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Sing Me The Groove!

Our Reaction to the Fly Fishing Retailer Trade Show

By Joe and Dee Cornwall

After the show last year, the following statement was released.  "Compared to last year, the 2006 show was an overall smaller event. A total of 1,691 exhibitors made the trip to Denver this year, down from a total of 1,882 in 2005.  According to preliminary attendance figures for 2006, 958 total buyers from 617 retail stores and shops attended FlyFishing Retailer. In 2005, 1255 buyers from 711 retail stores and shops attended the event."  On September 24, 2007 I received this message from AFFTA: " We are gratified to share the news with AFFTA members and partners that the FlyFishing Retailer World Trade Expo grew dramatically in both vitality and sheer numbers this year. We marked a 35 percent increase in total attendance, including 20 percent growth in buyer attendance over last year.

"There's a lot more meaningful progress beyond the numbers, however. A stronger sense of optimism was evident even before the show began, when we had record attendance at AFFTA's Industry Breakfast. The same goes for the excellent free seminars offered throughout the show, participation in the New Product Showcase Ka-Ching Awards, the excitement during the casting competition, and so many other show elements where the strength of our community was highlighted by goodwill and a spirit of partnership."

That said, this year's show felt a bit smaller. Certainly there were a few exhibitors missing this year who were there last year.  Among the missing were Dan Bailey's Fly Shop, Beulah fly rods, Okuma and Lamiglass.  The following preliminary numbers have been provided:

Buyers: up 208 / 2006- 964, 2007- 1172
Retail stores: up 22 / 2006- 537, 2007- 559
Total attendees: up 790 / 2006- 2289, 2007- 3079
Total exhibiting companies: up 3 / 2006- 234, 2007- 237

In terms of feel this was a smaller show, but it was a far more optimistic and focused show than we experienced in 2006.  Fly Fishing Retailer is an important opportunity for the industry is to galvanize and motivate its retail ambassadors.  While we wish there were booths for Casting for Recovery, Project Healing Waters and the Sierra Club, we were impressed with the industry representation that was recruited.  Perhaps next year Neilson and AFFTA will extend a hand to the non-profits associated with outdoor sports and offer them space.  Charity begins at home.


There were 14 break-out session included in this year's trade show. That's a significant increase from the 8 learning opportunities presented in 2006.   While it was impossible for us to attend every session, we managed to hit about half of them.  What we saw really gave us pause for consideration.  The Fly Fishing Retailer trade show is definitely moving in the right direction!  Over the years both of us have attended dozens of trade shows in cities across the country.  From the Consumer Electronics Trade Show in Las Vegas to the High Point Furniture Trade Show in High Point, North Carolina we've seen, and in many instances exhibited, at them all.  Don't be confused, putting on a quality trade show is an enormous undertaking.  We give kudos to the staff of FFR for making great strides in a short time!  Here is what we experienced in Denver:

Fly Fishing Retailer Industry Breakfast

"Held each year at the Fly Fishing Retailer World Trade Expo, AFFTA hosts an annual industry breakfast featuring relevant and engaging keynote speakers."

The World Fly Fishing Retailer trade show (a Nielsen Sports Group production) traditionally opens, as do so many trade shows, with an industry breakfast. 7AM is an early hour on a Sunday if fishing isn’t involved. Never the less the industry breakfast attracted some 250 to 300 participants, many from the exhibitor staff if the shirts were any indication.  More attendees rolled in as the morning progressed and the room really exuded a fun level of energy.  At the end, I'm told, there were approximately 370 who attended.  This stood in stark contrast to the 2006 FFR breakfast, which left me a bit on the cool side of enthusiastic.

The breakfast presentation opened after a short greeting from Rob Ramsay, President of AFFTA, with a brief multimedia presentation by Thad Robinson of the Angling Exploration Group. Self described as "a group of trout bums, videographers, fly fishermen, photographers, biologists, and writers who have banded together in an attempt to further the sport and revolutionize the world of fly fishing media," the presentation proved they believe in truth in advertising.  These guys are hard core!

