With revenues and membership on the rise – and solid attendance expected for the Golf Industry Show – the GCSAA is gaining momentum, CEO Rhett Evans says

Forgive Rhett Evans, CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) and an avid runner, for the metaphor he makes when talking about the state of the association.

“We feel like we’re running downhill, and we’re starting to go a little faster,” Evans says. “Things are starting to come together, and we feel momentum.”

I recently spoke with Evans about many aspects related to the GCSAA and the golf industry. I’ve talked to Evans enough to know that he likes to put a positive spin on things, which is his job. But something was different about my conversation with him this time. Evans, who just completed his third year as CEO, had statistics to back up the spin.

Let’s start with the Golf Industry Show (GIS), set for Feb. 1 through Feb. 6 in Orlando, Fla. This is a big year for the show as far as bellwethers go. But first, let’s revisit the GIS in Las Vegas two years ago, a show that caught many people by surprise, as in a pleasant surprise. For the GCSAA, the Vegas show was like hitting the jackpot. What I remember most was the widespread enthusiasm on the trade show floor, something I hadn’t seen in several years. I visited numerous booths and spoke to many people, and everybody was impressed with the turnout and the show’s atmosphere. Many people felt the industry was on the upswing.

Shortly after that show, I remember looking ahead – not to the 2013 show in San Diego, but to this year’s show in Orlando. I remember thinking that the 2014 show would be a solid indicator of the industry’s performance. As many people know, Orlando is typically a solid drawfor the show, especially for those superintendents on the East Coast and Florida who often don’t travel to the West Coast when the show is held there. The show was last held in Orlando in 2011.

It’s not that last year’s show in San Diego didn’t matter. But San Diego is as West Coast as it gets, and West Coast destinations just don’t bring in the numbers Orlando does.

The Golf Industry show anticipates occupying more than 180,00 square feet of space at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center.

Which brings us to Orlando next month. The GCSAA’s goal was to secure 175,000 square feet of exhibit space at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center. In early December, Evans said that goal had already been surpassed.

“We’ll be north of 180,000 square feet,” he added, noting that this year’s show will have at least 550 exhibitors, compared to 517 last year.

While it was a conservative goal – exhibiting companies covered 173,000 square feet of space in San Diego last year and 177,300 square feet of space the year before in Las Vegas – Evans didn’t apologize for it. He cited the fact that the market is shrinking, and there just aren’t as many golf course maintenance suppliers from year to year. He explained that there have been mergers and acquisitions (i.e., Syngenta buying DuPont Professional Products), and many companies have downsized their booths because of financial pressures.

It’s interesting to note that exhibit square footage was exactly 179,800 for the 2011 show in Orlando. So to hear Evans say it’s north of that number now is welcome news.

Even better than an increase in exhibit space, Evans expects a 10 to 12 percent increase in attendance from last year’s show, which numbered 13,157. The GCSAA golf tournament is also expected to draw more players for the second year in a row.

Many superintendents have been restricted from attending the conference the past few years because of budget cuts related to the economic downturn. So it’s encouraging that golf facilities are allowing superintendents to return to the conference, says GCSAA President Pat Finlen, a certified golf course superintendent and general manager of the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

“In a market that’s contracting, with golf courses still closing, I think this is a very good sign,” he adds.

Looking back, Mark Ford, marketing manager for John Deere Golf, says the GCSAA’s decision to have the show in Las Vegas was a good move, and the show’s success said a lot about the GCSAA’s bold decision to go there.

“There were some lessons learned on the GCSAA’s part,” he adds. “[Going to Las Vegas] was evidence of the GCSAA thinking outside the box to continue to attract registrations to the show.”

Ford was also thrilled to hear that attendance in Orlando is looking up. He says solid attendance by exhibitors and superintendents would be evidence that a trade show is still a great place to do business.

“This is a relationship-driven industry,” Ford states. “Golf is a relationship-driven game. There’s a vital function the show plays in connecting the industry at a personal level.”

For suppliers, it’s not getting any cheaper to go to the GIS, especially for companies that have to transport a lot of heavy equipment. There have also been complaints by suppliers of price gouging by trade show decorators. Evans understands the complaints and says prices vary from city to city.

“Every city is unique,” he says. “Some have unions, others do not. … Thus, prices vary from city to city. We do our best to try and negotiate these fees as low as we can, but we’re at the mercy of their pricing policies, which in some cases are set by their city councils and can’t be altered.”

With the number of qualified buyers down from several years ago, it can be assumed that suppliers aren’t making the sales they made at past shows. So they’ve had to change their approach to attending shows.

