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25 Ways to Cut Costs
Using a meat cleaver to trim the fat from your exhibit program will only disrupt the attendee experience and tarnish your brand. Instead, pull out your pruning shears and these 25 cost-cutting tips. By Linda Armstrong
hile the U.S. economy has rebounded and corporations have begun loosening their purse strings, marketing budgets are still in a state of flux. Granted, most exhibitors have put down the hatchets forced upon them during the recession, but management hasn't dropped the reins just yet, and has instead developed a new normal. With their eyes trained on every dollar going out the door, most management teams expect exhibit marketers to maintain the cost-cutting measures they implemented during the anorexic-lean years, and to deliver a sizeable return on that investment in the process.

So how do you trim the fat when you're already close to the bone? That's exactly what EXHIBITOR asked 13 exhibiting experts. Their advice centered around one overarching guideline: Rather than lopping off entire program components or negatively altering the customer experience, make small, effective nicks that are invisible to attendees.

Here, then, are 25 cost-cutting tips to help you make some neat little nicks. With a nip here and a tuck there, you can adapt to the new normal without making a bloody mess of your exhibit-marketing program.

No matter how much it saves you over time, securing a new exhibit is always an expenditure. But here are four ways to make this expense a little less expensive without pummeling your public presence.

1. Buy Used
According to Ray Rogowicz, CEO and president of ExhibitTrader.com Inc., a preowned exhibit costs 50 to 75 percent less than a comparable new booth. Even with minor refurbishments and new graphics, you can incur a substantial savings. Such exhibits are available through firms such as Lucky Exhibits and ExhibitTrader.com, but also check eBay Inc. and Craigslist Inc., and network with suppliers and peers to find a used property.

2. Consider Renting
Given the recent advancements in rental exhibitry, most people can't tell a rental from a custom design. So run the numbers to determine if renting or buying is the more cost-effective option for your program. "With rental, there's no huge initial cash outlay," says Deanna Aamodt, manager of global event management services at Thomson Reuters Corp. "Plus, there are no repair or storage costs, and you can continuously update your look and play around with various configurations."

3. Negotiate Discounts
Several funding situations might help you negotiate sizeable discounts on the price of a new exhibit and continued ownership costs. For example, consider negotiating for a discount if you can pay for the entire exhibit all at once instead of via several installments, you have a history of paying on time, or you sign a multiyear (instead of annual) contract with the exhibit house for install labor, supervision, etc.

4. Shop Material Options
Always ask your supplier to price out the costs of available materials, and to explain the pros and cons of each option. A thin high-gloss graphics panel, for example, might be pretty. But a sturdy, matte version could save you replacement and repair costs down the road. Why buy a Birkin bag when you really need a backpack?

With smart design and production decisions, and a bit of digital integration, you can control graphics costs and still create eye-catching imagery.

5. Design Strategically
More likely than not, you can't reuse graphics that contain show-specific messages or booth numbers. "So devise a graphics hierarchy in which 80 to 90 percent of the components remain consistent show to show, and only 10 to 20 percent offer show-specific messaging that needs to be changed regularly," says Tony Castrigno, chief creative partner at Design Contact. Also consider in-house graphics-design talent and stock photography to further cut costs in the design phase.

6. Produce Judiciously
If you're buying banners, posters, or just about any graphics component that doesn't fit into an existing frame, don't go running to your exhibit house or graphics-design company to produce them, says Jerry Samuels, CTSM, manager of conventions for Bayer HealthCare. Price out other options such as local advertising or sign shops that can often replicate the same quality at a fraction of the price. Plus, look into producing these graphics in the show city, as doing so will cut transportation costs for one leg of the journey. And when it comes to material selection, always inquire about stock sizes. For example, if you design a 58-inch-wide graphics element and the material you've chosen is only available in 51-inch widths, producers will need to splice (aka tile) two pieces together, which will double your material costs.

