Surf Expo Day One and the stoke factor

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For those of you unfamiliar with Surf Expo, it is a convention held twice per year (September and January) where manufacturers bring their product lines for the coming year to sell to surf shops, resorts and outdoor outfitter shops. The buyers from each retailer come down and pre-order the products they want to sell in the coming year. Words like “keystone,” “margins,” “channels,” “distribution” and “terms” float around a reunion-like atmosphere where friends and business associates get together to catch up, commiserate, celebrate, and do biz.

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The show itself is massive if you’ve never been to it. It’s not as big as Outdoor Retailer, but it doesn’t include every free-range wild oat buffalo lozenge. It’s more focused on surf, apparel and resort. This year, the floorplan and flow was completely different than past years. The booths were spread out, hallways between booths seemed wider. The interplay between sports and specialties was dramatically improved from previous years. There is no SUP pool, which really upset Jessica Cichra who can run a demo pool, but I think it was an improvement because it was no longer the center stage. There was something about having the pool be the center of activity and having it also be against a wall somewhere that pulled the crowds in unnatural directions.

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It’s hard to measure foot traffic unless you have Surf Expo’s scanners at the entrance, so I can’t tell if there were more or less people here for day one, but I can say that the people who are here are more stoked than previous years. It felt like the locker room after the first day of cuts. Sure, things are odd in the industry and its direction is undecided. But those who are around all have one thing in common: They have found at least one thing they do well. The strong ones have found more than one thing, but at least there were less of the companies who were just there because they roped someone into giving them millions to cash in on a trend.

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On that note, companies really need to consider what lights their fire, what makes them stoked to get out of bed. If they are including a product line because they have to and not because they want to, it’ll show. Inflatables are a GREAT example. You can tell the companies who love to make inflatables. They are passionate about them. The analogy is if someone LOVES American football and they see there’s money to be made in soccer and they say, crap, I guess we need to have a soccer team, too. Europe and more densely populated areas are already in full buy-in for inflatables. For some traditional rigid board companies, inflatables have grown to 40% of their overall sales. It’s hard to ignore the category when it might be the only thing keeping them afloat. (sorry) When you look at Red Paddle Company or Hala, you see passionate people who love inflatables. They care. They want to make really cool stuff and are constantly experimenting, designing, testing, changing, adjusting. There are some board companies who also seem to really care about this category. Starboard is a great example. The point is, if you’re going to spend the time making something, make it kick ass. There’s no point in just existing. Carpe Diem.

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This industry is actually very small. And it’s getting smaller. But in the same sense, it’s also being included in a broader universe of paddling and water sports in general. There is an absolute renaissance going on with all watercrafts. SUP has brought people back to the water in a big way. The years of everyone riding a 5’8″ Al Merrick thruster because some pro used it are over. People are riding what is fun. They are licking the most fun craft for the conditions. I can see windsurf coming back, sailing Hobie Cats, using hand planes and surf mats, kayaks, OCs, Surfskis. With that observation, we come back to what makes you stoked? What makes you want to get on the floor to sell things that will make shops want to buy it so they can sell it to people who will WANT to get on the water. What will get them out in this water community and how will you help them create their story as water people?

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One note to the people at Surf Expo, well done so far. You heard the manufacturers. You listened to feedback and you made changes. If anything, it’s testament to the fact that you’re working as a partner to the industry and not just plopping booths on top of booths for a money grab. You’re doing your best to create an environment that’s conducive to business and relationships. Seriously, well done.

I’ll get into the gear after day 2 or 3. There is some really great stuff here. I guess we’ll end this with that question: What gets you stoked and why are you making the things you make?

—John