Portable Trade Show Exhibits 101

In this article you’ll learn:

  • Why portable exhibits might be the right choice for your company’s exhibiting needs
  • What results some award-winning portable exhibit designs are doing for their owners trade show ROI
  • The 5 things that can kill your trade show budget… & how to avoid them

This article will reveal why using a portable trade show exhibit might just be the best fit for your business over a huge, custom-built monster.

You’ll also see how companies have made a huge impact with portable exhibits, both in their bottom line & environmental impact.

A portable trade show exhibit is typically no larger than 10ft wide x 10ft tall, is relatively small and lightweight (making it cheap to ship), and can be set up with little to no tools by a small number of people.

All that equates to lower costs in a traditionally expensive exhibiting industry, allowing you to spend more on marketing & actually growing your business at your show.

You’ll also learn if going with a portable exhibit for your next trade show is the right move, & how to work backwards to decide if a portable would fit your business’ unique budget and exhibiting needs.

Finally, you’ll see some award-winning portable designs to get your imagination going so you can be a floor-wide hit at your next event.

Section 1

Budgeting for a portable exhibit

Above everything else, it’s critical to understand your trade show budget and where your dollars are actually going.

Most companies ignore their budget, spend recklessly, and end up wasting a ton of money, so work backwards to avoid that pitfall from the start.

Here’s how you do it:

The average median spend per exhibitor is $20,000, but depending on your company’s needs & size, you may be looking at a bill that is double or even quadruple that price. [1]

According to EXHIBITOR Magazine’s 2017 Economic Outlook survey, the biggest chunk of a trade show budget is spent on the actual exhibit space.

Staff travel, show services, design & construction, and shipping are the next biggest budget categories.

Promotion, graphic design, and other expenses are the smallest budget items, all adding up to your total trade show spend.

Think about that: the main reason companies exhibit (to grow their business through promotion and marketing) is actually the category that gets the LEAST amount of money!

That’s like spending all your money on a new garage to house a new car… but not having any money left over for the actual car!

So how does one accurately predict their trade show budget?

Well, there are a few different ways, but let’s keep it simple.

Start with the amount of floor space you need for your exhibit.

Studies show that the exhibit space rental accounts for about ⅓ of your budget. [2] So, if you know the cost for the space you need, you can simply multiply that by 3 to determine a working overall budget – maybe even push it to 3.5 – 4x to give you some margin for error.

Here are some average expenditures you can expect to encounter as you plan your exhibit:


28 hours total


$23/sq ft


$321/day (US)






Add 25% to your total budget in cities with strong labor unions


$137 -161 per sq ft


$4.39/mo per sq. ft.

Section 2

How to know if a portable exhibit is right for you

From setup to design to shipping, multiple variables will factor into your budget as well as your planning process.

Take the following into account when deciding whether a portable exhibit is right for you & your company’s exhibiting needs.


Most portable exhibits can be carried or rolled directly onto the trade show floor and set up by your own team.

This means you won’t be paying shipping, setup, & breakdown invoices for every show.


Think about how you’re going to pack your exhibit to get it to your actual trade show.

Oftentimes, portable exhibits can be checked as luggage, meaning you can bring it with you on the plane! This can save you days worth of transit time and a significant amount of money.

If you’re shipping it separately, pack your portable’s case with durable materials that can withstand the hazards of travel (and don’t forget to budget for that extra cost!)


For the most part, portable exhibits are a breeze to set up, requiring little to no labor or extra tools.

Ask the exhibit seller how long your portable takes to set up – the answer could mean you need to budget for tools and labor to ensure it’s ready in time for the show.


A lot of portable exhibits can be used, reused, and rearranged based on your needs & the layout of your venue’s show floor. For example, you could use your booth by itself as a back-wall structure for one show, then at the next compress it down for more of a tabletop display.

Others are built for a specific event, and offer less flexibility when it comes to configuration, so again – check on this with the exhibit firm.

Decide whether you want a trade show portable that you can reconfigure for various needs, or if it’s worth getting a few different structures to use at the different events you have coming up.


When exhibit-shopping, always ask vendors how long (& how much) it takes to produce your exhibit & make little changes to it down the road. As a baseline, more ‘customized’ portable exhibits are typically completed in a few weeks and typically cost less than a big modular exhibit. But some are harder to make changes to than others, and some take longer to build. You don’t want to find yourself rushing to get your exhibit done with a show right around the corner.


