Fly-Fishing Retailer show reveals much about a maturing industry

No activity is as dear to the hearts of those in the core outdoor community, or as closely aligned from an emotional, environmental and aesthetic position, as perhaps fly-fishing is. It is no wonder, then, that VNU Exposition, which hosts the Outdoor Retailer Summer and Winter Markets, also hosts Fly-Fishing Retailer World Trade Expo -- the specialty retail fly-fishing industry's premier show for North America. With the reported explosive rise in popularity of fly-fishing over the course of the last decade, SNEWS® thought that it was time to send our resident river geek for a closer look at this year's show, held Sept. 8-10 in Denver at the Colorado Convention Center.
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No activity is as dear to the hearts of those in the core outdoor community, or as closely aligned from an emotional, environmental and aesthetic position, as perhaps fly-fishing is. It is no wonder, then, that VNU Exposition, which hosts the Outdoor Retailer Summer and Winter Markets, also hosts Fly-Fishing Retailer World Trade Expo -- the specialty retail fly-fishing industry's premier show for North America.

With the reported explosive rise in popularity of fly-fishing over the course of the last decade, SNEWS® thought that it was time to send our resident river geek for a closer look at this year's show, held Sept. 8-10 in Denver at the Colorado Convention Center.

At 60,160 square feet and with a total of 3,200 attendees, as reported by Pale Morning Media, the trade show's PR voice, you could fit this year's fly-fishing show into one hall of the Salt Palace -- the traditional venue for Outdoor Retailer. And while a river doesn't run through it, the show is all about authenticity, and as a result, does place several casting tanks throughout the hall for attendees to try rods and lines right at the show. However, the calm in the often mirror-flat tanks reflected the overall calm at the trade show -- not the buzz of energy our reporter was expecting to find.

Pale Morning Media listed the 2005 show's preliminary buyer attendance figures at 1,255, as compared to 1,288 "buyers" in 2004 -- for all practical purposes, flat attendance. While the trade show does try to put a positive spin on the numbers, according to numerous retailers and exhibitors that we spoke to at the show, the fly-fishing show has seen a steady decline in buyer attendance.

In reviewing 2004's attendance list in a search for answers, it became clear to us that a large number of those listed are not buyers, but rather guides and shop employees -- we suspect that a review of 2005 attendance numbers will reveal the same trend. While we applaud the attendance of guides and employees and strongly feel that everyone associated with an industry should make every effort to attend the industry's national trade show, it is our opinion that only those whose signature appears on the bottom of a purchase order should be labeled a buyer.

That's not to say that quality buyers and those from key shops were not attending. By all appearances, they were. In all fairness to show management, the fly-fishing industry is going through the pains that any maturing market faces. While fly-fishing experienced its golden age of initial development in the Catskill Mountains of New York state in the late 1800s, it wasn't until Norman Maclean's book, "A River Runs Through It," hit the big screen that the popularity of fly-fishing soared.

While the industry was experiencing steady growth even then, the movie's release in 1992 fueled a spike. Once the initial excitement was over, the growth in participation numbers never really plummeted, but tapered off, according to Peter Van Gytenbeek of the Federation of Fly Fisherman, a conservation organization based in Livingston, Mont. This seems to support some affinity to fly-fishing by those who were initially attracted to it by the movie.

According to Paul Schluter, board chairman of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA), the single largest challenge facing the fly-fishing industry is consolidation of the buying power. As major multi-store retailers take over the hunt/fish landscape, they control not only more of the buying power, but more of the production capabilities when each brings its own brands to market. The big players also tend to monopolize multiple channels of distribution such as brick and mortar locations, catalogs and e-tailing.

AFFTA's 2004 Retail Distribution Study, which is prepared by Leisure Trends, reports that 25 percent of fly-fishing retailers showed a decrease in business, 29.2 percent remained flat, and 40.2 percent were up. By comparison, in 2000, 13.2 percent of stores reported a decrease, 16.5 percent remained flat, and 68.5 percent reported an increase.

The trend toward e-tail is also clear. From 2000 to 2003, e-tailing experienced huge growth, according to Leisure Trends (hard numbers were not available, just a bar graph that gave percentages per year). This is certainly indicative of the type of consumers that fly-fishing and e-tailing retailers draw -- professional, busy, preferring to shop from their office or home computer

Further littering the landscape is a dizzying array of manufacturers for any given niche, and for niches within niches. The fly-fishing marketplace is loaded with very inventive individuals who have found a way to build a better mousetrap. Many of these individuals are into retirement years and are involved with the business end because of their passion for the sport. While the entire industry generated $727 million in 2004, we also noted that there were at least 40 manufacturers of fly reels and 37 manufacturers of fly rods alone, not to mention all the other associated categories of accessories, clothing, footwear and more. Clearly, the pie is being sliced often, with many, many thin slivers going to many, many hungry mouths and only a few getting a serving-sized portion.

