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Trade Show Booth Ideas on a Budget

A bold color tablecloth with logo, the large 3D display for products and the floral accent helped gain a high impact at a low cost for this small trade show booth.

A bold color tablecloth with logo, the large 3D display for products and the floral accent helped gain a high impact at a low cost for this small trade show booth.

Trade Show Display Ideas

Exhibiting at expos can be a huge expense! But there are several trade show booth ideas and strategies that help contain these costs, even for small businesses.

Of Flea Markets and Focus

Ever been to a flea market or garage sale? What's there? Usually lots of tables with a hodgepodge of unrelated items. It's difficult for the eye to settle on any one particular item. For antique and rabid bargain hunters, this is paradise.

But busy buyers at business expos usually whisk on by any booth that looks like it'll take too much time to figure out what's being offered among the myriad of items on display. I classify these cluttered items as The Kitchen Sink (everything goes in it). This can drain a trade show budget in a hurry.

Why would exhibitors pile up their booths this way? Lack of focus! Since they may not exactly be sure of what market they want, they bring everything, hoping they won't miss any opportunity. They may even be at the wrong trade show to reach the customers they want (and even more tragic waste of funds).

Bringing EVERYTHING to a show can cost a lot of money. Freight costs (whether by air, rail, truck, or personal vehicle), as well as the time to set up and drag all the items into the exhibit hall, can be expensive. It gets worse if the exhibit hall charges drayage fees to deliver items to booths.

So even if the trade show budget is as cheap as for a flea market, don't make the booth look like a flea market. Focus only on the most relevant products and services—and trade shows!—for the market segments targeted. Saves freight, labor, time, and money.

Using Color to Save Cash on a Trade Show Booth

If the trade show marketing budget is tight, one of the easiest ways to help create a unified look is to do it with color. Purchasing these key pieces to have on hand at a moment's notice can help a company take advantage of unplanned exhibiting opportunities.

  • Trade Show Tablecloths and Runners. Usually, an expo will provide a covered and skirted table for an exhibit, but not always. Even if they do, the cloths may not be in the company's brand colors or may be plain white. Cover the standard table provided with bold swaths of color using a runner or tablecloth with a logo. While this investment could run into the hundreds of dollars, quality cloths can be used for years. Purchasing a storage bag or case for these items helps keep them clean and protects them from damage—it's worth the few extra bucks (some storage bags can be as low as $20 or less). Tables provided at business expos are typically 6 or 8 feet, although sizes used can vary widely. Check to see the most common size used at expos of interest and purchase cloths to accommodate. Some cloth sizes can be used on a variety of tables, adjusting how they're placed to make them look presentable. To save money, also look for cloth designs that can be converted from one size to another (such as an 8-foot size that converts to a 6-foot) with the use of Velcro or other fasteners. To save, the bottom line is to buy as few cloths as possible, aiming for durability and versatility.
  • Balloons. Balloons can inexpensively give a booth a celebratory or party atmosphere. CAUTION! Some expo venues prohibit any use of balloons, so always check prior to bringing them in.
  • Matching Shirts. Having the entire booth team clad in matching color shirts bolsters the color image. If purchasing imprinted or embroidered shirts for booth staffers is not in the budget, make sure everyone is going to wear the same color of shirt, maybe even slacks, too. Providing unbranded but matching color shirts helps ensure that everyone will be in compliance. Also, make sure that everyone in the booth is wearing a company name badge or company lanyard (no sticky label badges—please!). Official company name badges are a cheap way to get brand name identification even if logo'd shirts are not being used. (Curious about buying custom promotional T-shirts? Click here to find some helpful tips.)
  • Floral. Complement the color scheme with coordinating floral accents. Fresh is a nice (but more expensive) touch if allowed by the show or facility. Also, be aware that some events and facilities may require floral purchases to be made from their contract floral company. Also, consider investing in a beautiful silk arrangement highlighting the company's colors that can be used at multiple events, thereby reducing the cost per show.

3D Adds Dimension and Attention: Take Tips from Retail

There is nothing more nondescript or flat than a folded T-shirt. So when I wanted to exhibit eco-friendly shirts, I purchased some lightweight shirt forms from an online retail supply house for around $10 to $20 each to display them in a more lifelike, 3D way. (And the forms are reusable.) The more you display an item in a realistic "in use" scene, the easier and faster it can be for viewers to grasp what is being shown to them.

Online retail suppliers can be great sources of inexpensive stock graphics and display pieces that help create mood and draw attention. Look for items that are as lightweight as possible, as well as easy to ship, store, set up, break down, and repack.

Retail stores know they need to grab interest and attention quickly. Take some tips from these selling pros!

