to avoid potential confusion. You’ll also want to double check your shipping labels and make sure all the provided information is accurate. Have a teammate look them over as well.

  • Arrange return shipping. It’s not uncommon for exhibitors to forget about scheduling return shipping. Hiring a freight forwarder or other carrier on short notice leads to higher shipping fees, which won’t reduce your trade show costs.

Additional fees are also charged if you’re forced to leave your display until your carrier can pick it up. Show contractors may also force-ship your exhibit back to you, which can result in substantial charges that can match the down payment on a home.

Arrange your return and initial shipping together. Set reminders, if necessary, to ensure you remember to book both. By setting your pickup and return dates at the same time, you avoid potential shipping charges that could decimate your ROI.

reduce cost with shipping

Shipping is a key area for reducing your trade show costs. Scheduling your shipment dates in advance and consolidating your shipments are simple ways to lower initial costs. Switching to digital materials is also an effective investment that reduces not only your shipment weights but also your company’s overall printing costs.

Talk with your team to discuss how you could implement these changes in preparation for your next trade show. Develop a plan and present it to any necessary parties if certain changes, such as going paperless, require approval.

Reduce Your Trade Show Drayage Costs

Trade show exhibitors often find, when reviewing their total trade show costs, that their drayage fees exceeded their shipping costs to the exhibit hall or advance warehouse. The high cost of drayage charges is often credited to union rates, as well as the trade show’s established rate.

To reduce your drayage costs, you’ll need to focus on your packaging, weight, shipping methods and more:

  • Shop for carriers. Your company may have an existing relationship with a trucking or freight forwarding business, but other carriers may offer more competitive rates.

Call various carriers and ask about their fees. If you already know your number of packages and their dimensions and weights, you can obtain accurate estimates to compare against your current shipper’s prices. Your carrier may even price match.

Handlers like FedEx and UPS are also viable for smaller packages that you’re delivering to your hotel for the show. While it’s possible they may offer lower rates for your shipment crates compared to freight forwarders, it’s advisable you don’t use these two carriers for that purpose. Your freight carrier will wait in lines or marshaling yards to ensure your items are delivered — FedEx and UPS will not.

Reduce your drayage fees by using a shipping container

  • Use a shipping crate. Reduce your drayage fees by using a shipping container or packaging your shipments onto a pallet. When your shipments are easier to transport from the advance warehouse or from your carrier and to the exhibit hall, they’re charged the standard drayage fee versus a higher amount.

Uncrated and loose shipments, for example, are charged on average $112. That’s around $35 more compared to delivering a crate direct-to-show. If you’re delivering from an advance warehouse, it amounts to more than $25 in added fees.

Shipping crates are also reusable, which makes them a cost-effective packaging option. If you’re purchasing a shipping crate, consider what items you’d pack alongside your exhibit to find a shipping container that offers the storage and dimensions you need.

  • Lower your weight. Drayage rates start with your container’s weight per 100 pounds or CWT. Your CWT is then multiplied by the exhibit hall’s established rate, which may vary based on factors like special handling requirements or loose shipments.

Average CWT rates range between $60 and $160 per CWT. These rates apply to shipments that arrive on time on a pallet or crate and don’t require any special handling — other shipments will receive a higher CWT rate.

Because trade shows charge a minimum price per item, lowering your shipment weight is an effective tactic for reducing your drayage costs. A 110-pound container, for example, is charged as a 200-pound item. These overcharges can quickly rise when shipping multiple packages, which is why drayage is often considered a hidden trade show cost.

To lower your packages’ weights, try to weigh them before shipment by working with your carrier. You can also separate and weigh items individually to estimate your overall container weight. Follow the earlier advice of reducing your amount of paper products, as well as packing similar items together to avoid damage.

You may also want to develop a list of item weights, as well as which items are packed in which containers for future use and reference.

  • Send crates to the trade show. Two options are available when it comes to shipping your display and materials. One, you can ship to a warehouse in advance. Your items are stored there until the show and then picked up and moved to the exhibit hall. The second option is shipping to the exhibit hall directly, closer to the show’s date.

sending display direct to show

Sending your items direct-to-show reduces your trade show setup costs by lowering your drayage rates, as the show’s site decorator is handling your items less. The average CWT charge for moving direct crated shipments to the trade show was $76 in 2011, according to the Exhibition Services and Contractors Association. Advance warehouse shipments, in comparison, cost $83.

The tradeoff, however, is you’re shipping right before the trade show starts. If anything goes wrong, such as bad weather or lost packages, you’re left without your items. Your materials often arrive later, versus earlier, to your booth as well.

Plan and decide with your team if you’d rather ship in advance or ship later to reduce drayage costs. It’s not uncommon for exhibitors to choose the increased drayage fees of warehouses to ensure their shipment arrives on time.

delayed shipments that arrive late

  • Ship on schedule. If you’re shipping directly to the trade show, you must ship on time. Delayed shipments that arrive late raise your costs, especially if they force you to set up over the weekend. Contractor costs are typically higher on the weekends, in comparison to weekdays.

Your team may also be charged late fees for delayed shipments. If you ship to an advance warehouse after your delivery deadline, for example, your drayage company can charge you as much as 35 percent of your total bill.

Carriers are also assigned a delivery date and time for dropping off your shipments at the exhibit hall. If they miss their appointment because the packages weren’t shipped on time, they have to arrange a new delivery date with the trade show authority. The potential result is a delayed delivery, which again, can prevent you from reducing your drayage costs and instead increase them. 

Trade show drayage fees make an impact on every company’s trade show budget. Reducing your drayage costs can save your business a substantial amount, especially if your CWTs have resulted in higher charges over the years. Remember to make smart, cost-cutting decisions, though.