The film clip shown (not the one above, but that will give you the idea) was cut from materials shot over seven months in Patagonia and featured thumping industrial beats and an “X-treme” attitude. Clearly these guys are having a lot of fun and cutting some great film to boot. Watching outsized trout come up through crystal clear water to unhesitatingly gulp a floating fly makes for a fine addition to weak coffee.  Trust us when we tell you they won’t be shooting a session on anything that looks like the Great Miami River of Ohio!  One question came to my mind, however. Where does the money come from that allows these guys to travel to all those exotic locations to fish and film?  An even more important question is "Can we come too???"

Kenji Haroutunian was named Director for Fly Fishing Retailer by Nielsen in April of this year.  Despite the danger of following fabulous fish porn in a room of fanatical fly fishers, Kenji "ponied up" and did his best.  During his presentation he offered a synopsis of changes to the FFR show itself. The changes are welcome and it became clear during the show that he's had an immediate impact. Kenji called the show a “gathering point“ and a “lightning rod for change.” Let’s all hope so. Last year’s show left me feeling that the future business plan for the fly fishing industry hinged on someone making the next A River Runs Through It movie!

Northwest Mutual Financial Network sponsored the breakfast and the next speaker was Bret Gardner, Financial Advisor and Member of the Sporting Culture Group (no, I’m not making that title up). Bret gets a discount from Orvis. Or at least he should. For 30 minutes I heard a commercial appeal to invest in my financial well being with Mr. Gardner’s organization, accompanied by an overwhelming and almost sycophantic ode to the Vermont company. From high to low the Fly Fishing Retailer show packs it all in and there's no denying it.

Now don't get us wrong.  we're business people.  We understand that a big part of running a small, or even large, business is arranging for proper worker's compensation compliance, providing health care benefits, arranging for 401K investment opportunities and managing the cash and credit budgeting that let's the company survive and grow.  It's not glamorous.  It's not done in waders.  And it's not done in beautiful places.  It is vital and central to any business venture, though. But, and this is a big but, there is a time and place for everything.  Northwest Mutual did pay for breakfast but for goodness sake, this was the opening of the show!  Most industry breakfast meetings like this feature a key note speaker who is selected because of his or her ability to exemplify and define the position, direction and progress of the industry as a whole. At CES we get Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. At Fly Fishing Retailer we got a pitch for insurance. Go figure.  Maybe next year we'll see Interior Secretary Kempthorne, Director for the Bureau of Land Management Jim Caswell , or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall.  Or maybe even Perk Perkins.

The Art of Giving Great Service, How Zingerman's Treats Customers Like Royalty


Award Winning MerchandiZing! How Zingerman’s Creates Retail Theater


Presented by Maggie Bayless, Managing Partner of Zingerman’s Training Inc. these seminars caught us totally off guard.  Last year there were few seminars that really dealt with the core concepts of good sales technique and customer service.  The one seminar in 2006 on teaching fly fishing made us so angry that we momentarily thought about walking out - it was that far from accepted and reasonable customer service!  One year later and we have a professional from the specialty foods industry sharing the universal tenants of customer service.  The Fly Fishing Retailer show has really taken a huge step forward!  Cross pollination from other, more mature businesses is vital to the growth of the fly fishing industry.  Zingerman's, a Michigan legend, earned its success by combining an innovative service philosophy with practical working systems, and they were there to share.

Aquatic Nuisance/Invasive Species - The Next "Catch and Release" Movement

"The health of our aquatic resources is directly linked to the Fly Fishing Industry’s ability to attract and retain a healthy number of anglers in our sport. Currently across the country our waterways are being assaulted by a wide range of nuisance and invasive species. What’s worse is that boaters and anglers are unwittingly acting as vectors and spreading these damaging species to waters previously unaffected. The spread of these species represents a significant risk to your business and all businesses in the industry."