7. Switch to Digital
"You can save a significant amount of money just by switching from print to digital graphics," Samuels says. "With print, the lifespan is relatively short, damage risks are high, and you can't change the content without creating a whole new graphics panel. In contrast, digital graphics are relatively easy to create and a breeze to alter." And according to David Solsbery, executive director of creative services at Lanham, MD-based Hargrove Inc., digital-graphics design doesn't have to break the bank. "Unless you're creating a whiz-bang multimedia presentation, you don't need to hire a full-scale production agency. A hungry freelance designer or eager animator will do the same work for about half the price."

Most exhibitors assume that storage fees are set in stone. In reality, there are several ways to crop storage costs, all of which will go completely unnoticed by booth visitors.

8. Consider Your Options
While it might be more convenient to store properties at your exhibit house, it's not always the most cost-conscious option. So investigate economical options such as self-storage facilities, your company's warehouse, a portable-storage Pod, an empty trailer parked on company property, etc. But if you live in a harsh climate, make sure delicate exhibit components are stored in climate-controlled spaces.

9. Eliminate Dead Space
"I've become a packing Nazi by cramming as much as possible into all of my containers," says independent industry consultant Bob Milam. "If you collapse down exhibit materials to their smallest size and pack miscellaneous items into the corners of your containers, you'll reap two benefits: 1) Tightly packed shipments move around less in their containers, reducing the risk of damage, and 2) Fewer boxes mean less volume and lower transportation and storage costs.

10. Inventory and Purge
"Oftentimes, exhibitors simply forget what they have in storage, and as a result they pay storage fees for obsolete components," says Liese Tamburrino, managing director of the North American division of Von Hagen GmbH. "So once every year, ask your exhibit house to inventory your components and then purge anything you don't use on a regular basis." But don't assume you have to pay an exhibit-house disposal fee, says David Lucky, president of Lucky Exhibits. "Consider selling unused exhibitry through online marketplaces, or ask your exhibit house if it wants to buy it back from you for use in its rental inventory." Another option is to donate it to a charitable organization, which could use it for fundraisers or advertising. Most firms will be thrilled with the donation, and your company can use the donation as a tax write-off. And if you can't donate, repurpose, sell, or recycle your components, consider disposing of them yourself via dumpsters or landfills to bypass the exhibit-house markup.

11. Buy, Ship, and Donate
Storing and shipping furniture can be expensive. But Lisa Gentilin, president of Fancy Shindigs Inc., offers one option that eliminates most of these charges. "Look into big-box stores that carry furniture and that also offer online shopping and free shipping, such as Ikea, Target, and Wal-Mart," she says. "Buy what you need at an affordable price and then ship it for free directly to the show. If you want to keep it for the future, you've scored free one-way shipping. Otherwise just donate it to a local charity after the show. You can write off the cost of the donated items, so the only costs you've incurred are the initial purchase price and drayage fees."

Transportation and Drayage
Even though attendees could care less about your shipping and drayage charges, these weight-based fees can really bite you in the budget. So here are three ways to bite back.

12. Use Double-Duty Components
"Cases and crates are often heavier than the elements they protect," Castrigno says. "But several new products double as both shipping containers and booth components, ultimately lightening your load. For example, some crates can be repurposed as reception desks, and there's even a pallet that transforms into two tables."

13. Store Strategically Take a close look at the location of the majority of your shows and their distance from your exhibit-storage facility. "If you have multiple trade shows in the same city or region, lower your transportation costs by storing some of your properties near that area," Samuels says.

14. Switch to Models
If you're plagued by heavy products, how about a lightweight, 3-D model instead? Companies such as Acme Design Inc. can create realistic product models to help attendees visualize your offerings on the trade show floor. Or opt for interactive, information-packed digital models, says Arlene Broussard Petrush, executive vice president of EWI Worldwide. Paired with effective booth staffers, digital or 3-D models can lighten your load without impacting the attendee experience.

Installation and Dismantle
Another costly line item that attendees never see is I&D labor. And while you usually can't do much about labor rates, you can definitely alter the number of hours accrued.

15. Maximize Output
"Identify a good installation-and-dismantle crew and use the same crew members again and again," Milam says. "Over time, using workers who are familiar with your I&D strategy will shave hours off the clock."

