No New Normal….Yet

Jan 10, 2022

Trade shows can show you a lot about an industry.

Watching the exhibitors and their body language can give hints to which companies are genuinely enthused and excited about their products. It also offers clues as to why some booths with products that show potential have no one looking.

Don’t know the reason why this booth (above) is vacant. But an empty space represents both an unrecoverable cost and innumerable lost opportunities. Millennium Treestands (below) tells us putting these seats out at trade shows has been a force multiplier.

If you’re selling at a trade show, you’d better be selling all the time. If you’re sitting quietly as potential customers wander aimlessly by, you’ve missed the point. In Louisville, I watched as a significantly reduced, but enthusiastic, crowd of dealers and buyers walked a show floor that actually had empty spaces without any presence.

There were certainly factors that impacted attendance. The pandemic has made everything more difficult. Factor in an unexpectedly energetic winter storm dropping ice and snow across the midwest, south and northeast, and you have the ingredients for a potential disaster.

The snow and ice covered parking lots of the Kentucky Expo Center looked more like Green Bay -without snowplows - than Louisville, Kentucky.

Yet the Archery Trade Show went off without any apparent hitches.

And the absences? One gleeful exhibitor told me it was a win for anyone who did attend, most especially those in the categories where the “majors” had decided to stay home.

“The way I look at it,” he explained, “there are still buyers here, and they’re looking for products to sell in their stores. With my closest competitors not here, we automatically have a better opportunity to talk with them about our product. We’re not having to compete for their time here, we’re getting a clear field opportunity to talk to them about our product being good for their business.”

ATA officials were candid in their admission that attendance was off from past shows. But they were also quick to point out that the attendance made it clear that there was an appetite for physical trade events. That being said, they also said there’s little doubt that shows will change due to the lessons learned during their absence.

Archery Wire editor Michelle Scheuermann and I had the opportunity to speak privately with the ATA’s incoming CEO, Jeff Poole (Note: You can read the in-depth interview in tomorrow’s Archery Wire). Poole has more experience than most with trade and consumer shows, having been a key player in the NRA’s Great American Outdoor Show -the country’s largest and longest consumer outdoor event.

Even with that experience, he was reluctant to offer up a vision of what shows might look like in the future. “Not officially ‘here’ yet,” he explained (he doesn’t start his new job until later this month), “so I’m here to watch, to meet and talk with industry leaders - manufacturers and dealers. I want to get a feel for what they see from their customers and what people want.”

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” he reiterated when we bumped into him quietly walking the show floor, “I’m watching and learning.”

He did, however, see opportunities ahead that wouldn’t have existed pre-Covid. “Lots of people got outdoors over the past few months,” he said, “we all have a big challenge…that’s establishing relationships with those newcomers, and getting their whole families into the outdoors.”

That was a common theme, whether the conversation was with an exhibitor or a retailer. Everyone realizes the value of outdoor recreation was reestablished with people who might never have considered outdoor recreation before the pandemic. Social distancing forced them to look at ways to recreate without congregating.

“I had people coming into my archery shop who had never seen bows and arrows,” one retailer told me, “but they wanted to try something in the outdoors that had some sport element attached to it. Archery, especially with our success in the Tokyo Olympic Games, gave them a sport that would allow them to compete with their friends - outdoors.”

Others told me the growth in the archery programs in schools, including NASP and S3DA, had helped bring them new customers. But the pandemic brought its own special challenge: product to offer these potential new customers.

Dealers attending the ATA Show included retailers with full-line outdoor shops. They told me they’d learned some interesting lessons about retailing during a pandemic. A few of them caused changes in their shops.

“Ammunition was a learning experience,” one full-line retailer told me, “we’d never run out of 30-30 or 30-06 ammunition before, but we did. We also realized we needed to pull some of the ammunition we had off our display shelves. When a customer saw ammo, they wanted to know if we had guns in that caliber. If we didn’t, some of them got disgusted and left. If we had the gun and the ammo, we had an excellent chance to sell them both, along with a bunch of accessories. It was eye-opening to see that kind of demand.”

That was encouraging, but his last comment brought home the challenge every brick-and-mortar business nationwide is facing. “We had to cut back our store hours this year,” he told me, “because we didn’t have enough people. And we still had a terrific year.”

“What upsets me most,” he said, “is always wondering how many more people we could have turned into lifelong customers -and how much more we could have sold - if we had been able to have our normal hours and usual supply of products.”

With fewer people working, business owners in every industry are looking at how to protect their workers, decide on new products, and keep their businesses running.

How they answer those interlocking questions will definitely impact how trade shows look in the future.

We’ll keep you posted.

— Jim Shepherd