FlyFishing Retailer reaches out to new demographics, keeps eye on core

The FlyFishing Retailer World Trade Expo at the Denver Convention Center, Sept. 16-18, felt subtly different than previous years. By its very nature, the fly-fishing industry does not shift quickly away from tradition, but at this show there were moves to make the sport, which has suffered over the past few years from fairly flat participation numbers, more accessible to younger and female demographics.
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The FlyFishing Retailer World Trade Expo at the Denver Convention Center, Sept. 16-18, felt subtly different than previous years. By its very nature, the fly-fishing industry does not shift quickly away from tradition, but at this show there were moves to make the sport, which has suffered over the past few years from fairly flat participation numbers, more accessible to younger and female demographics.

At the same time, innovation continued at the high-end with lighter, faster rods and reels and performance fabrics taking center stage at most booths. And, in an industry obsessed with visual recording, independent films continued to convey the passion of the sport, address environmental issues, and speak to younger anglers.

On a purely physical level, there were indeed some subtle changes in the convention center itself that affected the attendee's experience of the show. For one, the carpet color changed from the sedate blue of last year to a bright red. Even better, show director Kenji Haroutunian, who was named to the post in April and also serves as the show director for Outdoor Retailer, and his staff changed the floor plan, moving the casting ponds to run in an aisle in the center of the show and asking some of the big-name companies, such as Orvis, to move their booths away from the front doors. The reorganization worked. The casting action was easy to access from the surrounding booths, both to test product and just to watch, and it was an enjoyable and intuitive show to stroll through with smaller exhibitors mixed in among the big names instead of being banished to their own section.

The show dates also moved later from the traditional late August/early September, a welcome switch simply because there was some breathing room between other, bigger shows and the dates corresponded with better fishing conditions in Colorado. Higher registration numbers, with pre-show total attendee registration numbers up 25 percent from 2006, seem to support the decision.

One aspect where the show could still grow is in attracting both retailers and manufacturers who are willing to think beyond the niche of core fly anglers. While the outreach to the female and youth segments is important, manufacturers and retailers still seem tentative of moving beyond the traditional, strict limits of what makes a fly-fishing retail store and/or brand. In no category is this more evident than kayaks. Despite the fact that fishing kayaks have breathed new life into the paddling industry -- Johnson Outdoors, which owns Ocean Kayak, Necky and Old Town, claims to have tripled its fishing kayak sales over the past three years -- only two kayak companies (Hobie and Freedom Hawk) exhibited at the show. And while many top-end, outdoor-industry fabrics such as Gore Pro Shell showed up in extremely smart, well-designed jackets and waders from endemic companies such as Simms and crossover brands such as Cloudveil, fly-fishing retail seems slow to adapt to carrying boats or other goods outside of the traditional fly-fishing niche that could help boost sales and bring new customers into the store.

Korkers was one of the very few endemic fly-fishing brands SNEWS® saw at the show that is attempting to bring the technical knowledge it developed in the fly-fishing arena into the outdoor market. Its Torrent amphibian shoe will compete with the growing trend of technical water shoes for casual users -- such as Teva's Sunkosi and New Balance's 92O -- that have been flooding the outdoor market. It was refreshing to see product aimed at young active anglers that spanned the category divide. On the opposite end, Patagonia has been using its mountaineering experience to build vests, waders and jackets with innovations that come from its outdoor experience. It made us wonder why, besides Patagonia and Cloudveil, traditional outdoor companies seem so unwilling to embrace a core activity like fly-fishing that crosses over with skiers, climbers and cyclists.

Despite all the scorn it receives from more traditional brands and anglers for not being authentic, Under Armor seemed to be one of the few exhibitors looking to push the fly-fishing industry into more mainstream markets. It is hard to deny the marketing power of the brand and its familiarity with casual enthusiasts -- the NFL-fantasy leaguers, bass anglers, frat boys, NASCAR fans -- in a way that more elitist fly brands can't currently imagine.

