I've been attending trade shows for more than 30 years. The focus used to be squarely on taking orders. But now? Not so much. At the shows I've attended in the past three years, there's been a noticeable shift. Companies are less secretive, for one. Yes, some still barricade their new products behind towering walls -- especially industry leaders -- but many more walls have come down. For inventors whose goal is to obtain a licensing agreement, I believe trade shows are more valuable than ever. Today companies are not only willing to hear from independent inventors at trade shows -- some are even hosting Shark Tank-style pitching opportunities!

Corey Talbot is vice president of marketing and product development at Hyde Tools, a manufacturer and seller of painting, drywall, and home improvement products such as putty and joint knives, scrapers, sanding tools, applicators, and airless spray equipment. The company welcomes hearing from independent inventors about their ideas for new products. Talbot and I met at the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas last month. In a phone interview, he described how the focus of trade shows has shifted.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago, we were at shows primarily to sell to our customers, which are retailers. That's not necessarily the case anymore, especially for national shows. Now they are a way to launch new products from an advertising standpoint and share product knowledge with representatives who sell for us." Talbot also enjoys the opportunity to meet with inventors -- so much so, he's begun devoting the last day of shows to pre-scheduled one-on-one meetings with inventors. "That way, inventors know they're going to have a certain amount of time to pitch and have us look at their invention right there."

I love that.

If you're new to inventing or new to an industry, I encourage you to consider getting your feet wet at a smaller show first. Partly because a new show can be totally overwhelming, even for a veteran like me. When I went to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas for the first time a couple of years ago, I was in no way prepared for its magnitude. The sheer size of the event was staggering. I was definitely overwhelmed. And I quickly realized that I had made a mistake; I should have stayed for an additional day.

The energy at smaller shows is less frenetic, less bustling. People are more likely to be friendlier, and truthfully, the real work of product licensing is relationship-building.

Josh Rifkin is a successful inventor whose company Flatworks Displays produces trade show booth systems that require no tools and are packed flat. A few years ago, when he was focused on licensing his ideas for new products, he made great use of trade shows. He recommends that product developers keep their entire interaction short and sweet.

"Find the right person, let them know you're not going to waste more than one to two minutes of their time, and that if a customer steps in, you'll walk out. They've spent a lot of money to be there. The last thing you want to be perceived as is a person presenting a problem. And in the long run, that's what you are," he explained.

Ultimately, he licensed his invention the Squeak and Throw Ball Launcher by shopping it around at multiple shows with a working sample, sell sheets, and a 30 second pitch. Refining that pitch and having a working sample were key to getting a deal, he said.

In his experience, if you clearly state that you'll flee as soon as you see a buyer, most people are more than happy to engage with you. He found that to be especially true at smaller shows, like the annual Marketplace and Academy trade event hosted by the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA), which begins this Sunday in Pittsburgh. There are about 500 exhibitors at ASTRA's Marketplace and Academy whereas, for example, Toy Fair in New York City has more than 1,000.

Trade groups like ASTRA are also making more of an effort to educate inventors and bring them in closer, which is encouraging. For example, ASTRA recently decided to create a new membership option specifically for inventors. (Full disclosure: I am a member of ASTRA's new inventor advisory board.)

Erik Quam, director of product development at Fat Brain Toys and the outgoing chair of ASTRA's Board of Directors, explained the reasoning.

"Having a deep understanding and respect of the importance of where toys come from is paramount for the continued success of the specialty toy industry. Simply put, great toys come from great ideas. Those great ideas come from the inventor community. Without the inventor community and their contributions to the world of toys, ASTRA cannot fulfill its primary vision and mission which is, 'To change the world through the power of play.' Toys are the primary tools of play. If we don't have inventors, we don't have toys. If we don't have toys, we don't have play."

He described ASTRA's Marketplace and Academy as less hurried than other shows and said that the companies there are very approachable. And as a result, they're able to give inventors more of their time. As an advocate for open innovation and inventors, that's music to my ears.

Trade shows are fun and exciting. You'll be amazed at how fired up you get. There's no doubt about it: If you want to become a successful inventor in any category, attending trade shows is a must.