Trade shows are big business, and pretty much every industry has at least one major one. There’s the Consumer Electronics Show, the AHR heating and air-conditioning show, and even ConExpo/ConAgg for concrete, aggregate, and asphalt.

And then there’s the PGA Merchandise Show.

Air conditioning and asphalt are more important to our everyday lives than golf, but very few of us pave driveways or install A/C line sets for kicks. The PGA Show gets wall-to-wall coverage on the Golf Channel and MyGolfSpy because, well, we play the game and buy the gear.

But golf industry veterans will tell you: the PGA show ain’t what it used to be. That’s certainly no news flash – it’s no longer an order-writing show for OEMs and hasn’t been for at least 10-to-15 years due to, in no particular order: earlier product release and buying schedules, retailer consolidation and the rise of eCommerce. Add TaylorMade’s decision to skip the 2019 show entirely, and it’s fair to question the relevance of, the need for and the future of the PGA Show.

To find answers, MyGolfSpy invited OEMs to speak on the record. Callaway, Titleist, Cobra-PUMA, Mizuno, Srixon-Cleveland, Wilson, Bridgestone, Tour Edge, and New Level Golf agreed. PING and TaylorMade did not respond to our inquiries. We also spoke with Reed Exhibitions, the organizers of the PGA Show.

Four current and former industry insiders chose to comment anonymously, because, well, jobs are jobs. Since it’s not national security, we figure that’s fine. We’ll call them Sources A, B, C, and D. The first three are former OEM executives, the fourth works in an OEM support position.

With the 2019 show a little over a month away, here’s what we learned.

It may surprise you.

The Good Old Days Are A Thing Of The Past…

National Business-to-Business trade shows are evolving. They have to.

The days of deal-making and order taking are fading, replaced by three days of relationship building and goodwill raising – a rah-rah session to show industry stakeholders that all is well and the future is bright. For golf OEMs, the PGA Show is no different except for one thing: consumers are watching.

“The PGA Show is important to golf in the same way CES is important to the consumer electronics industry and Outdoor Life is to the outdoor industry,” says Callaway’s Harry Arnett. “To talk about the future and other issues that are affecting the game. I honestly think the energy created, the story arcs created are things that play out over the course of the year.”

“We look at it as a way to celebrate the golf industry,” says Cobra-PUMA Sales and Marketing VP Dan Ladd. “It’s a great way for us to kick off the year, showcase our new products and innovations and meet with our retail partners, media partners and PGA Professional partners.”

The big OEMs still write some orders at the show, but by late January most of their business is already booked.

“Selling to the PGA Tour SuperStore or Worldwide Golf, that happens in October and November,” says Source C. “So you already have your orders in for the Spring/Summer, and maybe even into the Fall, long before the PGA Show.”

“We don’t do a lot of selling at the show, not like some of the apparel companies,” says Titleist Golf Ball Marketing VP Michael Mahoney. “FootJoy is a different model, they have selling stations, and they do write business.”

Sales reps still man OEM booths, but eCommerce and retail consolidation have changed the dynamic.

“When you think back to when the show was created, you didn’t have these big retail conglomerates,” says Source C. “Every single store, every single shop had its own buyer, so the show put every single buyer in the country in one spot. Today, 90% of your business is going to be done by six buyers.”

The old days were a bacchanalia of buying, selling and glad-handing, with one veteran sales rep telling us he’d write 90% of his annual ball business at the show. We heard of a legendary hospitality bash at Universal Studios thrown by a now-defunct OEM featuring endless food and drink and a Huey Lewis and the News concert. Nowadays the parties are smaller, and much of the equipment selling is done by smaller, boutique brands.

“Take any of the dozens of putter makers who show up,” says Source A. “They get to see hundreds, if not thousands, of club pros and the few mom and pop store owners that still exist. They’re going to write business. It may not be significant in the macro-golf scope, but I bet you it’s significant to them.”

Several sources used the word optics to describe the benefit of what’s become an annual industry-wide feel-good celebration. And OEMs will pony up just to put golf’s best foot forward.

“There’s no better way to showcase your brand and products than at an event like this,” says Ladd. “Our game-enjoyment message is on full display, and our love the game and the industry is on full display, too.”

