2002: Business - Show still viable for small businesses

By John Steinbreder

Lost among the headlines of Acushnet’s and Ping’s departure from the PGA Merchandise Show is the impact a downsized event would have on an equally important constituency: the small and mid-sized companies that fill miles of aisles at the Orange County Convention Center.

Unlike their brawny brethren, these businesses depend on the show virtually for their very existence. They can efficiently reap sales, especially without the burden of building palatial booths or transporting an army of sales representatives.

For them, the evolution of the annual exhibition could result in two disparate results: one fortuitous; the other disastrous. If the departure of major exhibitors remains minimal, some smaller exhibitors say they stand to prosper because they can grab the spotlight. But if a major exodus occurs, decimating attendance, they say their livelihood could be jeopardized.

Though criticism that the show has become obsolete has intensified, nothing could be further from the truth for many small and mid-sized companies.

“We have had a great experience with the PGA Show over the years,” said Jeff Sheets, the director of marketing for Ogio, the $50 million Utah bag maker. “Last year was our largest writing show ever, and even with the departures of Ping and Acushnet, we still see Orlando as a very viable place to exhibit. So we are staying.”

One of the big differences between the large and small companies that attend the PGA Merchandise Show is what they actually accomplish there. A Titleist may get all the exposure its needs during the year from a vast sales force and hefty advertising budget.

“But for people like us, Orlando is a time and place to put our best foot forward,” said Jim Ulrich, marketing manager for Eaton Corp., which makes Golf Pride grips. “We can showcase our new products and let people know what we are doing.”

In defense of the show, Jay Hubbard, marketing and public relations director for Tour Edge, an Illinois clubmaker with roughly $20 million in annual revenues, produces some survey numbers.

“Ninety-one percent of the buyers who go to Orlando say it is a must-attend,” he said. “Twenty-nine percent say they are there to find new manufacturers and suppliers, while 53 percent say finding new vendors is important.

“Do you understand, then, why we need to go?”

For others, the show serves as a potential doorway to a critical distribution channel: on-course pro shops.

That’s why Japanese ballmaker Srixon, which is trying to gain greater U.S. presence, attends the annual exhibition.

“The show gives us a great opportunity to get in front of a lot of people we might not otherwise see and do some business. Orlando, in our view, is a place to do business and write orders,” said Mike Pai, Srixon’s vice president of marketing and advertising.

Pai also is among those executives who feel the departure of a few major companies actually might be beneficial to a company such as Srixon, which amasses $15 million in annual sales.

“If the same number of buyers still go, and a handful of big companies do not, then there are fewer competitors we need to shout over,” he said. “In that way, it could help.”

But it is not going to help if the exodus continues.

“With just two of the big companies gone, I don’t have any worries,” said Hubbard. “They’ll still come to see what everyone else has to sell. But if one more major leaves, well, I get a little concerned. And if five or six go, it would certainly impact our sales numbers at the show because its drawing power would be done.”

Hubbard is alluding to the show’s power to draw buyers from all over the country to Orlando, whether they are New England golf pros or Southern California retailers. And if it loses its ability to draw sufficiently, then things could indeed get difficult. Because buyers are what it is all about for the small and mid-sized exhibitors.

“Truth be told, I don’t care if Titleist or Ping leave the show,” said Barney Adams, the founder and chairman of Adams Golf. “I don’t care if Callaway drops out, or if Golfweek makes it there or not. It’s the retail buyers and golf professionals who affect my business, and no one else. If they come, we are fine. But if they don’t show, then the show has a real problem.”

That’s an issue for exhibitors like Tim Kennedy, the vice president of sales for Cali-Fame of Los Angeles, a family-run hatmaker that had a 400-square-foot booth at the 2002 gathering.

“The show, as is, is still great for us, and the departure of Titleist and Ping do not impact us at all,” he said. “But all that changes if buyer attendance declines because more big companies defect.”

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