How to Save on Trade Show Shipping

By Jessica Gonzalez

As a business owner, your first couple of years tend to be the most challenging. Back when I was first getting started in the event industry, I was always on the lookout for ways to promote my company’s products. Eventually, it occurred to me that I ought to be exhibiting at trade shows. After all, given that I was marketing to other businesses who regularly attended trade shows themselves, what better way to make contact with new clients and assess their on-site needs at the same time? It seemed like the best of both worlds, and I was excited to get started.

When putting together the budget for my first exhibition booth, I was looking for ways to save money. I made sure to sign up early for my spot: I remember thinking that $1,000 for an exhibition booth was a great deal. Over the coming weeks, I gradually came up with my “ideal booth.” I ordered one item after another from Amazon and practiced setting everything up in my office. It looked great, and I was certain that I was going to turn heads at the upcoming trade show.

That’s when the ball dropped. A few weeks before the show, I decided I ought to get some shipping quotes: After all, I needed to see what it was going to cost to ship all of my booth materials to and from the event itself. I think my mouth literally dropped open when I saw the price tag: $1,499 to ship everything. I quickly did the math and realized that after just one more trade show, I’d have spent more on shipping than on the booth materials themselves.

Now, to be fair: No, I didn’t actually need to bring that fish tank. And no, those reclining chairs probably weren’t absolutely necessary. But I was trying to create an experience for my potential clients. When I purchased all of these items from Amazon, the shipping was free. It didn’t occur to me that between round-trip shipping, drayage fees and the cost of storage, I’d be spending more to move the items around than it cost to buy them in the first place.

I decided this wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t afford to spend $3,000 to ship this stuff to and from a single show. So I returned everything, and over the next few days, I put together a new array of booth decor -- this time in a lighter, more modular form. While reclining chairs are great, shipping them is not.

In the end, I managed to cut that shipping fee from $1,500 to $300. Here’s what I learned in the process.

Buy According to UPS Shippable Dimensions, and Keep It Light

There are two determining factors when it comes to calculating shipping cost: weight and dimension. Always compare products side-by-side and choose the one that’s lightest. The less it weighs, the less you’ll pay.

UPS has a set of standard shipping dimensions: Your package can be up to 165” in length and girth and 108” in length alone. Anything larger than that, and it’s subject to their over maximum limits charge. Make sure that the item you’re purchasing fits within these limits, as it will dramatically decrease your shipping cost. Your best bet, in fact, is to look for a modular version of your item: If you can break it down and pack it flat, you’ll save a ton.

Make Your Solutions Multi-Use

When putting together your booth, you obviously want it to stand out. It needs to pull in leads, and there are a lot of competitors attempting to do the same thing. That said, there are ways to stand out from the crowd while simultaneously keeping your setup compact.

As you’re shopping for booth decor, look for ways to combine two items into one. For example, rather than purchasing a storage unit and a table, find one item that serves both of your needs: a table with storage potential. Or, instead of having a ton of pop-up banners, look for ways to accomplish the same branding by putting your logo and other information onto your booth items themselves. By combining functions into single items, you can cut down on the clutter and save on shipping costs.

Ship Everything Together

Shipping items separately and haphazardly is a surefire way to rack up outrageous fees. “Avoid separate shipments,” my client Niraj Jain of Aria AV told me via email. “If you are shipping literature, technology and giveaways, combine them into a pre-planned shipment. Talk to show management about shipping within the target window to avoid late fees and excess handling charges.”

When bundling items together like this, be sure to clearly label each and every one of your packages. The last thing you need when preparing for a show is a second round of deployment because of incorrect labeling.

Ship As Early As Possible

In the days leading up to a show, it can feel like there are a million and one things to do. Aside from the fact that you likely won’t have the time to deal with shipping at the last minute, waiting to send your packages until the week of the show is guaranteed to increase your shipping costs. By getting your shipment in on time, you’ll save thousands of dollars on rush shipping, late fees, extra handling charges and so on. And, just as importantly, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.

Shipping isn’t cheap, and it can be a challenge to come in under budget when working a trade show. With these tips, however, I’m able to keep my shipping costs reasonable without having to sacrifice the visual and aesthetic quality of my booth.

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Founder of InCharged, cellphone charging stations where consumers plug in their cellphone and sponsors can present non-obtrusive messaging.

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