Never rely on the stale, lab-like lighting of an exhibit hall. It’s never flattering. If allowed, always bring additional lighting fixtures to spruce up your area & make your booth stand out. See if you can bundle lights with your exhibit purchase in order to get personalized recommendations from the designer – they’ll have a good idea of what would look good with your graphics & layout. You might even save a little money, too!


Understand exactly how long your portable exhibit will last. Some booths are built to last for years… others may only last 1-2 shows. Before committing to buying, ask your supplier about their refurbishment options, the expected lifespan of your exhibit, and how easily graphics can be detached and reattached to your exhibit. This will give you the most flexibility for the future, while keeping costs down.


Graphics are your attention-getter; well-thought-out and well-executed graphics demand the attention of show-goers. Of course, having your own designer in-house will save you the most money and time when it comes to customizing your exhibit, but not every company is at that point yet. If you’re using a designer on your supplier’s staff, ask to take a look at their previous work to ensure that it seems to fit with your company’s brand & style, and ask about their pricing options. Another area where costs can shoot up is design material. Carefully consider what material you’d like to use to display your graphics; vinyl, fabric, plexiglass? The options are virtually limitless, but each comes with its own set of pros and cons, so take time to research all of your options!
Section 2

Types of Portable Exhibits

As you’ve seen, there are tons of different options that come into play when choosing and designing a portable exhibit.

Let’s make it a tad simpler.

For the most part, portable exhibits can be broken down into a few main categories:


Pop-up exhibits are the most common type of portable exhibit. Typically built in 8ft x 10ft area, they’re made of a light, collapsible framework constructed from aluminum and plastic. True to their name, they literally ‘pop up’ and create a straight or curved wall.
Depending on the framework, you can use fabric that hooks onto or drapes over the exhibit, or even magnetic wall panels. These types of exhibits are highly customizable, and some even offer conversion kits. You might also have the option to use your shipping case as a counter, as well as the ability to include lighting and incorporate connectors that can link one exhibit with another, creating a seamless wall. The advantages of using a pop-up exhibit include ease of setup, the versatility, as well as the relatively low cost. The disadvantages include the fragility of the frame – it’s lightweight and easily bent – and overall life expectancy of the frame.


Good things can come in small packages – and this is definitely true of banner stands! What looks like a 3-foot-wide metal doorstop, easily transforms into a 3-8ft tall graphic that stands on its own. The metal base houses the banner, and a segmented pole is used to keep the banner fully extended – this easy assembly can usually be done by just one person. The banner stands, when not in use, are very small and easy to store and transport. Some even house multiple banners that can be interchanged or even scrolled through, using a small motor inside the base. They can be placed next to one another, effectively creating a wall. The banners are fully customizable and some stands offer the ability to connect to shelving and lighting. The advantages of using a banner stand include the ease of transport and ability to choose exactly what you want to display at each show. The disadvantages include general flimsiness – you wouldn’t want to use these outside on a windy day!


With interchangeable units made of lightweight materials, modular exhibits are essentially building blocks for your trade show booth. They can be used to create various parts of your exhibit, from product displays to kiosks, and they’re especially beneficial for businesses who may have different booth sizes from one show to the next. With panels and connectors that are easy to mix and match, you can give your exhibit a completely different look, depending on your needs for that trade show. The advantages of using modular exhibits include the ease of reconfiguration and ability to quickly replace or add new components.


Weighing in at a whopping five pounds or less, fabric panels are newer to the market and they come in a couple of different forms that are easy to store, carry, and show off within your trade show exhibit. One type is a form of tensioned fabric that is stretched over a frame and zipped into place. The shape and size is up to you, whether you go small or big, flat or three-dimensional! Another type is a flat piece of fabric that attaches to a frame on all four corners. It isn’t held with tension, so you need to make sure that the fabric you use isn’t prone to wrinkles. The advantages of using fabric panels include the incredible ease of transporting, and the customization options for design, size, and shape. The disadvantages include the simplicity of the aesthetic as well as the potential need for extra labor to assemble the framework.
Section 3

Innovative Portable Exhibits

Every day, new innovations are made in the exhibit industry. Every exhibitor wants to stand out from the crowd, and showcasing a unique type of exhibit is a great way to break the ice and impress trade show attendees. Here are a couple of unique exhibits that deserve a shout-out!


