Your trade show appeared to be a great success. You had lots of outstanding, quality traffic and solid leads that converted into several large sales. So why is your return on investment so low?  Hidden trade show costs. Trade show display costs aren’t the only thing to be looking out for.

We bet you forgot about some expenses that have now been accounted for and are taking a large bite out of our profit. Unfortunately, hidden costs are way too common and can pop up just about anywhere.

It’s important to understand these costs before finalizing your budget so that you aren’t taken by surprise, so they do not take a significant bite out of your profits.  It’s important to capture as many of these costs up front as you can, but some will inevitably slip through. We’re going to help you prepare for those hidden costs as much as we can. We’ve got a lot of seemingly common-sense stuff here, but in actuality, even the most seasoned trade show professionals encounter costs they weren’t expecting.


Our List of Hidden Trade Show Costs

Based on our own experience, these hidden costs that have bitten us more times than we’d like to count. Many trade show professionals will have different experiences, but we’ve found the following to be the most common places where hidden costs are found.



What? Shipping those extra materials cost how much? Watch out for those hidden trade show shipping costs, this is where most of your hidden fees will be found. You need to be especially careful with what, when, and how you ship items to avoid any unnecessary costs.

Planning will be crucial in helping to alleviate any of those hidden costs. Make sure you are shipping everything to arrive on time to the warehouse or whatever you have chosen as your shipping destination based on what is available to you. Late shipments are already surcharged then add the weight and last destination receiving fees, and you’ll blow through a third of your budget. Make sure you set reminders in your planning on shipping dates to avoid those late shipping surcharges.

Box count and the total weight will also play largely into hidden shipping costs. The best way to decrease shipping costs is to purchase whatever you can once you reach the destination of the trade show. Having literature printed at the trade show destination will save you a ton on shipping costs. It is cheaper to use a Fedex/Kinkos and have them have a courier deliver than it is to ship them from your office.

If the trade show you are participating in allows you to choose how you can ship some of your items, you can compare to see if it is cheaper to ship to hotel versus trade show warehouse.  You can have promotional items and literature sent to your hotel to avoid hidden shipping costs.


Fuel Surcharges

This was something you would have never thought to think about, right? Fuel surcharges associated with shipping to a trade show, I mean who actually thinks of that. Well, you need to, because it can vary daily and might be different on the actual day of shipment.

Fuel charges fluctuate based on the time of year, political climate, etc… Be sure to find out if your method of shipping will have a fuel surcharge and find out the terms. Some may lock the rate up front, and some will wait and go with the current rate.  It is crucial that you have a good handle on this, so it does not come back to surprise you later.


Wait Time

Did you know that the driver gets paid a wait time if they have to wait to unload your trade show shipment? Any time incurred by the driver is always passed back down to the total delivery charge. Expect charges for the cost per hour that truck drivers spend waiting in line at the show floor. At some shows, drivers can end up waiting long hours and even overnight, which drives up your wait time cost.

Try to schedule your deliveries efficiently to avoid long wait times. Do research around the delivery timeframes available to you and try to pick off-peak delivery times if possible. If peak delivery times are hard to predict, send your trade show materials in advance to the designated warehouse. This can be more expensive because you’ll pay for storage, but you’ll be better able to predict and manage this cost over wait times.

You’ll need to determine if sending your things to the advance warehouse will be cheaper overall than having too long of wait times.


Inefficient Packing

Be sure to package your trade show materials as efficiently as is possible. Shipping your trade show materials will likely be charged on dimensional weight, which is the size of packing materials, not their actual weight, so you’ll want to make sure you are smart in the way you package everything. Consolidate items to reduce dimensional weight, which will decrease inefficient packing cost and avoid overpacking, which could lead to the receipt of damaged packages.


Deadlines and Late Fees

Proper planning is a constant theme in preventing hidden late fees. Deadlines and late fees are easily avoidable if you plan well. Late or rush fees are often associated with missing deadlines around shipping and specific services you need to purchase for your display area like electric or internet. Be sure to plan far out enough to avoid delays caused by long internal approval processes. Poor planning and tracking can increase the total expenses of your trade show by 30% or more. Keep a calendar to plan ahead by one month to be safe.



Labor costs can come up as a substantial hidden cost if poorly managed. Again, another situation where planning helps you get in front of this one.

Labor costs will often depend on the type of trade show and the size of your display. If you bring a smaller pop-up booth, you’ll have a lot less in labor as your team will set up the booth, but if you have a sizeable custom-built display, you’ll likely incur labor costs for the set-up.

Most labor costs are incurred by the hours the crew is on site, not by the hours of work. That means that if your display shipment is not delivered to your booth when the crew arrives at your space, you will still be charged for the time they were there waiting for your shipment. This is a tough one to control, we recommend trying to negotiate flat set-up rates or over budget here when drafting your show budget. Always try to negotiate a flat rate contract with your shipper if you can and do your research to make sure you do not sign up for services you do not need.  Planning and research will bring you the win in avoiding this expense.



We know, you’re like, what the heck is drayage? We’ve got you here. Drayage is the cost of bringing your trade show materials, from the storage warehouse to the trade show exhibit hall. So basically, the material handling cost of your show shipments, which includes the process of moving booth shipments from truck to booth space.

The drayage fee is union fee and is non-negotiable. This is a substantial cost that you will need to include in your show budget. Be sure to research this thoroughly and be sure to consider the following when you calculate your material handling costs:

  • Contractors will charge you for every single piece of equipment you ship to the floor.
  • Cost is determined by taking the total cubic weight (CWT) of your shipment and multiplying it by their rate per CWT.
  • Sometimes rates are $150 for CWT, so if you have 5 crates @ 1000 pounds (50 CWT). Multiply $150 X 50 CWT to get $7500.

That’s $7500 to unload, weigh, and deliver all of the items to your booth! This is why it is crucial to know if this will be a charge included in getting your display to your show and what those costs will be.


Forgotten Items

This is the one that sneaks up on everyone. You forgot to ship your table and chairs and have to rent on site. That’s going to cost a lot. You could often buy 3 sets of tables and chairs for what they will charge you to rent one set.

The same applies to forgotten equipment. A power strip can cost $100 to rent for one day at some trade shows, ten times more than what you paid for the one you forgot to ship. This also ties into planning and preparing a checklist. Be prepared, bring your own, so you do not have to pay triple and kill your ROI.



Hidden trade show costs can be the biggest surprise you’ll ever get in managing trade shows and the single thing that can make or break the overall success of your show. That’s why it is crucial to research hidden costs so that you aren’t taken by surprise, ensuring your show is a smashing success. If all goes well, your trade show display will be able to shine bright without costing you too much!

Always remember that planning will be the most effective in helping you get in front of hidden costs. Remember to plan your budget far in advance, so that you can make sure you are accounting for as many hidden costs as you can. There will always be a surprise, there always is, but at least you know there are a few things to help you avoid them. Understanding and educating yourself on the hidden cost is the best way to make sure your budget is accurate and manageable and that your trade show is a success.

Are you looking for more ways to save money at your first trade show? Be sure to check out our guide on successfully budgeting for your first trade show.