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How to make a success of trade and invention shows

by David Wardell

INPEX, America's, if not the world's, largest inventors expo

INPEX - America's, if not the world's, largest Inventor Exposition

Should I exhibit...?

This is, of course, the fundamental question.  Are you ready? What do you want to achieve? Who do you want to meet?  If you can’t answer these questions then don’t get involved until you have thought them through.


As much as I love Invention Shows, I concede that they are not always the best platform for you to use.  They are not trade or industry specific so many visitors will not be interested in your product or invention - unless, of course, you have something that everyone wants!  Say, for example, you have a new plumbing device or perhaps a new design of child push-chair.  A trade specific show will guarantee your audience is interested, be they a supplier or consumer.  But remember, established business can also be hostile to new ideas – a problem you won’t find with an invention show.


What is your audience?  Are you looking for: investment; finance; licensing; manufacture; customers; technical support; recognition; media; outlets; partners; advice; distribution; franchising; fame?  These are a few of the things you need to consider (I suspect that they will be a combination of the above - plus others).  If you prepare, with set goals, then you can make your presentation to best advantage.  If you don’t know what you want then it is very difficult for others to divine your intentions.


I have visited many events which have enjoyed huge audiences.  The problem with this can be that the audience is not necessarily the one you want.  For example: if you are seeking investment and find yourself knee-deep in schoolchildren you will be disappointed.  I have also attended exhibitions where the number of visitors is so low that you can watch the tumbleweeds roll through the hall.  This is not always a bad thing because it only takes one person to fulfil your expectations.  You just have to hope that this person attends and that you are ready for them.


Do your homework on the show you are thinking of using.  There will be data on previous attendance and footfall, media coverage, award winners, etc.  Exhibitions are not charities, they are businesses looking to make a return from selling floor space and ticket sales from visitors.


Can I exhibit on a tight budget...?

If you plan early, there are many ways to keep costs under control.  Some years ago, when I was publishing Inventors World magazine, we were offered a large exhibition space, at very favourable rates, in a big London show.  The trouble was that to fill the space we needed lots of furniture.  We were on a very tight budget and the costs of hiring were prohibitive.  We solved this problem by buying inexpensive flat-packed office furniture at about a third of the hire cost.  Not only was it easy to transport but we could also use it afterwards.  It was a long day setting up though – assembling this type of furniture is never as easy as made out!


Many booth packages come with a chair and table provided as a basic.  If not, there is nothing wrong with a folding card-table and chairs.  Dressed up with a tablecloth and some eye-catching signage you can create a quite acceptable display.


Think about presentation materials such as signs, posters, business cards - as by ordering in advance you will get the best price.  Last minute printing is expensive.  Also think about the silly things like how will I hang my posters.  European shows normally adopt a hard shell partitioning scheme as opposed to the Americans who use curtains.  A kit containing sellotape, velcro tape, drawing pins, scissors, etc. can be a life saver.  A small selection of tools also comes in very handy.


For those of you brave enough to venture abroad give yourself plenty of time to allow for shipping.  With today’s baggage restrictions, gone are the times when you could carry all your exhibition paraphernalia with you.  I remember trying to avoid a hernia when carrying large, heavy suitcases stuffed with magazines and other literature.  Happy days!  Now, not only do you have to allow for shipping time but also be wary of customs clearance.  I have seen many instances of distraught exhibitors having to bravely put on a show with no props because they’re stuck in a shed somewhere.  Also, if your exhibition materials are deemed to be saleable you can find yourself, maybe even at the airport, having to pay import taxes.  You have been warned.


How do I present my invention or new idea...?

There are two aspects that you need to consider.  Firstly, you should endeavour to make your stand as attractive as possible.  Think about signage and posters.  Do you have product and how can it be displayed?  If you’re at prototype stage then make sure that this is adequate to demonstrate.  It doesn’t have to be perfect but – even with sticky-back plastic, cardboard, moulding clay, etc. – it will need to clearly demonstrate your idea and not fall apart on day one.  Try to avoid the poster only approach.  A visitor will want to understand the benefits of what you are proposing so a hands-on demonstration will always work best.  Otherwise it’s a bit like going to a cinema and being given a written description of the film you thought you were going to see!  Of course, with today’s computer technology you can prepare some whizz-bang demonstrations but people often tire of this approach.  An object is always best (especially if you want media attention).


Secondly, and this is of crucial importance, you have to pre-prepare your ‘pitch’.  I have, on innumerable occasions, visited exhibits where the promoter has spent five or ten minutes on pre-amble and I’ve still been none the wiser as to what I’m being asked to consider.  Take a tip from the experts – keep it short.  The next time you watch a telecaster, or listen to the radio news, take note of the amount of information that is compressed into short spaces of time.


