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To Booth or Not to Booth: The Key Rules of Trade Show Marketing

Should trade shows be included in your marketing mix? Is it worth the cost? There is not an easy answer, as there are a lot of considerations to weigh. In this post we will examine some of the core “rules” we’ve identified when considering attending a trade show.

We will focus primarily on business to consumer (B2C) shows such as PAX. Kongregate has taken part in PAX East in 2014 & 2016 and the GameStop Expo for 6 years, which is their version of PAX (GameStop is Kongregate’s parent company). Based on our experience, here are some of the key elements to be aware of when considering a trade show presence:

Audience

  1. The audience is highly targeted & valuable.
  2. You will only reach a fraction of the total show attendees.

There is no question that the right trade shows can attract a highly targeted audience. Find out what companies have attended in the past, looking for those that align with your customers. Are these companies going back year after year? If they were “one and done” then maybe the show was not a good fit. Also be sure to research the customer type you are going after. Shows like Comic-Con are large and can be compelling, but if you are looking for a gaming-centric audience it might not be a great fit.

Reach is a subset of the audience size. A show might have 100,000 attendees but it is (probably) impossible for them all to come to your booth. To determine your reach, crunch some numbers. How many stations will you have up in your booth? How long will you plan on people staying in your booth when they visit? Will you have a line for something, and how fast will that line move?

Realistically you can expect to reach ~5-20% of show attendees if you have a good reason for people to stop. Based on this estimate you can calculate a cost per interaction to help determine if it’s a reasonable expense to incur.

Location. Location? Location!

  1. Big companies, typically repeat attendees, command the best locations long before you ever see a floor plan.
  2. You will be forced to pick from the best available spots remaining.

While I certainly advocate getting the best possible spot (aisle, front of show, good sight lines), the realities above often hold for most attendees. You can certainly work your way up to a better location by attending a show multiple times and sometimes you can luck out. The bigger the show, the more in-demand the best real estate.

Booth Design

  1. Design your booth around your personal goals for the show and the experience you want customers to have.
  2. Decide on the importance of brand perception.

Your design should reflect your goals. Are you trying to get people to play your new game and do you need stations? How will customers move around and within your booth? Are you going to have a line? If yes, how can the line snake around or through the booth without cutting off access for other visitors or violating show floor rules?

If you have the budget, consider working with a vendor. There are lots of good options and they should have tons of design examples. High-end vendors can even go so far as securing Hollywood-style costumes, molds, or animatronic figures.

Your booth design and structure will say a lot about your company, so you should consider the overall perception your booth will convey. Indie devs can get away with a more minimalistic design, larger brands maybe less so. This element is generally unquantifiable, so it’s up to the organizer to determine the cost/benefit and what they want their booth, and ultimately their brand, to convey to attendees. The axioms “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “perception is reality” do apply, so weigh how you want your brand perceived and design your booth around that aspect.

The $$$$

  1. Trade shows are not cheap.
  2. Trade shows are not cheap.

Budget religiously, as costs add up quickly. There are obvious costs for things like floor space, peripherals/accessories, booth designs, shipping, and labor. Also factor in how many people need to go as travel, accommodations, per diems, and general expenses can add up quickly.

Most in-show elements are marked up considerably. Floor space can cost $15-25 per square foot. Shipping & receiving handling fees (not the cost to ship) can run $50+ per pound. Printing booth graphics start at $20 per square foot. Booth designs can range from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands depending on desired features and custom work needed. Even something as simple as internet and electrical drops can cost several hundred to a few thousand dollars each.

Talk to others who have attended shows and booth designers to see if the costs can fall within your budget. Do this work as far in advance as possible, as the closer you get to the show date the more expensive everything becomes.

Some Intangibles

  1. Just because you built it, does not mean people will come.
  2. Giveaways & contests require planning.
  3. Padded carpet!
  4. Do not plan on cell coverage.

Show floors are busy, crowded spaces and every booth there is vying for the same people's attention. Figure out what’s going to draw people into your booth and give people a reason to stop. Odds are you will not be able to compete with the visual “experience” larger booths command with slick designs, fancy props, and celebrities they bring to bear, so be creative.

Giveaways and contests are one way to draw people's interest. If you consider one, plan it out. What's the budget? What are you giving away that will be worthwhile? If you will have a line, what will the flow be? What restrictions will the show have around lines or crowd management (such as fire code or aisle/booth blocking rules)? Also consider an "everyone wins" scenario. Giving away 1-2 large prizes is nice, but people often feel they don’t have a great shot at winning those prizes. Giving something to everyone, even something small as a "thank you" for stopping by, goes a long way.

Padded carpet is worth the cost. Standing on a concrete floor for 8+ hours/day for multiple days will take a huge toll on your feet and energy level. It’s a few hundred extra but your legs will thank you.

Cell coverage at shows can be spotty to nonexistent. We have seen booth managers try to avoid paying fees for internet thinking they can use cell or hotspot coverage, only to find that they have no reception once the show starts. If the show is large, the sheer number of people can kill cellular bandwidth. If you require an internet connection, it is often necessary to suck up the cost and buy it from the show. If you have minimal needs, you can also see about sharing bandwidth and costs with neighboring booths.

The Key “Planning” Questions

  1. What is my ultimate goal for the event? What do I consider success & failure?
  2. What’s my budget & can we afford this? What are my all-in costs? Plan this out early.
  3. What’s the tradeoff of show costs vs. traditional marketing channels?
  4. What’s the draw that will make customers want to stop at my booth?

The Key “Design” Questions

  1. Do I need a design vendor or should I try to DIY?
  2. What’s the all-in cost of building my booth (design, drayage, labor, internet, electrical)?
  3. What level of service & support will the booth vendor provide on-site?
  4. What are my deadlines to complete the booth design & deliver art? Often these need to be completed weeks before the show, and planning this out can save you rush fees.
  5. Rent vs. buy? If you are planning on using a booth multiple times, buying can be a good option (breakeven is typically 3-4 uses). Find out the all-in costs for both options. Even if you buy, there will still be costs for design updates, storage, shipping, and labor. You can also rent to start and decide if you want to buy later.

The guidelines above should be answered, often concretely, before you can even give a yes or no about attending a show. The process above should be kicked off at least 5 months in advance. While you can certainly do this in less time, you will often find yourself with added headaches, rushed deadlines, and higher costs.

Oh, and don’t forget to have fun!

Author

Jeff Gurian

Jeff does all things Marketing at Kongregate, including User Acquisition, Promotions/Sweepstakes, PR, Email Programs, and Mobile Ad Monetization.

When not at Kongregate, he spends most of his time chasing his kid around. He's really into watching most major sports, and he referees basketball in SF -- mostly middle school, high school, and adult rec leagues.

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