The last West Coast ASR Trade Expo of the century occupied the San Diego Convention Center this September as the annual fall show hit its nineteenth year. Those who remember the show’s early days are all too familiar with the routine–the three-day circus of sales smiles and surreal visual stimuli.

The trade show, a convention of the most prolific image-makers in the action-sports world, packs a dense array of companies into rows of ten- by ten-footbooths (most occupying multiple spaces) where attendees (primarily buyers) are subject to the full spectrum of commercial posturing–from the single-booth micro brands to the larger-than-life two-story corporations. After all, these are the companies responsible for all those colorful ads in the magazines and the barrage of imagery hanging on skate-shop walls. ASR is like that to the nth degree. It’s a lot to see in three days.

There was a time when one could browse the entire show, including the surf, swimwear, and fashion sections, and still manage to absorb most of the skate area in three days. That was probably around ’91 or ’92, but with the scheduled skate demos, IASC meetings, Girl/Chocolate basketball tournaments, and droves of pseudo-skate gimmick inventors prowling the aisles, just seeing what skateboarding has to offer nowadays requires a tight and disciplined schedule. If you’re going to ASR and you plan to get some business done, be sure to make appointments; it’s the only way to ensure your contacts will be available, and it’s a great reason to get out of an impromptu dissertation by the guy selling griptape lube.

The real treasures at ASR lie deep inside the booths of companies who know that good customers are willing to seek out popular and innovative product. The brands who’ve been there, in those aisles, year after year, and who’ve survived one or two industry slumps (cross your fingers) know who their customers are and have delivered their message long before ASR opened its doors. For them the trade show is a meeting place, not a game ranch.

It was surprising to see how many booths were enclosed and accessible only by appointment, the narrow entrances stationed with polite sentries who kept strays from wandering in. Having everyone walk through one’s booth and pick up a catalog used to be the point of the trade show. But now even catalogs are selectively doled out. One bold exception was Tum Yeto’s decoy booth, which consisted of a large box with a video monitor. On the screen was the image of an employee who was actually inside the box, and who interacted with passersby and dispensed catalogs and stickers through a slot just below the monitor. The real Tum Yeto “booth” was moored in the harbor just outside the convention center–a 65-foot yacht that Tum Yeto Owner Tod Swank hired for the weekend. “The best thing it did for us is that we got a bunch of attention for trying to do something different,” he says. “We had breakfast lunch and the afternoon cruise through the harbor for friends and clients.”

Bringing distributors and dealers from all over the world together in a quiet relaxed environment also seemed to generate some interesting discussions. “I saw a lot of these really good conversations going on about skateboarding–talking about blank boards, pricepoints, and premium companies” says Swank. “And our sales people talked with a lot of our accounts. We hobnobbed like we do inside the trade show, but we hobnobbed in a different way. They our accounts were stoked–they were thankful, that we made the show more enjoyable for them rather than the regular ‘go to the trade show spend your entire day inside the trade show go to the hotel room.’”

The manic environment inside the convention center seemed anything but conducive to business, and if companies were limiting access to their booths, it was probably so they could keep the mania outside. From the second-story vantage of the Giant Distribution booth, reps in the sal area below and in all surrounding booths were valiantly taking their clients through lines, terms, and delivery schedules. Even the companies with open booths and crowds wandering through had their reps tucked into corners with buyers. Rob Mertz of Syndrome Distribution says that their new black-and-chrome pillared booth was designed to attract curious buyers to their new hardgoods lines. “We were debuting quite a few new products and wanted to make an impact at the show,” he says. “The new booth is double the size of our last one, we had a solid promo video going, and flew out all our dNA and Status team riders to represent.”

In addition to updated graphics and shapes, this show saw the introduction of many new product concepts. From Expedition One’s Inerlock and Santa Cruz’s Epxycore decks to Dwindle Distribution’s Tensor truck and Powell’s Hardcore bushings, companies are rethinking the designs we’ve been selling and riding for years. “I think there was more innovation at this show than in the last ten years,” says George Powell, whose company has developed a whole Bones Brigade line of decks and wheels to complement its Powell and Bones products. He’s encouraged by what appears to be a new emphasis on innovation, but is cautious about embracing too much of it too soon. “I think everyone’s befuddled by all the new types of products,” he says. “It’s gonna take a while for the really good stuff to surface.”