In our opinion, this may have been the most important break-out session at the show.  Environmental issues don't affect global sales immediately (local problems can certainly have a profound effect on a regional dealer, but a chemical spill in Alabama, for instance, isn't likely to cause much of a problem in Michigan).  Instead these problems are insidious, effecting every aspect of our economy and our sport over a slow period of time, lulling us into a false sense of security.  It was with great satisfaction that we attended this seminar.

The panel consisted of five industry representatives.  From left to right in the picture above: Bob Wiltshire, Chief Operating Officer of the Federation of Fly Fishers - Joe Starinchak, Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Robin Knox  of the Western Native Trout Initiative - Dave Kumlien, Executive Director of the Whirling Disease Foundation - Howard Cole, co-owner of High Country Flies in Jackson Wyoming, Despite the potential for this to be a mud snail/didymo bitch session over western mountain trout streams, we are very pleased to say the concern and conversation was global in nature.  Mr. Starinchak even said at one point "the Great Lakes have been screaming for help."  It's nice to know we Midwesterners make the big map!  With VHS and zebra mussels in the news, and sea lampreys a continuing story along with bighead carp and other invasive critters, we couldn't agree more. 

Starinchak put the issue most succinctly.  He said "There's a marketing component to this... This is not an ethic of convenience, it's an ethic of necessity."  This panel discussion was a great beginning to the important discussions that will follow.  Much time was allotted to what retailers can do and the general consensus is that shops are where education must begin.  Shop owners were asked to provide "decontamination tanks" where patrons can dip their wading boots and gear to eliminate aquatic hitchhikers.  Further, information packets from www.ProtectYourWaters.net were offered for dissemination to anglers everywhere.  The Fly Fish Ohio team has invited Mr. Starinchak to join us in an interview/article.  Look for that feature coming soon - it's too important to miss!

Industry Roundtable Retailer Forum

"The Retailer Roundtable, held at the Fly Fishing Retailer World Trade Expo, provides retailers with the opportunity to discuss problems and innovations, share best business solutions and discover how industry peers are dealing with similar business issues."

In many ways this is the most difficult event for us to cover.  Dealer issues are, by their very nature, somewhat anathema to the consumer.  We all want our local shops to stay healthy and stay in business, we'd just prefer they make their profit from someone else!  Of course that's not a tenable situation and we highly encourage you to patronize and support your local independent fly shop.  It's worth a few more dollars on a rod, reel or line to have local expertise and support.  With that in mind it's also important to completely understand the current conditions dealers face and to have the information to make good choices.  The meeting started with about 22 participants in a room set-up for quite a few more.  More participants rolled in as the forum progressed and we ended with some 36 to 38 participants, at least two of whom were members of AFFTA.  The discussion was varied and some of the comments made were quite surprising.

Regarding AFFTA itself, one of the opening comments was; "Retailers expect AFFTA to lead, yet they aren't willing to participate."  This seemed to be a true observation as it was a very small minority of the dealers who claimed membership.  After some three-plus decades as a fanatical fly fisher and several years writing about the industry we have to confess that we don't know much about the role of AFFTA and, perhaps, this is a pervasive situation.  Trade groups are tough critters to pin down.  At the end of the day they have to define what members will get for their $75 (or more) annual dues.  AFFTA's mission statement is "to promote the sustained growth of the fly fishing industry."  Well that sounds like a noble mission and the Fly Fish Ohio team will do its best to spread the word; consider this an open invitation for Robert Ramsay to discuss, define, defend and promote the AFFTA organization right here on this web site.  Robert, we're looking forward to giving you an open microphone!

As you might guess, especially if you work in retail sales or manufacturing, another hot topic involved Internet sales.  The Internet was a sore spot that wove through the rest of the morning.  Surprisingly one of the first salvos was aimed at Internet forums and bulletin boards.  Few dealers confessed to actively participating in any forums or on-line discussions.  The one or two who did said they were done with the "fishing side of Internet Forums."  Generally speaking, participation in the on-line community was viewed as an investment without dividend.  The (much) larger issue, of course, was discounting and mail-order sales.  Garage operators don't have the overhead commitments of a brick-and-mortar location so they can live on much slimmer margins and this is seen, not only by the fishing industry but by most consumer goods sectors, as a dangerous and disruptive force in the market.  Unspoken, the specter of eBay lingered in the background.

