What We Learned as First Time Trade Show Exhibitors

A few weeks ago, we (my other company PushFire) exhibited for the first time ever at Affiliate Summit East. Not only was it PushFire’s first time exhibiting, but it was the first time anyone on our team had ever taken part in exhibiting at a conference as well. We learned a LOT from the experience, so I figured I’d share our experience so that other first time exhibitors could learn from our successes and our mistakes.

PushFire Booth

Reserve your space early

Most trade shows sell their booths on a first come first serve basis. So if you want to ensure you’re in a higher traffic area, be sure to get in and pick your space early. We lucked out – even though we didn’t book our space until about 8 weeks before the show, we still got a pretty decent location. However, there were definitely more prime locales that would push me to book and reserve space much earlier next time.

Figure out what comes WITH the space

Be sure to read the paperwork about what comes with your booth space and what doesn’t. I naively assumed that a basic table and chair set would come with the space. I was wrong – and I’d have known that if I’d thoroughly read the paperwork. Instead, we realized that we were going to need flooring, a table and chairs upon arriving to set up our booth. The good news? There is usually a company on hand with everything you could need and they can have it in your booth within an hour. The bad news? It’s EXPENSIVE AS HELL. We paid over $1200 to rent flooring, a table and two chairs. For serious.

In hindsight, it would have been cheaper to buy the items and ship them there. PLUS, we’d still have them rather than watching our $1200 dollar rentals get whisked away moments after the expo hall closes to be rented to the next unprepared trade show exhibitor. Of course, some companies would rather pay than deal with the hassle – but if budget is a concern for you, be sure to find out exactly what comes with the space before you head to the show.


I don’t know if this is the same for all conferences, but Affiliate Summit required us to add them to our General Liability and Property insurance policy in order to be able to exhibit. As I mentioned in my recent post on SEOBook, if you’re doing any type of consulting for larger companies, you’ll need this insurance anyway – but be sure to check with your specific trade show on the insurance requirements (and amounts) before booking a space, especially if you DON’T already have insurance.

Deciding on your booth setup

We debated on what to do in regards to the actual booth display for a bit. On the one hand, those popup booth displays are sexy. On the other hand, they’re expensive to ship. And as first time exhibitors, you’re likely testing the experience and going “all in” on a booth setup you may never use again doesn’t make much sense.

After talking with Missy Ward, we decided to go the popup banner route (we went with two banners, both of which were 47×80 in size). While not a huge amount cheaper than the popup booths, we were able to check ours as luggage there and back. And we were thrilled with the quality and ease of use (they literally take less than a minute to put up).

We also paid to have the banners professionally designed – but we would have needed to do that with either option since we don’t currently have an in-house designer. The fee was nominal and we thought the results were great.

PushFire banners

However, there were some things we didn’t think of when designing the stands that we now realize. If you have a table in front of the banners, then it makes the bottom of the banners a bit hard to see. So figure out EXACTLY what will be in front of the banners and what portion of the banners will be blocked from view and design them accordingly. Also, be sure to order whatever setup you decide on early. My typical “wait til the last minute to do everything” style cost us an extra $160 in shipping fees to have rush delivery done to ensure they got to us in time.

Deciding on your booth swag

While you’re not “required” to give anything away at a conference, understand that giving away swag and / or holding a contest absolutely does increase the “draw” of your booth to those passing by. We decided to do custom lighters as a “free to all” giveaway. We also raffled off a “The New iPad” (such a dumb name). The entry was putting your business card in a raffle ticket drum on our table that was behind the iPad.

PushFire swag
PushFire lighter

We had no idea what to expect as far as “how many to get” when it came to the lighters. Affiliate Summit had 4600+ attendees and we took a guess and ordered 750 lighters (we ordered our custom lighters through Promo Direct and were BEYOND thrilled with their quality and customer service). I was nervous that it wouldn’t be enough, but we only went through about half of them during the show. But we thought they were a great giveaway and we saw tons of people using them the entire show.

As with the booth setup – be sure to order early. We not only had to pay for rush shipping for “flammable” items (which was close to $300 dollars) but we almost weren’t even able to get them in spite of that because of something internal going on with Bic (thanks again for working some magic Jasmine!).

