It was just over 15 years ago when GCSAA leaders made a strategic decision to break something that wasn’t really broke.
Today, it appears the decision continues to be a good one.
On the surface, the golf course industry and the health of the superintendent profession appeared to be strong in the early 2000s. Golf course openings were occurring at a solid rate, job opportunities were in ample supply and industry suppliers were profitable. But there were some cracks in the armor. The terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2001, followed by two years of recession, and resulting lifestyle trends pointed to imminent challenges.
In fact, the World Golf Foundation in a late 2002 report indicated the industry could not sustain its past growth, and that efforts must be made to increase golfer participation rates if the industry was to avoid declines.
On the golf course side, leaders of organizations representing superintendents, owners and managers were also hearing the rumblings: facilities were beginning to tighten budgets and industry vendors were growing concerned about their costs and future sales. So, those leaders – Steve Mona (GCSAA), Mike Hughes (NGCOA) and Jim Singerling (CMAA) began to talk about joining forces to not only reduce expenses, but to strengthen facility management. One of those ideas that gained almost immediate traction was to combine their respective trade shows and create an expanded education platform to create a focus on integrating the facility leadership positions.
“Vendors were traveling to so many trade shows and it was becoming a financial and time drain for them,” said then-GCSAA Managing Director of Member Programs Hannes Combest. “Some were beginning to pull back and others were threatening to do so. There was even some talk of the associations hosting shows every other year. Combining some of the trade shows only made sense.”
But the three executives – all of whom have moved on from their positions – also saw the opportunity to reinforce the “team” concept of facility management, bringing the respective professionals together for education and networking that would translate to a stronger team back home at the golf course. So in 2005 in Orlando, the first Golf Industry Show was conducted with three lead organizations supported by the golf course architects, golf course builders, National Golf Association and the United States Golf Association. (NOTE: the CMAA did not officially participate until 2006 and would leave after 2010).
“There was a lot of heavy lifting that went in to make it happen, Combest said. “There was relief on staff’s part when the show opened because it was finally here, and there was positive feedback on what we had done.”
“I think it might have been one of the most significant actions the association (GCSAA) has taken on behalf of its members and the industry. It brought practically everyone in golf together and got the focus on collaboration to strengthen facilities.”
One way to foster the concept of team in the beginning was to create joint sessions and areas of common interest. “Solution Centers” were built and dispersed on the trade show floor offering demonstrations, information and displays on such items as the clubhouse, water use, technology and others. An actual grass green with bunkers was built, featuring sections with different greens mixes.
In addition to reducing the demands on vendors and fostering a team environment, Combest said GCSAA had an additional goal of creating exposure for members to facility decision-makers. It was an organizational objective to position the superintendent as a key to the economic vitality of a golf facility, so fostering interaction for superintendents with owners, club managers, management company leaders and general managers was important.
“I give credit to Steve (Mona) and our board of directors, because they saw this as an opportunity to advance our members,” Combest said. “But it was a bit of a political gamble at the time. Several of our members did not want to attend the show with ‘Big Brother’ nor did they want to lose the identity they had with it being previously known as the GCSAA Conference and Show.”
Since that first event, the show has changed with the times to serve the needs of the various constituents: the length of the show has shortened; education is conducted on the show floor and in meeting rooms; education subject matter has evolved to include business, communications, leadership, environment; and long seminars are the exception rather than the norm. The departure of the CMAA after 2010 signified a loss of a key participant, but privately many in the industry said the club managers as professionals and as an organization did not necessarily fit with the original concept.
“We try to be responsive to the needs of the industry,” GCSAA Director of Education Shari Koehler said. “Agronomic content will always be important and popular, but we’ve seen so much growth in those wanting business, communications, leadership and environmental education. The role of the superintendent is expanding, so we try to provide the resources to help them.”
While there was some thought when the GIS was being created to having fully integrated education, there are still exclusive education opportunities for the respective partners. Dick Stuntz, a certified golf course superintendent and golf course owner, said it was important for NGCOA members to “not get swallowed up” by the size of the show.
“We conduct our education in our headquarters hotel, because we lose some of the intimacy and connection with a big convention center,” said Stuntz, who will take over as NGCOA president in February. “But by and large, the GIS opened up significant opportunities for owners. We get to see more on the show floor and there is more education as well.”
The health of the Golf Industry Show largely mirrors the golf industry as a whole, so the consensus opinion is the show has “stabilized” over the past few after several years of declining indicators in terms of attendees, qualified buyers and trade show space. GCSAA Director of Corporate Sales Matt Brown says the preliminary numbers indicate exhibit space will be greater in San Antonio in February than they were last year in Orlando. He says that is significant because Orlando tends to trend higher than other locations.
Education tends to be a bit more stable in terms of the number of participants according to Koehler, a reflection of the value and importance of what is offered.
In addition to the general health of the golf economy, other factors will continue to influence the strength of the Golf Industry Show. As noted trade show consultant Steve Miller says: “where the value is clear, the decision is easy.” Brown notes that GCSAA is cognizant of that dynamic and involves various constituent groups in the planning process. He says it is “only natural that exhibitors want to get the most out of the show they can,” therefore the association is diligent in surveying attendees.
Also affecting attendee and exhibitor value according to Stuntz is the presence of other trade shows and technology that allows for a virtual experience.
“It will be interesting to see what happens as future generations who are more technologically savvy come along,” Stuntz said. “I don’t think we’ll ever lose the need for a physical show, but technology will likely change it from what we know it as today.”