What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know

March 18, 2019
Andrew Doerfler
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Start your engines: It’s time to start preparing for SEMA, the top trade show for auto equipment in the United States. Every year, SEMA brings the latest in automotive specialty products and technology to a massive gathering of industry leaders in Las Vegas. Before hitting the trade show floor, SEMA Show exhibitors need to know the ins and outs of this major annual expo.

SEMA is your chance to present your cutting-edge auto products to an audience of interested auto show buyers. For first-time SEMA show exhibitors, it’s important to plan for your appearance at a trade show. Put the pedal to the metal and start brushing up on these tips for SEMA vendors.

sema show exhibit

What is the SEMA Show?

First things first: What does SEMA Show stand for? The name is short for Specialty Equipment Market Association. The trade show is the country’s leading showcase for auto equipment manufacturers to exhibit their newest offerings.

SEMA show was first held in 1963 and gradually established a reputation as the biggest destination for leading automotive brands to debut hot products and new models. Companies such as Chevrolet, Honda, Toyota, Lexus, Hyundai and Dodge all take advantage of SEMA’s high-spending audience.

What Products Are at SEMA?

Products on displays at SEMA span categories including

  • Automotive aftermarket parts and accessories
  • Specialty equipment
  • Performance
  • Off-road, racing
  • Restyling
  • Light truck
  • Powersports
  • Collision repair
  • Paint & body equipment
  • Mobile electronics and more!

When is the SEMA Show?

The SEMA Show takes places every fall, usually beginning in early November or late October. The event last from Tuesday through Friday

Where is the SEMA Show held?

The SEMA Show takes place at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the biggest expo venue in Nevada and one of the biggest in the country. The convention center has nearly 3.2 million square feet of space in all, though SEMA uses just about 1.2 million square feet for its exhibits. Las Vegas is the city to be for Las Vegas trade show needs. 

The Las Vegas Convention Center first opened in 1959, and today hosts 50 conventions per year, including nine of the top 20 trade shows in the country. It’s only getting bigger, with a major renovation and expansions underway that will add 600,000 square feet of space. The $860 million project is slated to complete in 2020.

Who attends SEMA?

who attends SEMA

The SEMA expo is the second biggest trade show that comes to Las Vegas every year and one of the top 10 expos in the United States. But SEMA’s impact is not just about the number of attendees, exhibitors and visitors - it’s about their influence and buying power. Take a look at the numbers for SEMA’s attendees.

  • 162,000 industry professionals
  • More than 70,000 buyers
  • 87 percent of attendees have some role in the buying process. 57 percent have the power to make buying decisions
  • 2,400 exhibitors including industry leaders in auto equipment manufacturing
  • About 400 new exhibitors every year

Manufacturers flock to SEMA because of the assurance that the audience at the show will include people in positions of authority for leading brands. As the top auto equipment trade show, SEMA backs up its reputation with the following visitor demographics:

  • 40 percent executive management
  • 29 percent general management
  • 20 percent general staff
  • 11 percent skilled trade

For a first-time SEMA Show vendor, it’s useful to learn why buyers attend the trade show. This allows you to cater to their priorities in your booth, offerings and pitch. You’re in luck: SEMA asked attendees directly what they hope to get out of the event:

  • See new products: 87 percent
  • Get ideas: 78 percent
  • Keep up on trends: 72 percent
  • See new vendors: 65 percent
  • See existing vendors: 60 percent

What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know 1

Who Can Attend the SEMA Show?

One of the biggest questions people have about SEMA is whether anyone can attend. The answer is no, SEMA is not open to the public. The SEMA conference is a trade-only event, meaning attendance is limited to industry professionals. As SEMA puts it, “only qualified and approved individuals” who work in the automotive aftermarket industry can enter the convention center.

How to Attend SEMA

To be approved for SEMA, prospective attendees must register and prove their current employment in the specialty-equipment aftermarket industry with the following documents:

  • Business card
  • Business license
  • Recent paycheck stub
  • Tax registration or business registration
  • Business photo ID

Are any SEMA Events Open to the Public?

While the main SEMA show is not open to the public, interested hobbyists and consumers aren’t totally out of luck. Those who are not employed in the automotive industry are allowed to attend SEMA Ignited, an afterparty where select SEMA Show vehicles and products will be on display. Along with customized vehicles, SEMA Ignited will feature food, music, drift demonstrations, celebrities and more.

