Hit the Road and Make Trade Shows Pay Off

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- This weekend, hundreds of small-business owners from across the country will head to the East Coast for the New York International Gift Fair, one of the retail industry's largest trade shows. While the size of the gathering might be overwhelming -- 35,000 attendees! -- such shows are a key factor in catapulting small startups into national sales.

Of course, signing up means taking a calculated risk. You have to pay upfront to reserve a booth, design an exhibit and print marketing materials, with no guarantee of making your money back. Is it worth it?

While first-time exhibitors might be intimidated by large trade shows, they should remember that newcomers are often prized for bringing new products to jaded buyers.

The answer is yes, if you can answer two questions: Does your industry have a trade show that caters to your specific market and attracts the buyers you want? Can you make your products stand out among hundreds of others?

Tracy Claros of Austin, Texas, knew she could. The British native had started a baked-goods company named after the traditional English dessert that was her one and only product: The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co. To build a sustainable business model, she knew she had to sell beyond her immediate geographical area. But how could she get her puddings noticed nationally?

The answer was the Fancy Food Show, a semi-annual trade show run by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. Wisely, Claros attended the show as a visitor first to get a feel for what was involved. "Seeing how other people designed their booths was quite inspiring," she says. She also realized she needed to expand her product line to get serious consideration from buyers.

The research paid off when Claros exhibited for the first time in 2007. "It was fabulous," she says. "We were really busy right from the beginning." By the end of the show, she had contracts with two national grocery chains, and the $10,000 she spent to exhibit has since generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in business.

While it can be intimidating to be a first-time exhibitor, Claros points out that newcomers are often prized. "Buyers are looking for something new to take to their customers," she says. "They rely on producers like me to keep their stores fresh and interesting."

The International Home and Housewares Show, held each March in Chicago, is another trade show that highlights innovative ideas from small businesses. About 20,000 buyers (one-third from outside the U.S.) stroll the massive show in search of the next big thing. The majority of the 2,000 exhibitors are companies with sales of $10 million or less.

The show's predominance in the industry means that all the major chain buyers are there, from Target ( TGT) to Wal-Mart ( WMT), as well as thousands of smaller retailers looking to stock unique gadgets. All exhibitors get advance access to a list of buyers so they can send personalized invitations to their booth and generate interest beforehand. "All of those buyers are looking for products that can help them grow their business," says Perry Reynolds, vice president of marketing and trade development at the International Housewares Association.

A bonus? Large shows attract media interest, which means lots of free PR for products that stand out or have a good backstory. "Many exhibitors are discovered by consumer media at the show," Reynolds says.

Cost, of course, is a major consideration. In addition to booth space, you have to factor in costs for air fare, product shipping and hotel rooms. Before making that investment, be sure what you're pitching fits the right niche: similar enough to other products to be a good fit at the show, but different enough to stand out to buyers.

Also remember that your work doesn't end when the show packs up. After you come home, be prepared to follow up with every contact you made, since it's important to get in touch while memories are fresh. "You can go to a show and get lots of leads, but not get those leads to close a deal," Claros says.

Now that The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co. is an established name on the specialty-food circuit, Claros no longer attracts newcomer buzz. But she finds that attending the Fancy Food Show has other benefits. While her primary goal is always to attract new customers, she has come to value the show's networking aspect more over time.

"Sometimes the Fancy Food Show is the only time I see my distributors all year," Claros says. "It helps build and maintain those relationships."

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