One of These Shows is not Like the Others

By: Tony Dear

It wasn't on its last breath exactly, but the PGA Merchandise Show had been looking a little pallid of late. So was the 2011 version any different than last year's? Did it show an industry still struggling to break free from the heavy chains of the Great Recession, or was there enough going on to suggest a great revival is imminent?

A look at some of the numbers should be enough to give hope even to the most cautious of speculators. A total of 41,824 individuals attended this year's PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando compared with 40,410 last year. There was a 7% increase in the number of PGA professionals. People from all 50 states were there, as they are most years, but this time PGA members, vendors, retailers, media and PR reps came to look, buy, sell, report and represent from 88 countries, a significant rise from the 75 or so in previous years.

In 2010, 416,450 square feet of the 906,340 square feet available in the Orange County Convention Center's capacious concourses were used for exhibition space. This year, the show covered 921,340 square feet with 445,600 square feet of it taken up by almost 1,000 exhibitors displaying, demonstrating and distributing their exciting new products. But perhaps the most telling number of all was that 86% of the extra 29,150 square feet used to exhibit this year's new stuff was occupied by just one company, whose reappearance at the show was welcomed even by its main competitors.

TaylorMade made the announcement it would be taking up floor space at the 2011 show as late as November. The Carlsbad-based clubmaker, along with its adidas and Ashworth brands, had been conspicuous by its absence from Orlando, not only missing last year's event but four of the previous six as well. Just as it had in 2007, however, TaylorMade had a fancy new product to promote and needed to make a splash.

Boy, did it ever make a splash. With a 25,000-square-foot "booth" (lumping it in with the tiny one-man areas actually does it something of a disservice) located at the opposite end of the convention center to all the other big-name manufacturers and, complete with its own restaurant and five-person driving range where all five players were hooked up to launch monitors, TaylorMade gave its white-crowned R11 and Burner Superfast drivers the biggest coming-out party in show history.

"We were launching two superb drivers and we wanted to do it properly," says Dave Cordero, a public relations manager for the company. "Our marketing teams had decided in the summer of 2010 that if we were going to go back to the PGA Show, we wanted the look and feel of the booth to match the excitement of the new clubs. And, as one of the larger OEMs, we also felt it was our responsibility to the golf industry to attend, and help bring excitement to the 2011 buying season."

However you feel about the notion of TaylorMade showing up out of a sense of duty to the golf industry really isn't important. And it remains to be seen what effect its presence at the show will have on the 2011 buying season (whose dates aren't exactly clear). But there's no denying TaylorMade's willingness to part with what must have been a considerable sum of money - "by far the biggest spent in our show history," says Cordero - to show off its latest wares revealed a growing confidence. (Callaway Golf's eve-of-show announcement of its 2010 full-year results, which showed a 2% increase in net sales from the previous year and a 6% increase in profits, was also encouraging.)

Adding to the buzz created by TaylorMade was the introduction of several young and exciting brands such as British Columbia-based Kikkor Golf and Portland Ore.'s C. Carnahan, both of which could easily have decided not to risk so much of whatever marketing budgets they had on a trade show whose glory days from the 1990s seem very distant.

"I'd heard the grumble coming out of the 2009 and 2010 shows," says James Lepp, a former NCAA champion at the University of Washington and Canadian Tour player who began winding down his playing career and moving into the golf-shoe business in 2008. "But if you want to be a serious part of this industry, you have to be at the PGA Show. I must admit though, I feared no one would show up. The type of golfer in our target audience isn't really the type of golfer that attends the show."

Lepp, who purchased his 10-by-20 booth last summer, knew he had to maximize the potential of his space if he and his unconventional, though incredibly comfortable, shoes were to leave a lasting impression. "I had visited the show several times before and hadn't been much impressed by most of the booths I saw," he says. "They were too boring, too predictable. You just looked at stuff. I wanted there to be some action, so I had the idea of turning our booth into a bar."

It was an inspired move. He may only have been serving sodas and Red Bulls for the most part (although he admits slightly stiffer drinks did begin appearing at one point), but Lepp says thousands of people passed through during the three days of the show and that he wrote up 450 new orders. "We were so busy it bordered on chaos actually . . . good chaos," he says. "My team and I had expected to go out every evening after we had finished at the show, or have a few beers while watching movies back at our rental house. But when we got back, we just crashed. We were asleep by 8:30 every night."

Lepp adds there's a very good chance he'll be returning next year. "We have to look at all the expenses obviously, but after the sort of response we had this year, I think it's very likely we'll be back in 2012. Mind you, with the success we had at our first show, the second one could be diabolical."

Chris Carnahan, himself a former Canadian Tour player who began selling his Insignia putter line in 2008 before bringing out the Vintage Wedge series in the summer of 2009, is also making plans for next year after being inundated with interested buyers last week.

"We only had a 10-by-10 booth, but it was in amongst some of the big-name brands and on a corner intersection, so we saw a lot of traffic," he says. "I sent out about 300 email brochures a day to people who gave me their contact details." Besides the club's attractive price points, Carnahan believes his brand's popularity had a lot to do with the fact he sells only to PGA professionals at green-grass sites, a policy all too rare in today's highly competitive market, where every last potential source of revenue is exploited.

All week the former University of Oregon golfer, who named the five putters in the Insignia collection after Portland bridges, stressed to potential customers that his brand was all about quality and service, not volume. "I think the PGA members we met and spoke with really appreciated the fact we don't do business with the big mall stores," he says. "They were excited there was a brand they could call their own."

Before going to Orlando, Carnahan clubs were available at 23 courses in Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. During the show, the company signed up its first customers from the eastern half of the country and, much to Carnahan's surprise, also added an international vendor - Warrenpoint GC in Northern Ireland. "The pro at Warrenpoint said he couldn't wait to meet us and see the clubs," says Carnahan. "I was shocked they had even heard of us in Northern Ireland. So it was really cool to have a professional from there order some clubs."

The 2011 show was such a positive experience for Carnahan, he had no hesitation in booking exactly the same spot for 2012. "That says it all really," he notes.

Carnahan and Lepp were obviously very pleasantly surprised by the level of activity in and around their booths, but they certainly aren't the only ones with hopes of a successful year following an upbeat PGA Merchandise Show. Any vendor on any of the 55 aisles probably has a story similar to that of Kikkor Golf or C. Carnahan; a story of increased traffic, greater interest and more business.

No one created more interest or saw more traffic (and, probably, did more business) than TaylorMade, whose booth, like its drivers (and like the TV commercial says), certainly was not like the others. "It was a tremendous show and very well-attended," concluded Cordero, who reported, five days after the show, that TaylorMade had booked 156% more in white metalwoods in January 2011 than it did for all its metalwoods in the first quarter of 2010. "As always, it was extremely well-organized and it proved to be a valuable opportunity to meet with key customers, media and PGA professionals. We are very pleased we attended."

So was the PGA of America of course and, one suspects, everyone else involved in the golf business.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at