Though the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is often regarded as the mecca for professional hockey players around the world, for recreational hockey player and businessman Peter Muellerchen, it also represents his company's "TSN turning point."
As the founder, president and chief executive officer of Visual Sports Systems, a sports simulator manufacturer in Vaughan, Ont., getting his product into the Hall in the early aughts represented an important milestone in his company's fortunes.
"The Hockey Hall of Fame was one of our early big customers that we owe a lot to to getting us started," he says.
Using a system of sensors and cameras, the simulators track real pucks that are fired against a screen. At the Hall, the technology allows customers to feel like they're strapping on the skates in a real National Hockey League game, taking on such superstars as Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price or Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was that breakthrough that gave Visual Sports legitimacy in its industry, and allowed it to crack the United States – "a big, big market," which Mr. Muellerchen estimates to form 60-80 per cent of the company's global sales.
Visual Sports Systems's simulators have the capacity to simulate 14 different sports, from hockey and football, to soccer and zombie dodgeball. (Joseph Stephen for The Globe and Mail)
The company has since worked with National Football League teams such as the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos, and major-league baseball teams including the Cincinnati Reds and the Houston Astros. Visual Sports has also had its simulators at the past two Super Bowls, which were used by event agencies.
They "would use it as an activation for a sponsor," Mr. Muellerchen says of his technology, which retails from $20,000 to $60,000, depending on the options a customer wants.
The Atlanta Thrashers, a U.S.-based NHL team that has since relocated to Manitoba to become the Winnipeg Jets, were another important early customer for Visual Sports. In a city with little in the way of ice and snow, to say nothing of a hockey culture, the interactive experience at the team's home rink allowed fans to see what the game was all about.
"Some never having played hockey before, they would hold the stick like a golf club, so there would be an instructor there showing them how to hit it," Mr. Muellerchen, below, says.
Visual Sports's Hockey Hall of Fame installation. (Visual Sports)
In fact, it is golf that forms the bulk of the company's work – "The main driver of our business," he says with a laugh – with installations in golf clubs, sports bars and private homes around the world. The technology is more sophisticated in the golf simulators, with its trademarked SwingTrack Club cameras operating at 600 frames a second able to capture the golf club at the moment of impact as it swings through the ball to provide an educational experience.
Given the tactile nature of the product, it is something that comes across far better in person, particularly when the company started in 1999, long before websites such as YouTube existed.
"It wasn't so easy to see on the Internet … so getting the point across of what our product was all about was difficult," Mr. Muellerchen says. "So we found that there was no substitute to going to a trade show with the product for people to see it and really experience it for themselves."
Visual Sports's simulator at Super Bowl 49 in Arizona. (Visual Sports)
As a result, Visual Sports attends trade shows around the world, from the United States to Europe and South Africa, and makes sure to attend to attend the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, the world's biggest gathering of PGA professionals.
It's an important strategy for a company such as Visual Sports, says one expert.
"Trade shows are an excellent way to go into a market and really get more of a read on a specific industry segment that you're targeting," says Nancy Ward, the director of Toronto-based Grow Trade Consulting Inc.
The important thing to remember with a trade show is that just showing up and appearing is not enough, Ms. Ward says. The key is getting prospective customers engaged with the product. Visual Sports is lucky that the interactive nature of its product, where people want to see if they can hit a hole in one, for instance. That makes it a natural draw at a trade show.
Visual Sports's baseball simulator. The company has worked with major-league baseball teams including the Cincinnati Reds and the Houston Astros. (Joseph Stephen for The Globe and Mail)
However, she cautions that it is vital for a company to do its homework to discover whom its target customer is, and also to ensure that it follows up with prospective customers once the trade show has ended.
"Follow up," she says. "I cannot emphasize enough."
She adds, "People often ask me, 'With the Internet and e-mail, do I really need to be at a trade show?'" The answer, she says, is, "Face-to-face contact, you cannot beat it."
Trade show presence certainly helped Visual Sports when it came to landing the English Premier League's Manchester United as a client, estimated by Forbes to be the world's fifth most valuable sports team at $3.32-billion (U.S.).
Visual Sports's soccer simulator. (Joseph Stephen for The Globe and Mail)
"They saw us at a trade show in Europe many years ago and they had these [training] centres planned out and the timing just worked out. They called us when they were developing a particular centre and they really liked the soccer product," Mr. Muellerchen says.
The company's founder also credits some of the programs that the federal and Canadian governments have in place for helping his company to grow. For instance, Ontario Media Development Corp. has allowed Visual Sports to recoup some of its research and development costs, R&D that allowed the company to put what he describes as "hooks" in the software to make it more appealing to clients.
"For example, we did a big event with Pepsi and we were able to put Pepsi logos in the background and we were able to put Pepsi cans on the football uprights so the kicker has to knock the can over," he says. "It's given us a lot of flexibility that allowed us to go after these international companies."