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Why Should I Attend a Trade Show?

Importance of Industry Contacts

Experts in industry can help inventors with their projects. One of the least understood and under-utilized resources for inventors is key people in your industry or trade. In most trades there are certain “key” people who are particularly knowledgeable about their field. If you talk to the right person you can learn vital information. Such people can give you information about the market, manufacturing processes and costs, market risks, sales potential, the value of the invention, and referrals to other key people.

One of your contacts may become your “champion” – someone within a company who is looking out for your best interests. Champions can be an important role of influencing a positive situation for the inventor. All the complicated contacts and negotiations with a potential licensee are much easier when you have a champion.

Who are these key people and champions and how does one go about finding them? As a rule of thumb, key people have years of experience in their given field and hold positions of substantial authority. This would include presidents and owners of companies, the vice-presidents of marketing, of sales, and sometimes of engineering, general managers, and in the case of retail outlets, store managers and buyers. These are people who have closely followed trends and activities in their trade, who attend their national and regional trade shows, and who anticipate changing market conditions. The advice of these people can be invaluable.

Within any given industry you will find certain key people who are more than willing to share their knowledge with you about how you can best present your invention to that industry, as well as information about how people in the industry might perceive your invention.

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Trade Shows and Trade Associations

Trade shows and trade associations are a particularly useful resource for inventors. This is one arena where you can find a concentration of key people who are intimately familiar with all aspects of a given trade.

In trade associations, the executive director and staff can be quite accessible for interviews so you can learn valuable market information concerning your invention. An effective way to gather this information is much like the process outlined in the previous chapter on interviewing key people in industry. These key people in the trade association can help steer you toward manufacturers who are potential licensees of your invention.

How do you find the trade association most appropriate for your invention? Books in many major libraries list most of the trade associations in the United States and throughout the world. In addition distributors, manufacturer representatives, and in some cases the managers of retail stores will be able to provide you with the names and locations of pertinent trade associations.

Bear in mind that the purpose of trade associations is, among other things, to help promote enterprise within their trade. Trade associations usually represent manufacturers and sometimes represent distributors, manufacturers’ representatives, and major retailers who are in the channels of distribution of that trade. Executive directors of trade associations can help to steer new products (inventions) toward manufacturers. When they do this, they are providing an important function that may help the manufacturer and ultimately the trade.

Many times, trade associations offer lists of manufacturers by their areas of expertise, and some offer databases with the same information. More important than this, key people in trade associations are quite familiar with their trade and can steer you toward those manufacturers who may be more receptive to new product ideas and who have a track record of effectively introducing them to the marketplace.

Many trade associations collect important market data on their trade. This data may include information about sales volumes, trends in the industry, breakdown in sales by the various types of products, breakdown in sales by the various manufacturers, or by region, or more.

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Utilizing Trade Information

When you attend a trade association function such as a trade show, you may be able to get computer printouts listing manufacturers, sales reps, and an industry directory. These directories frequently contain lots of information about an industry offered nowhere else, such as company names, addresses, toll free numbers, sizes of companies, types of products offered, years in business, members of the sales team starting from the president right down to each sales person, sometimes even giving their districts and other pertinent information. Some have indexes that list companies by product category so that you can quickly identify those companies pertinent to your specific area of trade.

These directories and lists tend to be more accurate than the type of information you might receive from computer-generated material such as SIC codes, mailing list houses, library databases and other types of databases where the information tends to be more incomplete and outdated by at least two years.

When you are dealing directly with a trade association, these members pay for this service and therefore the budget exists to have the information updated each year. People who offer free database retrieval are usually using directories that are at least a year old, or government information that can be up to five years old. Industries change with various companies being bought out by other companies enough to make this type of information less accurate. Even if your given trade does not offer directories specifically to your needs, sometimes one phone call to the executive director of your trade association is enough to get good and valuable information.

Many executive directors see it as part of their job to share information about the trade, including who may be potential licensees for you and other contact people in your close vicinity such as manufacture reps or other sales people who would be in a position to critique your invention and give you leads-to find potential licensees. But sometimes the executive director of a trade association only wants to serve those people who are paid members of their association and therefore will not give inventors or other non-trade members the time of day, or at least insist they purchase whatever list may be available without any other support.

Each trade is different, and it is worth at least a phone call to those executive directors to find out if they are hopefully in the first camp. Bear in mind that some good and reputable companies were started based upon an invention and are still run by the original inventor. Members of trade associations and older, more experienced manufacturer reps in a given industry would be better able to point you toward those companies that are by their very nature inventor-friendly because they were founded and are currently run by an inventor. Word of mouth is practically the only way to unearth this type of information.