The event takes place on the Friday of SEMA in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s “platinum lot.” General admission tickets for SEMA Ignited cost $20.

How Much Does it Cost to Exhibit at SEMA?

The total cost of exhibiting at SEMA will depend on a wide variety of factors, including costs for staffing, shipping your materials, travel and lodging, designing your display, customized branded giveaway items and more. It’s important to evaluate all of these factors and prepare a budget before committing to exhibiting at SEMA.

While many of the costs will vary, the cost of exhibit space is something any vendor will have to calculate. At SEMA, a basic exhibit space costs $36.95 per square, or $21.95 per square foot for members of SEMA or TIA (Tire Industry Association).

Additionally, you should expect to pay for electrical service, material handling, furniture rental and carpeting. At the SEMA show, Freeman Services is the official general contractor and provides these services and more for a fee.

What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know 1

Extra Booth Space Costs

Special exhibits will cost even more. An island exhibit booth -- that’s one with aisles and access on all four sides -- costs an additional $3,990. A peninsula exhibit booth -- one with aisles and access no three sides -- cost $1,000 extra. To set up your exhibit, you must be fully paid on all money owed to the event and its partners.

Does SEMA Offer Refunds?

If you end up not being able to attend SEMA after reserving an exhibit space, you’re not totally out of luck - depending on when you make the decision. The earlier you pull out, the likelier it is that you can recoup some of your investment.

  • SEMA exhibitors can receive a full refund if they cancel within one day after reserving booth space
  • After that, a 50 percent refund is available if a cancellation is made by early August. See exhibitor rules for the exact date.
  • After the deadline in early August, no refunds are available to canceling exhibitors

How Do I Choose an Exhibit Booth Space?

What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know 3

When it comes to booth space selection, newcomers typically have to go to the back of the line. But that’s not the whole story:  The way SEMA determines the order of booth selection is two-fold.

Members of the Specialty Equipment Market Association or the Tire Industry of America go first, in order of seniority. All members of these organizations select before the rest of the exhibitors, no matter how long the non-members have been showing at SEMA. Non-members then select in order of seniority. A business usually gets a seniority point for every year it has exhibited at SEMA in the past.

What Do SEMA Exhibitors Get with a Booth?

Reserving a space at SEMA gets you more than just square footage. SEMA provides some basic services and items to help exhibitors have a successful experience. Here’s what came with a booth rental at the most recent SEMA Show:

  • Draping. Linear exhibits, the least expensive, get an 8-foot high backdrop drape and 3-foot high side dividers. Peninsula exhibits get an 8-foot drape, but they also permitted to construct a full back wall. Islands exhibits get no drape.
  • Company identification sign. The sign with your business name is 7 inches by 44 inches. Not given for island booths.
  • Booth vehicle spotting. This refers to the placement of a vehicle on the trade show floor.
  • SEMA Industry Awards Banquet ticket. Exhibitors get one ticket per 100 square feet of exhibit space, limit 10 per exhibit. This is available while tickets last, and they must be reserved in advance.
  • Material handling. Exhibitors with 400 square feet or less of exhibit space receive of 500 pounds of material handling.
  • Inclusion in the SEMA show exhibitor list. All vendors confirmed by an August deadline got a listing in the SEMA exhibitor directory and the SEMA pocket guide. Those confirmed after the deadline were placed in an addendum.
  • Listing on the online SEMA floor plan. This is available online throughout the year.
  • Aisle carpet. Be aware, this does not refer to the carpeting in the exhibit booth, which you are required to provide yourself.
  • Education days seminar. Exhibitors can attend special educational sessions, featuring speakers presenting on a wide variety of relevant topics.

What Are the Booth Restrictions at SEMA?

SEMA has no shortage of rules limiting what your exhibit on the trade show floor. With such a massive, bustling event, organizers hope to keep things as orderly and appropriate as possible.