“I know there are major players at several OEMs that believe having a PGA Show is a good thing for the industry,” says Source A. “Yes, they’re spending corporate dollars, but they’re doing it to be good citizens. I don’t find anything wrong with that.”

How many corporate dollars are we talking about?

Are you sitting down?

Costs, Value & ROI

According to several sources, any one of the Big 5 (TaylorMade, Callaway, Cobra-PUMA, PING, and Titleist) can easily spend over a million dollars during the show.

“Someone with TaylorMade’s booth space,” says Source A, “the number of employees they’d fly out, hotels, meals, entertaining, setting up and tearing down – it costs a fortune.”

Several OEMs say they discuss every year whether to attend and often that decision comes down to a different kind of optics.

“Everyone considers not participating,” says Jon Claffey of Tour Edge. “In the end, it’s the fear of missing key opportunities and building buzz around new products that keeps everyone coming back.”

“One of the challenges of the show is cost,” adds Ladd. “The PGA and Reed talk about it all the time. People have to make decisions on where they invest their dollars.”

“We like to make our brand show up in a way that we’re proud of because we’re a big brand,” says Arnett. “But the dollars we put up aren’t to the degree that we dread going.”

Either way, it’s a big chunk of change to spend on four days of schmoozing, relationship-building and maybe a little order-writing. So every meeting counts, especially for mid-tier challenger brands.

“There’s four nights of dinners, so it’s a big deal to get a PGA Tour Superstore for night,” says Source A. “It’s always a fight. Do you get a breakfast meeting, or a lunch, or a 30-minute sit-down? You’re wondering ‘Boy, we have a great relationship with these guys, but they can’t do a lunch with us? What’s going on.’”

“It’s challenging,” says Ladd. “You look at the business you write, the media impressions you get, the key accounts you meet with and the thousands of PGA Professionals you see. Where else can you do that? We could travel around the country to do it, but that wouldn’t be inexpensive.”

“It’s a great opportunity to meet with the global golf media,” adds Arnett. “There are a lot of smaller, independent groups covering the sport that don’t have the opportunity to visit us. The show gives them the opportunity to talk with an Alan Hocknell, Roger Cleveland or Chip Brewer.”

As for ROI, the old marketing adage fits: half your spend works, the other half doesn’t – it’s just impossible to tell which is which.

“It’s like why you have Tour players or do TV advertising,” says new Bridgestone CEO Dan Murphy. “Can you draw a direct correlation between ROI and those items? You do them because they’re part of the overall package you need to present to be a viable member of the industry.”

“ROI is so subjective, I don’t even know how you could measure it,” says Source C. “It’s really a feel thing. Back in the day, you measured it by P.O.’s, but that was before everything was centrally bought.”

Traditionally, the PGA of America holds the show to benefit PGA Professionals. Pros would head south to Florida, play some golf, check out new stuff and do their buying for the year. That still happens, to a certain extent.

“I like to see the new products and get a taste of what’s coming out,” says Brad Pluth, a PGA Teaching Pro and club fitter from Minnesota. “It’s one of the few times you get to spend time with a Bob Vokey or a Roger Cleveland and listen to their vision for new products.”

“Supporting the PGA of America, that weighs in as to why we would go to the show,” says Source C. “It’s part of that optics thing. You don’t want the PGA saying ‘huh, you’re not supporting us, so we’re not going to support you.’”

OEMs have the major retailers on speed dial, so the show is the only time they have with PGA Professionals. Green grass is a dwindling retail channel, but OEMs still view it as important.

“We have our meetings with big retailers here in Chicago,” says Wilson’s Tim Clarke. “We don’t get that kind of interaction with the PGA Membership, so that’s the big value of the show.”

“While (PGA Pros) might not be a big part of your sales network, they might be part of your marketing and demand creation network,” adds Source C. “The PGA guys are almost treated like Tour players more than they are buyers. It’s about having your logo presented on the right people at the right time in the right places. It might drive some business, but in reality, it’s a brand statement.”

“Our roots go back to the PGA Professional,” says Titleist’s Mahoney. “The show is our opportunity to connect with a large group of professionals in a condensed setting, with everything from product training to teaching sessions with Butch Harmon or Cameron McCormick. We want to help our partners get better at what they do, whether that’s teaching, fitting or product education.”

