The PGA Show: Then vs. Now
Written By: Jay Baker
Last week I made my annual trek to Orlando to attend the PGA Show. Many golfers would consider the event the Mecca of golf retail.
I have attended every PGA Show over the last 20 years, some good and some bad. I have experienced it from both sides, as a buyer and as an exhibitor. As you might guess, the show has changed significantly since the mid 1990s when I began attending.
Depending on your age and perspective, this article will either come across as nostalgic or as though it was written by a bitter old curmudgeon.
Things inside the walls of the Orlando Convention Center’s West Concourse aren’t what they used to be. The good old days, right? Regardless, life goes on and so does the PGA Show.
Here’s a look at how the annual PGA Show has changed over the last 20 years.
The Show has become a good barometer of the golf industry
Back when I first began attending the PGA Show in the mid-1990s, everybody appeared to be successful. The floor was so crowded it looked like every company was writing more orders than they could possibly handle.
If you had asked a random attendee about the golf business, he would have told you that golf’s future was brighter than the oil industry’s. There was always plenty of posturing, despite the fact that you wouldn’t see the same companies from one year to the next (that still happens today). Business always looked good, even when it wasn’t.
Back then it was difficult to get a good read on how the industry or any given company was doing. The show is different now. There is an overall attitude on the floor that permeates throughout the show. You can practically sense the health of the industry.
Last year’s show didn’t have a positive vibe, and lo and behold, it wasn’t a very good year for the golf industry. This year, the vibe was much more positive for just about every facet of the industry, except hard goods (anything with a grip).
Equipment companies seemed almost indifferent. Nothing exciting is happening, but the sky isn’t falling either. One very large equipment booth did remind me a bit of the Titanic. The ship might be sinking, but the band played on. Despite being humbled by the economic realities surrounding the game, posturing never suffers.
The reason I think the PGA Show has become a good barometer of the golf industry is because there is more truth and transparency in the golf business as a whole.
Sounds crazy, right?
20 years ago we didn’t have the widespread availability of information that we have today. You also had a lot more people attending the show, which made it tough to gauge business. The industry was better able to shield some of its struggles from the consumer. This is not the case today.
Not many orders are written
There is an element of subjectivity to this. The truth is that tons of orders are written at the PGA Show. It’s a convention for crying out loud! Social media…and media coverage in general make it easy to forget that the actual purpose of the PGA Show is to showcase product and write orders.
That said, companies don’t write orders like they did 20 years ago. Release cycles have changed dramatically…from big box retail to smaller green grass accounts, nearly everyone has already pre-booked their spring orders. It’s the end of January. Who hasn’t already ordered his Pro V1s?
Practically nobody. That’s who.
Retailers have better access to brand reps today (both corporate and independent). Those reps don’t drive nearly as many miles as they used to because there are fewer courses, and they can just as easily leverage the Internet and email to do the bulk of their business. Heck, some golf companies do the majority of business through online portals and have all but eliminated the need for local reps. Obviously not all companies can do this.
20 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have buyers that did 100% of their buying at the PGA Show. Today, I doubt you could find one buyer who still does anywhere close to 100% of their ordering at the show.
In the 1990s I remember being pitched anything and everything. John Solheim condemned insert putters like the Odyssey Dual Force. An engineer from Titleist told me that his company would never make a solid core tour performance golf ball.
Companies did whatever it took to sell and write orders. My fondest memory is of a man, so inebriated he could barely speak, telling me how he could fix Tiger Woods’ putting stroke with his educational putting videos and gadgets. That was in 1998. Maybe Tiger found him the next year, but I doubt it.
Booth reps are not as pushy as they once were. Most of the big guys are not looking to write orders. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the bigger OEMs didn’t write a single equipment order at the show. Sure, there might be some fill-ins or change orders but the main stuff is long since done. The cost of the booth is no longer paid for by the orders placed at the show.
I know of one medium-sized company who was already at full manufacturing capacity prior to the start of the show. Why come to the show when you can’t take on additional orders?
The Show is A Marketing Frenzy
In some cases the booths matter more than the products. The PGA Show has become all about marketing and networking. It barely qualifies as a sales convention anymore. Titleist, Ping, Mizuno and others don’t come to write orders. They come to shake hands and kiss babies. Titleist, for example, organizes workshops for pros looking to learn and network.
I’m not saying that zero orders are taken. With their shorter lifecycles, Taylormade and Callaway are likely booking some business at the show. The same is true for apparel lines – although by late January most are already booking fall orders.
The after show booth parties of yesterday have migrated to Howl at the Moon and Señor Frog’s. Some companies will even rent out entire spaces for private parties. The Peabody, errr… Hyatt Regency, or whatever they are going to call it next year is packed more than ever and it’s not the only hot spot. Today you have networking events that make it all the way to places like Rocco’s Taco and Seasons 52. Current trends suggest we’re only a year or two away from a meet and greet at the World’s Largest Entertainment McDonald’s on West Sand Lake Rd.
