"How was it?"
That's the standard question posed to anybody returning from any tradeshow, at any time. And though the three words are simple and quick, the answer is anything but brief.
A billion things run through your head as possible alternatives to the initial question: Was the show crowded? Was the booth crowded? Did you pick up any new clients? Did anybody try to poach your clients? Did you meet anyone fantastic? Did you eat anything fantastic? Did you get shwag for me? Did anybody pass out in the wrong hotel room? Did anybody pass out on Tom Bie's patio? Did anybody pass out in the back of a pickup truck headed to Fort Collins?
Last week, two trade shows went down in two different places, spotlighting two different markets heading two different directions. The IFTD fly fishing show (where I was) brought a record low turnout for an industry trying to rally itself to the sleepy downtown scene of Denver. Though "optimism reigned" and "the quality of conversation exceeded the quantity of attendees", the aisles were pretty much full of carpet, and not much else. The fly fishing industry is battling to remain an industry -- that is, to not be sucked into the world of conventional fishing (ie, spin fishing) -- and is doing just about everything they can to remain pure, even if that means isolating themselves in a smaller and smaller ivory tower.
The ASR surf show, on the other hand, is a place that everybody wants to be. The aisles are jammed with flip flops, surf trunks, and retailers with their checkbooks out. Front door security has to worry about things like bikinis that are too revealing, and young entrepreneurs sneaking in without paying their fair share. There's hardly a business or individual in American business that doesn't want a chunk of the surf world ... from icons like Yvon Chouinard and Jake Burton, to megabrands like Juicy Fruit and Rolex, just getting your picture taken with Kelly or Laird could mean a hefty bump in sales.
The ASR event -- along with Outdoor Retailer, Interbike and many others -- is operated by a division of Nielsen. A decade or so ago, Nielsen picked up the outdoor trade show group from a company called Miller Freeman, which was primarily a media publisher. These days, Nielsen has kicked publishing to the curb, focusing instead on the far more viable and lucrative world of trade shows.
Simply put, Nielsen is a for-profit enterprise. Running trade shows is what they do. And they're quite good at it.
The fly fishing "industry," on the other hand, parted ways with Nielsen last fall. That is to say, they fired their wedding coordinator and ran their own ceremony, leaving themselves with no one to blame but their betrothed. I haven't seen the official numbers, but even rejects from gambling anonymous will win money on the fact that the fly show was down in exhibitor booths, down in retailer attendance, and down in overall attendance. Some, including myself, felt that the show was down in overall innovation as well, as if the fly fishing gear designers took a pass on this season in case the show .... well ... .sucked.
There was some electricity at the show, surrounding a "big" announcement regarding the venue for next year's gathering. By the time the unveiling took place, it was the worst kept secret in the room. The fly show will leave Denver and head to New Orleans next year ... shining a spotlight on the admirable cause of getting gulf fishing guides back on their feet (LINK). It was a Teflon announcement, in that it was literally impossible for show exhibitors to refuse to attend. What cold hearted bastard wouldn't want to help out the fishing industry in the gulf? Who wouldn't want to go to the Big Easy for a few days?
The kicker, of course, has nothing to do with the exhibitors, and everything to do with the retailers. In moving the show away from the Rocky Mountains, the gathering is now a couple flights further away from a huge chunk of fly shops and guides who used to load up their pickup trucks and drive to Denver for the show.
If the retailers don't come to New Orleans next year, the honeymoon will officially be over.
This is not to say that fly fishing won't survive. Nor is it to say that fly fishing isn't completely awesome ("... as I tell my friends, if you would just try it, it'll be all that you'll want to do," T.B. 2010). Nor is it to say that fly fishing companies won't grow, thrive and even boom throughout the next year, or decade.
But it is to say that the concept of a trade show for fly fishing is, and should be, on the chopping block. If a show isn't going to be supported by the bulk of retailers, or by the bulk of exhibitors, then it's just. Not. Worth. It.
In thriving industries where checkbooks are out and being used during trade gatherings, shows have a fantastic ROI. In flat industries, however, they feed on the fear of your neighbor coveting your top clients. And in my opinion, defensive thinking is not a good enough reason to attend a trade show.
The air that made the hissing sound we all heard at IFTD last week has to go somewhere. The question for the fly fishing industry is whether they can capture that breath, and make it their own.