As I drove to Denver Wednesday night before the International Fly Tackle Dealer Show (IFTD), I wondered if this column would turn out to be an obituary for the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA). After all, I was the one who said last December that AFFTA went “all in” when it decided to organize its own trade show.
Well, by any measure, it’s hard to say last weekend was a loss, and AFFTA certainly isn’t dead. In fact, AFFTA may well be more alive now than it has been in the past several years. And, as an angler and a fly-related business owner, I am happy for that, as are most AFFTA members. I’d also suggest that many of the organization’s harshest critics (which includes many other dues-paying AFFTA members) are happier, or at least more encouraged with where things stand now than they were before IFTD.
My hat goes off to Randi Swisher and the AFFTA staff for a job well executed in the face of enormous challenges. I also commend former AFFTA chairman Alan Gnann for cleaning up what was a considerable mess, and seeing this vision to fruition. The old AFFTA board deserves kudos for having the guts to assume this show’s risks. The new AFFTA board, especially chairman Jim Klug, deserves a nod for having AFFTA assume a more assertive and progressive posture, starting with what I think is an incredibly intelligent decision to move next year’s trade show to New Orleans (more on that topic later).
That said, my hat also goes off to Simms (which already announced it would rejoin IFTD in New Orleans next year), and St. Croix, and G.Loomis, and many other notable manufacturers, as well as retailers like David Leinweber, owner of Angler’s Covey, and Mike Michalak of The Fly Shop, and the others who had the guts and conviction to publicly demand some changes, even, in some cases, if that meant sitting out this year’s show.
You see, I don’t think it’s possible or appropriate to anoint “winners and losers” in any of this. What we have found instead are agents of change, and the debate sparked by IFTD is likely far from fully resolved. For the record, I still think that debate, discussion, and pressure are all very good, at least to the extent they influence matters that transcend a trade show.
Actually, I do think we found some losers in the mix… the people and companies who failed to engage in either camp. The manufacturers that set up shop in a hotel meeting room across the street, or worked the press on the show floor… the ones that showed no conviction, who neither stayed away nor bought booth space at IFTD. At base level, that was bad form; on a deeper level, it told me who was in it for themselves, and who was in it for the sport as a whole.
As with so much in fly fishing, managing expectations is the name of the game. And I think part of the good feelings after IFTD stem from many people having exceptionally low expectations going in. In truth, it was indeed a smaller trade show, at least compared to the past. It had lighter attendance. I talked to the reps who had 12 dealer appointments last year, and this year only had five. But I also talked to dealers who said the Far Bank business they wrote at the show was enough to justify their travel expense. I talked to manufacturers who opened new accounts throughout the country in the past few days. I talked to dealers from around the country who were energized about the prospect of regional and national “retailers associations.”
The general perception I walked away with, was that the show was smaller in scale, but larger in “mojo.” There was more action. There were also many innovative new products unveiled.
Hardy thundered with a new rod launch. Orvis hit a home run with a rod and reel line dubbed “Access,” which echoed exactly where this market needs to be focused. Hatch Outdoors showed slick concepts. Umpqua’s booth buzzed continuously (as if those flies were actually alive). Far Bank shined on three fronts. Ross rocked. Others, like fishpond, and Mystic, and Scott introduced great new products. Smith Optics was the optical stalwart (there was a time, several years ago, when I counted double-digit eyewear booths… and now, when the chips were down, I couldn’t help but notice Smith, still there, front and center, as they have been, for as long as I can remember). The list goes on…
As for the decision to move IFTD to New Orleans next year, how can we argue? Granted, I’m a sucker for the Big Easy… I think Louisiana is the best saltwater fishing destination in the United States (with all due respect to my Florida, California, and other coastal friends). I’ve been going there every year for the past decade. When Katrina hit, the fly industry rallied. When the oil spilled, the fly industry rallied. Sure, it’s a sentimental pick. But we need sentimental guidance now. It also happens to be one of the best convention destinations in the country.
Of course, there isn’t a heavy concentration of fly shops to draw attendees from in Louisiana (not like Denver). And it will be hot and buggy next August on those flats. And, yes, we’re going to set up shop right in the heart of hurricane season. Those are all risks I’m willing to take. I already have my reservations booked.
To the extent the show has been moved to August to address the concerns of soft goods manufacturers who worried that September has traditionally been too little, too late… great. I know that doesn’t answer everyone’s concerns, nor should it.
To the issue that fly fishing would benefit by integration with ASA and its ICAST (all tackle) trade show, or the Outdoor Retailer show… I say those are still very valid and important concerns. AFFTA should go out of its way now to build those bridges higher and stronger than ever before (AFFTA is now in a better position to do so). It isn’t a matter of one option versus another (never has been)… we desperately need it all. It would be an abject failure now for AFFTA to claim victory, and assume that the interests of the fly fishing industry can and should be best served through tunnel focus on the IFTD show in New Orleans, or wherever it goes from there.
In that regard, I will also say that this trade show should be a means to an end, and not an end unto itself. (I’ve said that for ages.) AFFTA’s mission is to grow the sport. I think growing the sport is best done on the grassroots level, through education and incentive… through retailers. Some companies, like Orvis, and Far Bank, get it, and are pushing that agenda. But that shouldn’t lift the burden off the trade organization.
I had a good conversation with Tom Sadler, who will be directing the “Discover Fly Fishing” initiative going forward. AFFTA made money on this show. AFFTA plans to spend some of it on Discover Fly Fishing as a marketing hook (think “Got Milk?). They will give retailers a foundation to build new interest in this sport… it’s up to retailers to complete the framework.
On final analysis, if you ask me if IFTD was a “slam-dunk,” I’d say no, but it was a pretty damn good starting point. If we judge success on the basis of what happened 10-15 years ago, I don’t know if any show, in any town, run by any organization will ever measure up to what we once saw and experienced via the trade show back then. But if we judge IFTD on what can be, and what should be, and if retailers could ultimately be better served by the show and the organization that promotes it, the answer has to be a resounding “yes.”
Are there things that can and should be tweaked with the trade show going forward? Of course. Is Angling Trade going to be involved in the discussion, and am I going to call AFFTA out if I think they’re neglecting the larger mission? No question. Should manufacturers—and retailers—explore any and all means possible to grow their businesses and the fly market as a whole, in the context of AFFTA/IFTD and otherwise? Absolutely.
But we have a new start. What all of us do with that new start is completely up to us. Failure to engage at this point… well, that’s really the only real failure we risk.
Stay tuned for our year-end issue, as well as regular updates here at anglingtrade.com for the latest insights on where we all can and should go from here.
Editor, Angling Trade