Skateboarding grows at Florida trade show.

What was once seen as a primarily water-sports trade show is quickly becoming a major East Coast skateboard show¿again. Orlando, Florida’s Surf Expo is better known as a wake, windsurf, water-ski, surf, and bodyboard show, but its origins are pure skate and surf. “They were absolutely the first organization to ever put on an expo for either skateboarding or surfing, and they were the only one for several years,” says Bruce Walker of Ocean Avenue Distribution in Satellite Beach, Florida. “I’ve been an exhibitor at every single one, which is well over twenty years.”

Walker’s history with Surf Expo dates back to its first show in 1976, when he was also skating professionally. “At that show Jim McCall, Tom Sims, myself, and a couple others were actually skating demos,” he says. “This was before skateboard parks and before curved plywood ramps were invented. They just had a big plywood four-by-eight up on a sawhorse. And another time they had the first halfpipe, that U-shaped Pepsi plexiglass ramp.”

After a few years, Surf Expo began focusing on water sports, and it wasn’t until the mid 90s that skateboarding was again emphasized as an integral part of the show. That’s when Surf Expo began including a vert ramp on the show floor for demos and contests. With the addition of a street course this past January, Surf Expo has been putting its money where its mouth is. “There’s definitely been an increase in the last few years, in terms of skateboard companies exhibiting,” says Walker. “I don’t notice any difference in terms of the business that we do with our buyers; it’s remained so consistent for so long. But in the past you used to go to Surf Expo, and there might only be four or five booths in the entire show that had anything to do with skateboarding, and those would have been all distributors.”

“Since I’ve been involved in 1988, skate’s always been a really strong part of the show,” says Surf Expo Vice President Lori Kisner. “Not necessarily in number of booths, but as far as the product mix, skate has always been right up there with surf. It really wasn’t until the skate companies started producing apparel and footwear in the last five years¿that big boom¿that we actually started growing the area.”

Surf Expo has traditionally been a big show for independent distributors like Ocean Avenue and Eastern Skateboard Supply, which has been showing there since 1986. Twice a year Owner Reggie Barnes and five staff members drive the nine hours from Wilmington, North Carolina to Orlando, set up the booth, and meet their customers. “I just feel at home there,” says Barnes, who first visited the show in ’84. “There’re a lot of shops from my area there, and I’ve been going so many years.”

As a primary East Coast supplier for many California brands, Eastern exhibits at both the January and September Surf Expo shows. Some companies that don’t exhibit have sent sales staff to sit in the Eastern booth and rep those lines. World Industries has had a booth at Surf Expo in the past but buddied with Eastern for the January show. “Co-exhibiting with Eastern was awesome,” says World Industries Manager of Promotions Carrie Hoshide. “We didn’t have as much traffic when we had our own booth. Eastern had lots of traffic, and it worked out great.”

Individual companies have traditionally let distributors like Ocean Avenue represent them at Surf Expo. But Walker doesn’t see the companies that come with their own booths as a problem for him. “If I’m sitting there exhibiting, I feel a benefit if Planet Earth and Sector 9 are also there,” he says. “I distribute their products, but it still gives me a little more backup in terms of their products being promoted generally. So I’m happy to see those companies showing up.”

“It’s mainly distributors there, so that’s better for us,” says Barnes, who acknowledges that the increased numbeer of manufacturers coming to the show is to be expected as skateboarding’s profile grows at Surf Expo. “Every time they’ve had the vert ramp, it’s the center of the show.”

The Tim Payne-built street course was also a big hit; the ramp and street course, coupled with the similar mix of product categories, has drawn obvious comparisons to the West Coast Action Sports Retailer Trade Expos. But in addition to being on the other side of the country, Surf Expo is looking at various ways to evolve and differentiate its show.

Kisner says that the street course will be a regular feature at all Surf Expo shows, but it will be moved out front to give the general public something to see. Another idea she’s considering is keeping the show open one extra day and allowing the public in. The idea isn’t unique, nor is it new, says Kisner: “European shows are already doing this. They do a trade day and public day, or they do a trade and public show simultaneously. Of course, we’re not going to do anything unless the industry wants us to do it. But it would definitely take care of a lot of the kids who are trying to get into the show.”

For now Surf Expo will allow the public to view the street demos and contest, and response to that, as well as feedback from exhibitors, will determine if its staff pursues the option of letting them into the hall.

To date, Kisner is pleased with the growth of the skate section, a total of 65 companies in 190 booth spaces at the January show¿five companies and 34 booth spaces more than the year before. “When it comes right down to it, manufacturers have one thing in mind, and that is the number of orders they write at any given show,” says Kisner. “And when they start prioritizing, that’s how they prioritize their trade shows, by order writing.”

Currently only about ten percent of the show, skateboarding will continue to play an important role in Surf Expo. “We’re really committed to it and would like to continue to see it grow on a manufacturer level,” says Kisner, who remains positive despite some new problems an expanded skate section has brought to the show. “Let’s put it this way¿our security guards are always in that section, and nowhere else. But you know what? That’s where the surf industry was ten years ago when I first started getting involved in it, and it’s just changed course. The surf guys are pretty tame now compared to the skate guys.”