January 26, 2010

One-Stop Shopping

Even in a down year, the PGA Merchandise Show is as relevant as ever

The PGA Merchandise Show is still an opportunity for golf to trumpet its most recent successes.

The PGA Merchandise Show is still an opportunity for golf to trumpet its most recent successes.

There was a time not long ago -- and in some precincts perhaps as recently as earlier this week -- that the PGA Merchandise Show could be seen as an unnecessary, irrelevant and an extravagant waste of time.

In a down economy and in an industry that is increasingly creeping toward 21st century business-to-business technology (more and more equipment companies now conduct most of their communications with pros and shop owners electronically, for example), the annual gathering of golf vendors, golf buyers and golf writers in Orlando, Fla., had lost its energy and necessity. For example, it became more and more rare for a major company to debut a new line of products in January in Orlando. More often than not those introductions were made to sales teams in the fall and rolled out to some accounts in seasonal locations.

This year, though, "the Show," as it's been called by veterans for decades, seems to have a genuine urgency. The event is still golf's most important way of trumpeting its successes in making one of the most difficult pastimes manageable, entertaining and possibly even fun.

For the most part, anybody who's anyone in the golf industry (save for players on the PGA Tour) will be in Orlando the next three days for the 57th annual meeting of golf equipment makers and sellers. (The list of big names includes top teachers Butch Harmon, David Leadbetter, Hank Haney and Jim McLean, as well as tour players Greg Norman, Justin Leonard, Natalie Gulbis and Paula Creamer, among others. Even John O'Hurley will be there.) An expected 1,000 exhibitors will occupy 10 miles of aisles inside the Orange County Convention Center. Attendance is predicted by Reed Exhibitions, which owns the Show, at around 40,000, down from recent years. Nevertheless, Reed Exhibitions has been relentless in its promotion of this year's event, both in word and deed. Its massive Wednesday Demo Day on the 42-acre practice range at Orange County National has been one of the most enthusiastically received additions to the annual event, and there's a sold-out allotment of hitting stalls set up indoors at the convention center for each day of the event. E-mails arrive almost daily and certain media members even receive personal voice messages extolling the Show's offerings this year.

In a sense, it's worked. Of the major companies in golf, only TaylorMade has opted out of a major presence at this year's celebration. That's a better collection of attendees than in any recent year. Now, of course, that could be desperation. Sales in woods and irons and putters and balls and even gloves were down in 2009 from a down year in 2008. More depressing is the fact that unit prices are trending down almost across the board, too. Callaway Golf announced its sales in 2009 were off 17 percent, as an example. Throw in the ongoing yet difficult to calculate effect of the Tiger Malaise and the show could take on the tone of a pity party.

But not so fast. Industry analyst Casey Alexander of Gilford Securities recently pointed out that golf retail inventory is "as lean as they have been in years." Translation: A possible need to be filled. Plus, in desperate times like these, attending the show as a manufacturer could simply be good business, as in when you can't find buyers, it might be a good idea to go where the buyers are. And if you're a golf type who can't find work, it might be a good idea to go where the companies are.

Says PGA Golf Exhibitions Group Vice President and General Manager Ed Several, "Especially in a recovering economy, PGA Professionals, retailers and golf leaders are recognizing the significance of utilizing the increasing abundance of resources available in one setting at the 2010 PGA Merchandise Show."

"We saw a positive increase in pre-registration over the holiday break and a terrific response to both the expanded education conference and the new career fair."

That is assuming you can get in, of course. The PGA Merchandise Show, like say the annual Consumer Electronics Show, is a private affair. Only those with a legitimate connection to equipment companies or the PGA of America can find their way to the convention floor. What the Show always has been about is window shopping for golf geeks. This year is no exception. You will see new concepts in driver technology like Cleveland's efforts at reducing the total weight of the club to increase clubhead speed. You will see an explosion in golf GPS activity, both in handheld units from leader SkyGolf as well as new smartphone applications from Sonocaddie and even expanded GPS functionality in carts that feature updated flyover hole views and shot measuring capabilities from ClubCar. The most technologically sophisticated products, though, may be in the area of fitting clubs and training the golf swing. Things like the latest golf simulators from aboutGolf and the all-in-one VectorX launch monitors from AccuSport.

As always, most products on display aren't yet available in stores, and nothing on the show floor technically is for sale. But that may also be the charm of this annual gathering that started out as a lineup of cars with their trunks open in the parking lot of the PGA National Golf Club in 1954.

The PGA Show in the end is a great chance for the industry to hold a block party for itself. It is hard not to walk down any aisle at the Orange County Convention Center and not be excited about the immediate future of the game and its technology. The result is a collective pat on the back for the industry, while at the same time creating an opportunity to wake a new interest and enthusiasm in its core audience for its latest technologies.

There's no question there are plenty of stories to tell this year, but like always the biggest thing for sale at every booth large or small is the same thing they're always selling at this annual meeting: Hope.