How I decorated a conference trade show booth for less than $40

TACVB trade show Tourism Currents booth tabletop (photo by Sheila Scarborough)At the recent TACVB (Texas Association of CVBs) annual conference in Lubbock, my business partner Becky McCray and I negotiated a trade show booth for our Tourism Currents online course in social media for tourism as part of our speaker fee.

The only problem was that we had never put anything in our marketing budget for booth decorations or signs. We’ve never planned on doing trade shows; such events are probably one of the most expensive ways to market (booths often cost $500 and up) and our network seems to be building pretty well via word-of-mouth, social networking, current customers, and our speaking engagements.

How could we put together something engaging without looking, well, cheap and pathetic? We’re a startup, but we have some pride! We decided to shop my stash of personal possessions for decorations, and not sweat the small stuff.

TACVB trade show Tourism Currents booth, full area (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I was the only person at the trade show because Becky wasn’t able to arrive from Oklahoma until the conference opening reception. I’ve never done a trade show in my life; it was homework time.

First, I read an old article that I’d torn out of Inc. magazine and saved just in case I ever needed it – How to make the most of trade shows.  A quick trip through the article archives of the TSEA (Trade Show Exhibitors Association) was also helpful (update 12 Nov 2010: TSEA just put those articles behind their membership wall,) and I also like 7 trade show secrets on how to create a stand out booth.

Based on that research and my own experience as a trade show attendee, I could see that we didn’t need to get too fancy with the booth, but it did need to be eye-catching. We needed something to fill physical booth space since our main product is online training.

I looked around my house for things to use – as a globe-trotter, I’ve done a lot of shopping over the years and have figured out how to find travel souvenirs when you’re on a budget.

Here’s what we did:

***  Assess the amenities already provided. We would have a skirted 8 foot long table, head sign with our company name, two chairs, and a waste paper basket.  There was power available. We also ended up with a terrific location right by the trade show entrance.

***  The table was pulled back into the booth about 2 feet so that I could stand in front of it. I never used the chairs because it’s best to stand up to chat and engage with your visitors. Wear comfortable shoes and a perpetual smile when you’re the “booth babe.”  🙂

***  Pick a color scheme.  Our Tourism Currents website has a lot of blue in it, so I brought my blue-and-white patterned table runner (originally purchased at Pier One) and two blue tablecloths – one from Kenya, one from Egypt to fit the conference travel/tourism theme – to drape over one of the chairs and over one side of the side drapes. There are a few touches of orange on our website, so I wore an orange jacket.

***  Fill empty space.  I brought a large, tall blue-and-gold cloth umbrella that I’d bought years before on a Navy port visit to Bali, Indonesia. When opened, it looked festive, matched the color scheme, fit the travel/tourism theme, and drew a lot of interest. Driving my little Hyundai sedan to Lubbock with a pole running up the middle seemed a small price to pay (I can fold down part of the back seat to accommodate long items. I’ve even gotten a Christmas tree into that car.) I was also going to buy and blow up a bunch of blue balloons at a local grocery store to fill space, but the umbrella did enough.

TACVB trade show Tourism Currents booth Geek Gear section (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

***  Give people something to fiddle with.  I used what I had – my bag full of tech accessories became a “Geek Gear” display. Many people picked up items, looked at them and asked questions about my external webcam, pocket video camera, tripod, Skype headset, etc. I had to trust that the gear wouldn’t walk off, and none did, but you have to know your audience. I also set out a bowl of Werther’s hard candies brought from home, guarded by a small plastic Japanese Godzilla doll just for fun.

***  Nice colorful flyers (mostly blue) run off at a Lubbock FedEx/Kinko’s were our only out-of-pocket expense:  US$38.32 for 60 of them, which was about 30-40 too many. Becky designed the flyer to include course information and a discount code for the TACVB event, plus some info and another code for our upcoming tourism workshop at BlogWorld and New Media Expo on October 14.

TACVB trade show Tourism Currents booth flyer and candy bowl (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

***  Stack of business cards.  I already had plenty, made by, which lets you do a lot of customizing and use many different photos on the backs. I use the regular business card-sized ones, not the mini ones that fall out of card decks too easily.

***  My laptop, with tabs already open to our Tourism Currents course details page, our Facebook Page and our Twitter stream.

***  A clear plastic glass brought from home, about half full of water with a light up party reusable “ice cube” in blue floating in it (originally from our family trip to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida awhile back, because, why not?) It was colorful and and caught the eye.

That was it.

The most important thing I did – besides chat with people who came by the booth that day – was to follow up the next week via email with everyone who had left me a business card.

And yes;  it resulted in new paying customers for our business.

(If you like this post, please consider subscribing to the blog via RSS feed or by email – the email signup box is on the right sidebar near the Search box. Thanks!)

This entry was posted in Life-hacking and Tips for Better Living, Meetings and Conferences, Tourism Currents, Travel and Travel Media and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to How I decorated a conference trade show booth for less than $40

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How I decorated a conference trade show booth for less than $40 | Sheila's Guide To The Good Stuff --

  2. Quite cool – have always wondered if these conference tables are worth it or not. Guess the biggest part is picking the right conference, right?

    What’s that – an umbrella? 🙂
    Andy Hayes | Travel Online Partners´s last [post] ..More Proof Travel Brochures Aren’t Dead- Just Different

    • Hi Andy,

      Yes, Becky and I talked it over and she made me smart about how much booths cost. I’d had no idea previously. For this particular conference, it made huge sense to have a booth presence over trying to pull our normal speaker fee. This conference was ALL about tourism and had decision-making tourism people attending and walking the trade show floor. It made sense for our business to be in front of them.

  3. Great article, very cool to see a little creativity at trade shows. While making your own booth is a great idea for start ups, I wouldn’t recommend it for large companies as it can make them look cheap, “if they can’t invest in a real trade show booth, do they cut costs on their product or service” might be something you might hear if you are an established company.

  4. Hi Chris, Agreed, if you have the budget for it and trade shows make sense to reach your market (AND convince them to buy your product/service) then it’s worth it to shell out what you need to do to look as professional as possible.

  5. Mike says:

    Great post! My good friend just started going to trade shows for her upscale dog clothing line and I will forward her this post. Great inexpensive ideas :))

  6. Pingback: Are you an event sponsor? Ideas for better print collateral and handouts | Sheila's Guide To The Good Stuff

  7. Damian says:

    Joining in this conversation a bit late (sorry), but we’re looking for places where there’s advice and tools for companies exhibiting on a low budget – We really liked this post, especially the call to “stand up” instead of sitting at your booth, it’s so much easier as a visitor to engage and chat when you’re standing. great advice!

    I’d like to add something if I may – Budget concious exhibitors should feel free to make use of on-line visualization tools to help you play with different booth ideas; is one we provide. We’re happy for anyone to use the free trial for as long as needed, and we’d welcome any feedback if you find it useful.
    Damian´s last [post] ..Spread the word!

Comments are closed.