You’ll find educational programs specifically for pros and buyers at Demo Day and at the Orange County Convention Center during the week. This year over 50 official classes are scheduled, plus training and demo sessions conducted by individual manufacturers and suppliers.

“It is about the PGA Pros,” adds Source B. “But the number of pros attending the show year after year? It has to be going down. It’s expensive to go, and if they’re doing all their buying over email now, then it’s an added expenditure, especially when time and money are scarce.”

TaylorMade Fallout

Officially, TaylorMade says it’s skipping the 2019 Show because it sees better ways to use that money.

“TaylorMade plans to broaden its investment in the PGA of America, pursuing growth initiatives we believe create even greater value for the game of golf,” TaylorMade CEO David Abeles said back in October. Translated, TaylorMade seems to be saying it will support the PGA of America by skipping its trade show and redirecting funds to specific programs. Nothing, however, has been announced or detailed.

Curious, to say the least.

“I remember going to TaylorMade’s booth, they had all kinds of activations showing connections with the PGA,” says Source B. “But it’s tough going up against Titleist and Callaway in green grass. It’s an uphill climb for anyone else trying to sell balls. I think (TaylorMade) is waving the white flag and going more toward direct and mass-marketing.”

“For an industry leader like TaylorMade to pull out? It’s like they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth,” says Source D. “You say you care about and support the PGA Professional, but you’re failing to show up for their biggest showcase of the year?”

Skipping the show invariably starts the rumor mill. When Nike pulled out in 2016, rumors started flying its equipment division was in trouble. By August, those rumors proved true.

When it’s TaylorMade, the rumor mill hits the afterburners.

“I think David (Abeles) is under pressure, so he’s minding his dollars,” says Source A. “I heard they were laying off five or six months ago, but that didn’t happen, so rumors are rumors. I think if they do anything like that between now and the PGA Show, there will be egg on David’s face and it’ll be pretty clear everything they said had nothing to do with the decision not to attend.”

And don’t discount the fact TaylorMade is ending its first full year owned by the private equity firm KPS Capital Partners.

“I have to guess they’re struggling badly with how well Callaway is doing,” says Source B. “They have an urgent need to sell golf clubs – and yes, they still try to sell clubs to the PGA Pro – but I think they’re aggressively trying to make their bottom line as sweet as possible to their investors.”

“I think it’s pretty simple,” says Arnett. “They’re owned by private equity, and I think every dollar is being counted in a much different way. I think they’re sweating their equity and any investment they make is made based on a very short investment horizon.”

TaylorMade did not respond to MyGolfspy’s repeated requests for comment.

Opting Out Optics

This is TaylorMade’s second PGA Show absence since 2010, and both Titleist and PING skipped several years in the 2000s. Bridgestone sat out the show the last two years, at the same time suffering a two-year downturn in ball and equipment sales.

“For mid-tier brands, there’s a feeling they have to go or people will think they’re less of a player,” says Source A. “If you’re TaylorMade, you can easily say ‘hey, we’re still big, we can do what we want.’ If you’re a Wilson and you don’t show up, it’s ‘wow, I heard they weren’t doing so well, Driver vs. Driver must not have gone well.’ All those conversations, true or not, get started.”

“With the larger guys, it’s more optics to the industry, but I would tell you those optics are waning, and they have been over time,” says Source C. “If you’re a big OEM, are you better off taking the seven figures you would have spent on the PGA Show and spending it on demand creation, like signing another Tour player or buying store fixtures at Golf Galaxy? The tradeoff is where are you spending your money and are you worried about optics in the industry?”

Optics. There’s that word again.

Speaking of optics, within 48 hours of TaylorMade’s announcement, both Bridgestone and Mizuno announced their return to the show. Soon thereafter, Cobra-PUMA moved into TaylorMade’s vacated space.

“We’re going to play some offense this year,” says Ladd. “It gives us more room and direct access to the (indoor driving range), where we can do fittings and showcase our products.”

Murphy says Bridgestone decided to return well before TaylorMade’s pullout, but admits to mixed feelings about the void.

“One the one hand, it’s good for the industry if everybody shows up and shows what they’re all about,” he says. “On the other hand, if they don’t show up, we get more attention. Frankly, if they don’t want to come, there’s more on the table for us.”

While it’s pure speculation, several sources believe some post-TaylorMade pullout wheeling and dealing brought Bridgestone and Mizuno back to the show floor.

