The Gazette, By Tom Roeder  Updated: April 16, 2015 at 11:26 am

When is a plastic wind-up toy robot worth more than $1 billion?

For scores of exhibitors at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs this week, the answer is: when the right customer grabs that piece of swag from your booth.

More than 11,000 people gathering at The Broadmoor for the annual event have encountered tons of swag, including pens, calendars, toys, hats, T-shirts and candy.

“It’s like candy for Halloween,” said Air Force Space Command spokesman Mike Pierson as he oversaw his own stash of logo-covered bags and pens. “It’s what gets people to the door.”

Hundreds of businesses and government agencies bought booths at the symposium. So many signed up that there’s a massive tent outside to hold booths that wouldn’t fit in the resort’s cavernous events center.

“It’s the biggest show of the year,” said Suzanne Beggs, of Denver rocket-builder United Launch Alliance.

ULA set up an exhibit to show off its new low-cost, reusable Vulcan rocket. The Vulcan, which will compete with existing single-use rockets, got its name last week, and Beggs and her colleagues scrambled to assemble giveaways to promote it.

The big hit: Symposium-goers can get a picture of themselves with the new rocket, thanks to computer technology. The firm set up a portrait studio in its booth that puts people in front of an artist’s vision of a Vulcan launch.

“It’s been very popular,” Beggs said.

Colorado Springs aerospace software firm Braxton Technologies has a secret hoard of giveaways for a privileged few of the symposium crowd: Styrofoam sticks with flashing lights. The toys serve no useful purpose, but have proven to be wildly popular.

“It gets our name out there,” said Donna Lanzrath, Braxton’s business development coordinator.

Those not honored with the sticks got the traditional gift Coloradans present to low-landers: bottled water.

Broomfield satellite manufacturer Ball Aerospace also has a secret stash of high-level swag for distinguished visitors.

“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” joked Ball spokeswoman Roz Brown.

The Ball treasure was later revealed: salt and pepper shakers.

The gifts at the vendor booths were easily eclipsed Wednesday evening. The symposium’s hospitality night took over The Broadmoor as defense contractors and satellite firms threw parties to court business and celebrate all things space.

Many call it aerospace prom night.

But not every group at the symposium uses gifts and deep pockets to court cash customers.

The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance did the job with brochures and few candy bars.

“We’re frugal,” said Andy Merritt, who heads military programs for the alliance.

But candy bars may be enough when they come with a view of Pikes Peak.

“We are getting quite a bit of interest in Colorado Springs,” Merritt said.