2002: Superintendent News - Industry sees value in annual trade show

By SCOTT KAUFFMAN

Recent decisions by two leading golf equipment manufacturers to pull out of their industry’s biggest trade show could suggest a similar scenario developing among course maintenance companies.

First Ping and then Acushnet Co., maker of Titleist, FootJoy and Cobra brands, said they were ending their participation in the PGA Merchandise Show, an annual extravaganza that draws about 50,000 to Orlando, Fla. Both companies cited the costs of attending vs. the return on investment.

“We don’t sell anything there, yet we spend $2.5 million attending,” said Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein in announcing his company’s move.

The concern for the organizers of the show is that the two departures, announced months apart, could precipitate an exodus of other major manufacturers from the golf equipment industry’s largest show.

But such a fallout isn’t likely to happen in the agronomic sector of the golf business, though some industry executives are weighing their investment in the show.

According to several executives, the Deeres, Toros and Textrons of the world easily are spending more than $1 million apiece on attending the GCSAA’s annual conference and show, which draws more than 20,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors.

Money aside, one important factor outweighs the upfront costs of attending: Nowhere is there such a critical mass of direct customers – distributors – and ultimate end users – superintendents – as there is at the GCSAA show.

“It is the biggest industry event we’ve got for our customers,” said Jon Carlson, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Textron, Golf Turf & Specialty Products. “We’ve got a lot of very important people who look forward to new product introductions . . . and a continuation of business discussions around that event.

“In my opinion, it’s not a trade show, but a business facilitator that involves products, customers and (original equipment manufacturers). This event is the stake in the ground.”

Yet, with economic pressures on all fronts, there are companies – Simplot and Toro are just a couple – questioning the value of the annual convention.

The Toro Co.’s presence will be “smaller in the future,” said John Wright, director of golf marketingthe Bloomington, Minn.-based company.

“It’s pretty clear several major manufacturers have trimmed back a little bit,” Wright said. “Why? People are getting around to the new reality.

“Last year was the first kind of soft year. This is the second and next year will be the third. The ’90s are long over and people are scrutinizing more.”

J.R. Simplot Co.’s Simplot Turf and Horticulture group is another company taking a hard look at the GCSAA show.

“We do kind of a post mortem on each show . . . and we’re really stopping and talking about what’s the best thing for us,” said Bill Whitacre, president of J.R. Simplot’s Boise, Idaho-based AgriBusiness Group, which encompasses Simplot Turf.

“I’ll be real truthful,” Whitacre said. “The expense is just huge. And it has to compete with other ways to use that money.”

Another distressing sign, Whitacre says, is hearing superintendent customers say “they’re really not interested if we’re there.” Furthermore, he said, it doesn’t appear that there’s a lot of business being conducted.

At GCSAA headquarters in Lawrence, Kan., signs of conditional support for the national trade show have not gone unnoticed.

“I think it would be a mistake if we didn’t take serious the changes going on in trade shows in general,” said GCSAA chief operating officer Julian Arredondo. “We are in a challenging economy right now. . . .

“We’re trying to be extremely mindful of what companies are going through. . . . We’ve got about 200 affiliate members going through tough times right now. Hopefully, (the annual convention) is a place where they feel they need to be, and it’s more than a trade show.”

For its part, John Deere Golf & Turf has been extremely pleased with the marketing value of the GCSAA show, said Aaron Wetzel, North American sales manager for Cary, N.C.-based entity.

“I would think all companies continually evaluate they’re marketing dollars, but we still see value in the GCSAA show,” Wetzel said. “It’s a great opportunity to interface with a lot of customers and great opportunity to showcase products.

“Also, what we’ve done is we have combined the show with additional training opportunities for our distribution network. Leverage the fact that everybody is there. . . . I don’t see any changes.”

Despite hearing some rumblings among industry colleagues, Joe DiPaola, golf marketing manager for Syngenta in Greensboro, N.C., said he does not expect any defections from the show.

“Wehigh value the opportunity to get to see that many professionals,” DiPaola said. “It’s kind of hard to replace that. A couple have mumbled to me, and I won’t name them, ‘Is that the best way to spend money?’ ”

However, DiPaola said, “It would be shortsighted trying to save a dollar today because this is what the next year and the following year brings. It doesn’t replace all that face-to-face, eye-to-eye, which, in the final analysis, is what moves business.”

Scott Bower, first assistant superintendent at Lahontan Golf Club in Truckee, Calif., says he wouldn’t be deterred from attending the show even if the more well-known exhibitors pulled out.

“Is it fun to see the new technologies and changes and is it comfortable to walk into Toro and Textron’s booth and socialize? Sure. But if the big boys didn’t show, I’d be fine. I go more for the education and networking.”

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