If you’re exhibiting at SEMA, you should be sure to read the show rules and display regulations to make sure your booth meets all of the standards. Here are a few of the most important rules to follow when exhibiting at the SEMA show:

  • Fireworks and weapons: All fireworks, weapons, explosives and firearms are prohibited at SEMA.
  • Objectionable material: SEMA requires “good taste” for all music and entertainment displayed at your booth. This means no inflammatory, sexually explicit, sexist, gang-related or violent material. It may also not defame women, law enforcement or authorities.
  • Dancing and modeling: “Lewd or sexually suggestive poses or actions” are prohibited for dancers and models at your booth.
  • Food and drink: Any food and drink at your booth must be coordinated with the official caterer. Food preparation at the booth is not allowed. Written approval from SEMA is necessary to serve alcoholic beverages or any outside food and drink.
  • Noise: Exhibitors must keep the volume below 85 decibels at their booths, and must follow any requests from management to turn down music volume or noise level. After two warnings, management can turn off your volume. After three, management might just kick you out.
  • Videotaping: You may not photograph, videotape or broadcast any part of SEMA for commercial use or distribution without written approval from the show.

What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know 1

Booth Rentals at the SEMA Show

If you’re exhibiting at SEMA for the first time, you probably shouldn’t purchase everything you need for your booth. Renting booth materials allow you to stock up your booth for less. After all, you want to see what works best before you commit to spending the big bucks. These are a few of the most-requested rental items, according to the SEMA show exhibitor manual:

  • Carpeting: SEMA requires that your exhibit have carpeting.
  • Chairs: It’s always useful to be able to offer visitors a place to sit at your exhibit.
  • Table: A 6-foot table, skirted on three sides, is standard for booth displays.
  • Wastebasket: Even if you don’t expect to have much waste, it’s good to have a trash can on hand in case of any refuse.
  • Badge scanner: Renting a lead retrieval system such as a badge scanner can make your experience much easier by seamlessly keeping track of the contact information of your visitors.

At the most recent SEMA Show, a basic booth rental package for a 10x10 foot space from Freeman Furnishing ran $397.30. However, stocking your exhibit with higher-end furnishings can run much more. Be sure to account for these costs in your SEMA budget.

What Should Exhibitors Wear at SEMA?

SEMA exhibitors need to balance competing goals when it comes to attire. You want to look professional, but also stay comfortable. You want your booth staff to stand out, but you don’t want them to look garish.

SEMA recommends business or business casual attire. Generally, it’s a good idea to have those working your booth to wear a coordinated color that represents your company’s branding. Comfortable shoes are a must for all exhibitors - between standing for hours at a booth, roaming the trade show floor and meeting with clients, you don’t want to be distracted by aching feet.

The show has limits on attire that seemed aimed at curbing the use of “booth babes” - i.e., attractive models meant to draw leering men to an exhibit. This once common practice has fallen out of favor and tends to attract negative press. SEMA does not permit exhibitors to wear bathing suits, thongs, lingerie, excessively short skirts, painted bodies or transparent apparel.

Don’t take that list as gospel, though. SEMA’s management has final say on whether an outfit is acceptable. If you’re wondering if a particular outfit breaks the rules, ask the show’s management before the event begins.

When is Move-In at SEMA?

One of the most tasking parts of exhibiting at SEMA is making sure your materials arrive at the Las Vegas Convention Center safely and on time. It’s essential for SEMA vendors to know when to load their materials into the venue.

Move-in at SEMA takes place over the course of the five days leading up to the start of the trade show. Exhibitors can’t just drop off their materials whenever they want during that period, however. Instead, all exhibitors are assigned freight arrival times when their booth items can be brought to the venue. If you miss your assigned time, you may be issued a late fee. Move-in times start at 7 a.m. each day and go into the evening.

What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know 1

Parking at SEMA

Don’t count on waltzing over to the Las Vegas Convention Center right before showtime and expecting to find a parking space. In fact, you shouldn’t expect to park at the venue at all. With more than 100,000 people descending upon the event, spaces will most assuredly be scarce. Whenever possible, seek out alternative methods such as shuttles, taxi cabs, Uber and Lyft, or the Las Vegas Monorail.

For those who do decide to brave the parking lot, parking at the most recent SEMA cost $10 per day for regular vehicles. Vehicles that require more than one parking space will cost more. Re-entry is allowed - as long as space allows. Overnight parking is forbidden and SEMA will have any vehicles left on the premises towed.

