Want to draw the ire of a golf course superintendent? Just ask one what they do in the “off” season.

The so called off-season is drawing to an end, as signaled by the pilgrimage of industry professionals to the annual Golf Industry Show. It culminates the segment of the calendar where golf course professionals complete winter projects and plan their programs for the upcoming year. Trade shows, regional education conferences, symposiums and training sessions are on the docket in a business where change is a constant. New technology. New grasses. New chemistry. New regulations.

In fact, the non-growing season can be just as crucial for superintendents in ensuring the playing season is a success. If golfers and employers don’t realize that, then as Cool Hand Luke would say, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Trade shows and conferences have been a staple of business for years. Since 1927, members of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) have had at their disposal a national event that provides continuing education and access to products and services. Numerous regional conferences and trade shows provide an acceptable alternative, usually at a small expense. And online education, which has mushroomed in quantity over the last 10 years, gives the turfgrass industry plenty of options for professional development.

With the myriad of opportunities afforded superintendents, veteran show goers contend the value proposition is a shared responsibility. If attendees don’t plan in advance and engage on site, then the value of the investment is limited. In fact, several superintendents take it one step further and provide a report to employers and golfers upon their completion of professional development activities. They document to their key constituents the “what” and the “why” of their time spent away from the facility. Leaving it up to the boss to determine the return on the money spent in absent of feedback from the superintendent puts continued funding in peril.

As Rodney Crow, the certified golf course superintendent at Battleground Golf Club in Deer Park, Texas, says: “You aren’t on a vacation. The facility is paying good money to help you advance your career and provide you the resources to manage the golf course. It’s no time to be out by the pool or up in your room watching TV.”

Below, Superintendent magazine profiles six industry professionals who are attending this year’s Golf Industry Show in San Diego, Feb. 6-9. While all agree that attendance isn’t necessarily a must, they say the venue provides unique opportunities not found at regional events.

They offer their opinions and thoughts on what makes the show a success and how it might be improved.

Pat Franklin – Certified Golf Course Superintendent

Country Club of Winter Haven, Winter Haven, Florida

If it looks like the Energizer Bunny walking down the trade show floor, then it must be Pat Franklin.

A confessed high-energy person, Franklin has things to do and people to see. The condensed schedule of the Golf Industry Show has only made it more important to keep moving.

“I go to learn. I go to see people. I go to see what is new,” Franklin says. “The show is smaller, but the schedule is also compacted. I try to see everything. My attitude is, you can sleep on the plane.”

Franklin is a 36-year veteran of the golf industry and has attended the show 23 times. His strategy has changed over the years. Early in his career, he would follow a fairly rigid plan, but he scrapped that once he became more tenured in his position. His focus is on nurturing relationships and meeting new people. He’s a firm believer that attendees must leave some time in their schedules for the unexpected. Like panning for gold, there is always a nugget to be found.

“My strategy is to blow through the trade show floor right away, as quick as possible,” Franklin says. “Then I can decide what booths I need to see later in the day or on the second day. I also know how much time I have to drop in a class or stop to see people. I feel if I plan my time too rigidly, I may not have the chance to visit with the people who you meet unexpectedly. What you learn from them is as important – sometime more important – as what you learn in the classroom.

“As you go to more shows, your circle of friends grows,” Franklin says. “I love to catch up with those who helped me early in my career, and those who worked for me over the years. This is a relationship business. You build and nurture them because of what you can learn, but also because of the support they provide.”

While he does go to regional shows, Franklin says the diversity of the Golf Industry Show is what makes it important to attend on a regular basis. The chance to learn from others from different parts of the nation and see a wider range of products is valuable. He encourages attendees to challenge themselves with subjects out of their comfort zones as it might just help them down the road.

“I decided to take bermudagrass management classes after a while just to try something different,” Franklin says. “Even though I was in the North, I thought it would be good to learn. I think that knowledge helped me get the job I have now.”

Franklin’s experience does not end when the curtain closes on the trade-show floor. Upon his return, he’ll fill out some form of a trip report outlining his activities (along with his expense report). Such a strategy reinforces the importance of attending to employers who will cover expenses, and might just allow superintendents to secure funds to go to the show when in the past they had to pay their own ways.

Rodney Crow – Certified Golf Course Superintendent

Battleground Golf Club, Deer Park, Texas

Rodney Crow looks at the winter months as his spring training.

“During the year you get so busy just trying to keep up that you don’t have time to sit back and consider alternatives or map out a plan,” Crow says. “I use the Golf Industry Show to learn how I can become more efficient and save my company money. We are challenged to do more with less, but my goal is still to improve turf quality. This is the time of year when I plan.”

There’s no time to learn a new pitch or change your batting stance during the season.

This year Crow’s education activities will be directed on bermudagrass management and the business of golf. He notes that the body of new research on turfgrass requires superintendents to be open to exploring new management methods. He’s also been given additional responsibilities from his management company, so he will be looking to expand his knowledge, skills and abilities in regards to the total facility. From a trade-show floor perspective, his new duties give him oversight duties for national accounts for his management company that has a portfolio of 35 facilities. He’ll be developing relationships with companies that do business nationally.