16. Avoid Weekends
Since many events start on a Monday or Tuesday, exhibitors are often forced to install their exhibits over the weekend, when labor costs are high. "In these cases, negotiate with show management to install your booth on a Thursday or Friday during straight time," says Judy Volker, marketing director at Iatric Systems Inc. "You'll be surprised how often management will honor this request, and how much money you'll save when they do."

17. Skip the Rigging
Nearly all overhead banners and identification structures require some type of lighting to help them stand out on the busy trade show floor. And more often than not, exhibitors use truss and rigging to suspend the light fixtures above these graphics. "But you can often create the same effect by integrating light fixtures into the top of exhibit components," Castrigno says. "So talk with your exhibit and lighting designers to see if you can skip the rigging altogether and instead use up lighting to illuminate your overhead elements."

Travel and Staffing
As long as you have the right staffers in the booth and enough of them to go around, attendees aren't interested in how they got there or where they're staying. So trimming travel costs is a great way to cut costs without affecting the attendee experience.

18. Bundle and Negotiate
"More and more travel sites are selling hotel and airfare packages, and these bundles are well worth considering when you're trying to cut staff-travel costs," Tamburrino says. "Also, when negotiating with hotels, always ask them to include extras, such as breakfast, Wi-Fi, business center services, etc. These little expenses can really add up, and rather than risk losing your business, most hotels will offer them free of charge if you ask for them."

19. Look Outside the Locale
When it comes to hotel selection, Jeannine K. Swan, owner and president of Global Exhibit Management, suggests that you investigate various locales outside of the city center or even in adjacent cities. "For shows in parts of the East Coast and in most areas of Europe, you can cut hotel costs if your staff stays further away from the convention center than normal and then takes a train or bus to the venue," she says. "They might spend a little more time en route to the show, but given the low cost of public transportation and the potential hotel-related savings, it's definitely worth checking into."

20. Ditch the Uniforms
"Booth uniforms are a thing of the past," Aamodt says. "Rather, dress the staff in business attire that's appropriate to your audience, and adorn them with a brand-colored accessory, such as a tie, scarf, or pocket square, to help attendees pick out your show-floor personnel."

21. Reward Frugality
To encourage staffers to think before they spend, offer a percentage rebate to those who stay under their allotted per diem for the show. For example, reward staffers with 50 percent of whatever they don't spend at the show. So if they were allotted $300, but only spent $100, they'd get $100 back, and your program would net a $100 savings.

Show Services
Ancillary services such as cleaning and electrical also go unseen by attendees. But some simple show-services snips can add up to sizeable savings.

22. Wrap It
If you want to serve food in your booth, you're often required to use the show's official, and often expensive, caterer. "But you might be able to get around this stipulation if you offer all consumables in sealed, branded wrappers," Gentilin says. "Serving fresh cookies may require convention-center caterers, but if you buy individually packaged cookies that are each sealed in a plastic bag, you can usually bypass the caterer requirement since attendees don't necessarily have to consume that cookie in your booth. It acts more like a giveaway than a consumable."

23. Buy a Vacuum
"Purchase a hand-held carpet-shampooing machine, such as a Bissell Spotlifter, along with a lightweight vacuum and ship them with your exhibit," Volker says. "That way, you can treat stains and vacuum your own carpet, completely eliminating booth-cleaning costs."

24. Bring Your Own Supplies
Show-service providers often charge massive markups for inexpensive items such as electrical tape, surge protectors, cleaning supplies, trash cans, etc. So buy your own supplies and skip the at-show markups.

25. Estimate Electrical Needs Properly
"Many exhibitors pay for electricity they never use simply because they don't know how to calculate how much they actually need," says Steve Deckel, design director at Deckel & Moneypenny Exhibits. "To eliminate the guesswork, buy a Kill A Watt EZ power meter. Then plug each of your electronic appliances into the meter, and it will tell you how much electricity each piece draws. Add up the total electrical usage for your equipment to determine how much you should order."

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