ORLANDO – These are wonderful times to be part of the golf industry. Rounds played are up, equipment is selling like hotcakes, and teaching pros have never been busier. All it took was a global pandemic to make golf popular again.
It’s not a good time, however, to be in the convention and exhibition business. The 69th PGA Show, the largest annual gathering of PGA Members and the international golf industry, returned to an in-person show but it was a mere shadow of what it used to be.
None of the major equipment makers – Callaway, Cleveland/Srixon, Cobra, Ping, TaylorMade, Titleist – nor apparel companies – Polo, Summit Brands, Peter Millar, Travis Matthew, Ahead – decided to participate.
Instead of nearly 10 miles of exhibit aisles and roughly 1,000 exhibitors, the Orlando County Convention Center used a much smaller footprint for the 600 companies who signed up, and attendance on what is usually the biggest day of the Show resembled closing time on Friday. On the bright side, parking was easier and concession lines for lunch were non-existent. And the smaller footprint meant less wear and tear on the feet
The PGA Show, which began in the trunks of cars at a winter golf tournament in 1954, was doomed by a perfect storm. COVID-19, of course, was the main culprit. The Show’s timing, Jan. 25-28, couldn’t have been worse. Six months ago, it looked as if the country was through the worst of the global pandemic and the annual industry gathering would be all systems go. Then the Delta variant came along followed by Omicron. Experts predict that this could be the peak week for COVID. Companies that planned to participate dropped out as the date neared despite a willingness to be flexible by Reed Exhibitions that bordered on desperation.
The reality was too many companies were uncomfortable asking their employees to travel at what some perceive as a super-spreader event. As one executive at Titleist said, how could we ask our employees to travel to the PGA Show when our offices are still closed? It’s a sensible move in uncertain times.
The other contributing factor is that many of the leading companies are producing more than ever before, but are sold out of products and can’t manufacture new goods to sell fast enough. The combination of supply-chain issues being real and the fact that most companies are thriving during the pandemic made it easier to drop out.
One of the few big players in the equipment space that did have a presence on the Show floor was Bridgestone, which had its employees drive in from Georgia. Dan Murphy, president and CEO of Bridgestone Golf, said it felt odd to be exhibiting in a hall without his competitors but enjoyed having many of his best customers in the 5,000 club pros who registered for the event essentially all to himself.
“It’s a time where people are going to stadiums to watch games and schools are back in session, so we think it is appropriate to be here and be careful about it and support the business and keep the good going,” he said. “We don’t mind zigging when everyone else zags.”
But Bill Hughes, longtime PGA professional and general manager of Country Club of the Rockies in Colorado, summed up the feeling of his brethren when he said, “I’m worried that these companies aren’t going to see the velocity on the return on investment. It’s kind of a fork in the road. Maybe there is a reckoning.”
Is this a one-year COVID blip? Or has COVID exposed the PGA Show’s fatal flaw: that a January gathering doesn’t align with product launches anymore. I asked one Show regular how does he measure whether he had a good show or not.
By alcohol level, of course, he cracked. This, after all, is a working vacation for many PGA pros, and for some a veritable spring break. (Apologies to all those pros from the Northeast who expected to work on their suntans and were greeted by rain and temps that barely cracked 50 degrees. The weather also turned Tuesday’s outdoor Demo and Fitting Day into a bust.)
National Golf Foundation’s Greg Nathan said he judges success by his dance card, which was packed with appointments with both clients and partners. Plenty of business and educational programming still will be conducted this week. The Show remains – alongside the Masters and British Open – among the best networking opportunities in golf.
But here’s the rub: if a golf company didn’t go to the Show this year, that means by the time the next one rolls around, it will be at least three years since its last attendance. It likely also will be three years in which the company has done financially better than when it last attended. Its reps and employees have figured out how to do Zoom calls and local shows. That’s three years where they have figured out how to work without the Show and now will be asked to pony up quite a bit of money.
The equipment makers pulling out this year suggests the industry has voted against an in-person Show during a global pandemic, but the fact that 13,000 pros registered suggests the industry still wants to get together. The elephant in the room is what happens next year. Will exhibitors want to have a big presence again and be willing to pay the price? Or has The Show outworn its relevance? Could this be the beginning of the end for the PGA Show?
We’ll have a better idea next year, but for now, the show must go on.