Jim Gray of ABC Board Supply isn’t too impressed by what he saw at the show. “There are some new things,” he says. “People are going into categories that nobody was approaching before, like trucks. It’s kind of cool because everything is so oversaturated that people who are doing well are looking to expand, but I think some people are going to learn hard lessons.”

The chances that skateboard companies take create a lot of interest in their section of the show. “Skateboarding’s definitely the most energetic part of the whole show,” says Gray. “We always walk around to see what’s up. We walk the surf side the bikini side and it’s all calm and tame. As you get right at the edge of the skateboarding section, the crowd kinda starts at the core surf companies. Then it just gets to be mayhem in the skate area.”

The crowds and noise in the skateboard section of the show don’t necessarily mean that companies are cashing in, though. “People don’t write orders at the show like they used to,” he says. “Even the foreign guys who used to come and really sit down and write orders, now they come to check your stuff out and get price lists. They order soon afterward, but you don’t walk out of there saying ‘Look how much we did!’”

Tum Yeto’s pod-booth concept was born out of Swank’s feeling that being at ASR doesn’t really help the larger companies who already have established domestic and international accounts. “That non-order-writing thing is nothing new, it’s been going on the past three or four years,” he says. “And we don’t get that many new accounts at ASR.”

For that reason Tum Yeto won’t be showing at the February ASR show in Long Beach. “You spend a lot of money and you want it to work for you,” says Swank. “I can’t justify the expense at this point. I think I can take twenty-grand and spend it on all my best accounts–fly them somewhere or make twenty-grand worth of killer P.O.P. People aren’t writing orders just because it’s ASR. These guys are ordering from us on a regular basis, they know all our products. I’m sure it is a good idea to announce new things at ASR, but for me, I was just kinda burned out and tired of doing the same old thing.”

The benefits of being at the show are sometimes intangible, but the West Coast ASR shows have been the primary skate shows for over a decade. And despite reservations about the costs and difficulties of getting there, many companies admit there is no real alternative. “If you’re not there, you hear people say that you’re out of business because you’re not on the floor,” says ABC’s Gray. “So unfortunately, you’re there sort of to stick your chest out with the other chickens.”

The most conspicuous booths at the show belonged to the shoe companies, whose towering structures could be seen from almost anywhere on the show floor. After reverting to a single-story enclosure last spring, Axion brought its penthouse back to ASR. Dwindle Distribution CEO Frank Messman says that shoes require more sales space than hardgoods do, so while A-Team, Blind, City Stars, Deca, and Tensor were comfortably viewed in a one-story twenty-by-twenty, Axion needed its own double-decker twenty-by-50. “There’s the way shoes are shown and the time it takes to go through a line,” he says. “And there’s the importance of taking those prebooks for shoes, as opposed to just interacting with and showing products to customers on the skate hardgoods side.”

Sole Technology Marketing Director Yasemin Oktay says that about half of their customers use the time at the show strictly to view the lines. “It seems like a lot of people are making their orders afterward, when it’s a little more personalized,” she says. “The show’s so big now that a lot of people are rushed through to get in and out as fast as possible. Our lines are rather large, so it takes a lot of time to go through everything.”

The increasingly complex trade-show booths are better able to accommodate–and impress–clients, but their labor-intensive designs come at a considerable price. “It would be way cheaper to get more exhibit space than it would be to do a two-story booth,” says Messman. “I’ll give you an example: just bringing in a two-story booth–just the fee from the union to load it off the truck and drive it 200 yards to our booth, then do the same after the show–was eighteen-grand. It doesn’t cost eighteen-grand to rent a twenty-by-twenty booth from ASR.”

“That’s not the style of the skateboard industry,” says Gray who was billed 1,200 dollars to carry his booth panels from his van to his ten- by twenty-foot space, and back. “The idea is that when retailers come to see you, you want to take care of them. But it puts such a huge strain on your budget going there, and all the money it costs to walk in the door.”

