Last Updated: November 30, 2020

Trade shows of the past were sometimes saddled with poor reputations. People imagined them as endless booths filled with folding tables, cheap swag, desperate salesmen, and cheesy promotions. While this may have once been true, today’s trade shows are glitzy affairs, where companies invest significant resources to wow attendees.

Some of the major trade shows held today feature performances from famous musicians, impressive multimedia booths, exclusive private parties, and the energy and excitement of a Hollywood premier. A trade show offers a chance for an entire industry to show off how relevant and vital they are.

Despite all the excitement, trade shows are fundamentally about conducting business. Companies attend trade shows so that they can generate new sales leads, close big deals, and deal directly with others in their industry (See also B2B Marketing). These industry-wide gatherings offer a unique opportunity to make a persuasive, in-person sales pitch that will linger in the minds of prospective clients for months.

What is trade show marketing?

Typically, trade shows take place in a convention center or large ballroom and feature participants from every area of the industry involved. For instance, a trade show for the apparel industry will feature companies who sell fabric, others who sell machinery, and still more who sell clothes directly to the consumer.

With so many potential clients gathered in the same room, trade shows present incredible marketing opportunities. They give companies the chance to connect with the customers who are most interested in what the company offers. Most companies set up booths featuring video displays, printed signs, promotional materials, and informed sales reps to highlight what is exemplary and appealing about the company. Representatives will give speeches, demonstrations, hold contests, and other promotions to try and capture the attention of trade show attendees. Many companies will rent out hotel suites and stock them with food and drinks to give attendees a break from the mania of the trade show floor, giving companies chances to market to them one on one. (See also One-to-One Marketing)

Major International Trade Shows

  • AgQuip – Agricultural industry trade show in New Zealand, 100,000 attendees in 2005.
  • Bologna Motor Show – Automotive industry trade show in Italy, 1,200,000 attendees in 2006.
  • Cairo International Book Fair – Book industry trade show in Egypt, 2,000,000 attendees in 2007.
  • ComicMarket – Comics industry trade show in Japan, 550,000 attendees in 2008.
  • EICMA – Motorcycle industry trade show in Italy, 504,999 attendees in 2008.
  • IFA – Consumer electronics trade show in Germany, 235,000 in 2010.
  • IGW Berlin – Sustainable agriculture trade show in Germany, 424,502 attendees in 2008.
  • NAB – Broadcasting industry trade show in Las Vegas, 105,000 attendees in 1999.
  • SHOT – Firearms industry trade show in Las Vegas, 61,000 in 2012.
  • Interpack – Moving industry trade show in Germany, 171,073 attendees in 2008

There is one major disadvantage associated with trade show marketing: the cost and time required. Companies will plan for months and spend potentially huge amounts of money preparing for a trade show that might only last three or four days. If they make a miscalculation, there is no way to fix it once the trade show starts. Trade shows offer companies one shot to get things right.

Effective strategies for trade show marketing

  • Set up a business theater – A business theater is a small theater where sales reps can give presentations about a company’s products and services. Companies with large booths will often set up a business theater as one of their attractions. Business theaters allow sales reps to give sustained sales pitches to customers who have expressed an explicit interest in what the company has to offer.
  • Briefing zones – Similar to a business theater but on a smaller scale, briefing zones are small areas at the front of a booth where attendees are welcomed, given a brief overview of the company, and told about all the exciting things they will find inside the booth. This is a way of generating interest and framing the experience that is to come.
  • Booth activities – One easy way to capture the interest of attendees is to offer fun booth activities like games, interactive kiosks, and prizes. The best booth activities will emphasize sales points while also entertaining guests.
  • Booth tour – Offering guided tours of a trade show booth gives companies the chance to highlight the most appealing features and make a quick, direct impression on attendees. Offering a tour ensures that all guests see and understand a company’s most appealing marketing messages.
  • Self guided tours – Some booths take a hands off approach and make it easy for attendees to interact with products and promotions at their own pace. Trade shows can be high pressure sales environments. A company that takes a more casual approach and lets the products speak for themselves can be a refreshing antidote to the rest of the trade show.

Who implements trade show marketing?

Everyone from video game makers to the food service industry holds a regular trade show. Some of these shows are directed at the individual consumer, while others target potential business clients. The size of the show depends largely on the appeal of the products being offered. For example, the video game industry conference, E3, had over 45,000 industry professionals attend in 2012 according to, but other shows may experience smaller crowds.

Since trade shows are sized to the industry they represent, they offer many opportunities for companies both large and small to market themselves. A trade show for beverage makers might feature a booth from a smaller soda company next to a booth from Coca Cola. Trade shows level the playing field by giving any marketer with the means to attend a chance to participate. That startup soda maker cannot compete with Coke through TV advertising, but on the trade show floor, they have an equal opportunity to connect with attendees. (See also Entrepreneurial Marketing)

Who Uses Trade Shows?

