Beware the Hidden Costs of Tradeshow Exhibiting

Remember that time when you saved a BUNDLE on a new printer, only to discover that the cost of replacing just one ink cartridge was 3x what you paid for the printer itself? Ugh. Like that printer, the cost of tradeshow exhibiting is often not what it seems on the surface. Here’s how to navigate the hidden costs so you can avoid sticker shock and stay on budget.

Basic Trade Show Budget Breakdown

Whether you’re using an existing display or purchasing new, non-display costs will make up the lion’s share of any exhibitor’s trade show budget. Non-display costs include reserving the booth space, travel and entertainment, show services, shipping/drayage, event marketing, and other expenses.

New Display Purchase and Design 12%
Exhibit/Booth Space 28%
Travel and Entertainment 21%
Marketing and Promotions 6%
Shipping/Drayage 9%
Show Services 19%
Other 5%

Certain budget line items — like the cost of reserving booth space, developing event marketing materials and social media campaigns, and T&E expenses for sales staff — are fairly easy to predict and manage. But depending on the venue, the cost for show services, shipping/drayage and other miscellaneous items can vary wildly from one show to the next. Don’t let these extra expenses destroy your annual show budget.

Shipping and Drayage Costs

You’ve no doubt read horror stories about trade show exhibits getting damaged, destroyed, delayed or lost while being transported to a big show. It’s one of the most nail-biting phases of the exhibit process that often keeps trade show managers up at night.

Simple pop-up or lightweight fabric displays can often travel alongside your sales staff as checked luggage on domestic flights, but if you have a custom modular or truss display, there’s just no getting around the shipping and drayage costs. However, there are ways to reduce the expense and avoid paying additional fees.

  • Get competitive bids from other freight carriers. The GSC (general service contractor hired by the show organizer) will usually suggest an “official carrier” for a particular show, but you’re not obligated to use that carrier. Take the time to get bids from other carrier to ensure you’re paying the lowest price.
  • Schedule shipments to arrive within the specified delivery window. Show organizers can charge penalties and detention fees for shipments that arrive earlier or later than the timeframe specified in your exhibitor booth reservation contract, so double-check the fine print.
  • Don’t send small packages to the show loading dock. When shipping smaller items via FedEx or UPS, have them sent to your hotel rather than the show venue. This is because a separate bill of lading is required for drayage processing at the show dock — something FedEx and UPS doesn’t provide — which will delay delivery to your booth while the proper paperwork is manually generated. In addition, small packages (regardless of their weight) are subject to a minimum material handling charge that is meant for much larger freight deliveries. Obviously, that minimum charge can unfairly inflate your drayage bill when applied to small boxes.
  • Ship displays as crated freight. Check with your exhibit supplier to see if your display can be shipped as fully crated/palletized (as opposed to mixed or blanket-wrapped freight), which will put you in a less expensive shipping category.


  • Consider renting furniture and A/V equipment through the GSC. In general, items rented directly from the GSC or their official vendor will not incur drayage charges.
  • Above all, don’t wait until the last minute. Avoid rush fees and overtime charges by planning ahead.
  • Check the bill BEFORE you leave the show. Clerical mistakes do happen, but they are more difficult to prove once you’ve left the premises. Take the time to review each line item on your drayage invoice and compare it to previous show bills to detect errors.
Show Services

Depending on the complexity of your particular trade show display, you can expect to pay more for general show services and special requests, such as:

  • Additional electrical outlets
  • Installation of truss lighting or manually adjusting ambient overhead lighting
  • Onsite labor and unionized labor (often required for setup and tear-down of complex island displays)

Be sure to check with the show organizer or GSC to get a clear and complete estimate of these costs up-front.

Other Hidden Expenses

When calculating your trade show ROI, don’t forget to include indirect costs incurred over the course of the year, such as:

  • any exhibit insurance or extended warranties you may have purchased
  • warehouse storage costs for when the display is not in use
  • additional/alternative fabric graphics to suit specific audiences or shows
  • exhibit repairs or refurbishments not covered by a warranty
  • replacement parts such as LED bulbs
Eyes Wide Open

To create a realistic tradeshow budget — and stick to it — you’ll need to do a bit of detective work and not be afraid to dig into the details. By taking the time to uncover the hidden costs for each upcoming show, you can strategize a plan for reducing or even avoiding some of these fees altogether.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s