Grant Koppers went to trade shows long before he opened his fishing-lure business nearly 10 years ago. It has paid off—literally—and continues to do so.

Koppers recalls scouting the competition, taking photos of booths and generating ideas as to how his company could develop its own booth. Now, the president of Koppers Fishing and Tackle Corp. in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, Canada, is so fastidious in preparation for trade shows that he doesn’t want to reveal some of his secrets. But this tidbit may give you an idea of the planning that goes on: “Because we do all our own 3D modeling for our products, we can build a model of our 20-by-40-foot booths and see it in 3D before we build it. We spend a lot of time fabricating our booths. We have local contractors who build our displays so they’re custom-built and have that big-box appearance without that big budget.”

An inventor at heart (and in practice, with 18 patents connected to Koppers and his company), his multi-million-dollar business has more than 4,000 dealers selling its products worldwide, headlined by the company’s fishing-lure brand LIVETARGET. “I’ve been going to trade shows my whole life,” he says. “They have been absolutely instrumental in growing our company and developing awareness.”

The inventor of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, would doubtless say the same. After a $2.4 million Kickstarter launch the previous year, Irvine, California start-up Oculus VR unveiled the platform at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas for the first time in 2013. A year later, Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion.

Of course, not every inventor realizes these or even any kinds of benefits from the trade show experience. Historically, few of the more than 2,500 such events in the United States each year have been tailored specifically to inventors—although that’s changing as shows are creating new ways to attract independent inventors and start-up companies.

For many innovators, the bottom line is being aggressive about improving their bottom line. Possibilities abound that go far beyond the obvious benefits of networking. Trade shows represent a great chance to simply gain attention for your product; determine which other products are on the market in your specific category and gather information about them; make contacts with exhibitors and determine which of your products or services might benefit their company; identify potential licensing candidates; and last but not least, allow inventors to meet with executives and decision-makers who would otherwise be elusive, if not virtually unavailable.

“Anyone who buys in that industry knows they’re going to see everything that’s new, everything that’s an innovation in that one spot over those three days,” says Andy Darmohraj, American Pet Products Association executive vice president who leads the association’s trade show department and Global Pet Expo. “So it’s easier for them to spend the time and walk around, go into a new product showcase, identify some products they find interesting, rather than having hundreds of manufacturers calling on them and trying to get an appointment. They get to see all of the stuff on their terms.”

Getting more inventor-specific

Many trade shows, especially those with new product showcases, are enjoying a steady increase in exhibitors as they themselves innovate to attract inventors. The National Hardware Show, set for May 9-11 in Las Vegas this year, is one such event. The show features a designated “Inventors Spotlight” area, with booths for inventors to display their new product ideas and get feedback.

Nicole Lininger, director for the Invention and New Product Exposition (INPEX) show that will hold its 32nd annual event June 13-15 in Pittsburgh, says feedback is one of the most important takeaways for inventors at these shows. “Inventors who maybe don’t have that much interaction with companies and decision-makers get the opportunity to practice their pitch and get feedback, which may be a way to improve their idea.”

She says INPEX—with 275 to 300 booths on average, featuring about 1,000 inventions and about 1,000 company representatives walking the floor—is one of the best shows for invention rookies to break in, largely because the show attracts and caters to that crowd. “Typically, we mostly get a new crop of inventors who have never been to a trade show before. It’s a good place to learn and get that feedback. The only people exhibiting at our show are inventors.”

Some shows are adding an emphasis on small businesses and start-ups. The American Pet Products Association’s Darmohraj says that among the roughly 1,100 exhibitors at the Global Pet Expo last year, “probably 150 to 175 of those companies were first-time exhibitors. And the vast majority of those are brand-new, start-up companies.” He expects that trend to continue at this year’s event, March 22-24 in Orlando, Florida.

The Consumer Technology Association, with 80 percent of its more than 2,200 companies being small businesses or start-ups, owns and produces the Consumer Electronics Show that was held in early January. “We’ve seen in our post-show survey data that a lot of the bigger companies on the show floor are interested in meeting with inventors and start-ups and forming partnerships,” says Allison Fried, CES spokesperson. “It’s part of a new storyline that’s weaving its way through the show.”

Six years ago, the CES upped the ante with a trademarked flagship start-up destination called Eureka Park.

“It’s for the guy in his garage, the Mom and Pop shop who had an idea and wanted to get it in front of this global audience,” Fried says. “This year we had more than 600 start-ups in this space, up from 500 a year ago. The energy of Eureka Park is so fun. And of the 600 companies, they represented 29 different countries.”

A global trend

Like so many of the major shows, CES is focused not only on expanding its reach to inventors but beyond traditional boundaries.

Billed as the largest annual trade show in North America with 2.6 million net square feet of exhibit space, CES continues to target international business via mentorship programs and one-on-one matchmaking. “It’s a perfect opportunity for someone with an idea to launch it on a global scale,” Fried says.

