There’s no better way to gauge the mood of the skateboard industry than to walk the aisles of the Action Sports Retailer Trade Expo. Twice a year this gathering of manufacturers, distributors, and retailers serves as a visual barometer of what the latest trends are, and who may be on to the next one. With most of the skateboard companies clustered into one side of the main hall, the whole world of skateboard products stands like a three-dimensional interactive catalog. In fact, that’s exactly what it is.

In the last decade ASR has become the show that seems to define the core skateboard industry. Like the Yellow Pages, if you’re not here, people wonder if you even exist. “To be inskateboarding you need to be there,” says ABC Board Supply’s Jim Gray, whose company returned to ASR after sitting out the Fall ’98 show and instead meeting with accounts in an adjacent hotel. While many companies¿his included¿spent several years trying to develop bigger and more expensive booths than their competitors, Gray has decided to focus on his product rather than his company’s image. “We came to the realization that we’d rather look small and be bigger,” he says. “In the end customers are just looking for good product anyway.”

Not long ago ASR seemed part trade show and part party. But in the last two years the vibe has changed pitch¿tighter corporate budgets and fewer free-beer parties may have something to do with that. The aisles now are full but flowing with people who seem to have a purpose. Gone are the hordes of socialites on the prowl for party passes and comp drink tickets.

ASR is interesting for what it is¿a showcase of the latest products and imagery¿rather than what it had partially become¿a layover between company parties. We seem to have outgrown that.

In fact the Spring ASR Trade Expo in Long Beach was quite a bit more subdued, or shall we say business-likethan in past years. There was room to walk, and conversations could be conducted in a relatively normal tone. Busy salespeople and the flash of clothing and hardgoods on display suggested that everyone present had a purpose. “We were really busy,” says Dwindle Distribution CEO Frank Messman. “We saw more accounts than we normally do. There’s clearly a shift in the leading brands, so we used the show to educate customers about our new boards and constructions.”

Both buyers and sellers alike had reason to make the most of the three-day show. A recent SKATEboarding BusinessRetailer Survey indicates that sales are up 18.5 percent from last year*, which may be why the number of buyers at the show also grew ten percent (7,454 buyers from 56 countries).

Skateboard-related companies again represented about 25 percent of the total show floor. But if you add the extra sales space provided by double-decker booths like the award-winning DC Shoe Co. behemoth (ASR’s Best Peninsula Booth award winner), skateboarding’s actual booth space has grown considerably. “Since no one really comes to our offices, the only way people see our company is through our ads, catalogs, and at trade shows,” says DC’s Ken Block. “So it’s important to present ourselves well. This booth also doubled the space we had last ASR show.”

While smaller shows are dominated by regional distributors, actual company booths dominate the West Coast ASR shows. Still, regional suppliers like South Shore Distribution manage to attract business with a vast selection of brands on hand. “We do Interbike, Surf Expo, and ASR,” says South Shore Owner Damian Hebert. “Each one show is really territorial. ASR has a lot of new customers coming in, so that’s our main show. Trade shows are important, but more important is contacting the customer regularly¿by phone, fax, or e-mail.”

The new customers were most apparent at the Saturday and Sunday seminars presented by ASR. These standing-room-only events featured Angelo Ponzi of the Board-Trac youth–marketing research firm, who discussed the importance of accurate market research, and Brian Dyches of the Retail Resource Group, who discussed effective retail-store design. The popularity of sports like skateboarding and surfing has attracted many entrepreneurs into the business¿as well as to ASR¿and the studious mood of the seminar audiences suggested that ‘core shops may soon have some mainstream competition, if they don’t already.

Back on the main floor, the skateboard district was dominated by the towering facades and ceiling banners of the established companies. But young brands also managed to squeeze into the mix. Usually found tucked into whatever booth space they could find, companies like Chapman skateboards rely on new ideas and attractive products to lure new customers. “I used to go to the trade shows, and I didn’t know what I was doing there,” says owner Gregg Chapman. “But now I’ve got my own stuff to show, and I’m proud to show it.”

Before launching his own brand, Chapman attended the show to check in on the companies he manufactured decks for. Now he comes with a whole new perspective. “It’s like sensory overload when I walk around,” he says. “I look at what other people are doing so that I don’t do that. It’s not a race¿I think people would rather just see good stuff.”

Some of the stuff apparent at ASR are a range of new product developments that, genuine or just gimmick, did add color to the show. From Santa Cruz’s wrap-around, top-and-bottom deck graphics to A-Team’s nine-ply Dura Lam decks to Livewire’s translucent dual-pour wheels, companies are experimenting with new concepts that may lead to actual innovation. And that, arguably, is good for skateboarding. “For the past couple of years everything has been standardized,” says Marty Jiminez of Livewire wheels. “As a wheel manufacturer we can push things¿beginning with shapes and colors, and eventually coming up with new designs, cores, and real performance innovations.”

Most apparent at this show was the drastic change of mood. Last September, the dark specter of generic hardgoods loomed overhead. The clues were all there, and the current library of skateboard-company catalogs indicates that many companies got it¿they’re fighting the price war with all the creative energy that made skateboarding and the skateboard industry what it is today. It was enlightening to walk the show this spring. Everyone seemed busy doing business.

Imagine that.