Trade shows haven’t stopped being important just because our pattern of working and doing business is changing. As in-person shows ramp up across industry verticals, it’s important to understand how the game has changed—and how it hasn’t.

Read on for perspectives on the latest trade show strategies, paraphrased from a recent Q & A with one of our experts here at bfw:

Q: What changes are you seeing to trade show setups this year compared to previous years? Are there any trends that seem to be taking over?

A: We’re seeing that there are basically two booths to think about—the physical booth and the online booth. So many attendees are still remote or are taking a hybrid approach with attendance and reducing their time at the show to hit just a few booths in person and leave the others for online. The physical booth obviously comes first in priority, but there needs to be a recognizable digital space specifically related to the show too. Some venues or shows explicitly create a digital environment for this to take place with its own specs and limitations, and some don’t. It’s an additional level of spend, but it’s a great opportunity for brand recognition.

Another thing we’re seeing more of is an increased emphasis on tech integration in the physical space. This has been coming for a while (videos vs. static visuals or posters, QR codes printed on desks and walls vs handouts) but now it’s the rule rather than something cool you only see in high-budget booths. That’s not to say that old-school approaches aren’t still around (or important to consider where they make sense), but there’s going to be a sophisticated tech component to most booths moving forward.

Q: How has COVID-19 impacted the way trade shows are being run?

A: Social distancing is still on peoples’ minds, and masking can change the dynamic when trying to socialize or draw people in. There’s less free food and drink floating around, and more hand sanitizer than ever. That said, things are returning to familiar shores. People are talking, they’re coming in person, and they’re even doing sit-down meetings and cocktail hours.

In a recent show, we skipped adding ceilings on some of our portable rooms (letting them open to the ceiling of the convention center instead) to keep the space airy and thought about how we could allow for distanced seating and gathering. Even if people are back, no one wants to be in close quarters or feel like they’re somewhere stuffy.

We also see companies maximizing the use of outdoor spaces, which is a big win when weather allows for it. Venues are offering more outdoor options to facilitate this transition, especially for social events.

Q: Is sustainability on the radar for companies? How do you see sustainability efforts in play?

A: Sustainability is definitely on the radar. The 90’s and 00’s are over, which means the days of plastic swag galore are over too. No one wants to be the one handing out logo’d junk or collateral to people who are largely uninterested. It clutters the booth, too. Swag still exists, but it’s higher value and lower in volume.

We see a lot of recyclable/compostable options on offer from vendors. Paper collateral is still around too, but once again—quality over quantity. QR codes and interactive screens have largely supplanted endless handouts, and that’s a good thing. It makes for a cleaner booth, which allows the person-to-person interactions to really shine without as many distractions.

Q: Is it better for companies to buy or rent their booth materials? Why?

A: It’s not smart to say that one is always better than the other, because situations and budgets vary, but I can say that renting is generally preferable to buying, wherever possible. Buying is a logistical nightmare for companies of all sizes and doesn’t really end up saving money. From paying to haul owned pieces cross-country or even internationally, to managing setup at venues with very different spaces where not all booth materials may fit, to figuring out how to store things properly between shows so that they’re undamaged and ready to go—it’s just not something I recommend to clients. If there’s something you want to invest in, consider choosing to buy only brand-relevant pieces that can fit in a variety of spaces and scenarios (interesting and/or custom product displays, hard-to-reproduce decorative elements, or high-end furniture would qualify). Renting and delegating setup to an expert partner removes the lion’s share of the logistical headaches so you can focus on business-critical aspects of the trade show itself.

Q: What are the high-complexity aspects of trade show planning that you see companies slipping up on?

A: The biggest hurdle is probably managing multiple vendors at once. At a recent aerospace trade show we managed vendors for electrical, labor, porter services, graphics, production, floral, hospitality, storage – just to name a few. Since trade shows are rarely nearby, this is largely done remotely, which means a huge amount of effort goes into creating timelines, managing points of contacts, and coordinating everyone. Everyone has to hold up their end of the deal for the show to go as planned, and most companies don’t have the bandwidth to juggle this stuff effectively and also create a strategy for the show on the business end. A recent trade show we managed only gave us three days to get material in the venue and set up while making sure everything was handled according to the venue’s unique policies. The logistics piece is huge, as are managing those relationships.


On a macro level, it comes down to planning. Booth schematics and drawings have to show a crazy level of detail—down to where outlets are and what cords go under a carpet. Plans are down the inch. Internal resources at a company aren’t usually equipped to handle this kind of work in this volume.

Have a trade show coming up and need an experienced partner to make sure things go smoothly and your brand shines? We’d love to hear from you.