Strict rules governing the loading installation and removal of booths have generated the majority of complaints to ASR over the years, but as long as the show is held at unionized venues, those rules and fees are unlikely to change. ASR has worked with convention-center management in both San Diego and Long Beach to reduce the on-site costs of setting up and breaking down a booth, and ASR Trade Show Director Court Overin says many of the original restrictions have been relaxed. “The union really sets the policy,” he says. “But we’ve managed to arrange some concessions.”

According to Overin, because of the size of the show, ASR has little choice but to use the convention centers in San Diego and Long Beach. With so many buyers and the majority of the surf skate and beach industries in Southern California moving the show to somewhere like Las Vegas wouldn’t make sense, and there are only a handful of venues in So Cal that could handle the 19,000 ASR attendees. And all of them, says Overin, are union-controlled: “That’s a lot of people, and you can’t expect to put those people through the Del Mar Fairgrounds and expect there to be enough hotels,” he says. “We still take 1,500 to 2,000 hotel rooms a night, and the bigger companies with large displays need trade-show-quality floors. There’s just all sorts of logistical things, too, that affect it. It’s almost like, once you get to that point, it’s hard to step back and go to a smaller facility and downsize the show.”

To be sure, ASR won’t be changing its venues–or format–anytime soon. The mainstreaming of skateboarding has reinforced the relationship between the various markets represented at the show, and Overin expects that to continue: “I think the synergy’s as strong,he floor,” says ABC’s Gray. “So unfortunately, you’re there sort of to stick your chest out with the other chickens.”

The most conspicuous booths at the show belonged to the shoe companies, whose towering structures could be seen from almost anywhere on the show floor. After reverting to a single-story enclosure last spring, Axion brought its penthouse back to ASR. Dwindle Distribution CEO Frank Messman says that shoes require more sales space than hardgoods do, so while A-Team, Blind, City Stars, Deca, and Tensor were comfortably viewed in a one-story twenty-by-twenty, Axion needed its own double-decker twenty-by-50. “There’s the way shoes are shown and the time it takes to go through a line,” he says. “And there’s the importance of taking those prebooks for shoes, as opposed to just interacting with and showing products to customers on the skate hardgoods side.”

Sole Technology Marketing Director Yasemin Oktay says that about half of their customers use the time at the show strictly to view the lines. “It seems like a lot of people are making their orders afterward, when it’s a little more personalized,” she says. “The show’s so big now that a lot of people are rushed through to get in and out as fast as possible. Our lines are rather large, so it takes a lot of time to go through everything.”

The increasingly complex trade-show booths are better able to accommodate–and impress–clients, but their labor-intensive designs come at a considerable price. “It would be way cheaper to get more exhibit space than it would be to do a two-story booth,” says Messman. “I’ll give you an example: just bringing in a two-story booth–just the fee from the union to load it off the truck and drive it 200 yards to our booth, then do the same after the show–was eighteen-grand. It doesn’t cost eighteen-grand to rent a twenty-by-twenty booth from ASR.”

“That’s not the style of the skateboard industry,” says Gray who was billed 1,200 dollars to carry his booth panels from his van to his ten- by twenty-foot space, and back. “The idea is that when retailers come to see you, you want to take care of them. But it puts such a huge strain on your budget going there, and all the money it costs to walk in the door.”

Strict rules governing the loading installation and removal of booths have generated the majority of complaints to ASR over the years, but as long as the show is held at unionized venues, those rules and fees are unlikely to change. ASR has worked with convention-center management in both San Diego and Long Beach to reduce the on-site costs of setting up and breaking down a booth, and ASR Trade Show Director Court Overin says many of the original restrictions have been relaxed. “The union really sets the policy,” he says. “But we’ve managed to arrange some concessions.”

According to Overin, because of the size of the show, ASR has little choice but to use the convention centers in San Diego and Long Beach. With so many buyers and the majority of the surf skate and beach industries in Southern California moving the show to somewhere like Las Vegas wouldn’t make sense, and there are only a handful of venues in So Cal that could handle the 19,000 ASR attendees. And all of them, says Overin, are union-controlled: “That’s a lot of people, and you can’t expect to put those people through the Del Mar Fairgrounds and expect there to be enough hotels,” he says. “We still take 1,500 to 2,000 hotel rooms a night, and the bigger companies with large displays need trade-show-quality floors. There’s just all sorts of logistical things, too, that affect it. It’s almost like, once you get to that point, it’s hard to step back and go to a smaller facility and downsize the show.”