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Trade Shows

Trade shows are usually sponsored by trade associations. The frequency, size, and locations of trade shows vary within different industries. Most industries have regional trade shows held at various geographical locations throughout the United States and one or two national trade shows. In some industries, the national trade show is always held in the same location, such as McCormick Place in Chicago, Anaheim Convention Center, Las Vegas Convention Center, or in one of the various convention centers in New York City, or in Atlanta. In other industries, the location of the national trade show changes each year. In some cases, an international trade show in a given industry is held annually or biannually.

National trade shows are structured so that manufacturers can obtain booth space at the convention center to display their wares. They provide “one-stop shopping” where you have access to the president, vice presidents, and key marketing personnel at one location. Trade shows usually will also sponsor conferences and workshops that provide information about the trade such as trends in the marketplace, particular problems arising in the industry, and marketing and merchandising. These conferences and workshops take place to a lesser degree at regional trade shows.

Attendants of these trade shows often include the buyers of major retails outlets, buyers and upper management of distributorship, manufacturer representatives, and salespeople.

Trade publications will display their books and magazines at a booth at the trade show. This provides an opportunity to talk to the editors about their experience with inventions like yours. This is also an excellent opportunity to talk shop with the editors about how you may be able to promote your invention in the new product section of the trade publication in case you decide this will be a part of your marketing strategy. Editors and publishers of trade publications are usually good sources for acquiring the lowdown on potential licensees. Even if you don’t meet them at the trade show, these are excellent people to contact on the telephone in the course of your interviewing. Another advantage of doing research with trade publications is that the information is generally more extensive and more up-to-date than information you would get at a library or through a government printing office.

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Choosing an Appropriate Trade Show

Trades have consolidated to form organizations of companies and people who have a common interest. There are trade associations dealing with consumer electronics, hardware products, automotive parts and accessories, housewares, locksmiths and locks, and just about any other product and service you can dream of. From time to time these associations hold trade shows where participants in that given industry can gather to share a common interest. One good example is the automotive parts and accessory industry. In that industry the Automotive Parts and Accessory Association (APAA), the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) and other industry trade associations sponsor the annual national trade show. Their show consists of manufacturers of automotive parts and accessories displaying their products and services at a display booth.

There are seminars the day before the show and each morning of the show. The show lasts four days. The booths are mostly 10′ long; some companies have a spread of over 60′ of booth space. Some companies spend over $50,000 for a display booth at this single show. Minimum budget for a small display booth is in the $10,000 range. At the 1995 show there were over 2,000 booths (now over 3,000) spread out in both convention centers in Las Vegas. In a major show like this it takes nearly two days to physically walk past each booth, and longer if you stop to talk.

Presidents and owners, or at least vice presidents of companies, and other managers in the sales area of a company usually man the booths. They are visited or accompanied by independent manufacture representatives when this type of sales services the company. The people in the booths are considered the exhibitors. Attendants to the show, those people who walk the aisle and visit the various booths, include buyers and purchasing agents of companies such as K-Mart, Wal-Mart, NAPA, independent warehouse distributors and any other buyers who would purchase those types of products for resale. This show, like many other industry shows, is becoming international in scope, with both the exhibitors and attendants from various countries throughout the world.

As in any higher level of business dealings, many of the deals are put together in the evenings after the show during private dinners and special hospitality functions sponsored by the various companies. This is something like doing business on the golf course. At these shows, industry executives in the various associations will have meetings to discuss association goals and objectives, elect officers and perform the other housekeeping functions associated with such an organization. In 1995 the automotive parts show had over 50,000 attendants and the show, as a whole, was responsible for bringing over 70,000 people to Las Vegas. And this show wasn’t even as large as the consumer electronic show and some others.

In this industry, there are also several regional and specialty market shows. For example, one manufacturer and distributor of truck camper tops has its own independent show that brings in hundreds of dealers from throughout the world. In the eastern United States, warehouse distributors meet annually at a show that is geared toward those products sold through their channels of distribution. This primarily covers people in the Midwest. The trade shows of different industries are broken up differently, both by region and by the types of people represented at the given shows.

It is up to you to decide, given your budget, geographic location, and time of the year, which trade show would be most appropriate for you to attend. A good way to learn about these trade shows is to contact a trade association and one or more manufacturer rep organizations in your field. These people are generally very knowledgeable about the workings of shows and associations within the industry. I found them to be very willing to share information, even to independent inventors.

Many times inventors think they need to have a booth at a trade show in order to promote their invention. But exhibitors are primarily those people who have a company with products to offer and can display some sense of stability. When major buyers who attend these shows give you an order for a product, they want to make sure that the company will be there in six months and that you will be able to supply them with what you say you will. This is generally not a forum for testing the waters with your invention. There are many other forums that are much cheaper and easier to do this in.

