10 Hacks to Creating Your Trade Show Setup on the Cheap

I recently just got back from a conference in San Antonio, and was asked “how did you get your company’s exhibition table set up like that?” She thought we were pros and had been doing this for years. The truth was that this was my sixth conference in the past year and a half, and our table set up cost us next to nothing. I figured I’d share some secrets with other new bootstrapped startups to help them during their first few exhibiting years. So, here are 10 hacks to creating your expo setup on the cheap:

  1. Make note of what other people have at their setups and use it in your next setup. The only way we grew from some pens and business cards to an actual setup, was taking a break and walking around the hall to see how other companies setup their booths. Yes there will always be a ridiculously extravagant booth, but if you just need to show what you got and make it interesting, you don’t need all that fancy stuff.
  2. Use bed sheets for your tablecloth. Google trade show tablecloths. Now google bed sheets. One will cost you almost $100 and the other will cost you $10. Or, if you have extra bed sheets laying around, then it will cost you nothing! This was one of the best hacks we have still been doing since our first exhibit, and it all happened by mistake. The trade show tablecloth that we wanted wasn’t going to ship to us in time before our first exhibition, so we decided to just use an ivory and dark blue table cloth for this first show. It ended up working great, and no one noticed, so we decided to just keep it. In fact, another company liked the colors and asked us where we got it!
  3. Table runners are your best friend. Bed sheets are great, but they don’t necessarily say anything about your company, and a lot of the trade show tablecloths had their logo and company name printed on the cloth. So, we decided to invest in a vinyl table runner. We found a little place up in Connecticut who could deliver for cheap and in time, and decided to give them a shot. Even this runner plus our bed sheets still equaled up to less than an official “trade show table cloth.” You can check out Blue Wave Printing’s site here.
  4. Did I say table runners are your best friend? Well, so are small stand up posters. Our table runner just displayed our name, logo, and website, but it didn’t say anything about who we are or what we did. So last minute before a show in the summer of 2015, we printed out what we did and who we are on 8'x10" standup laminated thick posters from Kinkos. These have been our best ally with people who just want to walk by and read quickly about who we are without asking us. And it’s at that moment when they’re reading about us that we can grab them in and ask, “Have you heard about Picardy?”
  5. Something was still missing, and that missing part was a hanging banner. Walking around the exhibition halls, we noticed that every booth had replaced their name tag and booth number plate with a custom banner. We figured it was time to upgrade for our fifth conference and invest in a vinyl hanging banner. This was the golden ticket to upping our booth’s “important-look.” Just this $30 purchase, from Blue Wave Printing again, made our setup look like we’d been doing this for years.
  6. Setup aside, it’s what’s on the table that matters too. Having a good-looking booth is 50%, the other half is making sure you have good promotional items to give away and good content to share with your new friends. From the beginning we had slick business cards from Moo. Then we moved to a customized Picardy cup with customized red Picardy pens, and then added Picardy stickers. These give aways are cheap, and you can get a lot of bang for your buck. People always want a good pen, and a good sticker to put on their stuff or give to their kids. However, the business cards have been our biggest friend. We give these away like hotcakes, because they are thick, slick, and they get down to business. Make sure to invest in good business cards. This was probably our biggest investment, but still really affordable using Moo.
  7. At first we used computers to show our product, then we started incorporating a bigger screen. We started out using two computers and one iPad to demo our product to conference goers. The two computers were propped up on step stools which we purchased for cheap at Walmart. They were then wrapped up by more bed sheets, and eventually, we decided to get rid of the step stools and go with a computer, a monitor, and an iPad. We got the idea to use a monitor from passing by a booth that caught our eyes. It was for an awesome “living sheet music” company called Soundslice. The monitor really adds class to the setup and allows not only the listener, but others to watch whats being demoed.
  8. You’re just as much a part of the setup as the setup itself. You have to realize that you’re going to be demoing your product and trying to sell to strangers from 8am–6pm, 10 hours! And even after that, you may continue the evening into a dinner with potential clients or new business partners. You need to still be just as energetic as you were at 8am. This requires comfortable shoes, snacks, water, and a smile. The first day of my first trade show, I wore a nice suit and heels. That was a mistake. My body felt stiff and my feet were on fire. The next day I decided to dress down in a some nice black slacks and a comfortable button down, and flats for shoes. More people stopped by, cause I looked more approachable, and I was in a better mood! Snacks, sandwiches, and water kept me going throughout the day. Time goes by pretty fast in the exhibition hall, so make sure you’re drinking enough water.
  9. Make booth friends. Don’t just think that since you payed for this booth spot that you can’t go out and make new friends with other booths. Make friends with the booths next to you, across from you, on the other side of the convention room, etc. The people working the booths are just like you, (usually) nice, understanding, and willing to help. We’ve had quite a few people stop by our booth from other booths saying to check ours out. We’ve also gotten booth setup tips from friends we’ve made at neighboring booths. So don’t just shy away and read a book when you have down time, go out and make new friends. You’re likely to see them again! And, it’s like a big ole’ family reunion when you do.
  10. The trade show is done, now it’s time to pack up. You’re probably wondering how to pack all this stuff up for on-the-road traveling. Easy. Get an old suitcase and pack it all in there. You may need an extra tote bag for your monitor and banners, but the other materials will fit easily into a suitcase. Then pack up your technology and extension cords into a computer bag, and you’re set and good to go for the next exhibition show.

Follow me on Twitter @cashankman or my company’s blog Picardy.