For exhibit and event professionals  

Comparing Total Spending at Trade Shows

July 5, 2010 By Editor

Using a cross-industry benchmark of cost per square foot
by Ed Jones, President of Constellation Communication Corp.

Compare Spending

Clients ask us, “How does our trade show spending compare with that of other companies?” Specifically, what are the benchmarks for total cost of a typical trade show appearance, including all activities except staff time and travel expense (items typically not reflected in the trade show budget)?

It is easy to find references on “spending per square foot” as a comparative index. However, the numbers we see significantly underestimate total spending. Many of the references we found indicate a cross-industry average cost of approximately $60 per square foot, including space rental. The most-often-cited number for a “new build” is approximately$150/sq. ft. Many exhibit managers are shaking their heads wondering how this can be true. The most likely answer is that these indexes do not reflect the total show budget but a subset of spending directly related to the exhibit.

To address this need, Constellation ran the average “cost per square foot” data on the actual results from several hundred events in our database. These trade show programs were managed by companies in several different market segments.

So what do other companies spend?

Total Trade Show Spend per Square Foot

(Cross-industry View)

Type of Customer Cost/ Sq. Ft. Exhibit Program Size and Scope
Manufacturing (Fortune 100) $127 Large Domestic
Transportation (Fortune 100) $137 Medium Domestic
Consumer Package Goods (Fortune 100) $144 Large Domestic
Medical and Household Goods (Fortune 1000) $172 Medium Domestic
Exhibit House Clients (Mix of Sizes) $186 Mixed Domestic
Engineering/Manufacturing (Fortune 100) $187 Large Domestic and International
Banking (Fortune 100) $239 Large Domestic
Computer Technology (Fortune 500) $388 Large Domestic and International

We estimate the average cost/sq. ft. benchmark, on a cross-industry basis, to be $150-$190/sq. ft.

This index includes all things that are generally found in an actual event budget, including off-floor activities and expenses such as a customer dinner or event, sponsorships, media, etc. The index excludes staff expenses (time, travel, food and lodging) that are not part of the show budget. Those costs are usually covered by non-trade show budgets based elsewhere in the organization. (Some clients prefer to look at the complete picture and include staff travel cost. This can be estimated by multiplying the domestic traveling staff by $1,000 and the international traveling staff by $10,000. This article deals only with budgets that do not account for staff cost.)

A second opinion
As a cross-reference, I asked our friend, Skip Cox at Exhibit Surveys, to perform a similar query against his company’s database of hundreds of events. Skip indicated the average spending per square foot, on a cross-industry basis, was similar to our finding, at approximately $170 per square foot.

These numbers are presented as a guideline. They reflect actual results against hundreds of shows. The index of “cost per square foot” is a useful way to forecast how much money you might need to allocate to do a good job at an upcoming event or to evaluate how well you are managing cost compared to the spending of others.

The average exhibit size reflected in this data is approximately 400-500 square feet, i.e., a medium exhibit size. In the table above, you will note that some programs were defined as large, where exhibit sizes can average 1,000 square feet or more. Some of the large programs have a lower cost per square foot compared to smaller ones. Other factors you should consider when reviewing these data are 1) the averages reflect excellent, good, fair and poor cost management by different companies; 2) the cost for floor space rental varies by show and industry; 3) the degree of off-floor and off-site activities included varies by industry and company type; and 4) these averages reflect some programs that include international events where cost is almost always 20–50 percent higher. The data represents results from 2007 and 2008 shows. The data is still current, although the figures might have dipped slightly in the past year.

Using indexes such as cost per square foot is another example of how a good event measurement program can help you manage your company’s resources for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Ed Jones is a respected industry expert in the field of event strategy, measurement and return on investment, with more than 30 years of experience in domestic and international events. He heads the consulting firm Constellation Communication Corp.,  based in Atlanta. Constellation ensures that its clients’ events provide positive return on investment and enables them to report that value.


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