It’s not uncommon for trade shows to represent a significant chunk of a small company’s marketing budget. With booth space, setup, travel, lodging and client entertainment, they can be hugely expensive affairs. Making it all worthwhile from an ROI standpoint takes planning and hard work.

There’s far too much to consider when planning a trade show exhibit to go into here. But as Altitude’s resident designer, I’ll focus on my main area of expertise: the booth itself. For those few days, your trade show booth is as important to your brand visibility as your website is the rest of the year. And believe me, people will be judging your company based on the quality of your booth space.

On that floor, your booth is the heart and soul of your business. Here are four tips to ensure that heart beats true:

1. Plan, plan, plan.

Simply put, you need to do the absolute best you can with what you have. What’s your budget? How much floor space do you have? Think about everything you’ll really need first – demo space, meeting area, literature racks, storage space, monitors – rather than trying to shoe-horn it in later. Be economical with space, but not tight. You’ll often find that you can’t do everything, but that’s OK. Pick the most important stuff, and do it well.

2. Think ahead.

From the very beginning – before designing your booth – think ahead. Do you go to this show every year? Are there similar shows in the pipeline? Design and printing are expensive. Think about what you can re-use, and keep it in mind during the production process.

3. Keep it consistent.

You can have the best product in the world, but if your booth isn’t inviting, potential leads will keep right on walking.

Trade shows are crowded, overstimulated places. Visitor attention spans are short – and they get shorter throughout the day. If you want visitors to remember you, keep your branding consistent. That means kiosks, backdrops, images and videos – even the clothing worn in the booth – must have the same memorable look and feel.

Recently at Altitude, we unveiled a fresh look for a (then) relatively small fish in a major B2B industry. The design for the booth matched the website, the show daily ads and all pre-show email and direct mail promotions. Nearly every hour during the show, someone came to their booth saying something to the effect of, “Hey, I’ve heard of you!” Maybe they had, maybe they hadn’t. But they’d seen their memorable visual identity everywhere leading up to the show. And our client had new prospects walking in.

4. Bring ’em in.

Signage can’t do the selling. Too much text will turn people off. Say as little as you possible can on signs.

You can have the best product in the world, but if your booth isn’t inviting, potential leads will keep on walking. Make sure your trade show booth is bright, engaging and inviting. Keep your messaging visible – don’t bury key messages below the knees. Use imagery to expound upon words. In a quick 10-second glance, it should be easy to tell who you are, what you do and why you’re special.

Of course, that means not printing the full text of “War and Peace” on a backdrop and calling it a day. Signage should contain VERY limited messaging – the distilled essence of your brand, designed to be simple and easily read from a busy show floor. Signage can’t do the selling – but your trade show team members can. Draw visitors in visually, then hook them verbally.