Tradeshows can be one of the most expensive forms of marketing. Paying to act as an event sponsor with a booth and travel for employees often runs into the tens of thousands of dollars.

But there are options to tradeshow sponsorships that will still get you out in front of the same prospects but cost much less and provide more value.

The first piece of advice: Don't sponsor every tradeshow you think you need to. Make an initial list of the shows that you believe your target audience attends—and cut it in half immediately. Tradeshow attendance is declining overall, and tradeshows can quickly suck up your entire budget—so pick and choose wisely.

Know how many attendees are expected and whether they are the decision makers for your offerings. Who else has a booth at this show? Your competitors? Your partners? Can you work with another company to share space?

Second, understand the full cost of attendance. Often, the space-rental agreement doesn't include booth furniture, or travel to certain areas of the country may be particularly expensive. Also keep in mind the cost of pre- and post-show marketing efforts.

Those are all important pieces of information to consider before you sign and tradeshow contract.

Attend, Don't Sponsor

Signing up to sponsor an event even with a minimal 10 x 10 foot booth can dent the pocketbook of a small budget. Try to limit sponsorships to only those events that you know will give you the return in awareness and leads that you are expecting. For the remainder, especially for new shows that you may not have attended before, send a sales representative or two as attendees to work the crowd.

A main function of these tradeshows is networking and talking to prospects; who better to do this than your sales reps? They can then let you know how valuable this show might be in the future, based on the type of prospects they meet.

They will probably talk to many of the same people who would be stopping by a booth anyway. Tip: Hang out near your competitors' booths. That will give an indication of who at the event is interested in the types of products or services you offer. The out-of-the-booth conversation can often be more in-depth and informative.

Demo Suite vs. Booth

Another option to sponsorship is to host a suite in the hotel that is home to the event (if it's in a hotel.) If the event is in a convention center, a nearby hotel would do. In a nice, large suite, your company can put on a demo "event" for several hours. Offer food and drinks, and have professional know-how people on hand for prospects to talk to.

Promote the event with flyers around the tradeshow. To maximize attendance, be sure to plan around tradeshow functions like presentations and networking sessions.

These non-tradeshow functions can be a great way to have informal yet meaningful discussions with the attendees. The cost of a suite and food for one night will certainly be less than a full booth set up for several days. Plus, you get quality time with the people you know are interested in your offerings, not just your giveaways (which will end up going to attendees' kids, anyway.)

Presenting a Paper

The value of conferences to attendees falls into two categories: social and educational. The education part comes from the papers presented. The technical level or depth of the papers will vary by show and industry.

As a vendor, presenting a paper can be a great way to get into front of your audience. It can also help increase your reputation as a thought leader in the industry—a company up on the latest technology and methodologies, etc. You have to avoid a full-on company commercial, of course: Your audience is looking for a balanced informative session. A case study is often perfect for this.

The catch is that sometimes the tradeshow entities require a sponsorship to present. This is not always the case, and I would recommend submitting papers (there's no cost) to see where you can get in.

The more problem/solution-specific and valuable the paper is, the better the chance that you will be accepted. The more company-focused it is, the worse your chances. The cost, should your paper get selected, is minimal: travel expenses. Usually, the show will pay for your attendance at the event as a speaker, so you have networking opportunities as well.

If you are already sponsoring an event, try to negotiate a paper presentation into your costs. The extra exposure is great, and the added perception of your company as industry thought leader is invaluable.

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Jodi Bash has worked for startups and global corporations in various marketing capacities, including product management, marketing operations, program development, corporate branding and messaging, press relations, team management and sales. She has an MBA from Rice University.