Shipping directly to the trade show may save money, but if you and your team aren’t comfortable with it because of the timeline, then send your containers in advance to a warehouse. It’s important to reduce your trade show setup costs, but it’s essential your booth’s set up and ready when the trade show starts.

Reduce Your Setup Costs

Hidden trade show costs, such as cleaning services, are often found when setting up your trade show booth. Reducing your trade show setup costs follows similar techniques used for lowering your drayage and shipping rates — preparation and planning:

  • Plan your electrical needs. Your electrical configuration’s planning begins when your exhibit is designed. It’s essential you consider not only the display’s graphical design and layout, but also its electrical components and any necessary wiring. If you’re going paperless, for example, you’ll need to know where and how you’ll plug tablets or laptops into a power source.

estimate power usage to save

If your exhibit is designed for monitors, laptops and other items, you can reduce your trade show costs by estimating your power use. An accurate power estimate helps you select an electrical package that meets, and doesn’t exceed, your electricity needs.

Test your power use by using a power meter to see how much electricity each item draws. If your exhibit isn’t equipped for electrical items, like monitors, you can expect to increase your costs exponentially, or even damage your exhibit by forcing monitors and laptops into spaces.

  • Review your exhibit manual. Exhibits, ranging from 10×10 to larger 10×20 or 20×20 displays, are available in models that are easy to set up without the assistance of contractors. Whether your team decides to set up the exhibit yourselves or use contractors, it’s important to review your display’s manual before a trade show.

If you find errors in the instructions, contact your exhibit house beforehand to remedy the problem. Setting up a display with incorrect steps leads to delays, as well as higher costs if you’re using contractors. A general laborer is paid an average of $86 an hour — it increases to $134 for overtime and $137 for Sunday labor.

  • Pre-order trade show services. Order your trade show services, such as electricity, internet and cleaning services, in advance. Exhibit halls typically charge a higher rate if you want to add or adjust your services during the show.

You can also limit your services to reduce your trade show costs. High-speed internet, for example, may not be needed for you and your team to talk to attendees and work with potential clients. You can also pack or purchase a hand-held vacuum for cleaning your booth each day, instead of paying hundreds of dollars to the exhibit hall.

  • Prepare on the weekdays. If you’re using contractors to set up your booth, you’ll want to avoid a weekend setup. Contractors are paid almost $50 more, per hour, for weekend installations, which can quickly raise your trade show costs.

Because most trade shows begin on a Monday, weekend setups are common. Many exhibit halls, however, are willing to accommodate Thursday or Friday setups. Contact trade show management in advance and request a weekday installation date. If approved, you’ll need to plan or rearrange your shipping dates to ensure your items are at your booth when you arrive.

modular designs are one way to reduce costs

  • Use a modular design. Modular designs are one way to reduce your trade show costs because of their versatility. They also save your company from investing in multiple exhibits to accommodate different booth sizes, such as 10×20 and 10×10.

Modular designs can also equip overhead signs to their displays. By using an overhead sign, you avoid the expense of rigging a hanging sign. Riggers are paid on average $90 per hour, and their overtime fee is $157. That’s a substantial amount you and your company can save on your trade show setup costs.

  • Rent an exhibit. Rental exhibits are becoming more commonplace at trade shows, as they’re often hard to distinguish from custom displays. Using a rental display can save you 50 to 70 percent, while also letting you choose different displays for different trade shows.

If your current exhibit isn’t built for monitors or laptops, consider renting a display without the fee of modifying your exhibit or risk of damaging it. You can also use a combination of rented and owned displays to accomplish the visual you want, without an additional expense to your trade show budget.

  • Set up sans contractors. Exhibitors are often a bit hesitant to set up their own display, whether because of its size or concern over damaging it. Many displays, including larger 20×20 exhibits, are capable of being set up by you and your team without contractors.

Union permits, however, only allow you to set up displays no larger than 10×20. You also have to set up the booth within 30 minutes, without tools.

If your office has available space, do a test setup of your exhibit. Reference the manual and become comfortable with the steps for setting it up. You can also troubleshoot any problems in advance of the show. Setting up your company’s display without contractors is a significant way to reduce your trade show setup costs and becomes easier over as you grow more familiar with setting it up and tearing it down.

Many businesses often purchase trade show items or services they don’t need, like vacuuming services or weekend setup fees. Start reviewing your company’s trade show practices and any hidden trade show costs to see where you can make reasonable deductions to save money and prevent waste.

Save on Your Trade Show With APG Exhibits

Trade shows present numerous costs, from shipping and setups to drayage and material handling fees to exhibitors. It’s easy to build up a series of charges that could have been avoided when you’re working against tight deadlines. Planning and preparation, however, can reduce trade show setup costs substantially — so start planning today!

At APG Exhibits, we’ll help you plan and design your next exhibit or assist you in finding the perfect rental display for your company. We provide price-matching, as well as industry-leading customer service, to ensure your job is made easier.

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Reduce Trade Show Set-Up Costs

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2 comments

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  • Trade shows can get pretty expensive if you don’t keep tight control of the setup, so it is great to have some tips breaking it down. I especially like some of the advice you give about pre-ordering some of the service that you might need for the show. In addition to that, it might also help to look into renting show displays from designers, that way you won’t have to worry about throwing out any displays you specifically make for the show.

  • This is a great post! I think another great way to reduce transportation costs, especially for those who have a lot of heavy samples or components, is to carry lightweight mockups instead of the actual samples. You can carry these in virtual format or as 3D printed models.