Get Organized with the SEMA Show App

get organized with SEMA show app

The SEMA Show is really many events under one name. Between the educational sessions, networking opportunities, keynote addresses and thousands of exhibitors, keeping track of everything you want to see and do at SEMA can be a challenge. Thankfully, the trade show has introduced a handy smartphone app that makes the process much easier.

Take a look at the features the SEMA app offers to attendees and exhibitors at the expo, including:

  • Directory of exhibitors, searchable by name, category and location
  • Map of the SEMA trade show floor plan
  • Catalog of seminars, conferences, speakers, celebrity appearances and other events, with details including time and location
  • Feeds of the official SEMA Show social media accounts all in one app
  • “Locate Me” feature that tells users the quickest route from Point A to Point B
  • New Products Showcase feature, with detailed information and photos
  • Scanner for the New Products Showcase, allowing users to easily compile a list of the items that interest them

Connect with SEMA on Social Media

Social media is not just a great way to stay up to date on the latest SEMA news. It’s also an effective marketing strategy, allowing you to build awareness of your SEMA appearance and engage with other companies and prospective clients.

Before the show, social media can be a great way to see if potential customers are gearing up for SEMA. Search for the #SEMA hashtag, and check the comments on posts from the official SEMA social media accounts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to find interested companies and buyers. Don’t be afraid to use your company’s accounts to chime in, share posts, and interact to establish your presence -- people respond to companies who use voice and personality on social media.

During the show, share photos of your exhibit, team and products on social media, making sure to use the appropriate hashtags. It doesn’t hurt to tag companies who you hope to engage with. Showing off an eye-catching booth with a spirited team can draw new visitors to your exhibit.

Showing off your SEMA presence can be good for sending a message to even those who aren’t at the event. After all, it’s a closed trade show, and exhibiting their shows you’re a serious player in the automotive industry.

Navigating the Trade Show Floor at SEMA

What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know 6

At 1.2 million square feet, the sprawling SEMA show floor plan is enough to make anyone’s head spin. Make sure you take a look at a map of the SEMA floor plan to familiarize yourself with the layout before the expo. This will allow you to plan how to make the most efficient use of your time when putting together a schedule for your SEMA experience.

Generally, the show floor is arranged by product category, plus special showcases for featured and first-time exhibitors. At the most recent show, this was the floor plan at the SEMA Show:

  • Westgate & North Hall: First time and featured exhibitors; restyling and car care accessories; mobile electronics and technology; collision repair and refinish; tools and equipment.
  • Central Hall: Racing and performance; Hot Rod Alley; restoration marketplace; first-time and featured exhibitors.
  • South Hall Upper: Trucks, SUVs and off-road; Powersports and utility vehicles; business services; first-time and featured exhibitors.
  • South Hall Lower: Global Tire Expo; wheels and accessories
  • Performance Pavilion: First-time & featured exhibitors
  • Platinum Lot: SEMA Ignited, the open-to-the-public showcase of featured SEMA products

SEMA’s online floor plan lets you explore the venue down to each individual exhibitor. Search by exhibitor or product category to find the type of vendors you’re looking for. With SEMA’s My Show Planner service, you can mark down and save vendors and products you want to remember.

As SEMA has pointed out, to successfully navigate the trade show floor, it’s important to use a variety of tools. The online floorplan will let you plan ahead, while the SEMA mobile app, the pocket guide, show directory and printed map will help you successfully get around as the event is going on.

What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know 1

Make a Schedule for SEMA

Don’t play SEMA by ear. Just as you need a map to navigate the massive show floor, your schedule will be your guide to making the most of the varied lineup of events, speakers, demonstrations, and exhibits. Preparation is key.

In advance of the show, identify the events, educational sessions and keynotes that are relevant to your business goals and priorities. Set aside specific times to visit different parts of the show floor - if you don’t lay this out, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Every morning of the expo, event organizers will also post the SEMA Show Daily on the show’s website, recapping the previous day’s events and outlining highlights for the current day. You can use these to get a sense of must-see and must-do features each day.

Allocate specific periods for meeting with prospective clients. And don’t forget to allow time for lunch, coffee, rehydration and other breaks. It’s important to pace yourself - after investing so much in attending the show, you don’t want to be worn out on the first day. There’s no way to see everything at SEMA, so don’t even try.

