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Formal vs. Casual – What Is the Appropriate Dress Code for a Trade Fair?

2 Jul 2019

Now that we’ve learned how to shake hands, remember names and master the elusive and slippery small talk, it’s time to move towards the broader subject of presentation. There’s much confusion as to what an appropriate wardrobe for an event, and this is causing undue stress to a lot of business travelers. We’re here to make it easy to gauge what to pack in your suitcase and not stand out for all the wrong reasons at a trade fair.

The truth is that there’s no definitive answer to this question. Every event has its own specific kind of dress code, so it’s not as simple as deciding between formal wear or casual wear. You have to take into consideration a lot of factors from what role you’re performing at the trade fair to where the event is being held, because cultural ideas around proper clothing for a business event affect how you’re perceived.

But let’s settle the first question – Should I Choose Formal wear or casual wear?

It’s never the right answer to go full formal for a trade show, because you’ll be spending an entire day for at least three days in these clothes. You need to look stylish, yes, but you also need to be comfortable and in clothes that won’t show wear easily. Exhibition centres often get stuffy and a strictly formal outfit wrinkles and shows sweat easily. A formal suit jacket will have you sweat in record time and you don’t want to wear a tie either, because part of your goal is to be inviting and welcoming at your booth. Business casual, on the other hand, makes you appear professional, but also approachable.


As always there are exceptions and you need to know exactly what part of the programming you’ll be a part of. If the event has a gala dinner, an award ceremony or a formal networking event with senior decision makers, then that’s your carte blanche to elevate your dress style. A suite and tie make much more sense at an official dinner or during negotiations. Not so much when you’re one of the people minding the booth and looking to chat up passersby.

But what about sportswear?

A good impression. This is what you ultimately want to achieve, so the last thing you want to do is appear as though you’re late for a workout session in the hotel gym. Sportswear has no place on a show floor. Certainly not shorts – this goes for men especially. There are exceptions as to where you can break the rules in appearance and that’s for when you’re obligated to wear the company logo, colors or initials as walking advertisement. This is more common for events that cater to the end consumer and the atmosphere is more relaxed. Branded t-shirts are a common uniform in such environment, but you still have to think about the entire outfit and pair the t-shirt with presentable trousers or skirt that are not too casual.

Trade shows for cycling, outdoor activities and sports equipment are where you have the greatest flexibility in terms of clothing, but even then you have to maintain a level of professionalism. That is what separates you from the visitors in the end.

Let’s Discuss Accessories for a Second

Dress code extends to accessories and footwear as well. Even though you’re best going casual with the pieces of individual clothing, shoes are best left conservative. What this means is clean design, a solid color. Always cleaned and polished. You do not want to make too strong a fashion statement with your footwear, because that distracts and a poor taste in fashion damages your reputability. The same goes for jewellery. The less is better and understated pieces are preferred. Nevertheless, a playful element can be incorporated here to have some of your personality shine through – a nice scarf, a pin in your suit, a smart watch.

This goes for both men and women. Everyone on your team should wear a watch – even if it’s a smart watch. You do not want to pull out your phone out of the pocket to check on the time in the middle of a conversation – that’s rude and poor presentation.

A Few Rules about Your Phone

You might not think it, but your phone is also an accessory and you have to think how it presents you to potential business partners and buyers. To this end,

  • Keep your phone in a pocket. In the middle of a social interaction, it’s best to show that you are paying full attention and having a phone in one hand (or look at the screen for any reason) is poor form.
  • Speaking of pockets, you ruin the lines of your trouser leg by putting your phone in a front pocket. Men should consider investing in a vest or a jacket with an inner pocket, or simply place it along with your wallet in your back pockets.
  • There are also certain considerations to make before you bring your phone to a trade fair. Do you own a colorful phone case? If you’re going to a strict B2B trade show, then our bit of advice would be to buy a more modest, clean case. It’s somewhat distracting to have a candy-colored phone with animated characters out.

We’ve covered the biggest areas of uncertainty, but there are many other tidbits of information to keep as a check list as you’re ready to pack:

  • Plan for the weather. You need to research what the weather is going to be when you’re there, but be mindful that a forecast can change at the last minute.
  • Choose separates that work together, so you pack less, but still have different style options for different days.
  • Do not wear new shoes! You will be standing on your feet a lot and you need comfort and support. New shoes can give blisters and they’re generally tough to stay in for longer time periods.
  • Research what the dress code is for the country you’re going to. European countries, the US and Australia are known for a more relaxed dress code. You’re allowed more freedom like wearing colorful socks for men as a way to break up their outfit. Women have to be a lot more mindful about what they’re wearing when going to countries like China, Iran and the UAE.

There you have it! Dress code streamlined in a single philosophy to follow.


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