The question "What issues affect you as a retailer?" precipitated some interesting discussion.  One retailer lamented declining recruitment and he illustrated his point thusly: "I provide introductory classes for people getting into the sport," he said.  "Today one or two may end up purchasing their gear from us at the end of the class, versus four to six previously."  He went on to say "All the work involved in producing the classes isn't really growing my business, but not providing the classes may lead to a decline." 

Another dealer's comment reflected a cutting-edge understanding of the fundamentals of transparent marketing.  "I want to know [my customer's] families and share their experiences. And I want to have them share mine."  Not surprisingly this dealer was one of the few who admitted to (slight) growth in his business. 

Contrast this position with another dealer who sheepishly admitted "Our low-end rod is a piece of junk" and went on to describe how putting a high-end rod in the customer's hands after their experience with the poor performing budget piece made stepping up the sale easier.  "It's a little bit of bait and switch" was the phrase he used.  Well it's not really bait-and-switch according to the accepted definition of that advertising trick, but it's definitely a low spot in professional integrity.  It's important to note that this was not the accepted standard in the room.  No one else admitted to using such questionable sales techniques.  We bring this up not to embarrass the industry (nor the dealers, who we won't name) but to illustrate that one challenge faced by the fly fishing industry is a lack of professional sales and marketing skills.  We think AFFTA "gets" this and their understanding of the situation is perfectly illustrated in their recruitment of Zingerman's to provide the customer service and marketing classes described above.  Big kudos for that!

When asked if there were any other problems or issues in the industry, the response was a deafening silence.  We believe this is demonstrative of the fact that most independent retailers don't have enough of the big picture available to even know what questions to ask in such a forum.  Again this relates back to business, sales and marketing principles.  AFFTA's priorities could be defined in that moment of dead air.  Eventually discussion continued around such varied topics as inventory shrinkage and theft, point-of-sale (POS) computer programs for inventory control, and trend analysis.  A final bright note brought a smile to our faces.  One Rocky Mountain dealer stated; "There's a ton of warm water fishing around [my city] - it's just not recognized.  That's what has been in my mind is developing that."  Imagine a guy in trout country who wants to recruit bass aficionados... it boggles the mind and lifts the spirit!

Closing Thoughts...

The 2007 Fly Fishing Retailer trade show was a study in paradox.  While the show felt smaller, it also felt like it was far more polished and productive than the 2006 show.  Perhaps the most obvious shortfall at the show was the near complete invisibility of women in the sport.  There were some industry "players" there, of course.  But outside of the women who are running companies, female attendees were the exception.  When visiting one highly recognized industry manufacturer we were dismayed to find that they aren't even offering women's sizes or designs in technical clothing.  Their sizes started at a man's medium!  There is a "chicken and egg" effect at work here.  The manufacturer's don't see a market demand for women's gear, so they don't make it.  Then when women want to enter the sport they can't easily find waders, boots, outer wear and gear scaled to fit their needs so they walk away to a sport more inviting.  It's a classic Pygmalion conundrum.  An AFFTA committee dedicated to the principles of inclusion would be a wonderful engine for change and might even help increase the size of the overall market.  After all, women make up more than half of our population and constitute 25% of all licensed anglers!

There was a lot to be happy about at the 2007 FFR show.  There was a lot of good, pointed discussion.  But there was, in the end, little in the way of surprises.  What is the future of the sport?  How will it grow?  When will the growth start and what will be the precipitating event that kicks it off?  These are all questions that should be addressed at the 2008 Fly Fishing Retailer trade show.  We are looking forward to our next adventure in the Mile High City!

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