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Are Trade Shows Still Worth Attending for Independent Product Developers?

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The evolving situation with the Covid-19 Delta variant is affecting the trade show industry in different ways. Some in-person trade events, such as Toy Fair Dallas, have been postponed again. Other in-person events have mandated mask-wearing. Large and powerful companies, especially ones based internationally, are less likely to attend events happening this year than in the past. For example, this week Sony announced that it was scrapping its plans to attend the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas, as well as the InfoComm conference in Orlando next month.  

For inventors and entrepreneurs pursuing licensing opportunities for their new product ideas, does making the effort to attend a trade show still make sense? After all, companies have evolved to do business without gathering in-person for more than a year now. What value do in-person events offer now? 

Related: The Definitive Guide to Licensing: When You Get a Great Idea, What Do You Do Next?

I was curious, so I flew down to Las Vegas to attend the SuperZoo trade show to see for myself last month. Historically, SuperZoo is one of the largest events in the pet industry. It was my first trade show since the pandemic began, and I was quite excited. I’ve been attending trade shows for nearly 40 years, and seeing all the new products and people in the same room never fails to excite me. When I attended SuperZoo in 2017, people were extremely friendly and companies were very open to working with inventors. 

On the plane, I wondered how wearing a mask would affect my ability to introduce myself to new companies and ask whether they worked with independent inventors. You can say so much with a smile without actually saying anything at all! My smile is my secret superpower.

I also wondered if the show was going to feel empty compared to years past, because I’d heard that companies were dropping out. Since they’d gotten by without attending trade shows the year prior, and saved quite a bit of money in the process, were they ever going to return? I had some doubts. But since I only live an hour and a half away by plane, I was ready to verify the opportunities and the obstacles for myself. 

Overall, the first thing I noticed was that the trade show hall was indeed a little quieter. There weren’t as many people. (Someone mentioned to me that typically this show has 1,200 vendors, but this year there were closer to 800.)

My business partner Andrew Krauss and I divided up the territory so we could cover as much ground as possible and meet in the middle. Typically, it isn’t possible to cover an entire show between two people in one day because there’s just way too much to see. 

As I started to walk up to booths and make conversation, people had some difficulty understanding me and vice-versa. Making yourself clearly heard when wearing a mask is never going to be the easiest thing. A few vendors I surveyed had gotten very used to it, and told me it was no big deal. Others expressed feeling a little claustrophobic by the end of the day. If a trade show you’re attending requires masking, make sure to invest in one that is very lightweight, breathable and doesn’t pull on your ears.

So, was it a problem that you couldn’t get as up-close and personal to the people at the show than in the past? I mean, isn’t that the point of going to a trade show — to get to know people?

Actually, there were some significant upsides for inventors. Because the show wasn’t as busy, I never had to wait in line to speak with someone. No one was in a hurry to move on to the next person. People were kind, extremely accessible and open to having a discussion. Nearly every company I approached confirmed that it was willing to review a new product idea submitted by an independent inventor. That didn’t surprise me, as companies that don’t innovate cannot be competitive.

And this industry is ripe for new product ideas. I cannot tell you how many booths were selling pretty much the same thing. Dogs like stuffed animals, but come on — I’ve never seen so many stuffed animals for pets before in my life!

To be honest, I’ve never been to a trade show as an inventor where it was this easy to talk to companies. I never felt rushed. People were willing to spend a little more time with me.

Andrew pointed out that many of the very largest pet brands weren’t at the show this year. The companies that were there were more mid-sized, and mid-sized companies are hungry for growth! They’re desperate for an edge. And that’s a big reason why they embrace innovation. 

For inventors, long-term licensing success has a lot to do with building relationships. So, yes, wearing a mask all day was a pain. But overall, it wasn’t a big deal. Would I still recommend going to a trade show if you’re an inventor? Absolutely.

Related: Become a Product Licensing Machine Using These 8 Strategies

Here are a couple of more things to note:

Because of strict travel regulations, many international companies weren’t there. Before you commit to attending a trade show, make sure to review the vendor/exhibitor list to confirm that the companies you want to meet will be there. You could be disappointed if they drop out.

I don’t recommend buying a booth unless you’re already in business and ready to take purchase orders. If you’re an inventor and you’re trying to license your idea, you want to be able to walk the show to meet open innovation companies. 

Following are what some of my fellow inventor attendees had to say about SuperZoo: 

Cigdem Delano, inventor of the Unspill-a-Bowl, told me that she believes SuperZoo is a must attend show for those in the pet industry. (Full disclosure: Cigdem learned how to commercialize her intellectual property as a client of my company inventRight.) 

“Trade shows are game-changer experiences for creatives, and SuperZoo 2021 in Las Vegas was no exception. I attended with two objectives in mind: Introduce my Unspill-a-Bowl to buyers and meet potential licensees for new product ideas. The New Product Showcase was perfect for introducing Unspill-a-Bowl. I loved meeting potential buyers and hearing their feedback firsthand. I also met with many potential licensees who enthusiastically listened to my new product ideas.” 

Amanda Hutton, a professional pet product developer who has licensed dozens of her ideas onto the market, told me that she got very busy on both Tuesday and Wednesday, despite the fact that a few of her clients were not there or just had their sales team attending. 

“Overall, I felt it was a great show and many of my clients said that they were surprised by the amount of traffic they were getting. I was also able to connect with some new potential licensees,” she told me.

The trade show industry hasn’t fully recovered yet, but that’s not a problem for independent product developers — it’s actually an opportunity.

Related: Save Big on Trade Shows, Then Work Your Magic

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