From credibility to visibility, exhibiting at a trade show has hundreds of benefits for your business. Establishing a presence, whether big or small, for your company at a trade show gives you a powerful platform for building a more established and reliable brand, to meeting new customers and reaching out to your existing clientèle.

To do this appropriately requires a lot of planning and preparation, and have a trade show planning timeline will help give you a better chance of succeeding at your next trade show. Over the next few months, Candy Adams AKA Booth Mom will be joining us to release a new editorial series. This series will provide DCN readers with insight on how to set up your company trade show schedule, planning logistics and marketing efforts strategically at industry events.

If you ask most exhibit managers when they start working on a trade show, you’ll probably get the answer, “When I get the exhibitor services manual.” Depending on the level of organization of the trade-show management, you might receive your show kit anytime from six months to six weeks before the show opens.

But the initial planning phase of your exhibit at a trade show can begin over a year before the show — especially if it’s a show that only happens every other year or if you need to sign up before the current show to assure space at next year’s show.

Your show clock starts ticking as soon as you’ve committed to exhibiting. There is booth space to select, exhibit space contracts to complete and submit with your deposit, show goals and objectives to set, a show team to assemble, exhibit staff to select and train, an exhibit to design, and multiple deadlines for ordering numerous show services.

By creating your own personalized, detailed planning timeline to supplement the one you receive in your exhibitor services manual, you can meet the show contractors’ “early bird” deadlines to receive discounted pricing on many of your show services. Missing these deadlines can cost you dearly– in lost vendor discounts of up to 50%, these last-minute rush charges can easily cost double the price of products and services. You can also list your own deadlines that aren’t on the list provided by show management.

There is no “correct” timeline.

Since every trade show exhibit is different based on your strategic goals and objectives and the tactics used to implement them, there is no single “right” way to compile a timeline. Some exhibit managers create one detailed master timeline using specialized event management software; others use customizable project management or spreadsheet software. It’s a personal decision whether to list only major “critical path” deadlines vs. each individual step of the tactics to meet them.

Regardless of the process, you use to track these details that need management at each show, there are commonalities to most trade show exhibits, and a list of these can be compiled as a master timeline template and customized as needed. This timeline is divided into three distinct timeframes – pre-show (when most planning is done), at-show and post-show. Each of these timeframes can be broken into categories based on the primary tasks that need to be accomplished within the specified timeframes.

As the show approaches, I customize the strategic portion of the pre-show timeline to the show’s goals; set realistic, measurable objectives; and determine the related tactics that have to be completed to meet the goals.

For each task on my timeline, I note the person(s) responsible for completing the task, when I expect the task to be completed, and check it off when the task is finished. Be sure to distribute the timeline to all members of your in-house trade show team and external vendor/partners who have responsibilities to produce to these deadlines. Keep a copy handy in your show file or the binder you use to organize each show. I also use color-coded Post-It Note Flags with upcoming deadline dates written on the Flags to mark the forms in the exhibitor services manual that need to be completed by a specific deadline date. I pretend that each month’s dates are listed across the top of the page from left (1) to right (31) and place the flags in the appropriate area across the top of each form requiring completion.

Here are the different categories I use to organize my timelines, along with some scheduling tips:

Building Your Pre-Show Timeline

Naturally, most trade show deadlines arrive before the show begins. I divide my pre-show deadlines into the following categories: show selection, strategy, exhibit, promotions, sales management, collateral, staffing selection and logistics, shipping, installation and dismantle (I&D), and onsite services.

1. Show Selection.

Before determining any show-specific strategies, I research the show at which I’m exhibiting, including requesting audited attendee demographics and the show’s history including the percentage of returning exhibitors from show management. Studying this information and comparing the show’s attendee demographics to my client’s “perfect prospect” will help me determine if this is the best show in which to exhibit. If we’ve already exhibited at the show, it’s still good to review our past ROI and ROO and changes in the show’s attendance.

Then I record the deadlines for selecting and signing the contract for booth space on a master calendar. Some shows start their space sign-ups before the current year’s show even opens. As a first time exhibitor, you’ll probably choose later than past exhibitors and have less than optimum choices of exhibit space, but don’t let this get you down. On your exhibit space contract, you can request to waitlist for better booth space that comes available at the time you sign your contract and when the show opens.

TIP: Dates of your booth space deposit and subsequent payments can usually be negotiated before signing your contract with show management if they don’t coincide with your corporate budget allocation.