“Reed all of a sudden has all this space and they need to fill it,” says Source A. “It’s my guess they sold it for 50 cents on the dollar, maybe even 20 cents on the dollar.”

Sources tell us some of TaylorMade’s sales reps are not at all happy with skipping the show. But attending on their own dime could prove hazardous. We heard that during Titleist’s hiatus, some Titleist sales reps planned to pay their own way to show, just to be there. Reportedly, Wally Uihlein put a stop to that, saying Titleist won’t be there, so its reps won’t be there, period, and any rep who did go would be fired.

“They all seem to come back,” says Wilson’s Clarke. “If you take the PGA Show out of your budget, and you don’t attend for a year or two, and then all of a sudden you make the decision to come back, it tells me something bad happens when you leave.”

The Reed Factor

Reed Exhibitions runs the PGA Show in conjunction with the PGA of America. Reed is multi-national, running over 500 events in 40 countries in industries such as aerospace and aviation, building and construction, electronics, pharmaceuticals and health care, among others. When it comes to the PGA Show, Reed has a bit of a reputation.

“Inflexible, generally, but I think for good reason,” says Source A. “They have hard and fast rules. You don’t get on the show floor without buying Demo Day. They will work with you on price; they will negotiate. What they don’t want is massive space that looks empty and people walking around asking “why is the show so small? It’s really depressing this year.’”

“I’ll tell you (Reed) will give space away,” says Source C. “’Oh, you’re not coming? What if we do this?’ They will negotiate, and they will give things away to the big guys to anchor the show.”

Smaller OEMs and other exhibitors, however, don’t see much of that generosity.

“I’d love to be able to just do Demo Day,” says Eric Burch of New Level Golf. “I don’t have the money or the manpower to man a booth at Demo Day and then run back to the Convention Center and set up. They should offer these things a la carte.”

“They’re still gouging people on some of the prices,” says Source D. “Some of the stuff is ridiculous, like food and beverage prices. Those things add expense.”

Marc Simon is Reed’s PGA Golf Exhibitions Event VP. He tells MyGolfSpy Reed and the PGA of America take all questions, concerns, and suggestions seriously.

“The goal is to best serve the needs of all 40,000-plus attendees and the nearly 1,000 exhibiting companies and brands,” says Simon. “Satisfying everyone isn’t always achievable, but we’re pleased PGA Show satisfaction and net promoter scores (of attendees and visitors) are in the top 5% at Reed Exhibitions.”

“A lot of people think the PGA of America throws out the parameters of the event and you have to write a big check,” says Arnett. “It’s really not like that. The PGA of America is really good about working with participants big and small on what you’d like to see, how you’d like to see it change and if it’s working for you.”

Not for nothing, the PGA Show was recently named the “Greatest Show of 2017” at the Trade Show Executive Gold 100 Awards Gala, essentially a trade show for trade show companies. Also not for nothing, Reed will be co-locating an exhibition for the Racquet & Paddle Sport Conference at the PGA Show this year. That show won’t be taking any space away from the PGA Show. Instead, it’s using a portion of space dedicated for a food court at the far north end of the building. It’s the first time Reed is holding an exhibition in conjunction with the Racquet and Paddle Sports Conference, and even though the optics look like it’s a way to make the show look less empty, it’s more a matter of convenience. Reed has the hall anyway, so they may as well see how it goes.

Reed does have a business to protect, and anytime a major OEM skips the show the worry is have they decided the show’s just not worth it anymore, or is it just a budget crunch?

“I’m sure (Reed) is having conversations,” says Source A. “If TaylorMade does it this year, does Callaway do it next year? What’s the tipping point? How many of the big guys have to say, ‘I’m not going’ before this all goes away?”

Is there a scenario in the foreseeable future where all the Big 5 choose not to go?

“There’s a tipping point. Thankfully, we haven’t seen it yet,” says Source A. “But if the day after TaylorMade says we’re not coming back next year, and then Callaway does the same thing, and then Titleist? I think there would be a domino effect, and other people wouldn’t go, either.”

If the Big 5 all bug out, our off-the-record sources think mid-tier brands would pull out in a heartbeat.