“Every manufacturer, including John Deere Golf, is looking at their business models to see how they can adjust to the changed environment,” Ford says.

But Ford remains upbeat about the GIS and the GCSAA.

“GCSAA is more than the Golf Industry Show, and whatever form the show may take in the future won’t change John Deere’s support of the association’s mission to enhance the superintendent profession,” he adds.

For Stephanie Schwenke, Syngenta’s golf market manager, it will be her first GIS in Orlando.

“We’re very upbeat and expecting good results,” she says.

Schwenke is pleased the GCSAA has changed the show’s structure to reflect the needs of superintendents. For instance, the show ends on Thursday this year, not Friday afternoon. Superintendents had indicated they wanted a shorter show.

“Hopefully, [the changes] continue to increase the number of superintendents going to the show,” Schwenke says.

Syngenta is sending its entire sales staff to the show, another good sign.

“We normally don’t do this,” says Mark LaFleur, Syngenta‘s communication lead for turf and landscapes, noting that the last time it happened was in 2007.

It’s evidence that Syngenta, which acquired DuPont Professional Products in 2012, has rebounded from the economic downturn. Schwenke says that new product introductions have helped the company’s business grow.

“We are excited to see how quickly our new products have been adopted by our customers,” she adds.

Revenues rising

The GIS is the GCSAA’s biggest revenue driver, garnering 44 percent of the association’s total revenue. That revenue took a huge hit when the GIS began to decline. For instance, in 2008 the show in Orlando attracted 26,000 people. Attendance was down 30 percent a year later in New Orleans.

GCSAA’s revenues plummeted below $15 million in 2012 compared to $20 million in 2007. Since the economy began tanking in the fall of 2008 and the Great Recession kicked in, the association’s revenues haven’t taken a positive turn since 2007.

That is, until now. Evans says revenues ticked up slightly in 2013. But, even better, he reports that the GCSAA’s 2014 budget shows a $1 million revenue increase.

Revenues are based on several things, including membership. For the first time since the Great Recession, GCSAA membership is projected to increase in 2014, continuing the positive trend that began in 2013. Superintendents who have been away may have realized what they can gain from a GCSAA membership, such as networking and other benefits, Evans says.

The GCSAA had lost membership the past few years to affiliate members, which includes golf course maintenance suppliers, but that category has rebounded. Membership among class C assistant superintendents has also risen.

“That is really positive news … we’ve been losing [assistant superintendents] since the downturn of the economy,” Evans notes.

He adds that many assistant superintendents have been getting out of the business because it now takes an average of 6.1 years before an assistant becomes a superintendent. Ten years ago it took 2.2 to 2.8 years. But Evans believes more assistant superintendents are seeing the value in GCSAA membership including networking to help them move up, among other things.

According to Evans, the GCSAA hasn’t lost many Class A superintendent members. “They’ve stuck it out through the hard times,” he adds.

Finlen is cautiously optimistic that GCSAA membership will grow throughout the world. The GCSAA currently has members in 79 countries. Finlen predicts that technology will grow to the point where foreign visitors will be able to use their cellphones to translate seminars from English to their respective languages in real time. This will help grow GCSAA membership.

“Technology will make the world very small very quickly,” he adds.

Another sign that the association and the industry are improving is the financial growth of the Environmental Institute for Golf (EIFG). For several years, few GCSAA members were engaged with the EIFG, donating money or serving on committees, Evans says. But that changed in 2013.

“[Donations and activity] increased by double digits [in 2013],” he adds.

Evans attributes the surge in interest to a rebranding of the EIFG. Too many association members thought the EIFG was a subsidiary of the GCSAA, which didn’t bode well for the organization.

“We got together about one and a half years ago and agreed we had to refocus it, all the way down to the logo,” Evans says. “Our members now understand that the EIFG is the philanthropic arm of the GCSAA that funds a lot of its programs, particularly turfgrass research.”

The EIFG has been honed to focus on four cornerstones: research, scholarships, education and advocacy.

“Because it’s more focused, members and donors understand how their money is being utilized, and they’re more willing to give,” Evans explains.

But there are still challenges, especially with revenue and membership. Growth in both categories must be sustained, Finlen says.

That means the GCSAA is willing to invest to grow revenue even in a challenging economy. Case in point: the field staff program.

The GCSAA is counting on its field staff program to grow membership and revenue. The purpose of the more than $1 million program is to help chapters utilize GCSAA programs and services to a fuller extent. Several field staff personnel are positioned throughout the U.S. One of their goals is to attract new members. Field staff personnel are visiting facilities and talking to superintendents and their superiors about the value of a GCSAA membership.