2. Assembling your Trade Show Team.

Next up, you need to put together your trade show team, comprised of both internal and external stakeholders, to determine your exhibit strategy and plan logistic implementation.

Your internal team consists mainly of marketing and sales management and any other stakeholders such as technical support, engineering (especially if you’re launching a new product), facilities and shipping. External team members can include account executives from your exhibit house, advertising or marketing agency, public relations firm, shipping carrier, installation and dismantle provider and other subcontractors such as A/V and computer rentals.

TIP: Make sure that stakeholders from all critical elements of your exhibit are invited to all planning meetings, from the start of your planning process to assure their adherence to the show deadlines.

3. Set your Strategy.

As soon as you receive your exhibitor kit, set a preliminary meeting with all stakeholders to determine the key message(s) you want your customers, prospects, and suspects to take away from the exhibit. Set realistic, measurable goals and objectives for the four major areas that will provide you with positive ROI/ROO: 1) lead generation and follow-up, 2) audience interaction and education, 3) branding and awareness, and 4) public relations and media. You will need to discuss the budget available to meet your goals and objectives and prioritize your spending plan.

After this meeting, I supplement my generic timeline to include deadlines for each of the tactics that will help us implement our strategy.

TIP: Don’t be afraid to build extra time into your deadline schedule to add some buffer to your timeline, especially if the person responsible for a task tends to procrastinate, or for critical deadlines that will cause a domino effect if missed. Personally, I add a “fudge” week to deadlines, especially if a discount is offered.

4. Exhibit.

When planning your exhibit, design and production timing is crucial to your success at the show. Whether you are planning to create a new exhibit or rent one, you’ll need to start planning at least three months before your ship date. Remember that form follows function, so you’ll need to review all activities in your exhibit, traffic flow, demonstrations, products on display, etc. before determining your exhibit layout and required properties.

If you are planning on using existing exhibit property that will need only minor modification and updated graphics, these can be accomplished in a matter of weeks.

TIP: Request a list of all internal deadlines from your exhibit house. Be sure to ask when rush charges (that can double your bill) will go into effect and add these dates to your master timeline.

5. Promotion.

You will probably be working with two separate sets of promotion deadlines: one for your internal corporate promotions and another with promotional opportunities offered by show management.

You’ll need to determine what types of internal promotions will best get your message(s) across to your prospects. Consider direct mail and email campaigns, telemarketing, raffles, branded giveaways and educational information such as white papers.

Show management generally offers numerous MPO’s (Marketing Promotional Opportunities) including rental of both the prior show’s attendee list and the current year’s pre-registered attendee list, advertising in show daily publications or industry publications, and event or promotional item sponsorships. These opportunities, their associated costs, and deadlines will be spelled out in either the exhibitor services manual, in a separate marketing manual, or online on the show’s Web site.

TIP: With access to exhibitors’ product offerings on the show’s Web site, attendees are planning their “short list” of must-see exhibitors earlier. Make sure to allow sufficient time for creation, production, and mailing of pre-show direct mail or email promotional pieces.

6. Lead Handling.

One of the most often overlooked processes at trade shows is planning for the gathering and follow-up of attendee lead information. Make sure to add lead gathering, on-site handling, and post-show follow-up to your timeline.

This is a collaborative project between you and your sales-management team to determine what qualifying information they want from your exhibit visitors, whether you will use an electronic or manual system for lead retrieval, how you will “grade” the quality of leads to prioritize lead follow-up.

TIP: Have a written post-show lead follow-up plan in place BEFORE the show. Make sure to allot a budget and assign personnel to manage post-show lead fulfillment activities.

7. Staffing.

The most political question that will come up in your exhibit planning is deciding who will represent your company and products at the show. The selection process varies by company (from being an honor to being considered punishment) but set a date to select your on-site exhibit staff as soon as you’ve determined your show strategy. This will allow you to communicate with your staff long before the show starts and share your strategy, goals and objectives, show dates and hours, work schedules, booth attire, and pre-show staff training information.

The staffing section of your timeline should include deadlines for ordering badges and conference registrations; making staff hotel reservations; air and ground travel arrangements; and planning the time, location, and content for exhibit staff training and booth orientation.

TIP: Early communication of your on-site schedule with your on-site exhibit staff will help them to plan their workload and travel while discounted airfares are available. Beware of show dates that fall at the end of your quarter when your sales force is trying to close end-of-the-quarter deals.

