No Room For The Little Guy?

By Adam Sullivan

In recent years, ASR has become a weekend for skateboarding’s largest companies to set up multilayered booths with which to wow their customers. And it works like a charm. Likewise, in synchronicity with the rise of skateboarding’s popularity, the price tag for one of these booths at ASR has risen drastically. Unable to compete, several of the smaller, regional brands are forced to withdraw from ASR altogether. Some of them feel it’s still a worthwhile investment, despite the hefty price and travel to San Diego every September to hock their wares. Their booths are usually modest in comparison, with the standard three walls, an aesthetically pleasing display, and maybe a video running.

Granted, it’s a very small percentage, but for these smaller companies, ASR remains a forum to see what’s new in the industry, display their merchandise, and hopefully pick up some new customers along the way. This smaller percentage is generally made up of regional brands, companies that exist outside of skateboarding’s Southern California “bubble.” And although they may be hard to find sometimes, they are always tucked in here and there—and what’s more, many of them do quite well.

But what defines a regional brand? The answer varies from company to company. Many have a ‘core following, with support from a loyal fan base. Several are newer companies that just haven’t been noticed yet, and some just aren’t interested in dominating the skateboard market.

So what compels these smaller companies to step, quite literally, into the ring with the industry giants? Necessity. Aside from elaborate advertising campaigns and high-profile tours, it’s one of the only ways to get your company any recognition.

Smaller companies that shell out the money to secure ten-foot-by-ten-foot booth find that it’s a lot of hard work. Appointments, prebooking, and seeking out those new customers are what the show is, or was, about. These regional brands must work to attract the attention of potential buyers, if they want to make the most of their time at the ASR.

However, some of the smaller, regional brands decide not to attend. When all the factors are weighed, Steve Rodriguez of 5boro Skateboards feels it’s an unworthy investment: “We used to go, but for a company our size it seemed like a waste of time and money.” This is a common sentiment among smaller companies everywhere. The hefty price tag that ASR puts on such a little booth may determine whether or not a regional brand will choose to exhibit.

Rodriguez also feels that, on another level, your presence or absence at ASR passes judgment on the prosperity of your company: “One of the negative aspects (of not exhibiting) is not having the perception of being a successful company.” But overall he feels that his money is better spent elsewhere: “Most of our distributors prebook by looking at our catalogs and don’t need to see the stuff in person, and if they do, it costs me less to ship them samples than to attend ASR.”

Some regional brands have to travel overseas just to attend ASR. Joe Burlo, owner of London-based Blueprint Skateboards offers a fresh perspective. When Burlo first started with Panic Skateboards in 1985, the cards were stacked against him. England had no discernable scene, and there were no London-based companies to support. “No one thought that it would actually succeed,” says Burlo. But over the next two years, heads began to turn. “Others would say, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’ve done it—maybe we can do it as well,’ and everybody loved it.”

Burlo isn’t primarily concerned with becoming the hottest thing in skateboarding, which could explain why he has remained in London rather than migrate to the States. His position is both simple and straightforward: “People know what they want. They know it’s (Blueprint) available. If people want to get involved with what we’ve created, and they like what we’ve created, it’s available to them.” His stance isn’t entirely passiive, though. Twice a year, Burlo makes the trip to ASR, displaying his merchandise for customers both old and new.

In 1997, Jérémie Daclin started Cliché Skateboards in France. Being just as far removed from skateboarding’s hub as Burlo, Daclin also understands the difficulties in gaining recognition so far from Southern California: “It’s hard to get into the market when you are small.”

Starting out in Paris, Cliché had an immediate following all over France. The skaters were eager to support local business. Soon Cliché expanded and spread all throughout Europe, eventually branching out to the U.S. and Japan.

So far, Daclin has survived without ASR and has in fact managed to accrue a modest amount of business. Surprisingly, he attributes this success to the fact that Cliché is so far removed from skateboarding’s capital: “We started in France, and then slowly by slowly, we began distributing all over Europe, because we offer something more than a California brand.”

Cliché is growing steadily, but Daclin knows that he must attend ASR if he wants to expand his business. For him, the decision is simple: “When you need new customers, you have to go to trade shows.”

Canadian-owned-and-operated Premium Wood has a booth each year despite the drawbacks. In the past three years it has put half a dozen trade shows under its belt. Owner Max Dufour knows that it’s a big investment, but also that you can get a good return if you’re prepared: “I think trade shows are a good promotional tool, but you definitely have to prepare yourself and your staff in order to take advantage of it.”

Starting out as a smaller board company from Montreal in the year 2000, Premium Wood quickly grew in size, expanding to the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Japan. Dufour attributes some of this success to attending these trade shows. He has learned what to do and who to talk to in order to make the most out of the weekend. “It’s really good to meet the international accounts. For our company, the ASR has helped us grow,” he explains.

But although Dufour’s happy with the results, there are certain things he would like to see change. “They should also make the show more ‘core and skateboard oriented,” he says. “The trade show doesn’t need a tire company trying to get in the skateboard market. If you’re going to just let anyone exhibit there, than why call it a skateboard specialty show?” This is a common sentiment among many skateboarding companies, regardless of size.

IOTA, a regional brand out of Minnesota, seems to be doing well. Already two years old, the September 2002 ASR was the first show they exhibited at, and the interest that generated was promising. “The response has been good, everyone who comes by seems to be really amped on our stuff,” says Part Owner Joe Gieseking, who is no stranger to ASR. He knows that the trade show is the place to go to expand the business and reach new customers. For a small company, IOTA seems to be growing steadily, but its core audience remains in its hometown of Minneapolis. “We sell a lot of our stuff in Fobia (Minneapolis skate shop), but we have accounts coast to coast,” states Gieseking

It’s smaller, regional companies like these that tend to get overlooked at the ASR trade show. Just as in the skateboard industry itself, it’s not easy to compete with the “giants.” But if you decide to pay the price, as many of these brands have done, the rewards can justify coming back for more.