“Take the Big 5 out of it; everyone else is there because they feel like they need to be,” says Source A. “They’re kind of forced to attend. They spend maybe a half a million bucks and they don’t need to be there. They’re not getting a bang for their buck, but they have to be there to pass the eye test.”

“If the Big Five left, that’s a substantial loss of income, to the point where they’re not going to put on a show,” says Source B. “Maybe apparel would save it, but I don’t know.”

On the other hand, 2019 marks Callaway’s 35th straight PGA Show, and Arnett thinks talk of a domino theory is utter nonsense.

“I think those that are there understand there’s a longer play here,” he says. “I don’t think their (TaylorMade) absence in any way, shape or form will cause some sort of chain reaction. We’re always looking at how to evolve and what we can do better. Over the next five years, the show will be different. If it’s not, we’ll be smacking ourselves in the head.”

Wilson has never missed a PGA Show in its 66-year history. “There’s a reason people leave, and a reason they come back,” says Clarke. “The reason they leave is money. The reason they come back is business.”

Can It be Better?

It’s not surprising the most positive comments about the show came from those speaking on the record, while the more candid remarks came from our anonymous sources, which is also not surprising. All our sources, however, were very candid when asked for ideas to make the show better.

“It’s just the wrong time of year,” says Clarke. “For the equipment companies, a show in October or November would be ideal, but I understand the show has a cycle and there are a lot of clothing companies there that write a ton of business.”

“When in the fall is a good question,” says Source A. “How late can you have it and still be effective?”

Moving the show just to accommodate equipment companies is problematic on several fronts. First, apparel, tech, accessory, golf course supply companies, and other ancillary vendors make up 70% of the show and write most of their business there. Second, the show is still an off-season event for PGA Professionals.

“Think of pros in Minnesota or Boston,” says Source A. “They need to be at their courses as late as they can to make money. When does it slow down enough so they can get away?”

Simon says show timing is always discussed with the PGA of America, industry leaders and key exhibitors (including OEMs).

“To date, a clear consensus has not been shared to support a timing change,” he adds. “The majority of exhibitors and attendees are satisfied (with January).” Translated, that means 70% beats 30% every time.

The idea prompting the most discussion pro and con was adding a consumer focus to the show.

“If you poll a hundred people, you’d get a 50-50 split,” says Source A. “Make Wednesday-Thursday industry only, then open up the show Friday-Saturday to anybody who wants to pay 20 bucks to get in. How many consumers would love to go to the PGA Show?”

“There’s an opportunity to reach consumers and get buzz going on new products,” says Ladd. “The question is where are you pulling from? Are you only pulling people from greater Orlando or are you going to pull from the broad base of the U.S.?”

“Let’s be honest; the third day is kind of a throwaway,” says Source D. “Friday is mostly trick-or-treaters looking for free stuff. If you let consumers in that Friday to feel and experience things, now we’re talking real marketing value.”

“Golf is completely missing the mark, completely missing the mark (his emphasis),” says Source B. “It has its biggest show debuting its biggest innovations and technologies and coolness, and it doesn’t have any way for connecting with consumers. That’s such a big missed opportunity, and it speaks to how narrow-minded and elitist golf is, no matter how much it says it isn’t.”

Would regular golfers make the PGA Show part of a mid-winter buddy trip? Harry Arnett says hell, yes.

“It would be cool if somebody made it pretty much turn-key,” he says. “Go with three of your friends, here’s your hotel, here’s where you’re playing, here are your passes to show. It would be a happening. It would be cool.”

“It could be as big, if not bigger, than ComicCon,” adds Source B. “You can show off all your cool shit, like the stuff Edel does with putters and wedges, and what Callaway does. People would love that. And if you think it’s going to disrupt the flow of communication with the pros? Give me a break.”

Not everyone’s on the consumer bandwagon, however.

“We have that conversation every year,” says Clarke. “Reed has done a better job making sure there are material people there. Foot traffic may be down without all the unauthorized tire-kickers, but the business experience is more sound. When I’m at the show, that’s what I’m looking for.”

“No one in the golf industry does this show for face time with the consumer,” says Claffey. “It’s a trade show and it needs to stay (that way).”

“Qualifying the trade part of the trade show is important,” says Murphy. “You want real, legitimate trade people with trade level interests. If it’s a consumer show, we as exhibitors would gear ourselves differently to that.”

