BALTIMORE—Not even a surprise snow storm has been able to slow the growth of Catholic marketing.

Catholic store owners, suppliers of religious goods and other representatives of religious businesses from around the country braved the furies of the season in Baltimore Jan. 25-28 to participate in the first winter trade show sponsored by the Dallas-based Catholic Marketing Network.

Although the storm, which dumped more than a foot of snow, delayed the installation of many displays, some 225 booths were in operation by the event's second day, nearly filling the 80,000-square-foot exhibit hall at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Merchandisers and retailers of Catholic goods such as books, videos, religious articles and gift items were joined at the trade show by new and seasoned musicians, authors, publishers and business entrepreneurs.

“Mother Nature didn’t turn out to be our greatest friend this [time],” said Catholic Marketing Network President Alan Napleton, “but, like all [such] gatherings, this one had more than its share of blessings … Although the weather prevented our usual strong turnout, many key networking relationships were forged.”

The network was organized by Napleton in 1995 and has held trade shows each June since 1996. The Baltimore event was the network's first effort to expand to two shows per year. “It builds on our earlier success and gives buyers the opportunity to see merchandise ahead of the busy Easter/spring season,” said Anne Jackson, the network's assistant executive director and editor of its quarterly trade journal.

The marketing network holds the trade shows “to give everyone an equal opportunity to reach Catholic retailers,” explained Executive Director Cheryl Tucker. “This allows them an affordable way to network with distributors and retailers, and to test their products' acceptance in the Catholic market.”

In another first for the network, the Baltimore event included an extensive art display, A Light to the Nations, that featured the works of some 35 artists. The gallery was coordinated by the Connecticut-based St. Michael's Institute of Sacred Art and highlighted by live, works-in-progress demonstrations by artists, including oil painters and iconographers from the United States and wood carvers from Peru who specialize in the construction of wooden altars.

Holy Spirit Radio, a Catholic station in Philadelphia, offered live reports from the floor of the exhibition while Catholic Family Radio network broadcast taped interviews and musical presentations for listeners throughout the country.

Books to Teddy Bears

The show also included a cooperative booth shared by self-published authors and small publishing firms. The booth featured The Pleistocene Redemption, a book by Dan Gallagher, and works issued by the publisher One More Soul

A similar shared effort showcased new products, including holy water dispensers designed by Father Louis Greving, stickers that feature religious icons that can be accompanied by institutional logos and fundraising pitches by Icon Sticker, Vatican-endorsed Jubilee plates by AAA Viva International, and handmade, framed scripture quotes from Quilligraphy.

The Catholic Marketing Network initiated a similar arrangement several years ago for lesser-known Catholic musicians that has since blossomed into the Catholic Association of Musicians, dedicated to nurturing and promoting Catholic recording artists.

Other new product items at the Baltimore show included Holy Bears, colorful, five-inch-tall plush teddy bears with spiritual names; Angels In Heaven, featuring plaques, cards and certificates in remembrance of deceased infants or children; and the International Memorial to the Unborn, unique gold-leafed wooden and pewter-only replicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe imported from Mexico.

Snow Lamentations

Baltimore's first major snow storm since 1996, however, did make its presence felt. “It's been slow compared to the June ... show,” said Tom Fink of Arkansas-based Hermitage Designs, echoing the sentiments of exhibitors and retailers. “I don’t know if it's the weather or the timing.”

“It's unfortunate we had a big dump of snow,” agreed Canadian retailer Lynne Martin of Cherish House in Ontario, “but ... I found most of the suppliers I was looking for.”

Most exhibitors and retailers agreed. “The amount of traffic was slow, but the quality was good,” said first-time exhibitor Steven LeClair of Houston-based Holy Bears, a company that was launched only a year ago.

“Anyone who showed interest in our product placed an order. I was very pleased with the show in spite of the slow traffic. We picked up more than 26 new retail accounts and made two distribution contacts that would have taken us years to uncover. Those two contacts alone made the show more than worthwhile.”

“Stores ... definitely [came] to buy,” added George Malhame, co-owner of Malhame and Company, an outfit that has participated in trade shows since the network's inception. “Stores are coming here to learn, to see what's happening, to participate in retail seminars and to network. If you want to be part of the Catholic marketplace, you have to be at this show.”

Malhame pointed to commonly acknowledged statistics indicating that Catholics comprise 25% of the U.S. population, or more than 60 million people, less than 5% of whom have ever been inside a religious gift or book store. “This tells us that we are at the beginning of a lot of growth and exposure. We are beginning a new phase of Catholic development in the marketplace. The rapid success of [the network] has proven that need.”

Kim Jordon of St. Athanasius Church Bookstore in Fairfax, Va., summed up the show's impact: “The ... show connected us to [goods that] would have only been available to big stores. That's why we can sell good, quality items. We can offer parishioners items they couldn’t get elsewhere in our area, and we've added 30 new vendors to our product lines. That's mostly due to [the Catholic Marketing Network].”

The organization's June trade show will be held this year in Chicago, a move from Valley Forge, Pa., its location for the last few years.

“I'm very excited about the move to Chicago,” said Napleton, the network's president. “[It] will be the first ...event away from the East Coast, and will provide an opportunity for many individuals from the Midwest, Canada and other locations to more easily attend.

“The Chicago show will also be our biggest event to date and so far pre-registration has been phenomenal,” said Napleton, adding that several vendors, musicians' groups and others have already expressed interest in hosting special events to complement the show.

Karen Walker is based in San Juan Capistrano, California.