Is Dilbert Right About Trade Shows?

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Earlier this month, my husband came home from work and asked if I’d seen that day’s Dilbert cartoon about trade shows. When I said no, he presented me with a copy of the comic strip. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the link to read it online before we continue with the analysis.

Basically, Dilbert’s boss asks how things went at the trade show. The report sounds hauntingly familiar of many companies I’ve seen over the years: while there was good traffic at the show, virtually none of it was at their booth. There’s a humorous twist (dark humor, that is) in the middle. But the real kicker comes at the end, when Dilbert reports that they spent $200,000 for an absolute zero return. His boss responds upbeat that it’s just like every other year.

Seriously? Since when is spending six figures for an exhibit that doesn’t produce results justified? Yet sadly, it happens over and over again. Companies spend thousands (perhaps not as much as the cartoon, but still …) to appear at an industry show with no more of a reason than “we always go” or “all of our competitors will be there.” News Flash: That’s NOT a reason!

Before you ever commit to a show, do the math. What will it really cost you … in dollars, time, energy, staff, etc.? And while you may not know an exact amount of sales that will come out of it, you can make an educated guess based on data such as who the audience is, what the percentage of decision-makers is, how much time they spend on the show floor, and many other meaty details contained in the show’s prospectus.

Perhaps the bigger question remains, if Dilbert’s company is spending multiple six figures on one mega-show that doesn’t produce, could they possibly shift those dollars to several smaller regional shows that do? Or is the show a good fit and it’s just the execution of their exhibit marketing strategy (IF they even have one) that’s lacking? These are all valid questions, not only for fictional characters, but for any business who is considering exhibiting at a show.

The saddest part of this cartoon is how it feeds into the public and media perceptions of the past few years that trade shows are giant “boondoggles” and a huge waste of money. When in the real world, businesses can easily make back their exhibiting investment by following simple steps that start with strategic goals and a realistic budget.

Now if only someone would design a cartoon about the $5000 exhibit that landed a $50,000 client … Sigh!

So what do you think of this cartoon? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

© 2012 Marlys K. Arnold  (from the May 2012 TradeShowTips Online. To receive tips like this in your inbox every month, please take a moment to fill out this request.)

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About the Author:

With experiences as both an exhibitor and a show organizer, Marlys Arnold has a unique perspective on trade show exhibiting. She travels the country consulting and training both exhibitors and show managers, and is the author of Build a Better Trade Show Image (2002), host of the Trade Show Insights blog-cast and creator of the ExhibitorEd training kit. To request access to her free video series, “7 Mistakes Exhibitors Make (and how to avoid them),” go to

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With experiences as both an exhibitor and a show organizer, Marlys Arnold has a unique perspective on trade show exhibiting. As an exhibit marketing strategist, she travels the country consulting and training on how to create experiential exhibits that produce significantly higher numbers of qualified leads. She’s led workshops for events ranging from local consumer expos to some of the largest trade shows in the U.S. She hosts the Trade Show Insights blog/podcast, and is the author of Build a Better Trade Show Image, the Exhibitor Education Manifesto, and the ExhibitorEd Success System. Exhibit Design That Works (the first book in the YES: Your Exhibit Success series) debuted in July 2017. She’s also the founder of the Exhibit Marketers Café, an online education community.


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