8. Shipping.

Your I & D schedule drives your exhibit transportation schedule. Build a shipping manifest of what you’ll be shipping to the show (exhibit properties, equipment, giveaways, collateral, supplies, etc.). Then decide on the best mode of transportation — common carrier, van line, or air freight — based on your service and time requirements. After you provide your transportation agent with the pertinent information, your carrier can then determine the timeline on when your shipment needs to be ready for loading. Make sure to plan both legs of your round-trip shipping logistics with your carrier before the show to avoid shipping your exhibit home at non-discounted rates with the show’s non-discounted “official carrier” or having your freight forced.

TIP: Ideally, you should work closely with your transportation carrier’s agent to assure that you have allotted enough time to move your exhibit freight. I add one extra day to the transportation schedule, for potential problems such as mechanical failure or inclement weather.

9. Installation and Dismantle (I & D).

The installation schedule is the cornerstone of your entire on-site exhibit set-up. It isn’t something you want to wait to plan when you arrive at the show. Consider the straight-time hours available and all other services, such as electrical and Internet wiring placement and A/V installation, that will affect your overall set-up.

In conjunction with your exhibit house or based on past history, estimate the number of labor hours required to complete your exhibit installation and dismantle (maximizing straight time set-up hours) and order labor through the official General Contractor (GC) or select your own Exhibitor-Appointed Contractor (EAC), if necessary.

TIP: Most General Contractors request I & D labor orders about 30 days prior to the show. If you select an EAC, you’ll have an additional deadline between 30 and 60 days before the show opening to submit a form to declare your intent to use an EAC and for your EAC to provide insurance information to Show Management.

10. Onsite Services.

When you receive your exhibitor services manual, determine which services you’ll need onsite. These services vary by the show but standard services to include: electrical, Internet and telecommunications, exhibit and carpet rental, material handling, plumbing, compressed air, graphics and signage, rigging, sign hanging, exhibit hosts and hostesses, floral and plant rental, and photography services.

TIP: If you’re a late sign-up as an exhibitor and will be unable to meet the show contractors’ discount deadlines, make getting the pre-show “early bird” pricing part of your negotiations with Show Management and submit this concession in writing with your order forms.

11. At the Show

Since all plans you have made usually go out the window when Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) shows up on show site, I included a list of on-site details in my timeline. This includes picking up badges and conference passes at exhibitor registration, confirming on-site service orders at the respective service desks, confirming my inbound shipments and their certified weights. Along with making sure I schedule the time to supervise the exhibit installation, transporting press kits to the press room, picking up the official lead-retrieval system, signing up for booth space at future shows, auditing and approving on-site invoices, and picking up my blank outbound bills of lading.

Since you’re basing this part of your timeline on the times when the show’s service and registration desks are open, these tasks may be time specific to the hour, so don’t be afraid to expand this part of your timeline to keep you on schedule.

TIP: Keep a “things-to-do” list of your timeline tasks on a small card that will fit behind your badge to remind you of daily chores to complete.

12. At Show Close

Your timeline for dismantle starts as soon as the show closes. As with your at-show timeline, you’ll need to keep track of what you need to accomplish by the hour, rather than by the day.

If you have rented a lead-retrieval system, Internet or telephone equipment, you’ll probably have a short window of time to return them to their respective service desks.

You’ll also want to supervise (or delegate the supervision) of the dismantling and repacking of your equipment and exhibit to make sure you turn in your bill of lading by the General Contractor’s published deadline. If you miss this deadline, your freight will be forced to the General Contractor’s choice of carriers with no discounts or moved to the GC’s warehouse for storage.

TIP: Plan your dismantle labor and outbound shipping at the same time you plan your inbound shipping and installation to make sure all service orders are submitted.

13. Post-Show Clean-up

Just because the show’s over doesn’t mean your job done.

You still have deadlines for rating and counting leads, fulfilling show inquiries or turning the leads over to the sales team.  Along with submitting your personal expense report; writing thank-you notes to booth staff, vendors, and show staff; working with your exhibit house to inventory your exhibit and make necessary repairs before it is stored; auditing final show invoices and finalizing your show budget.  You will want to make sure you analyze your show results to determine if you met your goals and objectives, and compose and distribute your post-show analysis brief to your executive staff and full report to your entire show team.

Keep your timeline updated and stay on track throughout the trade show process, and you won’t have to worry about missed deadlines — or pay exorbitant rush charges — when the trade show rolls around.

Keep an eye out for my next article, as I will dive into how to Assemble your trade show team (stakeholders). Do you have a question or want me to go over a specific topic? Click here. 

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