Skip to main content

Trade shows—they’re a big investment and, done right, they can net you even bigger rewards. But if you’re struggling to wrap your brain around complex material handling agreements, if you’re new to the complicated world of logistics, a misstep or misunderstanding could leave you staring down painful, unexpected shipping charges.

Feeling overwhelmed? Take a good, deep breath. I’ve got you. I’ll walk you through the trade show shipping costs that should be on your radar, so you can avoid mistakes and preserve more of your marketing budget for the work that generates ROI (not to mention helps you nab that big promotion!).

How do trucking and logistics companies determine your freight rate?

Well, the obvious factors immediately jump to mind:

  • Weight, dimensions, and the shipping class of your load
  • Distance from dock-to-dock
  • Chosen shipping mode—over-the-road vs. air freight
  • Transit time (you could pay up to 25% more for expedited service)
  • Fuel costs—they fluctuate and are updated weekly

What you should also be mindful of, especially as you look to next year’s marketing budget, is the age-old principle of supply and demand.

The freight market typically expands and contracts on a two-to-four-year cycle. Right now, you’re at the favorable end of the cycle, and you’ll have an easier time keeping your trade show shipping costs down. But this won’t last. We’re predicting a market correction by year’s end, and we expect freight rates will rise. So be sure to pad your 2025 trade show shipping budget—it’s unlikely that you’ll see these 2024 rates when we roll into the new year.

Also, a word of caution: Be wary of freight rates far below market.

Some trucking companies are offering rock-bottom rates in an effort to win your business and keep their doors open. While I wish these hard-working folks the very best of luck, I can’t in good conscience recommend them; these companies aren’t operating sustainably. If they go out of business while your load is in transit, the truck (and your booth!) could be stranded, leaving you with an empty spot on the trade show floor.

Additional shipping costs above and beyond your freight rate

Getting your gear from Point A to Point Z involves more than the ride on a tractor-trailer, and it’s here where folks often get bitten.

Advanced warehouse surcharges

I recommend shipping your trade show booth properties to the show’s advanced warehousing space whenever possible. Why?

  • It’s often the cheaper option
  • It will buy you some much-needed peace of mind
  • Targeted freight is often delivered at the end of the day, just prior to the target—helpful if you have pre-planned labor set up

Just be sure you’re clear on the target ship-in window to avoid extra charges for “off-target” deliveries.

Your Material Handling Agreement will indicate your window, as well as the warehouse’s “straight time hours.” (Think of straight hours as the warehouse’s normal business hours—often Monday through Friday, from 8 am to 2 or 4 pm.)

  • If you ship in over the weekend or in the evening, you can expect an overtime surcharge—typically an additional 30% from the event’s general contractor.
  • If your load arrives before or after the target ship-in window, you’ll get slapped with extra late or off-target charges. A surcharge of up to 40% is pretty common.

Quick tip: Mark your bill of lading, or BOL, “Load/unload only during straight hours.” That will help ensure your carrier doesn’t arrive at the dock outside of normal working hours, leaving you with an unexpectedly large bill.

Drayage fees, or material handling fees

Regardless of whether you ship to the advance warehouse or direct-to-show, you’ll incur material handling charges. These fees cover the labor required to deliver your booth properties to your spot on the floor. 

They also cover:

  • Moving and storing your empty skids, crates, and fiber cases during the show
  • Returning your empties after the show
  • Loading your gear on your carrier’s truck after the show

The specifics of these fees will be carefully laid out in your Material Handling Agreement, so be sure to read the fine print carefully. That will help you avoid ugly surprises.

For instance, material handling fees are largely determined by weight and piece count. If you keep that in mind, you can work to keep your costs down:

  • Crate and palletize your gear. Fewer pieces mean less handling.
  • Ship your cases together. If they arrive separately, you’ll get charged the minimum drayage fee for each case (often $100-$200).
  • Don’t stack your freight. Yeah, they’ll charge you for that.
  • Don’t mix gear if you’re shipping two or more booths to a single event. The general contractor will have to sort the pieces and get them delivered to the right spots on the floor, and that means extra charges.
  • Consider weight when ordering new pieces for your booth. Opting for durable booth elements that are also lightweight can help you cut shipping and drayage costs.

A potential money-saving tip: Some shows and venues will offer you a “self-unloading” option. Bringing in a smaller amount of goods? If you don’t mind putting in a little more elbow grease, you might want to look into this and realize some cost savings.

Review your show kit for more information.

Detention charges

There will sometimes be slightly higher costs associated with accepting your load at the advance warehouse and then delivering it to the show at the appropriate time.

What folks new to trade shows may not recognize? If you ship direct-to-show, you may potentially pay more than what you tried to save in detention charges. This is the time a driver will spend waiting to unload at the trade show facility beyond your agreed-upon time. If your contract indicates two hours, but your driver can’t get unloaded for four? That’s two hours of detention time.

Forced freight charges

After the event wraps and you’ve packed up your booth, the show will transport your load to the dock. But what happens if your carrier doesn’t pick up your load within the targeted ship-out window? Your booth becomes “forced freight.”

That means the general contractor will either move your gear to a warehouse for pickup later (which comes with its own added fees) or they’ll ship out your load with the show shipper—and their freight rates are often higher.

You do have some control over what happens here, above and beyond working with a trusted carrier that will arrive on time and help you avoid these extra charges.

On your Material Handling Agreement, you can indicate your preference in the event of a forced freight situation. Mark “Ship to Warehouse” to minimize the extra charges and “Use Show Shipper” if getting your gear to its next destination is a time-sensitive proposition.

Cargo insurance premiums

Some trade show booths are extraordinarily expensive. If you’re moving high-value gear, like electronics or expensive display products, you may want to consider a high-value all-risk shipper’s interest insurance policy. Why?

Standard carrier liability policies are limited—they only cover losses related to carrier neglect, and you need to prove that neglect to win a claim. What’s more, it often takes 120 days to resolve these cargo claims.

Meanwhile, all-risk shipper’s interest policies offer more comprehensive coverage, protecting you from losses related to severe weather events, theft, and more. And since you’re the policyholder, these claims are generally resolved much faster—often in days.

Other strategies for keeping your trade show shipping costs down

With a little forethought, you can bring down your overall shipping costs even more. How so?

If you plan to work with a seasoned professional to manage your trade show logistics—and you’ll be exhibiting at multiple shows throughout the year—they can help you explore shipping show-to-show. At the end of the day, shipping your gear back to your location after each event may not be your most cost-effective option. You might find savings by delivering your gear to your next advance warehouse or an unaffiliated storage space near your next event.

Additionally, if you’ll hand out brand collateral at your show, consider printing your materials at a shop near your next event. You could realize some cost savings simply by keeping those heavy materials off the truck and, instead, having them delivered to your hotel or the show from a more local location.

A final word of caution

Trade show shipping is complex. There are lots of moving parts, lots of opportunities for failure. Don’t assume anything.

Even if you have a carrier you know and trust, if they’re not experienced in trade show, look elsewhere. Someone who’s been at this a good long time can help you reduce your trade show shipping costs, avoid extra fees, and navigate the complexity that ensures your booth arrives at the show on time.

Have questions? Need advice?

Hit me up. I’m always happy to answer trade show logistics questions. Just shoot me an email at or +1 773-842-5275.


Ready to simplify your logistics?

Let’s deliver on your customer promises now, and as your business grows—together.