Likewise, the Original Buff, which first garnered ink in the outdoor market for being featured on the "Survivor" TV show, has gone full force into the fly-fishing market, hiring saltwater fly artist Vaughn Cochran to create species specific designs (redfish, tarpon, etc.) on the headwear. Buff managed to tell a technical story (it protects from UV rays on the face and neck) and a fashion story (it looks far younger and hipper than one of those sun-protection hats with flaps), and while we were at the booth, we watched the company write a flurry of orders. Meanwhile, speaking to the long-ignored segment of female anglers, Chick Bait exhibited jewelry that was actually made from flies. All these non-traditional exhibitors intimated a shift into new potentially unexplored market segments.

But there is also some evidence that traditional brands are picking up on the need to grow beyond the confines of pure, Western-style trout angling. While many fly anglers often look down on bass fishing (though it is worth noting that the legendary Lefty Kreh has claimed that smallmouth bass are his favorite species of fish), rod makers are building bass-specific rods. Industry standby, Sage brought a whole new line of largemouth and smallmouth bass-specific rods to the show, as well as a brand new performance bass taper fly line.

As far as traditional hardgoods went, the push, as usual, was for better performance -- lighter more powerful rods and reels with faster retrieve. Many brands -- including newcomers like high-end, large-arbor reel maker Hatch or rod-builders Temple Fork Outfitters -- simply expanded the range of their lines, while other brands such as Orvis with its uber-light ZG Helios rods and Tibor with its speed handle reel spool, brought new faster, lighter equipment to the show. From a retailer's standpoint, this better-performing gear can be attractive to both newcomers to the sport, who want equipment that will make the experience more accessible, and core enthusiasts, who want equipment that will refine their mastery of the sport.

No one item better typified this dual attraction than Scientific Angler's Sharkskin fly line. It was perhaps the hottest product at the show -- at least the one that got the most buzz from authentic fly-freaks at the casting ponds like Tight Lines publisher Greg Thomas. Built with "Microreplication technology," which essentially creates a line with far less friction, it cast smooth and picked up off the casting pond amazing well for easy roll casts. The line bridges the divide between causal participant and core enthusiast, since both segments want quick easy performance on the water.

The rod we saw that seemed "most likely to sell best at retail" was Wright and McGill's new Boron 5Xe rod series. The rods feature graphite and boron -- which has been an extremely successful material for R.L. Winston's high-end, high-performance rods -- in the butt section, where its light weight and stiff, core strength are most needed to cut into the wind. As the rod tapers to the tip it uses only graphite for softer, more delicate fly presentations. But the best thing about the construction is that it allows the rods to retail from $300-$375, compared to $600-$800 for Winston's full-boron rods. (Although there is no denying the fetish power of the highest-priced item at retail.)

There was also a marked rise in what Pale Morning Media owner Drew Simmons, who managed PR for the show, dubbed "consumables," items such as pre-tied tippets and flies attached to tippets. These "ready-to-wear" items make it easier for both beginners and time-strapped enthusiasts to get on the water, and they are a boon to retailers who need small sales to keep customers returning to the store. But fly-tying manufacturers, notwithstanding show regulars like Umpqua or Enrico Puglisi, tended to shy away from purchasing booth space to exhibit in Denver. And there were more sunglass brands than ever at the show looking to fill retailers' needs for a sport-specific accessory that can fill the gap between large hardgoods sales. Sunglasses are essential gear for fishing yet also a lifestyle purchase that retailers can sell to customers beyond the core enthusiast.

All in all, the increase in attendance and proliferation of young passionate energy should be good signs for the industry. According to show director Haroutunian, there were large numbers of "shadow" companies attending the show, employees from brands, many of them outside the traditional industry, who were paying to come and simply stroll the floor without exhibiting. Combined with the reinvigoration of the show, these trends may entice more retailers and manufacturers to expand their conception of fly-fishing in terms of where it fits within the larger framework of outdoor sports.

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