Trade shows are a great opportunity for a company to show off new and exciting products. Giving customers the chance to see and use a new product makes a powerful impression. The chart below, based on data from MarketingSherpa, illustrates how marketing departments in specific industries use their advertising budgets. Companies that offer specific products like software and machinery invest heavily in trade shows. Companies that offer more diffuse products like business services invest less in trade shows. Any company hoping to market successfully needs to know where their product will make the strongest impression.

How is a trade show marketing plan developed?

Trade show marketing relies on getting it right the first time. All elements of the marketing strategy must be carefully researched and designed before the trade show begins.

The first step of any trade show marketing plan is to identify the show that will be attended. All marketing efforts have to follow from this initial choice. Consider a maker of a new mp3 player. They could choose to go to a consumer electronics trade show, or another one focused on the recording industry. Each offers unique challenges and opportunities, so the company must find out how many people will attend, what sort of audience this is, and which competitors they will be facing.

After a show is selected, the company must tailor specific goals for that trade show. These goals can range from selling a specific number of products, to generating buzz around a new product offering. These goals must be clearly spelled out because they will affect every other part of the marketing strategy. A company trying to generate buzz might focus on putting together a flashy trade show booth, while a sales focus might lead a company to set up personal meetings with clients at the trade show.

With clear goals in mind, the company then begins designing their specific marketing materials. Successful trade show marketing relies on creating interest before the show, making a strong impression at the show, and following up on those leads to generate sales after the show. Each of these stages will require a different marketing strategy that should be clearly identified in the general plan.

The marketing plan also needs to cover the logistics of attending the show, since trade shows often involve using large staffs and bulky advertising materials. Companies need to identify who will attend the show, how they will transport all their equipment, who will set it up, and how it will be used once the show ends.

The final step is to evaluate the success of the marketing strategy. The company should reference the goals they established at the start of the plan to develop clear metrics for success or failure. Metrics can range from the number of people that visited the booth, to the number of people that gave out contact information, to the number of promotional items given away.

Careers in trade show marketing

Sales Representative

What do they do?

Average Salaries of Trade Show Marketers

  • Sales representative
    entry level – $20,000-$40,000
    after 10 years – $50,000-$110,000
  • Production designer
    entry level – $35,000-$50,000
    after 10 years – $50,000-$80,000
  • Graphic designer
    entry level – $35,000-$60,000
    after 10 years – $60,000-$85,000


Sales representatives serve as the public face of a company at a trade show. They are on site to answer questions, demonstrate products, run promotions, and facilitate orders. They will highlight the best features of a company’s products while making a careful effort to distinguish themselves from competitors.

Education and Skills

Sales representatives do not need to have a degree in marketing, but this can be extremely helpful. They serve as the mouthpiece for a company’s marketing strategy so they have to understand the goals and methods behind it. People enter sales jobs after studying a multitude of subjects. The most important qualification is to have experience and expertise in the particular industry.

Production Designer

What do they do?

Production designers will plan and build booths, 3D signage, interactive kiosks, games, and other features of a company’s trade show marketing strategy. These are expert builders who know how to turn a design on paper into a working object in real life. Trade show marketing often uses unique and customized marketing materials that require special construction.

Education and Skills

Production designers do not typically have degrees in marketing. Although they work with marketing materials, their primary concern is with the logistics of getting it built and displayed safely and securely. Many people enter the field after getting degrees in engineering or industrial design.

Graphic Designer

What do they do?

Graphic designers create all of the visual material that is used by marketers. They use tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to make logos, create images, organize layouts, and refine the visual impact of all marketing material. Trade shows rely heavily on signs, fliers, and branded materials whose look is created by a graphic designer.

Education and Skills

It is not absolutely necessary for a graphic designer to have a degree in marketing. Most have degrees in graphic design which covers many principles of marketing. But supplemental education focused specifically on marketing can be very helpful. Everything that graphic designers do should have a persuasive effect on the viewer.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

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Trade show marketing is one of the most intense forms of marketing there is. Companies will put all of their marketing resources into making a one time, all encompassing pitch about their value, quality, and innovativeness. They must compete directly with other industry leaders and fight for the attention of fickle trade show attendees. The best way to leverage all the marketing potential of trade shows is to earn a degree in marketing from an accredited institution.

Students cannot specialize in trade show marketing, but the strategies behind it are covered in the curriculum of all marketing programs. Young marketers will learn how to analyze their customers, design ads that appeal to them, follow up on sales leads, and set themselves apart from competitors.

As part of the curriculum, students will look at case studies and real world examples of effective and ineffective trade show marketing efforts. The academics who teach in marketing departments have decades of professional marketing experience that they can draw on to provide practical advice to students. Getting a solid foundation in all the fundamental strategies of advertising is the best way to prepare oneself for marketing at a trade show.