You should adopt the mantra: ‘cheaper, better, faster’ as these are the ‘hooks’ that will attract an audience.  Very rarely have I come across a new technology that needs to be explained.  Most inventions and new products are incremental improvements of existing material.  Put yourself in the shoes of your visitors.  If they are a consumer then they may buy your product.  If they are a distributor or manufacturer then they may see an opportunity.  If they are an investor then they will be looking for a return on their money.  Whatever happens, if someone is interested then you can now spend as much time as it takes to explain and elucidate.  They are now interested parties and will want as much background information as you can supply.


Your ‘pitch’ is probably the most important part of exhibiting.  Write down your thoughts and turn them into a script.  Take your script, hone it, refine it, and try it out on others (preferably not friends and family because they will always give you the thumbs up!).  Practice your delivery in advance – in front of a mirror if necessary – and you will find the whole process of exhibiting to be less daunting.  Use the basic journalistic principles of: who; where; what; why; when.  If you mentally prepare yourself before the event then you will feel much more confident about the message you are trying to convey.  Also remember, if you have assistants, make them learn your script so that you are all ‘singing form the same hymn sheet’.  A prepared presentation always helps in case someone sticks a camera in front of your face and you get your thirty-second chance to shine on TV!


Lastly, if going abroad, don’t forget about translation issues.


Should I enter the awards programs...?

Most, if not all, of the international invention shows have an awards program wherein your invention, or new product, can be entered into competition.  They are usually awarded as medals, in categories, and from these winners the major awards are presented.  Not only is this fun (everyone likes to win an award) but recognition of this type can also be used as a great marketing tool and door opener.  Some of the shows offer substantial cash prizes to the top three winners.  Not only can you walk away with a trophy for ‘Best in Show’ but you can also pay for your exhibition costs at the same time.


For many years I have acted as ‘President’ or ’Chairman’ of a large number of international juries and have become very experienced in this particular speciality.  Judging inventions is a tricky business because of the sheer range of ideas you are presented with – one minute you are talking to a university professor, about say nuclear physics, and then you have to assess the merits of a new design of umbrella.  We have to know ‘a little about a lot’ and all comers are treated with respect and fairness.

From your point of view, this is when your ‘pitch’ really comes into its own.  Judges have very limited time to make their assessments.  I’ve known shows where over a thousand inventions have had to be judged in one day!  Unlike other competitions, decisions have to be made within the time-frame of the exhibition so that awards can be made at the end of the show.


Judges will be looking for several criteria: is it new? (You’d be surprised by the amount of times I’ve seen essentially the same thing at different shows); can it be done commercially?; is there a market?; etc.  There is also a lot of good old ‘gut reaction’ at play.  If your presentation is polished, and succinct, the judges will thank you.


If the competition requires it, think carefully about the categories you enter.  I have been bemused by some inventions being entered multiple times in completely different categories. Try: ‘Electronics’; ‘Office Furniture’; ‘Health & Fitness’; ‘Medical’; ‘Entertainment’; - all for the same item.  Go figure!  Conversely, I’ve seen excellent ideas overlooked by being entered in the wrong ones.



So, I’ve run out of space and barely scratched the surface.  I really will have to write that book one day.  In the meantime, I hope this taster above helps and wish you good luck and every success with your future exhibitions.

When Harry Cole asked me to pen a few words for his book (for which I was very flattered) we sat down and had a conversation about content.  We quickly realised two potential problems, firstly that I was in danger of stepping on Harry’s toes, by replicating his words of wisdom, and secondly that I could easily write a book on this subject alone. Therefore, what follows is a collection of observations and advice that I hope that you will find useful.  One day I might get round to writing the book but in the meantime...


Ah, Invention shows – I love ‘em!  Over the last twenty years it has been my great good fortune to travel the world and marvel at the breadth and depth (and lack) of human ingenuity.  Where else but an invention exhibition can you get to see such a cornucopia of new ideas – from the ‘high-tech’ to the ‘low-tech’ and, sadly, the ‘no-tech’.  I have participated by wearing many hats which encompass: exhibitor; visitor; judge; reporter; and, on occasion, arranger.  Over the next few pages, I want to share with you my experiences and help you to decide whether to become involved and how to maximise your chances of success.  Much of what follows particularly concerns Invention Shows but the principles apply to any type of trade show or exhibition.  It is aimed at the beginner but seasoned exhibitionists might also learn something!

This article appears as a chapter in Harry Cole's ebook:


From Idea To Millionaire...

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