There’s no time to go back to your hotel and process orders at today’s PGA Show. You have to get out on I-Drive and network, but make sure to watch your back because…
People come to steal
Back in the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, the people who attended the show were there to do business. Somewhere along the line, stealing became a business. I’m not just talking about guys stealing products from the booth, although that happens quite a bit more than you’d probably think.
When I used to work the show as an exhibitor, we’d inevitably have a golf club, shirt, or accessory that went missing by the end of the show.
Reed Exhibitions would provide neon stickers with the PGA Merchandise logo to the exhibitors to help identify which products were sold and which ones were stolen. Stickers be damned though, there were always plenty of people walking around with undocumented merchandise. Security did little or nothing about it. Frankly, this has been a problem for as long as I can remember.
In recent years a new type of theft has emerged.
At the show this year, it was as if Alibaba sent a crew of spies to take pictures of literally everything. While I’m guessing many of the exhibitors didn’t even notice, I’m fairly certainly that counterfeit versions of their products will be available by the end of the week.
What can anybody do? A patent doesn’t mean much when Asian countries enforce their laws with the same fervor as a DMV receptionist.
As MyGolfSpy has covered before, theft in this industry isn’t above anyone’s pay grade. The big boys don’t have to be as concerned at the show because most of their stuff gets copied at the factory or at the back door anyway. What a relief!
The modern counterfeiter tends to gravitate towards tech items and accessories; items that are easily cloned.
Another trend is suppliers stealing business. Technically, solicitation is not allowed at the show, but that doesn’t stop several manufacturing and supply companies from trying to drum up a little business. Most of the larger companies shoo these guys away like the mosquitoes they are, so most will focus their efforts on small to medium-sized companies.
While these are the current trends, at one time or another every company has had a PGA Merchandise mole roaming the floor. The action used to be a lot more clandestine. Modern day James Bond, these guys are not.
The Show is BIGGER, or is it?
I could provide links to several articles that prove the PGA Show is bigger now than it was in the late 1990s, and I’m sure that Reed Exhibitions would love to quote me some statistics that show their success since they partnered with the PGA in 1998.
The Orange County West Convention Center has been the same size since it expanded to 1.1 million square feet in 1996. Growth clearly isn’t measured by the square foot. So how exactly is that growth measured? Attendance? Auxiliary events? Or is it the most important factor, dollar bills?
The PGA Show has an $81 million impact on the Orange County area for the week. 40,000+ people from over 80 countries attend each day to see products from more than a 1,000 different companies.
But let’s not focus totally on those numbers. As Sam Clemens once said, “facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable”, and we all know that can certainly be the case in the golf industry. So let’s have a look at where the numbers bend.
In 1996 (my first year at the show), my father and I arrived in Orlando late Wednesday night after the 6 hour drive from Atlanta. Banking on availability close to the convention center, Dad had neglected to book a hotel in advance.
Some of you old-timers will remember 1996 as a time before things like Google Maps, Hotwire, or Expedia. To find a hotel room you either used the yellow pages, or you drove from one hotel to the next looking for a vacancy.
We stopped at every hotel or motel starting at the convention center moving south towards Kissimmee. We didn’t find anything until we were inside the Kissimmee city limits; 30 minutes away from the convention center.
Granted, Orlando and Kissimmee have grown since then. There are certainly more hotels today than in 1996. However, getting a last minute room close to the convention center is much easier. The need for lodging is not as not as great as it once was.
The show floor used to be packed, so much so that the aisles weren’t nearly big enough to accommodate all of the attendees. The public wasn’t allowed into the PGA Show, not even on the last day. Booth owners were free to do business without John Q. Public looking over their shoulders.
Want to hit some clubs in the indoor range? Forget it, there wasn’t one in the 90s, the space was too valuable. In fact, the indoor range was created to fill the empty floor space that Titleist and Ping (among others) left behind when, from 2003 to 2008, they stopped exhibiting.
It’s Not the Same Show
Today, the big boys are back, but the show isn’t what it was in the late 1990s. As we all know, there are fewer rounds being played and fewer courses to play on. Ultimately this leads to few buyers and fewer exhibitors. And while allowing the public to attend the show does help boost the attendance numbers but it doesn’t bring back that business buzz that used to fill the convention center.
The demo day on Tuesday has been a good addition, especially with regards to the public. It gives people the chance to look, touch, feel, and hit the new products. To the benefit of exhibitors, a lot of buzz gets generated on the range. Demo day also makes the show a day longer, which makes the show feel bigger.
While the PGA Show is still more meaningful than an Ian Poulter tweet, it has shuffled out of step with the cadence of the industry – at least where the big manufacturers are concerned. For up-and-comers or the inventor betting his life savings on the next great invention (his), however; the show remains as relevant as ever.
In the big picture, the modern PGA Show is no better or worse than it was in the past. It’s just different.