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
"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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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
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 educationmust
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
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
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
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!
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
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!