10 Trade Show Booth Design Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Even in today’s digital world, where so much business happens online, trade shows still play a vital role for most B2B companies. Over the years we’ve worked with numerous clients on trade show strategies, booth design and promotions. A few of those clients are involved in major industry shows where they generate high volumes of leads and close thousands of dollars in sales right on the floor.

For these companies in particular, where there are substantial investments and months of planning involved in creating a show presence, it’s critical to consider every aspect of the experience. Over the past 25 years of helping clients create and implement strategies for these high impact events, we’ve learned some hard, practical lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll be discussing some keys to trade show success, including pre-show campaign journeys, show floor sales strategies and post-show lead management. But first, having recently returned from one of these major industry shows (which was a big success for our client), I want to share some highly practical tips about optimizing your booth environment – the type of things that often get overlooked. Because even the best laid plan will only get you so far if you don’t consider the realities of the trade show floor.

1.Don’t assume that what you see is what you get.

In the booth design phase, it’s important to know that renderings don’t necessarily represent reality. For example, you might assume that part of your structure will be dimensional, well-lit and made of wood because of how it looks in the rendering — but it will actually just be screen-printed on fabric. Trust me; I’ve seen it happen. To avoid these kinds of surprises, work with a vendor who is careful to clarify materials throughout the design process, and ask lots of questions along the way.

2. Do an early walkthrough.
Even if you know how your rendering will translate to reality, it’s always a good idea to walk through your fully assembled booth at the facility where it’s being built. Ideally, you should do this a few weeks before the show — when there’s still time to make changes. And if you can’t do that, tape off your booth’s exact floor plan and spend some time getting used to the space. I’ve been tempted to skip this step when I’m short on time, but I’ve always found value in it.

4. Design for functionality.
Think about how your booth will actually perform once thousands of people start trekking through the space. Sliding doors work better for closets and cabinets so you don’t have to ask people to move every time you need to get something. Go with safe, comfortable flooring (with double padding under carpeted areas) that doesn’t show scuff marks. Lastly, I’d suggest you avoid using fabric for the walls of storage areas — you’ll see the bulge of every purse and briefcase inside.

5. Behold the power of lighting.
In my opinion, lighting represents the biggest bang for your buck, and it can make all the difference in the appearance, mood and appeal of your booth. Work with your booth design company to understand how surfaces may block lighting, and how light fixtures may block signage. Consider innovative lighting options such as backlit displays and LED lighting under counters, inside fabric and along the edges of Plexiglass panels.

6. Develop video that doesn’t rely on sound.
Even if visitors to your booth can hear your video voiceover, they probably won’t actually listen to it. The most effective trade show videos I’ve helped develop are the ones that tell a story through visuals. We often create two versions of a video: one for the show, and one for other applications (such as the client’s website) where viewers will appreciate audio.

7. Optimize your traffic flow.
Understand how traffic will move across the floor, and design your booth entry points accordingly. I’ve found that if you expect to make a lot of sales at the show, you need a quiet space for transactions, plus designated waiting areas. And it’s always helpful to store fast-moving items like bottled water away from busy areas.

8. Reel ‘em in.
Consider the ratio of wranglers to salespeople so your visitors don’t have to wait too long to speak to a rep. And be sure to choose giveaways that tie in to your brand or the show theme. Too many companies waste their money on disposable giveaways and alcoholic drinks that don’t necessarily attract the right kind of traffic.

9. Be easy on yourself.
You’ll be tired enough without also scrambling to keep your booth well-stocked throughout the show. Ship all your collateral and other items to one location, preferably your hotel, instead of multiple drop-off points. Seek out the closest print shop as soon as you arrive, just in case you run out of literature. And, perhaps most importantly, dress not only for professionalism, but also for comfort — especially when it comes to footwear.

10. Anticipate what might go wrong.
It’s always good to aim for perfection, but plan ahead for how you’ll deal with any mishaps. In my team’s experience, AV installation has often been a challenge, so we always try to do it two days in advance. We also tend to have overages beyond our initial designs, so we plan accordingly. And we generally expect something to break or get lost at the show, so we pack accordingly and take whatever preventive measures we can. That said, we always try to keep things in perspective. Even if things at the show aren’t 100% perfect, the booth visitors will probably never know!

Take these tips to heart, and they’ll help you succeed at your next trade show. Remember, strategic planning is important, but so are the practicalities of the trade show environment. Watch for more tips to come as we continue this series on trade show success!