When your boss comes to you, out of the blue, and says “hey, I need you to create a trade show exhibit,” (say for Gnomedex) where do you start? Knowing that the the wild world of trade shows is fraught with design details, tricky logistics, and potentially exorbitant expenses, it pays to tread carefully. Mess up on that trade show assignment, and–at the very least–you’ll end up with a horrendous stack of bills. Mess up badly enough and it just might mean your job.

Before making the decision to participate, you need to be sure that you have enough time to adequately plan your trade show exhibit booth. Because if there is one factor that has the potential to skyrocket your trade show costs, it’s time. If you do everything at the last minute, you will pay through the nose for exhibit production costs and shipping. Failing to make your ship dates, can easily triple the amount of money you spend on shipping.

Once you’ve determined that there’s enough time to do it right, you’ll need to set a budget for your trade show exhibit. Just keep in mind that whatever you budget, you’re very likely to exceed. So set an overall budget, but try to keep the up front costs to just a fraction of that. No matter how carefully you plan, once you hit town and you start setting up your trade show exhibit in the show hall, you’re likely to run into expenses that you hadn’t planned upon.

Keep a close eye on the cost of your trade show exhibit booth graphics. The display graphics business is very competitive and you may be able to save a bit by farming the work out directly to a graphics shop. Just be sure that you know what you’re buying–there are big differences in the methods of printing that are suitable for trade show graphics and there are huge variations in the types of mounting and laminating materials. When you get a price quote, make sure that you take this into consideration. Shop around, but don’t buy on price alone. The service will be remembered, long after the price is forgotten.

Shipping costs are a huge consideration, too. Of course, if you’re setting up a small trade show exhibit in a pipe and drape booth, it’s easy–you can just waltz in the rolled up graphics you carried with you on the plane (or had stuffed in your trunk). But if you have a good-sized booth, you’ll spend a good bit of time planning (and worrying) about how everything will get there (and at what cost). Avoid same day shipping at all costs–this should only be used as a last resort.

As with many things, it pays to shop around. You may have a great trade show exhibit company nearby. If so, that’s great. If not, you’ll want to look around on the Internet. Just be sure to check out all your options and don’t forget their references, while you’re at it …