2020 was the year of virtual trade shows and the question on everyone’s mind now is whether or not 2021 will look the same. According to the organizers of the twice-annual surf and water sports event, Surf Expo, the answer is a definitive “no.” If that show is any sort of indicator for other in-person events, specifically those put on by Emerald Holding Inc., the parent company of Outdoor Retailer, we may be turning the corner.

Even though Outdoor Retailer Winter Online is underway right now as a virtual show, Surf Expo 2021 staged live (yes, you read that right) in Orlando, Florida, on January 6-8, 2021, even as Florida, on January 2, 2021, reported its largest surge (more than 31,000 new cases and 217 deaths) in Covid-19 cases since the pandemic started.

According to surfexpo.com, there were 321 registered exhibitors. Show organizers were unable to provide exact attendee numbers until they release the post-show report next week, but Show Director Roy Turner responded to our inquiries with this statement: “We are really excited to have successfully and safely staged Surf Expo at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, last week. We look forward to sharing more details about the show next week.” 

The website lists the show's Covid protocols and included a video that highlighted all the measures Surf Expo put in place to ensure a safe event. There were no educational events, happy hours, or special events on the schedule. 

Was it enough to ensure that this show was not a super spreader event? Only time will tell if show-goers contracted, spread, or will spread the virus and Surf Expo declined to answer questions about contact tracing measures in place or whether attendees were asked to get tested after the show. 

We reached out to a handful show attendees to get the scoop on how the event turned out, what the vibe was like, and how successful it was. Here are their reactions. 

Cory Higgins, chief marketing officer / co-founder at Jetty

man in red and blue shirt looking into camera, white background

Cory Higgins of Jetty attended Surf Expo last week.

"We were actually really busy. Going into it, I was anticipating a much smaller show with less vendors so it was a tough call. But I did my own polling, and found that enough of our current and target retailers were attending to make the show worthwhile, so we committed. I'm glad we did. I'd heard that Florida didn't care about Covid safety, and that's what I was expecting, but it turned out to be the polar opposite. It was clear that people were serious about enforcing protocols from the moment we touched down at the airport and even the taxi ride to the convention center." 

"Inside the convention center, the Surf Expo team did a really good job enforcing things like not allowing bandanas or gaiters and doing daily temperature checks. I walked out with the impression that this year's attendees felt safe. Yeah, it was a smaller show, almost none of my competition was there, but all the brands seemed to be busy and the retailers were really grateful we were there. For Jetty, even though the retail attendance was down significantly, the numbers still worked in our favor." 

"Now that I’m back, I’m quarantining and working from home and if Outdoor Retailer happens in June, I’d love to be there."

Brown-haired woman wearing blue face mask against a blue backdrop

Sophie Marsden of 4ocean says that the quieter show allowed for more meaningful conversations.

Sophie Marsden, Southeast territory sales manager at 4ocean, Boca Raton, FL

“I really really enjoyed Surf Expo. It was definitely nothing like previous shows. One of my favorite parts was the fact that it was smaller and the atmosphere felt less frenzied which led to more meaningful conversations with buyers who stopped by the booth."

"We actually rolled out new products to further our mission, like our reusable bottles and face masks, and this year’s show was more conducive to taking our time and walking through these new categories. Being a smaller show also allowed for retailers to discover new brands and we had the opportunity to welcome more people to the 4ocean family than we normally would. The Surf Expo staff did a great job of making everyone feel safe. They did daily temperature checks, had staff walking around ensuring everyone was wearing a mask, the booths were more separated, and there were hand sanitizer stations everywhere.” 

Bobby Jackson, VP of sales at Eagles Nest Outfitters Inc. 

"For ENO, the decision to go to the show was more of a way of showing support for our regional retailers in Florida. If you think of it from a dealer's perspective, they have to interface with the retail public on a daily basis whereas a brand like us has the luxury of working from home. We didn't expect the show to be such a success though." 

"On the first day, we had a dozen different store owners and buyers, mostly regional, but some national, visit the booth, and on the second day, we saw a few more. But more importantly, we met with two key accounts that decided to attend the show last minute." 

"The Surf Expo team did an impressive job with the safety protocols and I even saw people get escorted out because they wouldn't comply with the mask standards. While traffic was down on I Drive [the strip near the convention center where attendees convene for dinners, etc.], the traffic on the show floor was better than I had expected. Surf Expo was a good first step to 2021 and I'm confident now that I'll be more inclined to attend other shows this year."

Jesse Westmacott, manager at Farias Surf and Sport, Ship Bottom, NJ

Bearded man wearing blue hoodie sweatshirt and green knit hat, holding a canned beverage

Jesse Westmacott of Farias Surf and Sport was hesitant to attend but ultimately felt safe when he did.

“It was a tough call. We’re a family owned and operated surf shop so safety is super important to us, but we also need to continue our business. Really, it was one of my friends who works for Surf Expo who reassured us that the organizers were implementing all the safety precautions, so we went for it." 

"We were really happy with what we saw when we rolled up. While there were definitely less brands in attendance, they were spread out so people could social distance. There were people walking around saying “keep your mask on.” If someone had their mask down to talk better, they were on top of you. I was impressed."

"We ended up getting quite a lot of work done. Everyone was there to do business. People were trying to be as efficient as possible and many people were there for just a day. We saw the brands we needed to see and were able to see some of the accessories, like coolers and knick-knacks, that we typically rush through at larger, busier shows. We got a lot of private label business taken care of. Ultimately we made the decision to support Surf Expo because they’ve been supportive to retailers like us.”

Will Summer Outdoor Retailer go on?

So, what does this mean for Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, set to stage in Denver in mid June? That remains to be seen, though this move signals that Emerald Holdings is bullish. The public company has seen a big impact on its global business and stock price since the pandemic hit. 

And the team at Outdoor Retailer is also eager to host a big reunion.  "Our second virtual event, Outdoor Retailer Winter Online, is underway now and it's a great opportunity for the outdoor community to connect during this time," says Marisa Nicholson, Outdoor Retailer senior vice president and show director. "We also recognize the incredible value for our industry when we gather in person. As we plan for our summer show, we remain in regular contact with Denver officials on the status of venues, hotels, and public gatherings while also monitoring health and safety guidelines." 

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