A newer addition to the trade show scene is the air-powered exhibit system. The Windscape Display System by Skyline is the world’s first air-powered exhibit system, and it’s already making waves in the exhibiting world. Skyline’s customers are thrilled that they’re still able to make a huge impact in terms of size and color, but save money in shipping and installation. The frame comes with a pre-installed graphic and it lives in its own case. You simply open it up, connect the inflator to the frame, and watch it inflate! Once it’s fully inflated, it shuts off automatically, so you don’t have to listen to it running all day. Pair it with graphic overlays, lighting, or hang it from the ceiling! Create a stunning tower, an enclosed conference room, a projection wall, a functional monitor mount, and more with these unique air-filled structures.


Just because you use environmentally responsible materials, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice design, budget, or a quick turnaround.

With Eco-Systems Displays, you’ll get a display that’s completely tailored to your business’ needs, including a free design service!

Their innovations include using aluminum that is made from 70% recycled aluminum, lighting that features LED bulbs, ECO-glass as an alternative to acrylic, bamboo plywood, durable and recyclable shipping cases made from recycled plastics, certified sustainable wood, and more.

Not only are the costs comparable to typical portable exhibit costs, your booth’s attendees will see your commitment to the environment!

Section 4

Award-winning Portable Exhibits

With so many choices and exciting possibilities for portable exhibits, it may seem like a daunting task to create one that effectively delivers your message to trade show attendees. Here are a few examples of award-winning portable exhibits that will hopefully deliver some inspiration!


This booth for Ruby Receptionists won “Best Island Exhibit,” and with its ingenious use of LED lights highlighting their logo and their excellent 40’s and 50’s themed graphics, it isn’t hard to see why.

Their goal of catching eyes with their retro decor, bright colors, and the rotary-phone graphic, all reminiscent of one’s stereotypical picture of a receptionist from the mid-1900s, was certainly met. Even more impressive, their budget was only $20,000-$39,000. For a reasonable price, this booth is inviting, attractive, and surely led to many new leads.


NuNaturals, a natural sweetener company, channeled the great outdoors in this booth that won “Best 10-by-10 Exhibit.”

Their bright, clean, minimalistic space with LED lights simulating natural sunlight, the dandelion and blue sky background, and their turf grass floor supports their spot-on outdoor theme. The white wooden arbor overhead and comfortable cushioned benches create an inviting atmosphere. NuNaturals also wanted to integrate plenty of storage in their exhibit and their mounted shelves provide space for many samples and conversation pieces for their booth visitors.

Believe it or not, their budget for this booth was $10,000-$19,000. The creativity and simplistic nature of this booth gathers and holds attention quite well.


Winners of the “Best Rental Exhibit,” Aspecta was tasked with creating a sustainable booth that also showed off their luxury flooring selections for only $40,000-$79,000.

In order to keep with the theme and regulations of the event, the materials had to remain eco-friendly and focus on natural elements. Aspecta achieved this by renting their curved and nature-inspired exhibit, furniture, and their televisions, thereby practicing sustainability. They displayed their flooring samples by getting creative and recycling flooring samples, cutting them into honeycomb shapes, and displaying them on the wall surrounded by LED lights. They used this honeycomb pattern multiple times, decorating their walls and creating small window cut-outs in the same shape.

This classy, sustainable, and rented booth definitely deserved the title of best rental!


How do you gather attention for a booth about data management? It’s certainly not an exciting topic, but you wouldn’t know it from the looks of this booth!

Well deserving of the title, “Best Island Exhibit,” with its bar-like atmosphere, mismatched chairs and flooring, chalkboard walls, and industrial-themed furniture and fixtures, the space caused quite a buzz among attendees. It even had interactive elements, including a dartboard and a wall where people could write their financial frustrations on a fake dollar bill and attach it to the wall. The many seating options and tabletops inlaid with tablets allowed potential leads to speak in-depth with employees. Best of all, booth visitors could choose a cold brew or craft beer to enjoy while they took in the exhibit.

With their budget of $80,000-$149,000, Payfactors certainly got their money’s worth.

When deciding whether a portable exhibit is the best fit for your business, take into account all of the factors, starting with your budget. The benefits of portable exhibits are endless, even if you choose to supplement a larger, non-portable exhibit with some of the smaller elements described here.

The ease of setup, quick design turnaround, customization options, simplicity of transport, and low cost are perfect reasons to look into portable exhibit solutions for your company’s next trade show.