Looking back: SHOT Show

ORLANDO, Fla. — Ultimately, yes, it's all about business. But walking out of the SHOT Show with a briefcase filled with fall delivery orders isn't the only goal.

And, yes, there's a bunch of B.S. taking place during this four-day annual trade show for the hunting industry. But it's B.S. in its most useful form, brainstorming.

The method is "business casual."

"We don't do much buying here," said Chuck Lock of Mack's Prairie Wings, the Stuttgart, Ark., outdoors store that mails hundreds of thousands of catalogs across the country each summer, including one to every person who purchased a federal duck stamp last year. "We do 80 percent of our buying in February and March each year."

Lock estimates he's attended at least 19 of the 29 annual trade-show gatherings. He's noticed some major changes over those years. Two stand out.

"The vendors are much more aggressive," Lock said. "And the variety of items presented in camouflage has multiplied 10 times.

"We look for new products here," he continued. "But it's not the main reason we come here. It's about building stronger relationships with our vendors. And it's about brainstorming for ways that can help us and our vendors do more business in the future."

As an example, Lock explained how Mack's Prairie Wings' new relationship with Bassmaster Elite Series pro angler Stephen Browning evolved during the week.

Lock presented the idea to one vendor representative, who responded with "a ton" of questions. Clearly, this rep was skeptical.

Then he met with a marketing rep for the same vendor, and it took only "a two-minute presentation" to both sell the rep on the idea and start a brainstorming session on how to build business for both supplier and retailer with this concept.

"Your minds start to race and good ideas get better in a hurry," Lock said.

At the SHOT Show, vendors and retailers have the chance to chart marketing ventures that will result in more business for both.

Even in this age of instant communication, sitting around a table, face-to-face, throwing out ideas, chewing them over and spitting out new marketing concepts remains the most efficient way to do business.

If not, how else could vendors justify spending six-figure sums for a four-day trade show?

The dollar amounts are staggering for a business predicated on getting back to nature — the industry now claims $3.3 billion in annual sales — and the SHOT Show has grown apace.

The 2007 show was the largest on record, with roughly 1,900 vendors spread over a space nearly as big as the home fields of all 32 NFL teams combined.

Next year's show in Las Vegas will be larger still. The law enforcement section alone has already sold 15 percent more floor space than the 100,000 square feet it occupied this year, according to Chris Dolnack, the National Shooting Sports Foundation senior vice president.

Growth was the biggest concern that NSSF president Doug Painter addressed in his State of the Industry speech after the show's opening day.

He declared that the industry must look ahead "not just to next quarter's results, but to the next decade's recruits."

To that end, the NSSF sponsors a youth clay target program that has expanded to 40 states; the Step Outside program, which instructs young shooters — about 600 a year; and the Families Afield program, an outreach effort meant to recruit new hunters and affect hunting-friendly government policy.

The industry has long noted the aging of hunters. In 2005, the NSSF figured that seven new hunters were in line to replace every 10 currently hunting, reflecting a national population more inclined to live in cities and away from hunting grounds.

The National Rifle Association's journal, "America's First Freedom," reflected another facet of the uncertainty facing hunting culture with its January cover: portraits of new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senators John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein, with the teaser, "Now that the anti-gunners are in power … Now What?"

Still, the firearms industry's political clout was on display with the very presence Friday of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The Republican 2008 presidential challenger said he counted himself "proud to be among the many decent, law-abiding men and women who safely use firearms."

Once again, the industry is looking for strength in numbers.

Consistently, it continues to find those numbers, and likely will as long as the technological innovations in fabrics, optics, video simulators and other advances expand the options available to those who seek to carve off a small piece of the outdoors.

The SHOT Show itself was vast enough to accommodate these developments and more.

Indiana outdoors columnist Brent Wheat perhaps said it best this week when he wrote: "The subtitle for the show should be, 'Welcome to Orlando. Bring comfortable shoes.'"