John Garcia, social media and communications coordinator for ABC Kids Expo (All Baby & Child), says, “We have seen tremendous growth in international attendees, with over 75 countries represented. We also saw expansion in many of our international pavilions at the show, with new countries represented including Turkey and South Korea.” He expects the trend to continue at this year’s show, October 15-18 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

This global push often leads to ongoing growth at shows. Doug Poindexter, president of the World Pet Association—organizer of SuperZoo, to be held this year July 25-27 in Las Vegas—says last year’s event included almost 1,200 exhibitors as well as showing a 4 percent increase in attendees and 8 percent in companies attending.

“To accommodate the increase, we added 85,000 square feet of exhibit space in 2016. For 2017, SuperZoo will reconfigure its exhibit hall to accommodate roughly 100 additional booth locations.”

Inventors’ experiences

The bigger crowds and deeper resources at major shows are generally considered a plus. Lily Winnail, an inventor and owner of Waxhaw, North Carolina-based Padalily, says the larger shows have their pros and cons.

When she attended her first major trade show—her company’s featured product is a handle pad for an infant car seat—“I gained a lot of exposure. Everyone who’s anyone has the opportunity to see your product. The big-box stores have scouts who scour the booths for the next big thing.

“However, that’s also how I got knocked off by the ‘big guys’ who also scour the place to knock off the next big thing. The positive was, I got the attention of a Babies R Us scout and ended up getting my product into their stores, which was a dream come true. The downside is that as a little-known brand, you set yourself up for getting knocked off by companies that could fit your product into their already established line who then wipe you out of your space at the big-box stores.”

Winnail advises new inventors that “it’s important to know where your product fits best. Is it gift or home improvement? Tech or electronic?

“You’ve got to attend those big shows with an intention in mind. Meet as many possible license partners as possible and/or sell to as many buyers as you can. You’ve got to make your mark quickly. I discovered that the big shows are more risky and the smaller, permanent showrooms in major cities such as Atlanta were where my sales skyrocketed.

“My suggestion would be to go as a guest and meet and talk to as many people as possible. Make connections without giving away your invention too soon.”

Grant Koppers, aforementioned president of the fishing-lure company in Ontario, Canada, says: “What’s most important about a trade show is, it’s really brand perception. People can get a lot of perspective about what your company is about when they see your booth or display and in how you display our product. If you just show your product or hang it up on the wall or spread it out on a table, the customer’s perception of your product, your brand, your company overall is different than if you have it displayed in a very professional manner.”

Koppers, who had just a 10-by-20 booth for his first show, adds that “sometimes it’s more beneficial to take a little bigger footprint than what you might consider. If you’re between sizes of a footprint, I would lean toward the larger size.”

Tips from the shows 

It may be wise to be cautious and alert at a show, but being timid probably won’t work.

“Differentiate yourself,” says Allison Fried of CES. “Find a way at your exhibit to make yourself stand out. Leverage media opportunities. Get in front of as many journalists as you can. Be as personal as you can. Give as many visually appealing assets for people to come and sink their teeth into. Don’t be shy!

“And don’t invent just to invent. It’s important to be able to address real-world problems with your invention.”

It’s just as important to prepare. Says Andy Darmohraj of the Global Pet Expo: “Before you do any trade show, make sure you have all of the legal requirements in order, Also, you need to know the types of buyers coming to the show. An independent retailer is going to have very different orders than a Petco or Wal-Mart, so you have to know what your production capacity is. Know the segment you are trying to reach. If you’re still doing a limited production, you really want to focus on getting independent retailers to come into your booth to see your product.”

John Garcia of ABC Kids Expo reminds that first-time inventors should take advantage of help offered by shows before the event: “It is essential that first time exhibitors attend our pre-show webinars in order to generate the most exposure and obtain significant ROI during the event. Many first-time exhibitors don’t really know what to expect and can get lost in the mix. Taking these steps will help them schedule sales meetings before the trade show, gain prospective leads and get them a better shot at being noticed during the event.”

Doug Poindexter has other thoughts about gaining exposure. He says inventors “should apply the same marketing principles they put into place when they launch their product to make sure they get the attention of media and retailers who will be at SuperZoo. Being part of the new product showcase is a great start, since it’s always a must-see for retailers and media looking to keep ahead of competitors and display attention-grabbing new products in their store.”

And don’t forget the basics. “Make sure you’re prepared as far as being able to speak about your invention,” says INPEX’s Nicole Lininger. “The ‘elevator pitch’ is very important when you have 300 booths around you. Have business cards made. If you have samples, make sure they are available with contact info available.

“One of the really important things that you wouldn’t think is big deal is making sure your contact information is correct. I often get calls from an attendee who was given information that was in error. Keep your contacts in a safe place.”