The people over at Surf Expo have always played fast and loose with the first part of their name. Sure, the massive trade show in landlocked Orlando, Florida still counts the surf industry as its bread and butter, attracting every major manufacturer from surfboards to wax as well as retail buyers from New Hampshire to Argentina. But officials have always welcomed exhibitors with periphery connections to the surf industry, even fomenting deviation with events like the Wakeboard and Waterski Expo and Windsurf Expo. The strategy has been to marry the related board sports in an orgy of cross merchandising and marketing, and it has been wildly successful by measure of show attendance, always about 15,000 people. There is also a long waiting list for companies beating down the doors of the Orange County Convention Center to show their wares.
Thus it’s not surprising to find skate companies dotting the lineup of the Expo, including major hardgoods distributors, skate- and street-clothing manufacturers, and the ever-surging skate-shoe sector. But skate is a far cry from being another related board sport to pop up among the rows of surf-trunk and board-bag companies; it’s not just another wakeboard, sailboard, or even kayak at the Expo. From the first show 23 years ago, skate companies were an integral part of Surf Expo, riding the crest of skating’s late 70s boom through the early 90s renaissance. Expo officials recognize this value by courting skate companies with their own section, which puts like-minded manufacturers in their own village huddled around a competition-quality halfpipe.
The relationship with the skate industry has become even cozier in the last couple of years, as Expo officials work to make the show more relevant nationally, shooting to put it on par with ASR and other West Coast shows for the skate sector. Surf Expo Executive Director Lori Kisner said Surf Expo is not specifically targeting the skate market, rather it’s responding to a spike in demand. The show expands and adds new product categories strictly on what buyers say they want, and more buyers have been asking for skate products, especially softgoods. That demand from buyers translates directly to interest from manufacturers, Kisner says: “As the skate industry has grown and matured, more and more manufacturers have come to appreciate the businesslike atmosphere of Surf Expo. Skateboarding is thriving on the East Coast, and Surf Expo is where the retailers go to write orders.”
The surge in interest boosted representation from skate and street companies 52 percent since 1997, Kisner says. Officials expect attendance of buyers specifically seeking skate items to grow in the coming years. According to Kisner skate companies are beginning to see that there are advantages to displaying at an East Coast show; there they’ll find platoons of buyers with itchy writing hands. “Surf-industry retailers have been using Surf Expo as their primary order-writing venue for years,” Kisner says. “Skate retailers are now discovering they can do the same.”
Surf Expo’s skate history goes back to the first show, a small event at a Cocoa Beach Hotel. Tim Payne, the skate ramp guru from Winter Springs, Florida and owner of the Team Pain skatepark- and ramp-design company, says he remembers a vibrant skate atmosphere in the early shows, helped along by Bruce Walker’s presence and tireless promotion of the sport. Walker held demos in his booth with skaters volunteering their time, which was as much a crowd favorite more than twenty years ago as it is now. “The guy’s always supported skateboarding,” Payne says. About ten years ago there was a noticeable drop off in skate-company participation in the Expo, according to Payne, showing the skate scene was susceptible to business cycles.
After seeing that dip, Payne is stoked about the turn the Expo has taken the last few years. It started when Reef Brazil decided to sponsor a halfpipe at the show for exhibitions, later joineed by other companies like Hurley International and Smith Sport Optics. The show started to see more skate-oriented companies buying booths, tying in with the boom of street-clothing lines that are so closely identified with the industry. By the time the skate-shoe craze hit, the Expo was in full sprint, attracting the companies and crowding them around the ramp for a village-within-the-show feel. “There’re a lot more companies here this year than last year,” says Payne. “That helps make it a well-rounded show.”
The workhorses of the skate scene at Surf Expo are the large distributors who show dozens of board brands as well as all types of hardgoods: including Walker’s Ocean Avenue distributor, based in Satellite Beach, Florida; Eastern Skateboard Supply of Wilmington, North Carolina; and South Shore Distribution in Houston, Texas. The distributors use the show to meet many of their accounts face to face as well as drum up new business. While Surf Expo is known as a prolific order-writing show for the surf sector, clothing lines, and swimwear, it is still something of a meet-and-greet for these distributors.
Like Payne, these distributors applaud the steps Expo officials are taking to promote the skate scene. “Definitely it’s improving,” says Eastern Skateboard Supply’s Hunter Davis. “Skate really has infiltrated the mainstream.”
Officials are still promoting an expanded skate and street section, which included around 500 companies with some representation in the January show. “They’re really trying to improve the skate part of it,” says Damien Hebert of South Shore. “It brings more people in and it adds to the industry.”
Last year the Expo increased the skate presence to both January and September shows, holding the skate demos at the September show as well as the January Expo. They scrapped the well-worn demo ramp and commissioned one from Team Pain worthy of world-class competition. It was the second straight Expo to showcase not only pros doing demos on the ramp, but a fully sanctioned World Cup contest. More and more top pros are being attracted to the event with cash now on the line, including Sergie Ventura, Danny Way, Lincoln Ueda, Bucky Lasek, Rune Glifberg (who won the first contest in September), and luminary Tony Hawk, who dropped into the January show for the first time and took top honors in the contest. “I had a blast,” Hawk says. “It’s good when you have an event like this.”
Members of the skate community at the show said it does have some ground to cover to catch up with other skate-heavy trade shows, namely ASR. Surf Expo has very little representation of booths rented by skateboard manufacturers¿Planet Earth was the lone big name, and it was in the space dedicated to its Adio shoe line. In contrast, ASR is a must-display for those big skate manufacturers, Planet Earth’s Jeff Moore says. Surf Expo at this point is much more important for skate softgoods, especially shoes, as well as street-clothing lines. There were also some complaints about the skate area because some of the bigger companies could not get in as close to the ramp as they wanted. But overall, the Expo got rave reviews for its direction in promoting its growing importance for the industry. “The more the Expo invests in skate, the more the skateboarding community will want to come,” Moore says.
Reef Jam Vert Contest
Tony Hawk $3,000
For more information on Surf Expo, call Beth Morin at: (404) 220-2237.