Evolution of a Major Outdoor Expo: Interview with John Kirk, Director, International Sportsman's Expositions

Apr 9, 2015
Outdoor sports expos are one of the highlights of the year for many outdoor sportsmen and women. Most happen in the first quarter to inspire people for the coming year, and they're growing across the country.

One of the most popular, The International Sportsman's Expositions (ISE), holds annual shows in Sacramento, Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City. ISE has been in business for 38 years http://www.sportsexpos.com/ ) and their four Expos attract 18,000 to 35,000 people per show and 250 -600 exhibitors, along with speakers, workshops, demonstrations, panel discussions, book signings, and screenings of films. And the attendance and number of exhibitors at ISE shows is growing every year. The lessons from ISE are useful to the success of any outdoor recreation event.

John Kirk, the current Director of the ISE shows, joined ISE in 1998. Before that he was managing editor for Fishing Tackle Trade News, and a free-lance business writer working with Ed Rice, who founded International Sportsmen's Expositions in the mid-1970s. After this year's ISE season wrapped in March, I caught up with John. Here, then are "A Few Minutes With John Kirk."

JAS – Why are the ISE so successful?

JK -- "Because our sole mission is to make our exhibitors successful. We can only do that by attracting a sufficient number of the right-quality of consumers to our events. We spend more than any other producer on local advertising, and work all year long to create endemic and media partnerships that benefit all involved."

JAS: How has ISE changed, are today's shows different from when you started with ISE?

JK – "The biggest difference in shows now versus when I began has been the development of new ways in which we must communicate with , not just to , the many audiences a general sportsman show attracts. For example, within the basic categories of fishing and hunting, many sub-segments have evolved and differ based on location, tradition and, of course, resource conditions, which are endlessly variable. This diversity has limited the ability of any website or app from offering a product to completely solve the angler's or hunter's most-basic question: 'What should I do, here, now, to succeed?'

One approach is to have a show or app just for turkey hunters, duck hunters, fly fishermen or gun enthusiasts. That content must be authentic and relevant to attract and hold audience respect and attention. That may be the biggest marketing challenge, given the staggering number of channels out there. That said, ISE offers many different categories in a single show, and we continue to add more categories and sub-segments. It creates an environment where diverse outdoor audiences can casually meet face-to-face and discover new things. It also protects us from a segment shift that, were it all we offered, could be catastrophic."

JAS – You keep pulling in people in California even though the numbers of hunting and fishing licenses sold have declined significantly. What have you learned about how to effectively reach your audience?

JK – "The Sacramento show is our largest. It draws about 35,000. We believe it's far more difficult to grow participation in a particular activity when a newcomer has to enter a specialist's domain, which has its own language and rules. Even marketers can be secretive or apparently arrogant! This complaint has often been leveled at fly-fishing specialty shops, for example.

In an ISE event barriers have purposely been minimized. We offer a robust feature strategy that speaks to the existing elk hunter, fly fisher, bass guy or trolling enthusiast. They also offer any show attendee the opportunity to try a product, get instruction, test their skills, or be entertained and motivated by somebody else teaching, trying or competing. Features hold folks at the show, increase the value of their admission ticket and deepen the experience.

ISE has taken the same global approach to travel. Any ISE show will spotlight many different destinations, world-wide, in addition to virtually every state in the western U.S. This approach requires more effort—sales personnel, database, territories, and strategies to meet various exhibitor-category needs. One major benefit of this strategy is quickly becoming aware as our exhibitors expand their traditional business.

Expansions in hard goods include more boats and different kinds of watercraft; fishing kayaks, stand-up-paddle boards, personal water craft and, most recently, wakeboarding, ski and other non-fishing boat models. This strategy has attracted a new, often younger audience to our events. Results have been positive—we added the Arizona Boat Show to our Phoenix event in 2014 and grew attendance more than 30%!

We've also been very successful with off-road vehicles and accessories. So-called Utility Task Vehicles—side-by-sides—have created new, valuable customers and are evolving very quickly.

Bowhunting is also increasing. These participants are often young—men and women—who are attuned to the latest technical innovations, and personally driven to going ever-farther backcountry. We've support them with a complete three-dimensional, pop-up archery range and tournament, surrounded by more archery shops and factories. The factories are often smaller companies with innovative products but without wide distribution or much recognition.

Because of the expansion of products offered, we need more room to grow in some venues. We're moving our sportsman and boat show in Arizona in 2016 to a much larger site at WestWorld in Scottsdale, which can accommodate more exhibits, features and activities.

Put all of these booths and activities into a quarter-million-square-foot-or-larger space and you've set the stage for unpredictable encounters—we call it a treasure hunt. We believe that this approach is a recipe for generating real excitement about the outdoors."

JAS -- When ISE started there was a show in San Mateo County in the Bay Area. It's gone.

JK – "When ISE began, San Mateo was loaded with "our customers." It was our biggest show. Numbers dwindled. Other building-based shows that were in or came into the market have all gone away. Now, Sacramento is the biggest show, drawing many from the Bay area. We learned that if you put on a quality show, it will attract people sometimes from several hours drive away."

JAS – Is there anything new you're planning for next year?

"Constant research and responding to change is what keeps our audience numbers increasing. We'll know as time passes."

JAS -- How about attendance?

JK: "Depends on the market. In Sacramento, numbers have been increasing for several reasons, including: it's the only event of its scope and reputation in northern California; favorable ad rates for market size; facility capability that allows show expansion and, thereby, promotion. Numbers are stable in Denver, also a good advertising market with strong media partners. Only Denver and Salt Lake have a regular outdoor column in major newspaper. The Phoenix market is rapidly increasing...after 15 years! Numbers are stable in the Salt Lake City show, but we lost many when a hunt-only show began offering special tags, forcing hunters to go the show to put in."

JAS -- Nationwide there are reports of more people becoming interested in outdoor sports. What percentage of the people today are newcomers? Does this agree with your crowds?

 JK –"We haven't yet analyzed our 2015 data, which includes a breakdown of sports pursued and avidity. But historical data has not shown big swings year-to-year. Changes are incremental, but our crowds are increasing in size."

JAS -- Any there new sports you are featuring? Dropping old ones?

 JK – "No drops, but categories expand or contract due to weather and regulations impacting the success of businesses in a category, and unpredictable events that might result in a category suddenly going hot or cold. Examples include: a natural disaster that makes people aware they need survival gear; downturn in economy that nudges folks to a "staycation", a movie that intrigues non-participants enough to experiment, which the "Hunger Games" series has done for archery. Or, new categories, such as UTVs or the invention of fish-specific kayaks or Hobie's invention of the pedal kayak.

One thing that is constant about this business is change!"

--- James A. Swan