The schedule doesn’t have to be set in stone. It’s fine to diverge from the itinerary when other opportunities arise or different parts of the show catch your eye. Rather, treat the schedule as an outline that will keep you focused on what you hope to get out of the show.

Networking Tips at SEMA

networking tips at SEMA

It’s all about who you know. At an event packed with industry leaders from top brands, it’s important to be proactive about getting your name out there. You’ll rarely have a better opportunity to meet so many movers and shakers in the field, so make the most of the opportunity. It’s tough to go far in business without making connections.

Make sure you’re stocked up on business cards - you’ll be meeting a ton of people, and you don’t want to be empty-handed when you encounter the perfect potential business partner. But if you do happen to run out, there’s a business center near the Grand Lobby with printers available for use.

Take a look at the SEMA schedule of events for any potential networking opportunities in your field. But don’t limit yourself to the official itinerary. Ask around about where prospective collaborators are meeting up, and build those relationships beyond a handshake and business card exchange.

Don’t stop networking once the event ends - be sure to follow up with any connections with whom you hope to partner. Send your follow up message within a few days of SEMA’s close so that you’re still fresh in their mind.

Educate yourself at SEMA

what first time sema show exhibitors want to know

Class is in session: Don’t underestimate the value of the educational sessions at SEMA. It’s easy to get swept up in pitching to prospective clients, exploring the trade show floor, seeing new products, at networking with other industry professionals. But remember, the collective industry knowledge gathered at this major event can be a huge resource for your company’s long-term goals. It’s important to keep up with innovative new trends and strategies that can help your business grow.

With more than 70 educational seminars and speakers on the schedule, SEMA has a session for any type of business in the automotive products industry. Here are just a few of the subjects you can learn about at SEMA:

  • Talent management
  • Online marketing
  • Creating culture
  • Research and trends
  • New technology
  • Customer service & sales
  • Defending against data breaches
  • Recruitment

No matter your area of expertise, these topics are relevant for building a sustainable and successful business. Don’t miss out!

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Celebrity Appearances at SEMA

Standing out at SEMA takes some star power. So every year, exhibitors tap big names with ties to the automotive industry to lend their names and faces. The list of celebrities at SEMA spans car racers, TV personalities, athletes, musicians, artists and more. At a recent SEMA, here are a few of the VIPs who appeared:

  • Jay Leno, former “Tonight Show” host
  • Hacksaw Jim Duggan, WWE Hall of Famer
  • Richard Petty, NASCAR Hall of Famer
  • Jeffrey Earnhardt, NASCAR driver and grandson of Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt
  • Gray Maynard, MMA fighter known as “The Bully”
  • Leah Pritchett, record-setting drag racer
  • Rutledge Wood, the former host of “Top Gear” (U.S. Version)
  • Mario Andretti, legendary NASCAR, Indy, Formula One racer
  • ZZ Ward, blues rocker
  • Stacey David, TV host of “GearZ”

While waiting in line for an autograph and a photo with one of these celebrities might not be a priority for attendees, it’s a fun perk that adds excitement and fun to proceedings. If your business has the clout -- and budget -- to host a star at your exhibit, it could be a worthwhile addition to the booth.

Shipping Your Materials to SEMA

What First Time SEMA Show Exhibitors Want to Know 9

For first-time shipping to SEMA exhibitors, the last thing you want to worry about is your booth materials arriving at the trade show securely and at the right time. You have enough on your plate already. It’s best to leave it to the pros to take care of your USA Trade Show shipping your materials.

While the official show contractor, Freeman, takes care of receiving your shipment and setting up your booth at the site, a logistics company will take care of the process for every step up to that point. R+L Global Logisticstrade show shipping team has the experience and expertise necessary to get your shipment to SEMA without a hitch.

You can go about shipping your materials one of two ways. In direct to site shipping, your materials are sent straight to the SEMA site at the Las Vegas Convention Center during the designated move-in window in the days leading up to show. Or, you can go with advance warehouse shipping, where the materials are sent well ahead of time to a warehouse run by Freeman, who will then deliver your materials to the site. Either way, R+L Global has you covered.

Get the peace of mind of a professional shipping and logistics company by contacting an R+L Global representative today. We also offer shipping to IAAPA trade show needs and provide services for many other trade shows nationwide. Use the chat or call 866-415-8986 to get in touch with us today!

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