Bringing Your International Trade Show Exhibit to the United States


You’re in a city halfway around the world. The coffee smells the same, in fact it might even be the same Starbucks smell you know from your home city. You understand conversations on the street as they pass by. Everything seems familiar — until you step off the curb and suddenly realize traffic comes from the opposite direction.

When bringing your international trade show exhibit to the United States, it’s easy to get lulled by a sense of the familiar, right up until you get hit with a big surprise right before the main event. But with a little US trade show know-how, you can navigate the unfamiliar rules of the road and step into your show with the confidence of a local.

State of the Union

Exhibition halls around the world may look similar, but that doesn’t mean they all play by the same rules. In the United States, exhibiting means working with labor unions and — more to the point — union laws. Exhibition centers generally have a union to which all their work is contracted at an hourly rate (which, of course, you have to factor into your costs — more on that below).

Unions will handle your all of your labor at the show, that includes everything from electrical and plumbing work, to carpentry, rigging, and hanging your signs. If you need anything carried from A to B, union labor will be doing it for you.

Furthermore, the rules change from state to state, even venue to venue, so it’s best to work with an exhibit design firm that has experience with the regional idiosyncrasies. Ease the process by arriving on-site at the event venue before construction starts. If you have a complex booth, this gives you time to set the stage for the contractors and get a smooth start as soon as your booth components arrive. When you’re being charged an hourly rate for labor, it’s worth getting it right the first time.

It’s Not Business, It’s Personal

Pre-show concerns aside, the main reason you’ve traveled so far is to make connections on the trade show floor, so it pays to know how the locals play the game. European exhibitors, for example, are often more overtly friendly on the show floor than their American counterparts. As Travis Stanton of Exhibitor Magazine says, “European exhibitors tend to engage visitors on a more personal level before getting down to business.” Americans, conversely, are often more reserved with their interactions and may even be pre-occupied with scanning badges or collecting metrics. Stanton encourages merging the two business styles — keeping the more laid-back, conversational approach to nurture the relationship while acknowledging the American preference for personal space (and badge scanning).

It’s Not Just the Conversion Rate

Your currency conversion calculator isn’t playing tricks on you: the price tag is simply higher when you exhibit in the United States. Why? American exhibits tend to be designed and built for scalable trade show programs, plus you will need to consider drayage costs and union labor fees. Not to mention the use of lighter but more costly materials such as plywood, a popular lightweight material in the States. The upside? American booths value mobility, focusing on a sectional style that can be easily broken down, rebuilt and reused at your next show. You can create more interesting modular designs if you find the right creative partner. Also, since your stand is mobile, you can use cheaper materials like fabrics. Another bonus: avoiding disposal fees and unnecessary waste at the end of a show because you are taking your stand with you.

For more on trade show costs download our budget guide here

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