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Trade Show Displays: A Buyer's Guide

Adryan Corcione
Adryan Corcione

A good trade show display is a necessity to showcase what your business has to offer and also grab the attention of other show attendees – prospective customers and clients. Without an eye-catching display, you'll miss the many opportunities for networking at a trade show.

"A trade show display is a highly visible statement about a company and its products," said Laurie Pennacchi, CEO of ExpoMarketing, a trade show display company. "The company benefits from having a display by attracting visitors at shows that generate leads." 

So what does a good trade show display do for you? Other than grab people's attention, it can say a lot about your business.

"A display should tell attendees who you are, what you do and how you can help trade show attendees," said Gwen Parsons, an independent communications consultant with a background in trade show marketing. "[It] should portray your company brand and image in a way that will help salespeople introduce products, engage attendees in a conversation, generate qualified sales opportunities, and leave a favorable impression to facilitate follow-up after the event."

Without a display, Parsons said, you're at a disadvantage against your competitors, since "it's very rare for a company to contract for an exhibit space and not bring a display."

Editor's note: Looking for a trade show display company? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that’s right for you, use the questionnaire below to get information from a variety of vendors for free:

Whether you're a trade show veteran or not, you need to weigh your options on trade show displays if you're in the market for a new one. With designs and trends constantly changing and evolving, it's important to stay up to date on what works and what doesn't in the trade show sector.

Types of trade show displays

There are many types of trade show displays to choose from, and they can be configured in just about any way imaginable. However, the two most common trade show display systems are pop-up exhibits and panel displays.

Pop-up displays consist of a flexible panel attached to an accordion-style frame that expands and locks into place to create a curved or angled wall, which becomes the back wall of your trade show booth. Pop-up displays generally cost less than other display options, are lightweight and easy to ship or travel with, and are also fairly easy to set up.

"When you're a small business, pop-ups are ideal," said Kristen Harold, owner of KMH Marketing. "When you're doing multiple shows, it's cost-effective and looks much more professional. When you're graduating to a large space or putting a focus on one show, having a display built out custom should be considered."

Panel displays, on the other hand, are sturdier and more stable, but they tend to be heavier and more difficult to assemble. They can easily be configured in many different ways, as they consist of various rectangular sections that are covered in fabric and can connect together.

"Just be aware of all of the costs involved before committing," Harold added. "You can also save these [displays] and use [them] again."

Other popular display types include the following.

Modular exhibits: Similar to a panel display system, they have many parts and can be configured in different ways, but are much lighter, like a pop-up display.

Pipe and drape displays: These have a metal frame and a fabric drape and are usually used as a simple backdrop.

Tabletop displays: Good for events where large displays aren't necessary, tabletop displays are like a smaller version of a panel or pop-up display, but designed to fit on a table.

Truss displays: Heavy-duty with steel or aluminum frames, these are often used as backdrops in television shows and as lighting systems. They can be used to display just about anything.

Depending on your vendor or exhibit house, you may have more options. Of course, you can always have a custom trade show display system created for your business, with the option to combine different display types.

Renting vs. purchasing trade show displays

When it comes to obtaining a trade show display, you have two options: You can rent a display temporarily for an exhibit, or you can purchase one for use whenever you need it. Renting works for many businesses, while others prefer or need to have their own display system on hand. So how do you know which option is right for your business?

The first step, Pennacchi said, is to consider the size of the trade show display and the number of trade shows at which you plan to exhibit.

"If the booth spaces are 10 feet by 10 feet, it probably makes sense to purchase a portable exhibit," Pennacchi said. "For larger spaces, a rental is a very logical choice. The company has the opportunity to change their booth layout from one show to the next while still preserving their look and feel."

Rental solutions are definitely more budget-friendly, but only if you don't exhibit very often, Parsons emphasized.

"A display rents for about 25 to 35 percent of the cost to buy it," she said. "So one rule of thumb is if you are planning to use the same exhibit three times during a one-year period, you should purchase the display."

It's also important to consider your resources. If storage or maintenance are issues for you, you may want to use a rental. Pennacchi said that renting a display doesn't require storage, so you don't have to spend on display storage and maintenance.

"[Business owners] get the booth of their choice in perfect condition for each show," she added.

How to choose a trade show display

"If a company is a first-time exhibitor, wants to test a new market, wants a bigger footprint for a once-a-year national event, or is uncertain about changing business strategies [like a merger, acquisition or rebrand], the safe bet is to rent a whole new exhibit or add-ons to extend existing display properties," Parsons said.

In other words, if you're new to the trade show scene or making company changes, don't jump in spontaneously; this is definitely a time to go for a rental system.

"Plus, exhibitor renters can reuse their graphics at a subsequent event whether they choose re-rent or purchase the same exhibit property," Parsons said, adding that if you do choose to buy your rental exhibit, you should ask your consultant if a portion of your rental fee can be applied toward your purchase.

Harold stressed that owning is typically the best option if you do multiple shows a year. "Storage will cost you, but renting and setting up a brand-new display each show will be a larger expense."

It's also important that you take your trade show display shopping offline, especially with so many options on the market. Pennacchi advised attending other trade shows and scoping out what your competitors are doing to get a better idea of what you want.

"There are a multitude of trade show displays available today," Pennacchi said. "It is difficult to make a decision by looking solely at websites. It is beneficial to walk a trade show, preferably in your industry, and pay attention to the types of exhibits that attract your eye and that make a statement similar to the one you want to make. Check out what your competitors are doing and make a point of trying to outshine them."

Before you start thinking about what types of displays you want, think about your needs and restrictions. Not doing so could cost you tons of money.

"There are pros and cons to any type of trade show display," Pennacchi said. "Some might be beautiful, but they are too expensive to fit the budget parameters once you factor in the costs of exhibiting. Some are cheap or reasonably priced, but they offer no presence."

With so many options to consider, choosing a trade show display system itself can be challenging. The best approach, Pennacchi noted, is to explain to your prospective vendor what your goals are (both immediate and long-term) and your budget. From there, they should give you a range of options and make suggestions that fit your needs.

When it comes to choosing a vendor, it's especially important that you choose one that has your best interests in mind.

"Find the exhibit house that best fits your needs," Pennacchi said. "It is important to establish a relationship with a company that wants to be your partner and not just a vendor. If your exhibit house understands your needs and evolves with you as your business grows, you will have a lot of success with your trade shows."

The final decision, Pennacchi said, should take several factors into consideration, including your budget and the design.

Before you buy your trade show display

If you've got a trade show coming up and are thinking about purchasing or renting a display system, our experts said you should ask yourself these questions:

  • What are our goals for our trade show presence?
  • What size(s) of exhibit space do we plan to use?
  • How often (per year) do we plan to exhibit?
  • What is our budget for the display?
  • Who will be setting up and repacking the display?
  • What do we want to do in our exhibit to market our products and/or services?
  • Would we rather rent or buy a trade show display?
  • Does this vendor understand our needs? Or are they just trying to make a sale?
  • Does this vendor outsource or provide all services in-house?
  • Does this vendor offer graphic design services?

You should also be sure to research different vendors and the trade shows and events you plan to attend to get a better idea of what options are available to you. Your research, along with your responses to these questions, should help you figure out what kind of trade show display(s) you need and what vendor or exhibit house to use.

Editor's note: Looking for a trade show display company? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that’s right for you, use the questionnaire below to get information from a variety of vendors for free:

Additional reporting by Brittney Morgan. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Adryan Corcione
Adryan Corcione
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Adryan Corcione is a freelance writer. To learn more about their work, visit their website. They also run a blog called the Millennial Freelancer and a newsletter Rejected Pitches.