Tradeshows can be a great opportunity to get face-to-face time with your prospects and build your brand presence. But pulling off a live event on a limited marketing budget requires a thoughtful strategy and careful planning. Before you agree to exhibit at a new conference, ask yourself the following five questions.

What is your event budget?

Tradeshows are probably the most expensive marketing program in your yearly budget. And truth be told, it usually returns the lowest ROI out of all your programs. There are number of expenses that factor into the total event budget including the booth size, travel expenses, and the planning timeframe.

Booth sizes range from a small 10×10 to 30×30. The first expense you’ll see is the cost of the booth space, which might seem affordable. But it’s important to remember that this is just the cost of space. You’ll need to fill this space with a graphic back wall, electricity, internet, seating and even carpeting. Plus, some of these items require hiring labor or related shipping costs. Needless to say, it all adds up very quickly.

In addition to booth items, you’ll need to include a travel budget for booth staff. This budget is difficult to control unless your company puts limits on the amount employees can spend on airfare, hotels, and food. If the company doesn’t have a policy, I recommend planning these accommodations for your staff and encouraging carpooling or public transit during the trip.

Your planning timeframe will also affect the event budget. Pay attention of early discount deadlines and take advantage of them when possible. Planning ahead will prevent additional costs for rush productions of booth graphics, last minute travel expenses, and overnight shipping charges.

Who is attending?

Know who your target market is. For example, if you’re target market is IT executives who are final decision makers and the majority of attendees will be marketing managers, it’s safe to say this isn’t the show for you. Save your marketing dollars for a future show that attracts your target market.

Most organized events will distribute a prospectus that estimates the number of attendees, their industries, titles, and decision making roles. This document is important when stating your case of why you should or should not exhibit.

What days and hours will the exhibit hall be open?

Tradeshows usually occur during a conference where multiple events take place simultaneously. It’s important to understand how long you’ll be exhibiting because you’ll need to adequately staff the booth for the entire show. If the exhibit hall is open for long hours over multiple days, you’ll need to schedule multiple booth staff to allow for breaks and prevent burn out.

In addition to the length, you should also pay attention to what specific hours the booth will be open and if there are conflicting events going on during the same time. Look for tradeshows that have uninterrupted hours where the exhibit hall is the only event going on. If you’re competing against the keynote speaker or hot topic sessions, you won’t see the booth traffic needed to return successful from the event.

How is the event being promoted?

Research the history of the conference. Is this an annual conference with a long-standing association or is this the “inaugural” event for a new company? Not that new conference won’t turn out successful, but it can be an indicator of possible low attendance or lack or organization. Long standing conferences will likely have a better reputation with loyal attendees who show up every year.

In addition to knowing the history of past events, inquire about promotions that are occurring during this year’s conference. Is the exhibit hall promoted well in advance of the conference? Are attendees encouraged to walk through the exhibit hall on their way to sessions or lunch? Planned events such as happy hours in the exhibit hall or scavenger hunts that have attendees visiting multiple booths for clues or stamps help drive traffic through the exhibit hall and to your booth.

What speaking or sponsorship opportunities are available?

In addition to exhibiting during the conference, speaking during a session positions you as knowledge expert in the industry. Call for conference topics usually go out a year in advance so keep your eye pealed for these notifications and be prepared to submit a synopsis of your topic. The topic should be educational in nature and relevant to attendees. Try partnering with a customer who can share your story from the customer’s perspective. These types of sessions are perceived to be less sales driven.

If there aren’t any speaking opportunities available, sponsorships can provide greater visibility throughout the event. Levels of sponsorship vary from sponsoring a coffee break to the lanyards hung around every attendee’s neck. It all depends on what you can afford.

Most people do not understand the amount of time and preparation it takes to put on a successful tradeshow. So the next time someone for your company sends an email asking to attend the next shiny event that’s next weekend, ask them the above five questions and evaluate their response…if they even send one back.

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