Additionally, if you run a contest, be honest about it. We were surprised at how many people told us they assumed we’d “probably give it to a big potential client” or simply wouldn’t “really” give it away at all (do people really do that crap?).

We picked our winner at random and since she was already gone from the show (we picked the winner on the last day and didn’t require the winner to be present), we shipped it to her from the Hilton Business Center before we went home. The winner, Aubrey Huber of Skyecorp, sent us an awesome thank you picture upon receiving it.

iPad winner

(Congrats Aubrey! We hope you enjoy it and it was fantastic meeting you at the show.)

Staffing the booth

We had three people from PushFire in attendance at the show and alternating on working the booth. I’d recommend always having at LEAST two people working your booth at all times. However, I had to speak twice and do a few meetings, so Sean and Joe worked the booth without a third person for several stretches – but we found it was best when all 3 of us were there. It allowed people to go on breaks and it allowed us to talk to more people.

PushFire booth

Also – GET CHAIRS. We saw several booths with no chairs and staffers standing ALL DAY LONG. I’m not sure how they did it, but I can tell you it’s not a position I’d want to be in. Also, if you love your team, spring for the padding under the carpet or flooring you end up using. Even if you have chairs, you end up standing a lot anyway. A LOT. (I should have listened Arienne!)

Our trade show exhibitor supplies checklist

The below were the items we ended up using or needing as a first time exhibitor. I figured I’d share it so people who may have as little a clue as I did about what they’ll need might find some insight. I’m sure I might be missing a few things others might have on their “must have” list, but this was ours.

  • Space to exhibit in
  • Insurance per the trade show’s requirements
  • A popup booth, popup stands or some type of backdrop for your booth
  • A table to put swag, additional signage or business cards on
  • Several chairs for your team to sit on
  • Booth flooring to cover the standard (and ugly) carpet used in conference halls
  • Padding for underneath said flooring
  • Comfortable shoes
  • Pens to write reminder details on the business cards of those you speak with
  • Swag to give away (if applicable)
  • A container to put the swag in (if applicable)
  • Giveaway item (if applicable)
  • Something to store contest entries in (if applicable – we used a raffle drum)
  • Custom company shirts for your staff to wear
  • An ample supply of business cards for every staff member working the booth
  • Packing tape to reseal any boxes you may need resealed when the show is done

The costs of exhibiting at a conference

You think about exhibiting and likely you primarily think of the cost of the booth. But if this is your first exhibiting experience, be prepared for several more expenses. Below is what we spent to exhibit at Affiliate Summit East.

I’m sharing this in hopes of showing folks a realistic first time budget. We weren’t looking to “do it on the cheap” but we weren’t looking to spend a fortune either. I thought our booth looked great and represented our brand well – and we did it with the budget below (we rounded any cents up to dollars to make for easy math). I don’t pretend to have scoured the web for the “best deals” – that said, these were OUR costs as first time exhibitors…

  • Booth space: $7745
  • Last minute table, chair and carpet rental at the conference: $1260
  • 6 custom logo polo shirts: $187
  • 9 custom logo “girlie” shirts: $235
  • 750 custom lighters to use as swag: $1288
  • Container to hold the lighters: $14
  • Two 47×80 popup banner stands: $820
  • Various design fees: $300
  • The New iPad to giveaway: $682
  • The raffle drum to hold contest entries: $20
  • Round-trip airfare for 2 (one of the 3 team members attending was local): $896
  • Hotel rooms for the conference: $1451
  • Varied miscellaneous expenses: $500

The grand total: $15,398

Some expense caveats: I would have attended the conference to speak either way (so one airline ticket and one hotel room for the entire conference duration would have been expenses regardless of us exhibiting). Two of us that worked the booth are married, and therefore we were able to share a hotel room. Our local team member only stayed one night at the hotel.

Was it worth it?

