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    The Ideal Trade Show Checklist & Timeline

    It’s been a while since trade shows were the must-meet-and-see-events for B2B industries, but recently trade show event space and calendars are filling. Marketing departments and agencies are working to develop trade show themes and slogans, many of them highlighting being back together and pressing the restart button.

    Along with the themes and the push to view new products and re-connect with colleagues and customers, is the pressure to plan a successful trade show is back.

    If you’re like us, you might need to get that trade show-planning muscle built up again. Where to start? As Lewis Carroll said in his tale of Alice’s trip into Wonderland, “Begin at the beginning and go on ‘til you come to the end: then stop.”

    Identifying the goals you want to accomplish with your trade show is a productive place to start. Consider all that your business or organization has done and planned for during the last year (or two) and tie those things into your trade show goals.

    • Do you plan to launch a new product or service?
    • Do you want to enter a new market?
    • Build awareness for a business extension?
    • Is the trade show your annual opportunity to generate leads and prospects?
    • Is your trade show goal to recruit new employees, simply re-engage and retain current customers or connect with industry professionals?

    (A caveat: From experience we know not to have more than one or two goals. You can’t be everything to everyone and doing everything. If you try, something will fail.)

    Once you know what you want to accomplish, stick to it. If something comes up (because it happens) you can ask yourself and your team, “Does this request work to help us accomplish our trade show goal?” If the answer is no, don’t take it on. Your planning will thank you and you’ll have a more successful trade show.

    When you settle on goals, start the clock on your timeline. Follow a checklist to keep to your timeline. It sounds simple, but it’s a long road to every trade show, and things can go haywire.

    In Atal Gawande’s bestseller “The Checklist Manifesto” he writes, “The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably.” Or, even if your trade show isn’t big and complex, Gawande points out that a rule of thumb to use with any checklist is to keep it to between five and nine items, which is the limit of working memory.

    [Sidebar] Make sure your trade show checklist links back to your goals. For example, if you plan to launch a new product, what new visuals must be developed, what samples or trials must you include and what pre-show research have you done on your competitors’ marketing initiatives? All these tasks must be built into the timeline and make their way onto a checklist.

    OK, let’s break the trade show checklist into an I-can-remember number and talk timeline. A timeline refers to the days, weeks and months leading up to—and after—your trade show. The checklist is what must be accomplished within those time frames.

    Starting with a timeline can make the difference between a successful trade show and a just so-so show. Get out your planner or digital calendar and let’s roll.

    12 Months Out

    Immediately after your annual trade show, if you’ve had one, evaluate what went well and what issues you want to avoid in upcoming trade shows. What kind of products did customers buy or commit to purchasing? What messaging cut through?

    Make your trade show checklist. (A recurring theme, as if you don’t document things, they slip through the cracks.) Also, as soon as possible after your trade show wraps, calculate its ROI.

    You can do this in three steps:

    1. Gather leads from the show
    2. Connect customers to invoices – what they purchased
    3. Connect leads to customers

    As a side note: Document sales leads after the trade show and note if those sales came from those who were customers before the show, or if they bought for the first time after the show, and if they purchased multiple times after the show. This will help you clearly identify repeat customers and new ones and what may have helped them become such (your trade show content).

    Remember to calculate your cost per lead, which is a calculation of your display costs over how many leads are generated in the booth.

    Calculate ROI

    Total the sales you can directly connect to the show and compare the total to your cost associated with being part of the trade show, including travel costs and size-per-square-foot booth space.

    Once you have finished your sales process with all the leads generated from the trade show, calculate their worth by dividing the total business won from the leads collectively and then divide that by the total number of leads generated and compare.

    If leads generated from your trade show marketing have more value than leads generated from other sources, you may be able to support a larger budget for the next trade show, and /or adjust your overall marketing budget as needed.

    This assessment also helps you determine the trade shows to go to through time. Which ones offered high target-audience attendance? Link this back to your goals to see if any given trade show is valuable enough for you to attend.

    Nine Months Out

    Now that you’re within your fiscal year, you can propose a budget, or work with the one you’re given. Identify your trade show goals and the objectives you must meet to achieve them.

    • What should be on your trade show checklist?
    • What signage will you use, such as banners and illuminated visuals?
    • What booth accessories will you need? How much exhibiting space do you need?
    • What marketing materials will you need?
    • What personnel will you need? What are their functions? (No one gets to just look good and do nothing.)