“You aren’t on a vacation,” Crow says. “This is a once a year or once every other year opportunity. You come with a plan and look for ways to improve what you’re doing. Jump right in and network and learn from others. I think people, especially those that have not been to the show very much, can get overwhelmed a bit. You have to stay engaged.”

Crow’s first show was in 1996, and he has attended almost every one since then. He says the show has kept current with the needs of the membership by and large, but sees a need for more education on the environment and advocacy. He says that every member needs to be well versed on the issues and how to advocate on the ones that impact golf courses. He specifically points to water issues and the need for members to be part of the solution, and not have the solution imparted on them.

If there’s one aspect of the show where Crow wishes he could turn back the clock, it would be in regards that sharing of information that was prevalent through the early 2000s. With the decline of the industry that occurred after the events of September 2011 and later the recession of 2007-08, he senses the sharing isn’t as open as it once was.

“I think it is natural with the way things have gone, that people are reluctant to share as much. Maybe there is a feeling of fear that jobs are tenuous. No one wants to share that they may have some areas where they struggle or give away secrets. I see it at the show, but I see it at other places, too. I would like it to be like it was before.”

Brian Chalifoux – Assistant Golf Course Superintendent

Fort Wayne Country Club, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Brian Chalifoux is young chronologically, but he’s wise beyond his years in terms of experience in the golf course industry.

The assistant golf course superintendent at Fort Wayne Country Club, Chalifoux first attended the GCSAA conference and show as a young tyke. He would be at his father’s side walking the floor, mesmerized by the exhibits and throng of people. Today, he remains by his father’s side – the senior Brian Chalifoux, who is the longtime superintendent at Fort Wayne Country Club – walking the floor.

“I realize I am in a bit of a different situation than most assistants,” the junior Chalifoux says. “I grew up in the profession and have had someone to closely mentor me along the way. I am fortunate that I have my father who has been with me every step of the way.”

Brian Jr. attended his first show professionally in 2009 and has been to each one since then. The routine is the same. He and his father map out the booths they want to visit, the people they want to meet with and the classes they want to take. It makes for a productive few days away from the course.

“You have to plan ahead to maximize your productivity,” Chalifoux says. “You just cannot go and expect to accomplish what you want on the fly. My father and I walk the show together and sit in the classes together. We can knock ideas off each other and discuss things. It has been really helpful to me as someone who did not have the experience early on.”

That strategy is something he believes would benefit his fellow assistants. He’s a big proponent of planning in advance, and finding a seasoned professional who can show first-time show goers the ropes.

“As an assistant, the show floor can be intimidating,” he says. “Again, having my father around is very helpful. I can see how going to the show by yourself, especially when you’re new to the industry, could be a challenge.”

While Chalifoux notes that regional trade shows and online education provide great opportunities, he says the diversity of the trade show floor is something that can’t be duplicated. He says the interaction with people from other parts of the country is the best aspect of the show.

Chalifoux says the only drawback of the show from his perspective is the expense of attending. Still, he believes that facilities are shortsighted if they do not offer support for assistants to attend. He says that there are ways to reduce expenses with a little creativity. His advice to show organizers would be to offer certain seminars at no charge periodically to help cut down on expenses.

Among the chief reasons Chalifoux believes assistants should attend the show is to mix the textbook education they receive with the real-life experience of veteran superintendents. He says the classroom focus is on teaching students how to do things correctly. At the show, he notes, the conversation is often about what to do when things go wrong.

Mike Vogt – Certified Golf Course Superintendent and Certified Golf Irrigation Auditor Owner/Principal
Vogt Consulting LLC, St. Charles, Missouri

Mike Vogt chuckles when discussing the biggest changes in the Golf Industry Show.

“Everyone is so young!” say the turfgrass and agronomy consultant with 35 shows under his belt (attending since 1980).

But Vogt doesn’t fear the younger crowd. A former golf course superintendent, he subscribes to the theory that old dogs must learn new tricks to be successful. To that end, he seeks out new exhibitors or education sessions. Destinations are the outer reaches of the trade show where smaller booths or first time exhibitors are camped. The show doesn’t get old for him because he is constantly looking for the new offerings.

“Usually, the traffic is a little lighter away from the center aisle, so you can get the full attention of the exhibitor,” Vogt says. “You might find someone from a different region of the country or a new product or service. But you need to do your homework and plan ahead to make good use of your time. This is a great opportunity to get that little pearl of wisdom that might just make a big difference.”

Contrary to what one may presume, Vogt doesn’t use the show to solicit business. He says if he were to go after business, he would miss out on his opportunity to learn. But he also wants attendees to be free from sales pitches when they’re trying to network as well. Having been in the industry since 1970, Vogt needs all the time he can get to network and maintain relationships he’s built over the years. This year he also has on his agenda to preside over the Penn State University alumni meeting.

