Trade fair a boon to Whidbey business

There was one place Saturday where Whidbey islanders could see and hear more successful pitches than in the Mariners’ playoff game in Cleveland. That place was the Uniquely Whidbey Island Trade Fair & Home Show.

Held at Coupeville High School, the 10th annual edition of the fair drew more than 150 businesses to set up booths and mini-retail shops in the school’s gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria. But a mall experience the fair was not, even if the thousands of attendees made it seem that way at times. The pitch was on and almost no one made it through all the exhibits on the strength of the phrase “I’m just looking.”

As it has been in the past, this year's fair was about exposure — exposure for Whidbey businesses to Whidbey consumers. Langley's Fred Geisler was one of the hardest working pitchmen on the school's campus as he told locals about his new long-distance phone business, Island Assets. At the trade fair for the first time, Geisler said the event gave him a chance to tell locals about the long-distance rates his company can offer, and to show them how 50 percent of his profits will be donated to island organizations.

“I haven’t had a chance to do that,” Geisler said. “(The fair) reaches out to the whole island.”

Brian Ballestrasse was also reaching out, but with a truly soft and fuzzy approach. Owner of Langley's Ballestrasse shoe store, he had a few dozen pairs of fleece-lined slippers for sale at his booth.

The only exclusive seller of shoes on South Whidbey, Ballestrasse said the fair came along at a perfect time to promote his six-month old store to locals who might not otherwise seek it out.

“Here, we need the exposure,” said Ballestrasse, who owns another shoe store in Polsbo.

Not every booth offered a product a person in a shopping mood could buy and take home in a box or a bag. Bill Smith, an Oak Harbor investment agent with Primerica, was at the trade fair strictly to build name recognition. Handing out coupons for free financial analyses, Smith said he was in Coupeville to convince middle-class islanders they need investment help as much as affluent people do.

“We get a lot of people who want to talk to us,” he said.

Though doing the business of Whidbey Island was the main focus of the trade fair, at least a third of the people there — the children who came with their parents — could not have cared less. Fortunately, there were activities to keep them busy. Indoors, Oak Harbor clown John Hoggan tied balloon animals, flowers and hats in front of mesmerized children, while outdoors, a pumpkin display and food vendors cause the kids to stammer out, “Look Mom, Mom look, look Mom look.”

Mom Kim Franssen said the trade fair was more attractive as a family outing that as a shopping opportunity.

“The kids wanted to guess the pumpkin weights,” she said.

Few merchants at the trade fair said they expect immediate benefits from the event. Scott Lincoln, owner of Clinton's Lincoln Computers, said he will see a trickle of customers over the next few months who were intrigued with his displays of the new Microsoft Windows XP operating system and Nextel cellular phones.

The trade fair’s coordinator is the Island District Economic Development Council. The event’s main sponsors are the Port of South Whidbey and the Port of Coupeville. Sixteen other businesses and organizations, including the Whidbey Island’s chambers of commerce, the South Whidbey Record, and the Whidbey News-Times, contribute sponsorship dollars to the event.

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