Trade show planning: The ultimate timeline for your small business

Trade shows are an unmatched opportunity to show off your products and services, make industry contacts, and learn more about the market for your business. Whether you’re preparing for your first ever trade show, or you’re an old hand at expos… here’s how to plan for success.

12 months before the trade show

Most trade shows, expos, and industry events have a lead time of at least a year. So your planning should start far in advance.

Start by building up a list of events that interest you. Check out sources like:

  • industry blogs and publication
  • local business listings
  • LinkedIn

Use your network to find more opportunities. If your competitors post about an event, look into it. Encourage your team to share sources and leads—you could even set up a whiteboard, shared calendar or spreadsheet where everyone can note their ideas.


Once you have a full list of events, start prioritizing.

  • Which trade shows are most important for you?
  • How many events will your budget cover
  • Do you plan to attend lots of local shows on a budget, or splash out on one or two high-profile appearances?

Many trade shows will have discount prices for early bird ticket buyers. You’ll need to decide on your level of commitment for each event: whether you’re attending, exhibiting, speaking, or sponsoring.

6 months before

At 6 months out, you’ll know which events you’re attending, and the materials you need to prepare. Get to work designing flyers, business cards and branded merchandise. Look for creative designs that will make your business stand out.


The booth size you pick will depend on your budget and the event space itself. Find out the exact dimensions available, and don’t forget to ask about power outlets, lighting, WiFi connections and badge scanners.

3 months before

Time to print and publish all those designs you’ve worked on. If you plan to hire a team to help build your booth, be sure to source them in advance. This is also the time to arrange transportation and accommodation for your trade show team.

Stay in close contact with the event organizers, so that there are no surprises further down the line. You could also look at contributing content to their magazine, show guide or blog—giving both of you a publicity boost.

1 month to 2 weeks before

By this time, all your logistics should be in place. It’s time to focus on the human element of your plan.

Call a meeting to discuss strategy at the trade show with your team. Have clear expectations about behavior, dress codes, and results.

Set a clear goal-such as “ten high-value leads” or “one hundred email sign-ups” and make sure everybody is on board.

Some events will send you social media assets at this point. Whether they’re supplied, or you have to create your own, start posting to build awareness of the event. Let your current customers know they’re invited, and start making contact with other exhibitors and attendees.

At trade shows and industry events

Every trade show booth is like a tiny business embassy. You’re not just showcasing your products; you also have a chance to demonstrate your customer service and brand ethos. Encourage your team to project the best image they can.

Everyone will be working hard, so a little organization goes a long way. Make sure there are water bottles available in the booth, and manage your team so that people can take breaks when they need to. After all, no one can network if they’re hungry, tired, or desperate for a bathroom break.

After the trade show

Don’t wait to contact your new leads and email subscribers from the event. As soon as you’re back in the office and have processed the info, send out a thank you message… perhaps with an introductory offer inside.

Be sure to follow up with the event organizers and other friendly exhibitors, too. Trade shows are as much about industry contacts as they are about customers. 

Finally, have a full debrief meeting with your team. What worked? What didn’t? Keep all your notes so that you can start planning effectively for next year’s round of trade shows, expos, and conferences.

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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