The conference was only two weeks ago and it will be several months before we’re able to see the full results of exhibiting. Stay tuned for a future post on the topic. :)

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Sugarrae runs on the Genesis Framework

Genesis Framework

If you’re someone who doesn’t understand a lot of PHP, Genesis will give a ton of functionality that you wouldn’t be able to obtain otherwise with a simple control panel instead of having to alter code. For the advanced, Genesis has incredible customization possibilities via Genesis hooks.

The theme is not only highly customizable, but it has allowed me to run Sugarrae more professionally, with a much more targeted focus on monetization than it ever has been able to achieve before.

You can find out more about Genesis below:


  1. Meg Geddes says:

    One word – well, two. ANTI-FATIGUE MATS. Maybe that’s three. As it happens I have a client who sells them and people who have to stand up all day swear by them.

  2. My old company worked in the tradeshow industry, and you’re 100% right about the unexpected expenses. You’re a captive market, and the facilities and unions know it. You can barely screw in a lightbulb here in Chicago at McCormick without a $250 invoice. Actually, that’s not a joke – there was a time when you couldn’t screw in your own lightbulbs.

    For first-time exhibitors, though, your setup looks great. It’s simple, but it’s professional, and the booth only gets them in the door. You still do the selling. I loved seeing companies who spent $50-100K on a booth but then staffed it with 19-year-old rent-a-faces who didn’t know the first thing about the product. Yeah, we’re all real impressed – too bad nobody bought anything.

  3. Jessica Commins says:

    “In hindsight, it would have been cheaper to buy the items and ship them there.”

    Well, yes and no. In your case, you paid the onsite rate, which is always tons more expensive than ordering through the conference provider ahead of time. That said, it would have been cheaper to ship stuff at the rates you paid, but if you ordered ahead of time, you probably would’ve broken even.

    Why? Well, every conference center requires you ship to their warehouse and you then need to pay someone to bring it to your booth area. If you just ship a table and chairs, they’re going to charge you extra because it wasn’t crated. And if it’s a union venue (like NYC was), you’re going to pay even more…

    Another fun thing about union venues is their rules regarding what you can bring in on your own. Anything larger than a bigger box that one person can carry requires their union people’s “help.” If you don’t order this ahead of time, you will pay more.

    I had a friend try to bring two of her own roller crates (these are about 5′ tall, 1′ wide) into a union venue in Chicago, and when she refused to allow the union guys to do it, they blew a whistle and everyone stopped working. Needless to say, she wasn’t very popular with the conference organizers that day.

    Live and learn, I guess… :)

    All of that aside, your banners look great! I’m glad y’all had a great time and hope it turns out to be a very successful event for you. :)

  4. Hi Rae, great post. Do you have any recommendations for companies that provide the type of insurance you needed?

  5. Jason Nelson says:

    Awesome write up Rae. Very interesting and informative. BTW, I really like the footer design on your site.

  6. Christine says:

    Sounds like you did a great job going in on your first show. Unfortunately, most busy start up executives aren’t aware that there’s a huge amount of information about how to exhibit at trade shows that’s available on the internet and through industry providers. A quick google search on trade show and/or exhibiting will get you there. A bit of research can help to avoid some of the unforseen expenses. I hope that you find it was a great success and the learning curve was worth it!

  7. Nice article Rae. A decent breakdown for smaller exhibitors even if it was not their first time. You actually did well despite the fact that you didn’t read everything entirely, but as you now know and I have to stress further that it is very important to read all the literature sent to you, because there are a lot of expenses that could have added up very rapidly. Rules and requirements can be very different from venue to venue as well.
    I spent many years working for a convention services contractor(the people you rented the booth materials from) and I saw many, many 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 33rd timers be overwhelmed with unexpected expenses and mostly due to choosing a display any larger than the one you went with. The shipping costs on top of the union required material handling, set-up and even plugging in your display has left, at least, a couple of exhibitors shocked, broke and extremely angry every single show.
    I hope the costs of exhibiting at a trade show were offset by the leads generated there.
    Have a nice day

  8. Carol Dunlop says:

    Thanks for the great info. I have decided to do the tradeshow route in 2015, just getting my plan together so the breakdown helped A LOT! I have actually worked a couple for different companies, but this is the scary part since I am going to do it for my own.

Speak Your Mind