To be sure, ASR won’t be changing its venues–or format–anytime soon. The mainstreaming of skateboarding has reinforced the relationship between the various markets represented at the show, and Overin expects that to continue: “I think the synergy’s as strong, if not stronger, than ever between surf, skate, swim, hip-hop, and the whole entertainment-and-music element that’s being marketed alongside these events like the Gravity Games and the X-Games.”

Despite some consolidation within the skateboard industry over the past couple years, Overin says the skateboard section at the show continues to grow. “We weren’t sure how all of that was gonna pan out,” he says. “But at this show we had skate companies asking for more space and new locations because they had other brands, and that was encouraging.”

Sole Technology is one company that seems to have outgrown its 2,000 square feet. Oktay says that the company is adding another 1,200 square feet for the spring ASR show, and is rebuilding its booth to better show its Etnies, eS, Emerica, and Thirty-two lines. “We’re just gonna emphasize our marketing and really individualize the brands,” she says. “Shows are still a really strong investment, especially for the new markets that we’re going into–at least getting people familiar with our brands, skateboarding, and what we can offer them.”

Sole Technology considers ASR its home show, although–like many skate-shoe makers–it shows its lines at trade shows all over the world: Surf Expo, SIA, ISPO, Gliss Expo, 40 Degrees, and Interbike, for example. Vice President of Marketing Don Brown says that their most important function at any show is to be there for their customers, and that Sole does more business at ASR than at any other show. “It’s definitely one of the more powerful shows out there,” he says. “It’s just one of those shows that’s been around a long time, both Long Beach and San Diego.”

ASR’s long history with skateboarding and its geographic proximity to the majority of the skateboard industry has established its West Coast shows as the destinations for skateboard products. “If you’re in Southern California it’s worth a day to drive down, hang out, and shake some hands,” says ABC’s Gray. “But I don’t think there’s enough going on in skateboarding to where if you’re not there you’ll miss anything.”

But both West Coast ASR Trade Expos are the only trade shows where you can find so much skateboard product on display, and there’s no better place to taste the madness that is the skateboard industry than in the heart of the skate section at ASR.ong, if not stronger, than ever between surf, skate, swim, hip-hop, and the whole entertainment-and-music element that’s being marketed alongside these events like the Gravity Games and the X-Games.”

Despite some consolidation within the skateboard industry over the past couple years, Overin says the skateboard section at the show continues to grow. “We weren’t sure how all of that was gonna pan out,” he says. “But at this show we had skate companies asking for more space and new locations because they had other brands, and that was encouraging.”

Sole Technology is one company that seems to have outgrown its 2,000 square feet. Oktay says that the company is adding another 1,200 square feet for the spring ASR show, and is rebuilding its booth to better show its Etnies, eS, Emerica, and Thirty-two lines. “We’re just gonna emphasize our marketing and really individualize the brands,” she says. “Shows are still a really strong investment, especially for the new markets that we’re going into–at least getting people familiar with our brands, skateboarding, and what we can offer them.”

Sole Technology considers ASR its home show, although–like many skate-shoe makers–it shows its lines at trade shows all over the world: Surf Expo, SIA, ISPO, Gliss Expo, 40 Degrees, and Interbike, for example. Vice President of Marketing Don Brown says that their most important function at any show is to be there for their customers, and that Sole does more business at ASR than at any other show. “It’s definitely one of the more powerful shows out there,” he says. “It’s just one of those shows that’s been around a long time, both Long Beach annd San Diego.”

ASR’s long history with skateboarding and its geographic proximity to the majority of the skateboard industry has established its West Coast shows as the destinations for skateboard products. “If you’re in Southern California it’s worth a day to drive down, hang out, and shake some hands,” says ABC’s Gray. “But I don’t think there’s enough going on in skateboarding to where if you’re not there you’ll miss anything.”

But both West Coast ASR Trade Expos are the only trade shows where you can find so much skateboard product on display, and there’s no better place to taste the madness that is the skateboard industry than in the heart of the skate section at ASR.