In terms of specific memories of past shows, Vogt said it was a great source of pride to win newsletter contests in 1985 and 1986. He also points to getting to meet fighter pilot Chuck Yeager after a general session. He points to the lineup of speakers over the years as being “excellent” and a “good source of inspiration.” While Vogt has seen the show adapt over the years, he believes there’s is additional opportunity for it to be even more valuable for the industry. He notes that the different facility types (public, private, resort, municipal) have unique business models and thus require more differentiation. He would like to see defined tracks for attendees to follow.

Vogt laments that some facilities that cut funds for professional development haven’t reinstituted them since the recession nearly a decade ago.

“Everyone needs to get away from the golf course,” Vogt says. “You need to recharge your batteries. If you just grind and grind you’ll wear yourself out. If you find a way to make one less application without reducing quality, your trip to the show already pays off, not to mention whatever else you learn. I think courses that do not provide resources for the show are being shortsighted.”

Todd Clark – Golf Course Architect Principal/Owner

CE Golf Design, Kansas City, Kansas

Though not large in number compared to golf course superintendents, a key attendee group of the Golf Industry Show are the men in red tartan plaid jackets – golf course architects.

By joining as a supporting partner of the Golf Industry Show in the mid-2000s, the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) ramped up its presence and that of its members. Todd Clark, an ASGCA member, has been in the industry for 25 years and has attended approximately half of the shows during that time. His specific schedule will differ from show to show, but it always includes a healthy dose of networking and relationship building.

“As a businessman, you look at what you can do to help your company,” Clark says. “That said, I can’t think of a time where I’ve secured a project at the show. It’s more about relationship building and networking. That is how you learn of future projects or of ones that are being considered. We target superintendents and management companies to have those discussions.”

But the show also offers Clark a chance to work with clients on upcoming projects. He said he’ll walk the show floor with a superintendent (and green chairs at times, as well) to talk to vendors about a diversity of products including seed, irrigation, accessories and more. Clark says he’ll talk with the superintendent in advance to map out a strategy to make sure they visit the right vendors.

From Clark’s perspective, the growth of regional shows and online resources hasn’t necessarily lessened the quality of the Golf Industry Show, but they do offer a viable alternative. He says it might benefit him more to go to a regional show instead because that is where his clients are located.

“As GIS has gotten smaller, it seems like you see fewer superintendents,” Clark says. “So, you need to go to the regional shows to catch those who don’t go to the GIS.

Nevertheless, Clark says it’s important for him periodically to attend the Golf Industry Show. He says the attendees, regardless of their role in the golf industry, can make their week more productive and efficient by planning out their week in detail. Clark will designate a time to walk the floor, attend education, spend time in the ASGCA booth and have specific meetings. That’s quite a load with the condensed GIS schedule. He encourages superintendents to include time to meet with architects, even if they don’t have a project planned.

“The conversations are part of the education process,” Clark says. “There’s always new information coming out that superintendents and architects can share to benefit each other. The ASGCA has materials that it can provide to superintendents that might help them, if not today, then in the future.”

Mike Sandburg – Certified Golf Course Superintendent

Senior Field Trainer, Toro National Support Network, Edmond, Oklahoma

Mike Sandburg is a veteran of 26 conference and shows – two as a student, 13 as a golf course superintendent and the past 11 as a field trainer for Toro in its national support network.

You’ll see him stationed in the massive Toro booth, providing information and leading demonstrations for customers and prospects of “Big Red.” He’ll also be promoting the Toro brand. He’s had that role for the past 11 years, but he still finds himself thinking like the superintendent he was for 13 previous years.

“I feel my superintendent background helps because I can relate to their (superintendents) situation,” Sandburg says. “I know their concerns and challenges. The interactions I have also keep me current on issues they’re facing. It’s not enough to know our systems, I need to know their needs. It feels good to help superintendents solve problems because the job is stressful enough when everything is working perfectly.”

Sandburg believes the Golf Industry Show can be a valuable event for superintendents, but attendees must “have a plan” for they want to accomplish. He says that includes mapping out education opportunities, making a list of booths to visit, making a schedule of events/meetings to attend and going so far as to reach out to other attendees in advance to schedule a meeting if there’s a desire to interact.

“What is important will vary from year to year, depending upon your needs. But the one thing you always need to allow for is networking with your peers from other parts of the country. I’ve met some great people who have been very helpful to me. We only see each other at the show, but we contact each other throughout the year.”

A 31-year veteran of the golf industry, Sandburg says the most memorable personal highlight of attending the event was winning the National Environmental Stewardship Award in 2000. He also makes it a point to attend the keynote speaking sessions to hear – and on occasion – meet the guests of honor.

“I still remember the words of people like Mike Singletary (NFL all-pro linebacker), Henry Marsh (Olympic steeplechaser) and Peter Jacobson (pro golfer) like it was yesterday. They and others had great messages that I still refer to today. We’ve been fortunate to have some really good speakers.”

With the many activities available from sun up to sun down, Sandburg notes a negative consequence of the condensed schedule created in recent years is the inability to take as much education as desired. For those who rely on the show to get most – if not all – of their education, it presents a challenge.

While much has changed in his nearly three decades of attending the show, Sandburg says one thing hasn’t – “You still have to wear comfortable shoes, regardless of whether you’re standing in a booth all day or walking the show floor.”