What is more appropriate is for inventors to attend such a trade show and learn as much as possible about the industry, product lines pertaining to their inventions, and competitive factors, and to have a chance to talk to who’s who in your industry.

If you want to test the waters with your invention and get consumer response and order commitments on a smaller scale, sometimes local inventor organizations hold shows at local malls on an annual or semi-annual basis. The Invention Convention happens each year in Pasadena, California. This is an opportunity for inventors to display their invention and potentially get exposure on national television and with an international buying market.

Bear in mind, however, that at a trade show geared toward inventors you are not going to meet the who’s who in your given industry or learn the shakedown of that industry as you would by attending your industry’s trade show. Attendance at a trade show geared for inventors should be looked at as a dry run for potential attendance at your trade show.

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Getting the Most From Trade Shows

An inventor with a new product has two basic ways of utilizing a trade show – as an exhibitor with a booth, or as an attendant walking through the trade show. It is usually not appropriate for inventors to be an exhibit at trade shows unless their products are at a production stage so they can accept orders at the booth. An exception to this would be in the case that an inventor wants to test market his or her protected invention to the trade. This requires somewhat of an entrepreneurial effort and a sizable.

The more prudent way for inventors to utilize a trade show in the beginning of their invention development would be simply to attend the show. This can be a more effective way to collect market research information about a trade. It is helpful to pre-register for the trade show by notifying the trade association at least one month before the trade show. When you do this they will usually waive the entrance fee. You can also register at the trade show site. For the purpose of your name tag, the typical designation given to inventors is “guest.” It’s also possible to register as a buyer. Later we’ll explain why you may want to do that.

At a national trade show you should allow at least one to two days in order to completely walk through the trade show and seek out as much information as possible. I find it most helpful to arrive on the second day of the trade show, and most business can be completely within one and a half to two days. In the case of exceptionally large trade shows such the Consumer Electronics (CE) show, you may need to spend a full two, three, or even four days in order to complete the show. In the course of walking through the show, you can:

  1. Gather valuable information about the marketplace as it pertains to your invention, and about trends in the marketplace.
  2. Get a critique of your invention and valuable feedback from key people at the various booths.
  3. Identify and have conversations with manufacturers who would be potential licensees for your invention. The point of caution here is to bear in mind that the primary purpose of the exhibitors at the trade show is to sell their products. It is important to use discretion when discussing your invention throughout the trade show. It is not uncommon for some exhibitors and trade show officials to take offense when an attendant seems to be pitching a product. Emphasize the market research nature of your motives.

In order to maximize your results from interviewing at the trade show, it is best to at least talk to the key decision makers with respect to new product introduction for any given company. To do this, simply ask for the person who makes the bottom line decision on which new products are introduced into the product line of the company. This usually is the president, owner, vice president of marketing, or other line manager.

Another important reminder is that if you talk to potential licensees and offer your invention for sale, this could set the one-year time limit (time bar) ticking with respect to obtaining a patent. In other words, you have one year from the time that you offer your invention for sale, or disclose it publicly, to file your patent application if you have not done so already.

There is a distinction between offering your invention for sale and seeking a potential licensee who would in turn commercialize your invention. However this differentiation is a fine line; therefore, it is important to distinguish exactly what it is that you are offering. Offering to sell your technology is different from offering to sell products based on your technology. Supposedly, offering to sell your “technology,” per se, will not start your one year time bar.

When walking the aisles of a trade show, pay attention to those manufacturers who offer items that would be complementary to your invention. Take note of how many different manufacturers seem as if they would be potential licensees, their size, and the overall emphases in their presentations.

Keep in mind that trade show booths can be deceiving. Although you can usually judge the size and scope of a company by the product line offered in their trade show booth, there are those situations in which companies that are very dominant at the marketplace only occupy small trade show booths and emphasize a few of their newer items rather than their whole line of products. On the other hand, sometimes smaller companies want to evoke an image of largeness and credibility and create a trade show booth nearly as large as the major companies.

Stop at those booths that seem to be potential licensees. Some of the key people at the booths may offer considerable amount of information for you while others may tend to be brief. It is hard to predict which people will take which stance. This is largely determined by their personalities, and not by their position in the company. In other words it is not uncommon for the president or owner of a company to spend a substantial amount of time to help you while the marketing manager may be brief, or vice versa. Some upper level executives only attend one or two days of the show; therefore, it is important to know if they have a limited schedule so that you can pace yourself accordingly.

One school of thought says you should walk the entire trade show and get the lay of the land and then go back to those booths that pique your interest. Another way is to stop at those booths that seem as if they are appropriate on your first round. In either case, remember to wear a good pair of walking shoes. By the end of the trade show you may have traveled five to twenty miles on foot.

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