“I remind people all the time that we’re not in the business of trying to hoard cash and build a war chest so we can pound a fist on our chest,” Evans says. “We’re nonprofit. We want to be able to take the money that we raise and put it back into the industry.”

Finlen says the GCSAA is poising itself for 2020 with a series of programs and goals, some of them “aggressive,” that he hopes will strengthen the association and make it a leader in the golf industry.

“Sometimes to grow revenue you have to do it through means that aren’t your normal channels,” he adds.

The game

The GCSAA’s health hinges on the health of the entire golf industry. Annual golf course openings remain at historic lows, while 2013 marked the eighth straight year that closings outnumbered openings by a large margin. The National Golf Foundation predicts that closings will number at least 150 golf courses annually for the next several years. There are currently about 16,000 golf courses in the U.S.

Courses are closing because there just aren’t enough golfers to play them. So what’s being done to grow the game? A lot of people talk about it, but is anything working? Evans says GCSAA representatives have had serious discussions with PGA and USGA representatives about growing the game.

“Instead of superficially discussing it, we’re really brainstorming and asking ourselves, ‘How can we do a better job of bringing our resources together and making a difference?’ ” Evans says.

In the past, those in the industry have listed time as one reason people don’t play golf. But Finlen doesn’t buy it. He refers to parents spending entire weekends at their kids’ soccer or baseball tournaments.

“Parents are investing time with their kids, and we need to make golf attractive to parents and kids,” he adds.

The message must get out that golf should be played for enjoyment, not for following every rule in the USGA rulebook, Finlen says.

He asks, “Who cares if a guy who’s 55 and a 20 handicap is anchoring the putter against his belly?”

What This Superintendent Expects From The Trade Show Experience

By Ron Furlong / Contributing Editor

It’s time again to find that most comfortable pair of shoes to pack for yet another trade show adventure.

As we get ready to hit the floor at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, I was wondering if I could possibly pass along an observation I’ve made from attending previous shows.

Now, before I make this observation, let me throw out a disclaimer: I’ve never been an exhibitor at the show. I’ve always been the “attendee.” This isn’t to say that I can’t appreciate the effort it must take from the exhibitor side of the fence. Although I’ve never been on that sales side, I know it takes more than a small effort to work the show. Without all of the tireless hours vendors put in, the trade show would not be the great event it is year in and year out.

Hats off to all of you.

Having said that, let me try and explain my observation.

When an attendee walks the floor, he or she often feels a little daunted by the size and scope of the show. Although goals are set, it can be difficult to remain focused on the task at hand. One thing that can contribute to this difficulty is that often the things we are trying to accomplish are dependent upon other people – namely the exhibitors themselves. And every now and then we tend to find a certain level of passiveness or disinterest inside a particular exhibit.

The interaction between vendor and attendee is an important cog in this trade show experience for the attendee. You’re probably thinking this is fairly obvious. Interaction between guest and host is going to occur. Yes, it is obvious, but on some levels it maybe isn’t so obvious, as well.

What do I mean? Well, exactly how much interaction is expected? Is it the same for each exhibit? Is it the same for each exhibitor? How about for each attendee?

Everyone has different expectations and goals when they step foot into any one exhibit. It might be to research a product they’ve been intending to see. It might be because something caught their eye as they were walking past. It might be to say “hi” to a salesman from back home. It might be to simply take a load off.

Goals can vary from one booth to the next. And, of course, the exhibitor has no idea what purpose each visitor has when stepping up to them. Thus, the interaction becomes important.

But what I have often found is sometimes that interaction isn’t suffice to meet whatever my expectations are. This isn’t always the vendor’s fault. Sometimes they are with someone else. Sometimes I’m too quiet and don’t express my needs. But there are those occasional times when I simply don’t feel like my purpose for stepping in was ever really addressed.

When a vendor at an exhibit is sitting down chatting with his or her colleagues about the night on the town, it isn’t terribly inviting to the attendee. When the vendor has his or her arms folded and doesn’t make eye contact with you, it isn’t terribly inviting. When a vendor is thumbing away on his or her smartphone as you’re eying one of their products, it isn’t terribly inviting.

At the very least, guests want to be greeted into the exhibit. They want to feel welcomed, engaged. They want to be talked to, but more than anything they want to be listened to. They want to express their intention for being there, whatever it is.

It can be a thankless job at times I’m sure. So, here’s my effort to make it not thankless.

Thank you vendors, for all you do. It’s much appreciated.

We’re all in this together.

Furlong, a monthly columnist for Superintendent magazine, is the golf course superintendent at Avalon Golf Club in Burlington, Wash. He can be reached at rfurlong5@gmail.com.