Eight Things to Consider About Trade Show Charges

We receive compensation for some links on this blog and are always grateful if you use these links to support our content. Any opinions expressed in this post are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, sponsored, or endorsed by our advertising partners unless otherwise specifically noted. Check out our 9 Products to Beat the Heat This Summer.

If you think airlines have the monopoly on rip off pricing for checked luggage, hope and pray they never take lessons from trade show charges.

Many of you may, at some point in your career, be a trade show exhibitor because trade shows are BIG business, especially behind the scenes.

It’s an industry where they can get away with charging you $400 in fees and labor to rent an electrical plug you’ll only use for a few hours.

Or (as I paid this week) $319 to drop off a 6 foot long folding table in your booth and quickly staple gun a polyester skirt around it.

Or $241 to carry a bankers box from their back loading dock only to your booth twenty feet away.  And have the audacity to multiply that $241 times FOUR because you had four boxes.  That they delivered all at

once on a dolly.  Yes, $964 for a twenty foot delivery.  No, I did not miss a decimal point.

Trade show charges are a cash cow.

But it was an honest mistake how we came to run up some of these fees – the print was small and confusing – and the person completing the paperwork trusted that this show would provide some basic services as part of our exhibit cost.  Alas, that was not the case.

Most large companies have employees (or even departments) who specialize in managing trade shows so that these costs can potentially be avoided or reduced.  But for those of us managing these ourselves, there are things we can learn too.

1.  Pack light

Packing light isn’t just for your own bags – it applies to trade show freight too.  Consider what you will really need.  Use past trade show experience to track what percentage of attendees are likely to stop by your display and take materials or swag.  If you are attending a show with 1,000 people, you probably don’t need 1,000 items.  I find that most shows I can get by with a ratio of anywhere from 10% to 30%.  We track from show-to-show so we can ship more efficiently.

2. Consolidate and palletize

When packing freight into a trade show, the better you can condense your items, the less you’ll pay for direct handling.  For smaller setups, that means packing swag inside the core of the booth case or making maximum use of space in boxes and shipping 1-2 larger boxes rather than several smaller boxes or palletizing items so that they come in as a consolidated shipment.

If you have larger displays, investing in pallet crates so that you can have one shipment with everything in it.  When I had a group that did very large trade shows with island booths, we packed our two crates with everything from merchandise to flats of bottled water and the team mini-fridge.  We even brought our own carpet to avoid paying for it at trade shows (bonus, ours was nicer and more comfortable to stand on too!).

3. Read paperwork and calculate costs carefully

There are usually multiple points of charge for trade shows from freight handling to furniture rental, electrical set up to trash emptying.  Write out a budget that factors all of these costs (including both freight in and out – which includes not only your point-to-point shipping charges but also the trade show handling) and figure out where you might be able to cut costs to stay on budget.

Do you really need an electrical plug for $400 if it’s just going to be used to charge a cell phone during exhibit hours?  Does your booth require lights?  Does your display require other special elements or are they just frills?

4. BYOF (bring your own furniture)

For many of our shows, it’s less expensive to buy a couple of trendy comfortable chairs from Target or Ikea or World Market than it is to rent from the exhibit company.  It allows us to have a truly unique booth design – and we can leave the furniture behind with a local to enjoy when its over.  (Many a local prospect or client has walked away with new furnishings after one of our shows!)

5. Go light and portable

Today there are many display options that allow for graphic presentation without a lot of bulk.  Banner stands, pop up booths, interchangeable graphics.  Sometimes having something a bit different not only reduces cost but creates a conversation piece with attendees.  A bonus to this is being able to avoid union labor costs for set up.  Many trade show contracts have fine print about set up (our more recent one required that one person be able to set up and furnish the booth in 30 minutes or less using no tools – otherwise union labor was required) and you will often be watched closely to be sure you don’t violate those rules.  It’s never fun to be visited by the union shop steward and told to cease work on your own booth because you didn’t read the fine print.  (And its often pretty costly to pay the overtime rates they will charge if you didn’t book that now-required labor in advance!)

Pop up banner stands, folding literature rack (articles ship inside it), and purchased chairs from Target at a recent trade show.

Pop up banner stands, folding literature rack (articles ship inside it), and purchased chairs from Target at a recent trade show.

6. Think dual duty

We use some of our display elements to also ship (boxes used for display also hold supplies, tools, and extra swag).  Everything we bring is easy to pack, consolidate, or stack.

Our candy shop swag display ships easily but attendees enjoy stopping by to browse, providing us opportunity for conversation.

Our candy shop swag display ships easily but attendees enjoy stopping by to browse, providing us opportunity for conversation.

7. Consider workarounds in advance

One of my more creative workarounds has been to ship my boxes to a local receiving point (such as Fed Ex Office), fly in the day before and rent a car to pick them up, and justify the mini-break as cost savings.

If I had done that on this San Diego trip and the cost of one night of hotel and one day of rental car would have been less than the $964 in freight.  I would have enjoyed some downtime… and heck, I could even picked up my own table (BYOF) and saved that cost too.

8. Know (and exercise) your options

Often the trade show company paperwork can be intimidating, especially if you are working in a union-run exhibit hall.  It’s helpful to talk to others to figure out what alternatives might exist for some costs.  For example, on our way out of the show, we bypassed the freight handling in the booth, even though the show management insisted it was the ONLY way to remove our boxes.  They even left a helpful flyer letting us know if we wanted to handle it ourselves they would still charge us $75 for a one-way cart trip.

We waited a bit and watched as others carried their own freight out on their own.  Still, we had a couple of heavy boxes and were going to need help so I checked with the hotel bell desk who assured me that they also were allowed to enter the hall with a bell cart.  For a $20 tip, a bellman was happy to load up three boxes from our booth and take it down the hall to the Fed Ex Office location in the hotel lobby.  And because we were with a hotel bellman (not on our own), the Fed Ex Office staff bumped us to the front of the long line where one clerk was helping only the folks who came in with a bellman or union cart.  The Fed Ex location charged us $20 per box handling so when we factored the tip and handling, we paid $80 total instead of the $723 the show would have charged to get it to Fed Ex for me,  There is a high degree of variation between that top and bottom number!

While there are many other issues about trade show charges to consider, these are the eight things I will always consider when planning in the future!

About Jennifer Moody

Jennifer is a management consultant and avid volunteer. Her career and volunteer duty travels have helped her log top-tier airline and hotel status annually for the last nineteen years. In addition, she embraces the opportunity to maximize her vacation time by planning extracurricular trips that have taken her to over 60 countries and 48.5 US states. Once an "every week" road warrior, she now only travels around 100 days a year. She resides in her native Fort Worth, Texas where she enjoys cooking, gardening, sewing, needlepoint, wine, and playing with her Border Collie/Great Pyreness mix puppy Harley Quinn.

More articles by Jennifer Moody »


  1. Thank you for sharing Jennifer. I’ve attended a few tradeshows with my company and know all the time/money/effort that goes into pulling them off successfully. Tear down and packing things up is another bundle of joy.

    • Isn’t that the truth? I’m a machine when it comes to tear down… I want to get it down, packed up, and out super quick!

Speak Your Mind

Your email address will not be published.