Murphy does suggest a large scale golf consumer show might be a way to bring PGA Show energy to Joe and Janet Golfer.

“Golf has to remain open-minded,” he says. “We clearly don’t have all the answers right now. Other industries have some great consumer shows that generate lots of energy and excitement. If that could happen in golf, I think it would be interesting.”

Simon says as of now, the consensus among exhibitors is to keep the PGA Show business-to-business.

“Of course, with the shifting retail landscape and ever changing industry dynamics, we review annually any options to enhance the show with a consumer element either on Demo Day or the Show Floor.”

What Will the Future Bring?

So the question remains: is whether the PGA Show is still a big deal? Is it still relevant?

Our on-the-record sources – the ones who pay the freight and are invested in the show’s success – all agree it remains the highlight of their year and a vital part of their businesses.

Not surprising, but industry trade shows are part of the cost of doing business today, and the interest created by wall-to-wall coverage remains important.

“Does a Titleist or Callaway need to show up because it’s the only way people will find out about us? Of course not,” says Arnett. “We’ve been around forever. We feel we’re doing what’s right for our business, what’s right for the game and the sport, and certainly being valuable partners with the PGA of America and the professionals.”

If you’re an equipment geek, most of what’s on display has already been blogged and YouTubed to death. For OEMs expecting a wad of P.O.’s, well, they’re probably bullish on the whole enterprise.

“Bottom line, I don’t think (the show) is needed,” says Source C. “You’re dealing with six or seven buyers around the industry, and in most cases, those buyers are coming to you, especially the big guys. You have them on your own turf, in your own showroom with all the right people at the right time. You can put on your own show, and it’s a lot less expensive.”

“If you’re talking to a private equity group, the PGA Show is a hard sell. How much does it cost? How many people are out of the office? How much are we spending to set it up and tear it down? How much do we spend to store this monstrosity 50 weeks of the year? How much do we pay to reskin it every year? Try explaining that to a private equity firm or a board member, and their next question is ‘Great, tell me the ROI?’ You usually get a lot of ‘ummm…’ and ‘well…’ and ‘it’s hard to measure.’” – Source A

Brick and mortar trade shows still serve a purpose, but the in-person and, for the PGA Show, the consumer experience is critical if the show is to evolve.

“I don’t know if the PGA has fully grasped the in-person experiential potential value of the show,” says Source B. “It’s really just like hey, let’s all get together and try out the new stuff.”

Arnett believes consumers are key to the show’s evolution, whether they’re actually in the building or not.

“I think we’ll do a better job of incorporating the consumer to the show,” says Arnett. “I’d like to see more panel discussions with more controversial topics, and I’d like to see it more interactive where people outside the halls of the convention center can participate. I’d love to see an organized way where your online audience can ask questions directly to the people in leadership roles in our industry. That would be a killer.”

In the end, relevance depends on what you’re after. Relationships still matter in business, and even though it’s old school commerce, making personal connections in one place and at one time is convenient. But as communications evolve, so will the need for a show.

“As younger people who are much more savvy on social media and digital communication move in, attending the show won’t be table stakes anymore,” says Source B. “That idea will be eroded. It’s not going to be this year, but it’s going to happen soon.”

That change is coming, and it may be coming quickly. Happy talk is one thing, but everyone loves you until it’s time to write the check. We’ll know soon whether TaylorMade pulling out is the start of OEMs realigning their marketing dollars, or just a single company facing budget issues.

“I think any conversation about the PGA Show losing its relevance is really a micro-economic issue for those companies that say that,” says Arnett. “And I think any company that only looks at what’s in it for them versus how they can show up in a positive way and deliver value to the folks there are going to ultimately lose out.”

New products and order-writing used to be the buzz-creating currency of the modern trade show, but that paradigm shift is complete thanks to technology, communications, and eCommerce. The PGA Show has to evolve with the time, but evolution rarely follows a straight path. Ultimately, one basic business truism never fails: personal relationships and face-to-face meetings are irreplaceable, and the modern trade show provides unique, and potentially cost-effective, opportunities for both. It comes down to this: if you sell something, and all of your customers or potential customers are getting together for four days of peace, love, and birdies, it’s always in your best interest to be there, too.

Because if you’re not there talking to your customers, it’s a fair bet your competitors are.