I went to a tradeshow this week and a political rally broke out.
What has happened at the SHOT Show this week in Las Vegas is a legitimate news story. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which owns the show—devoted primarily to firearms and hunting—fired its show manager, Reed Exhibitions, rather abruptly last May. The decision was sudden, particularly when you consider Reed had run the show for something like 30 years.
It was all because Reed had told exhibitors at an unrelated consumer show it owned at the time that they couldn’t display certain firearms. That restriction, which would have affected less than a handful of exhibitors at the outdoors-related show, incurred the wrath of the National Rifle Association and eventually led to Reed canceling the show in Harrisburg, Penn., all together.
That led the NSSF board to terminate its long-term contract with Reed.
NSSF Senior Vice President Chris Dolnack went to work. He hired the show’s two top salespeople from Reed, he outsourced the marketing and he got ConVexx to run show operations. And it worked.
The numbers are record-breaking and the aisles on opening day were filled with excited people—most of them clearly avid gun owners and lovers. It’s a very unique crowd—and if you’ve ever been to the SHOT Show, you know what I mean—but the showfloor had the same kind of electricity you’ll find at the NAMM Show or E3 or even certain portions of International CES. It was full of people who consider it “our show.”
When I spoke to Dolnack during the day, he couldn’t have been prouder. “We’re lucky because our avocation has become our vocation,” he said.
The enthusiastic self-congratulations took a turn during a state-of-the-industry dinner Tuesday night. It went from “We pulled it off” to “We’re not going to let the gun control crowd beat us.”
And here all I thought we’d seen was a successful business turnaround.
NSSF Chairman Bob Scott started off the evening by saying, “Our industry was attacked from every side, but the NSSF, the National Rifle Association, the industry and our allies were united.”
When he said Reed Exhibitions had been terminated because of its “actions at Harrisburg,” the crowd broke out in applause.
As it did when he said, “Obamacare is a debacle.” (You can tell me later what the Affordable Care Act has to do with the SHOT Show.)
A continuing lineup of speakers denigrated gun control activists, Democratic politicians and the “trouble” caused by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a little over a year ago.
“A year ago we were put in the shadow of a horrifying event,” said NSSF President Steve Sanetti, “but we have weathered the storm. Be proud of the contributions you’re making. Be proud you’re keeping our nation strong.”
Again, I’m not sure what this has to do with a successful trade event, but the crowd ate it up.
A man at the table next to me repeatedly shouted out, “F… him,” every time a speaker referred to President Barack Obama.
Earlier in the day, Dolnack had pointed out to me that the firearms and hunting industry was experiencing a revival, largely because of growing interest on the part of women, young people and urban audiences.
If that’s true, the predominately white, aging, male crowd at the state-of-the-industry dinner missed that message. They were there for the red meat being thrown to them.
Which is fine, I guess. However, is that really what a tradeshow and the industry it serves is pinning its hopes on? That it can feed the paranoia of a demographic group that feels alienated from the political mainstream long enough to sustain an industry? That mean-spirited attacks on people is a sound business model?
Chris Dolnack, in my opinion, is a great show manager and a great guy and deserves all the congratulations he is getting for pulling off a good show at more or less the last minute. It’s the people around him I’m worried about.
Michael Hart is executive editor of Expo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.