Go Large

While it may seem counterintuitive, going as large as possible with a booth display and décor can actually draw more attention at a lower cost. Here's how . . .

If all the company has is business cards and a few brochures to offer trade show visitors, it would be advisable to have a large, attention-getting banner, sign, or another eye-catching display item. To save on shipping and transportation costs and hassle, select collapsible, portable signs and stands. They usually set up in a few minutes, too.

Especially on large area signs and banners, avoid the temptation to fill the space with text! Similar to outdoor and electronic billboards, visitors have mere split seconds to determine what is being displayed in the booth. Make the primary marketing message short and make it large! Even better is to have a huge photo that helps visitors make a quick identification of what the booth has to offer.

Trade Show Games

Turn your booth into a game show! A prize wheel, Plinko game, or bean bag toss can be so much more attention-getting than a fishbowl for a business card drawing. Yes, these games will cost money, but they can be reused again and again. Some also offer the ability to customize the game pieces for every event, further increasing the usability over time.

Also, look for those that offer a handy carrying case. Saves time and hassle, as well as offers protection for these valuable display pieces.

Learn more about portable trade show games in the following video:

Reduce, Reuse, Recoup

Except for balloons and fresh flowers, the display items discussed here are typically reusable, sometimes for many years. It's not unusual to use some of them for up to five years or more. As logic would dictate, the more an item gets used, the lower the cost.

Here's how to figure out the investment over time.

Example: Say that a custom table cover with a logo costs $300. The company exhibits at three trade shows or events each year and plans to use the cover for five years.

First, figure out the number of uses.

  • Formula: Number of Uses per Year X Number of Years of Planned Use = Total Number of Uses

In the example . . .

  • 3 Uses per Year X 5 Years of Planned Use = 15 Total Number of Uses

Next, figure out the cost per use.

  • Formula: Total Cost of Item ÷ Total Number of Uses = Cost per Use

For the example . . .

  • $300 Total Cost of Item ÷ 15 Total Number of Uses = $20 per Use

A cost of $20 per show is pretty reasonable for most budgets. However, 15 total uses for a table cover is a pretty low-duty cycle. Items like this could typically be used many more times and years than in this example, thereby reducing the cost per use and helping to recoup the overall investment even more. Always look for items that have high repeat use potential. Remember, marketers become bored with their displays faster than trade show visitors will!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 25, 2014:

You're right, George Garden, trade shows are an awesome way to introduce new products since potential customers can check them out in person. Thanks for reading and stopping by!

Min from Singapore on April 10, 2014:

Hello heidithorne,

You are welcome! Have a great day too!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 10, 2014:

Hello Blackilocks! Thanks for sharing your handmade display tips with us. Have a great day!

Min from Singapore on April 09, 2014:

Hi, Thanks for sharing! I am a fellow creative and lover of all things handmade. I try to support these enterprises as much as I can. Check out

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 30, 2014:

Hello poetryman6969! Glad you found the information helpful. Have a wonderful day!

poetryman6969 on March 30, 2014:

Thanks for writing such an interesting and useful article.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 29, 2014:

Hello Eiddwen! Thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting. Hope you're having a great weekend, too. Cheers!

Eiddwen from Wales on March 29, 2014:

Great hub and thanks for sharing. Voting up and wishing you a great weekend.


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 29, 2014:

Mahalo Hawaiian Scribe! Glad you liked the ideas (I love the prize wheels, too!). Appreciate you commenting & sharing. Have a beautiful weekend!

Stephanie Launiu from Hawai'i on March 28, 2014:

What a great hub! Youʻve got the psychology down on what attracts people to a trade show booth. I like the prize wheel idea and the "reduce, reuse, recoup" section. Voted up, useful, interesting. Aloha, Stephanie

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 28, 2014:

Howdy, billybuc! Thanks for the kind words on my marketing tips. Weather here in Chi-town is gray and chilly, but Sunday we might hit 60. Woohoo! Have a great weekend, my friend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 28, 2014:

Hello FlourishAnyway! I love those prize wheels and games, too. They're a great way to get some conversation going. Have a fun weekend ahead!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 28, 2014:

Hello zsobig! Thanks so much for stopping by. Glad you found it helpful. Have a lovely weekend!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 28, 2014:

Very cool information my friend. You are the marketing guru and people would do well to listen to your advice.

Have a great weekend. Hopefully spring has arrived in Chicago.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 28, 2014:

Excellent tips and creative ideas. I like the idea of the prize wheel and games especially.

Sophie from United Kingdom on March 28, 2014:

Nice, informative hub with great ideas!

Thank you for sharing Heidi!