For too many years, the fly-fishing industry has simply resembled an overvalued stock market -- lots of passion and buzz, not necessarily matched by substance and business sense. Now it is ripe for a correction. It is important to note that even though attendance was flat, and some areas of the show were essentially dead, the overall feeling among attendees and exhibitors was upbeat with keynote speaker, Andy Smith of Harley Davidson, setting the tone for the entire show and getting retailers thinking about how they interact with consumers on every level.

In addition to those exhibitors who were sitting on their hands and those who were too busy talking to their neighbors to acknowledge our presence (don't even get us started on trade show etiquette), there were also booths that were jammed with back-to-back appointments at every table -- Cloudveil, for example. It was clear to our reporter that being successful at this show was simply a matter of being an engaging businessperson, an engaging company, and also creating a welcoming presence, as opposed to "just showing up and drawing a breath."

The potential in the fly-fishing market is certainly very, very good. Participant numbers and sales in the current world appear to be solid and reveal a few interesting trends. According to AFFTA, overall participation is up 36 percent from 2000 to 2004 and sales are up $49 million over the same period. According to the Outdoor Industry Association's Participation Study, fishing (all types) was the second most popular activity among participants age 16 and above in 2004. Among 16 to 24-year-old "participants" (with "enthusiasts" occupying the top 15 percent of the barrel in terms of days in the field), fly-fishing was up a whopping 52.2 percent! Fly-fishing among women was also the only growth area for enthusiasts, throughout the study, in 2004 -- up an incredible 500 percent!

There is also evidence in the research numbers that fly-fishing is attracting a new crop of participants. Overall sales numbers for the industry are up from $678 million in 2000 to $727 million in 2004, with an emphasis on lower price-point items across the category board. Unit growth is, as one would expect, far outstripping dollar growth. Consumers are also able to access far better gear at far lower price points. Manufacturers have done a great job of building performance into every product at every price point, but have done a poor job of establishing the value of higher price-point items.

Our resident river geek reports that his "throw-away" outfit (rod, reel, line, backing and case) that he purchased at Cabela's for $99 casts nearly as well as his $700 high-tech wonder rod (that would be $700 for the rod only). Also factoring into a new wave of participants is the expansion of major, multi-box locations in seemingly every suburban neighborhood. That expansion has made affordable fly-fishing gear accessible to those who may have not wanted it bad enough to search it out at more remote specialty locations. The opportunity to "educate" those who have purchased entry-level gear and establish a desire to upgrade to higher quality product is great. Whether those who were sitting on their hands or ignoring our reporter are up to the task is an altogether separate issue.

In 2006, the Fly-Fishing Retailer World Trade Expo will still be held at the same venue, but with much earlier dates -- Aug. 24-26. Show management did not return calls seeking comment, but Western shops that we spoke to indicate the new dates will be problematic as August is their peak season with vacationers and grasshoppers (a fly-fishermen's life revolves around what insects are hatching). Some Western retailers jokingly referred to next year's show as Fly Fishing Vendor since, in their view, only vendors will be present.

Eastern retailers don't appear to be impacted by the move. Several of the manufacturers that we spoke to stated that this correctly positions the show in the order writing/factory purchase order writing cycle, but are worried about how the move may affect retailer attendance.

SNEWS® View: It is an interesting time in retail -- no matter what product category or industry you are a part of. Consolidation is rampant, making fewer retailers more important to each vendor. Asia is easier to access than ever, breaking down the barriers to overseas production for smaller companies, and the Internet has made instant, 100-percent direct distribution a viable possibility. The fly-fishing industry is experiencing the same factors that were at work in the hunting world several years ago, and we suspect that those who are good at their chosen jobs -- be they retailers or vendors -- will prosper. What is more interesting to us is the new crop of younger fly-fishers that are coming on board. Will they choose to support the various conservation organizations that work to protect their interests -- often benefiting the outdoor community as a whole? Several weeks after the Fly-Fishing Retailer World Trade Expo, our SNEWS® reporter attended a Federation of Fly Fishing event. While he reported that the event was well attended, he also reported that those under the age of 50 could be counted on two hands -- not exactly inspiring among a crowd of maybe 100 attendees. It could be that the newbies are not joiners, a question that the dominant conservation organizations in fly-fishing couldn't even begin to answer, but were very intrigued by. However, in looking at the readership profile of Trout Unlimited's official magazine, which goes to its membership, 32 percent of the membership is made up of individuals age 18 to 34, which is a very encouraging sign indeed.Â

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