5 Ways Small Businesses Can Afford a Big-Time Trade Show

Trade shows are an opportunity for upstart companies to show their stuff and make vital connections but the cost of entry is steep.

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By Kedma Ough


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Trade shows are an opportunity to meet potential distributors and buyers, test market interest, evaluate the competition, and identify strategic alliance partners. Deciding to invest in a trade show exhibit booth to promote your product is an important strategy that can make, or break, your piggy bank. National and international conference and trade show booth fees can cost upwards of $10,000.

Check out some resourceful ways to get your company to the conference without paying the full entrance fees.

1. Trade show grants from your state government

The majority of states have a trade show assistance program to support international trade show presence. Participating in international trade shows is one of the most effective ways for companies to enter into new international markets or expand visibility into existing markets. Below are examples of state initiatives that support small businesses in new markets.

  • The Iowa Economic Development Authority offers financial assistance to eligible small Iowa companies to take advantage of qualified trade shows, either domestically or internationally, that explore new international markets. Approved applicants receive reimbursement up to 75 percent of eligible direct expenses to participate in a qualified trade show with a funding cap of $4,000 per event.
  • The Oregon Export Promotion Program has a similar grant program awarded to eligible small businesses that fit within one of the five traded-sector categories -- advanced manufacturing; clean tech; forestry and wood products; high tech; and outdoor gear and active wear. Reimbursement is up to 50 percent of eligible expenses, with a cap of $5,000 per event.

Check out your local state agencies for trade show incentives.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask When Preparing for a Trade Show

2. United Inventors Association trade show discounts

The United Inventors Association (UIA), a 501c3 non-profit organization, contracts with five national trade shows to support trade show inventor pavilions. According to Jessica Delich, director of UIA Tradeshow Programs, the UIA supports the Chicago Toy & Game Fair, the PGA Merchandise Show, the Response Expo, the National Hardware Show, and the Licensing Expo inventors pavilion is on the horizon.

The organization works with conference organizers to create all-inclusive spaces, facilitate free inventor education resources onsite, coordinate inventor introductions with potentials buyers and provide exhibit booth discounts of up to 25 percent for companies showcasing in the UIA inventors pavilions.

"The UIA's first mission is to provide free inventor education resources. We either hold education events in conjunction with an individual show, or work with show organizers to enhance the educational offerings at a show so inventors feel connected and supported at the conference," Jessica explains.

"You can only make a first impression once! If you are going to invest in a trade show make sure you are patent pending, have a sellable product, a one-page sales sheet, a strong elevator pitch and you can communicate your cost breakdown," says Bill McHenry with ESM Sales and advisor to the Entrepreneurial Center of the University of Illinois and Entrepreneur Center at DePaul University.

Related: How to Work a Trade Show

3. Crowdfunding

With the advancement of crowd funding platforms, businesses are crowdfunding the fees to attend a national or international conference. GoFundMe and Indiegogo have profiled small businesses and entrepreneurs that raised the funds to attend an event. Valerie Carranza crowdfunded her way to the SACNAS conference this past May after a successful crowdfunding campaign.

4. IDA matched-savings grants

The Individual Development Account (IDA) matched savings grant program offers qualified participants an opportunity to use their funds for a variety of business purchases including the expenses of attending and participating in a trade show.

5. Negotiate discounts

Michael Williams provides Exhibitor Online insights into the secrets to getting a good deal at a trade show. From getting partners to pay your way to supporting a panel of experts for an upcoming conference, he has saved his company thousands of dollars in conference and exhibit fees annually.

Exhibiting at a trade show is an expense but it doesn't have to be expensive, if you plan ahead.

Related: Save Big on Trade Shows, Then Work Your Magic

Kedma Ough

Entrepreneur, Inventor, Speaker; SBDC Director

Kedma Ough is a proven champion for small businesses. She is an inventor, author, speaker and a fifth-generation entrepreneur. Ough provides honest, straightforward education to innovators on feasibility,  funding and free resources. 

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