    The checklist should include a timeline for material production, including requesting bids, if you don’t have a ready vendor.

    Six Months Out

    Finalize the details of your trade show booth design. Document your sales message and make sure all relevant employees — especially booth staff — know the message and understand the why behind it. They are your biggest advocates, so help them succeed as part of your marketing effort.

    • Follow your checklist.
    • Finalize your booth.
    • Lighting
    • Graphics
    • Additional design elements
    • Marketing materials within booth as sales support

    Now is the time to revitalize your trade show booth, if neededDoes your current trade show display still allow you to speak to your goals and achieve your marketing objectives? If it doesn’t, create a new one. If you need to build a larger exhibit, the six-months-out plan allows for it.

    Three Months Out

    With only three months until the date of the trade show, put in your order for marketing and promotional materials. Make sure to touch base with the company in charge of the logistics for your booth. Confirm the time, location, and mode of travel for getting your trade show exhibit to the event at the appropriate time.

    Research technology and the trade show’s associated web page. Will you use a trade show app, which can be useful for everything from communication to marketing, social media and lead capture. Will you or your team use tablets, which are a standard piece of trade show tech, and does everyone know how to use them? You can even keep a copy of your trade show checklist on it, for easy access.

    The show’s web page or site allows you to know exactly what’s happening, where it happens, and where your booth’s located. If the trade show you’re attending has an account that allows you to choose where your location – use it. It’s the difference between choosing your seat on a long flight, or taking whatever is middle seat is left.

    • Get your booth literature confirmed. The development time for collateral can vary, but plan on three to four weeks, which doesn’t include the time it takes your collateral to get from the printer to your literature display.
    • Choose your booth team. Determine who you want at the show and their responsibilities.
    • Order your staff’s uniforms, even if it’s only polo shirts or caps. Order them after you’ve chosen your booth staff. This way you know everyone’s size and can order accurately.

    Arrange travel. Purchase hotels and flights for you and your booth staff. Do not wait until the last minute, or you may get stuck with no one to staff the booth. Some travel agencies recommend you book your flights at least 25 days out, but not further in advance than 150, or so, days and to reserve hotel rooms within 90 days.

    Travel should always be included on your trade show checklist.

    Two Weeks Out

    Now is the time to ramp up your marketing focus for the trade show. There are lots options when it comes to event marketing such as using social media to boost your attendance. For more options, be sure to check out our article on maximizing your event attendance.

    • Meet with selected staff to ensure they are trained properly for the event, including lead fulfillment packets that include all needed information. Make sure your team is equipped to process leads, if that’s their responsibility.
    • Create a document bundle with duplicates. Make sure that you have all your contacts, including your staff lists and any local vendors and professionals, in a list. Anything you might need to copy, make sure it’s in this bundle.
    • Confirm that the delivery of all your trade show elements is on schedule. (Be sure to contract with a reputable company for services such as floor accessories, installation, furniture, and break down.)

    At the Trade Show

    Have a good time on the trade show floor and work towards the goals you had established months ago!

    After the Trade Show 

    • Fulfill leads.
    • Check your costs. Review what and where you spent money and compare it to the budget you established months ago. If you’re on budget, great, but if you’re not, why not?
    • Review the goals objectives you set. Did your marketing materials make their return on investment?
    • What went wrong? What must you do to fix it for next year?

    Once you’ve reviewed the objectives that you set last year, it’s time to take notes so that you can start setting your goals for next year. This lets you get your trade show checklist started in earnest. Remember that you must visit what went well and what didn’t on the last tradeshow, or it does you no good to set your goals early. You might update objectives, or things you have no control over (pandemic, anyone?) may influence your goals.

    Start setting new goals and objectives as soon as is feasible, though, before the next show date. Ideally you can do this sooner. Ensure all your whats and whys – both marketing and logistical – are properly addressed.

    Attending a trade show is all about delivering results. ER Marketing is here to help you achieve your trade show objectives with fresh, engaging and attention-grabbing design elements that put your company on the map. If you’re ready to learn more, contact us today.

    About The Author

    Elton Mayfield

    Elton's career spans media, production, digital and building industry expertise. His diverse experience makes him nimble, innovative, and curious – always pushing the envelope to create extraordinary work that delivers real results for our clients.

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