2002: Companies clamor for PGA Show changes

By John Steinbreder and Gene Yasuda

Orlando, Fla.

The product introductions were few, and the aisles emptier than usual at the Orange County Convention Center.

But a buzz still permeated the 2003 PGA Merchandise Show – only this one emanated from frenzied discussions on ways to save golf’s preeminent trade expo, which many participants fear is on the brink of insignificance.

With Titleist, FootJoy, Cobra and Ping, among other major brands, skipping this year’s event, and rumors swirling that several other key exhibitors would pull out next year, a sense of urgency fell upon show-goers to float ideas to prevent the PGA Show from fracturing.

One of the most interesting rescue proposals came from Spalding CEO Jim Craigie, who advocated splitting the four-day expo – now open only to industry professionals – into a semi-consumer show by inviting the public to attend the final two days. He also suggested charging an admission fee, and kicking back a portion of the proceeds to support initiatives to grow the game.

Such concepts complemented ideas of trans-forming the PGA Show into a well-orchestrated annual promotion of golf – much the same way that NASCAR uses the Daytona 500 to usher in its racing year – by adding cameo appearances by stars from the game’s top tours.

“Many people look at the Masters as the start of the golf season, but why should we wait until then?” Craigie asked. “Why not start in January with the biggest meeting of our industry and do whatever we can to make it even more special?”

Other suggestions included hosting a “consumer” demo day on the Monday following the show, treating golf fanatics to a sneak preview of manufacturers’ newest inventions and creating demand before the start of the spring retail selling season.

Officials from Reed Exhibitions, which owns and operates the PGA Show, held Jan. 23-26, met frequently with exhibitors in an effort to prevent further defections and said they would review ideas that might reinvigorate their event.

“If it is something the industry thought was a good idea, we would be open to it,” said Christopher McCabe, Reed vice president and show general manager.

To their credit, Reed organizers have over the past few years implemented a host of changes to make the expo more valuable and relevant to its many constituencies, including equipment and apparel exhibitors, retail buyers and golf media.

This year, for example, Reed organized a demo day for retailers and club manufacturers as a prelude to the show. It attracted roughly 3,000 attendees and 45 exhibitors. Many raved. “The important thing for us is to get our product in people’s hands,” said Andrew Whiteley, director of marketing for Ruger Golf, a Southport, Conn.-based club and component maker. Added Jay Hubbard, director of marketing for Tour Edge Golf: “It’s really nice for a change to let the clubs do the talking.”

By getting an opportunity to test products in advance, retailers said they were better able to decide which companies they wanted to visit once the expo officially started.

Reed also added more than 50 education seminars designed to help golf professionals operate their businesses more efficiently. Though not all the sessions were well attended, some programs, including a seminar on moving excess inventory via the Internet, filled their rooms.

Many observers, however, say that without radical alterations the show likely will devolve into a second-rate affair Such measures are needed to counter the way the golf business has evolved in recent years; it has undergone changes that have made the expo virtually obsolete for some of the game’s biggest brands.

As the industry continues to consolidate, it is stratifying companies into the haves and have-nots. Though some leaders such as TaylorMade-Adidas and Nike Golf maintain the show still is valuable, others say they have sales forces large enough to cover their accounts nationwide, leaving little business to conduct at trade shows. Moreover, major brands such as Ping, Callaway and Titleist have begun flying retailers to resorts in the fall to discuss new products and marketing initiatives.

Accelerated product cycles also have led to equipment debuts throughout the year, lessening the need for a single, high-profile event to unveil products. Meanwhile, the combination of a weak economy and rising exhibition costs have failed to produce a reasonable return on investment for many major show participants. As a result, booth space was down 16 percent from a year ago, and roughly 200 fewer companies participated.

“The bigger we get, the less important the show becomes,” said Randy Romberg, Cleveland Golf’s director of marketing.

Nevertheless, Romberg and others clearly are reluctant to leave the show. Though they may exit at any moment, they’re hoping Reed can find reasons for them to stay. They say a vibrant trade show still has value, even if it doesn’t make perfect economic sense. Among other things, it serves as a forum to assess the state of the industry and produces intangible benefits such as providing networking opportunities.

“It creates a level of energy, and you can learn so much,” said Ken Morton Jr., director of retail for Haggin Oaks Golf Super Shop in Sacramento, Calif. “It might be something as simple as seeing an effective display in a ladies apparel booth and thinking we can replicate that in our shop. You come away with so many ideas. Those are all the things we would lose.”

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