By John Steinbreder
Under normal circumstances, staging the annual PGA Merchandise Show is a difficult endeavor. The four-day event draws some 40,000 attendees from 90-odd countries and attracts roughly 1,000 exhibitors who operate booths in the West building of the capacious Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. There are fireside chats and teaching summits on stages throughout the 1.1 million-square-foot structure. New product releases and educational seminars in meeting rooms, too. Presentations in a theater with seats for 2,600 people, and lots of order-writing by PGA professionals, for batches of new clubs and golf balls, the latest in apparel and offerings of everything from golf carts and course simulators to tee markers and ball washers.
It all makes the hall feel like a small city, with thousands of moving parts.
Putting on this year’s Show, which begins Tuesday, may be an even more complicated proposition, however, even as a completely virtual affair with no in-person gatherings. That’s because organizers have had to re-imagine the 68th edition of the event completely and alter how they bring the golf industry together for an event that originated in 1954.
It has been no easy task.
Gone, for example, is Demo Day. Traditionally held on Tuesday of Show week at the Orange County National Golf Center, it ordinarily gives PGA professionals and other attendees the opportunity to test recently released golf gear in booths all around an expansive, 42-acre practice range. Offered instead in 2021 is Product Preview and Launch Day, during which equipment makers will present virtual product introductions to buyers and let them browse digital showrooms. Some attendees will begin building Show-week calendars by arranging meetings.
What makes it possible to conduct business in those ways is an intuitive and easy-to-navigate virtual PGA Show platform. Created by the PGA and event organizer Reed Exhibitions, it gives users access to important information like exhibitor lists and event schedules and enables them to tag areas of interest, send messages to contacts and engage in digital forms of networking.
And that platform is what PGA professionals and exhibitors will rely upon the next three days of the week, when the Show usually transitions to the Convention Center. They will be able to review catalogs and make purchases using RepSpark and PayPal. They can attend any of the 60-odd educational events on the schedule, covering everything from running a pro shop to fitting equipment and operating a golf course. And they can listen to Ryder Cup captains Steve Stricker and Pádraig Harrington talk about next September’s matches at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin – and Jim Nantz previewing this year’s PGA Championship with last year’s winner, Collin Morikawa. Perhaps best of all, these events are recorded and subsequently made available on an on-demand basis, so attendees are sure not to miss a thing, getting what they want when they want it.
Officials at Reed and the PGA realized almost as soon as the pandemic began to take hold in the United States last March that they had to start making contingency plans, even if the Show was months away. One option was to hold the same sort of in-person gathering they had for decades. Assuming, of course, that the pandemic quickly abated. Another was putting on a hybrid version of the Show, with an on-line component as well as limited, on-site attendance. Then, there was going completely virtual, which is what organizers eventually decided to do.
For people at the PGA, that represented a real step into the unknown.
“But we were very fortunate to have Reed as a partner,” said Jeff Price, the association’s chief commercial officer. “In addition to helping us run the PGA Merchandise Show for the past 20 years, Reed had been putting on virtual trade shows and exhibitions all over the world through the pandemic.
“They brought a level of expertise and experience to the situation, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like trying to execute this move without them.”
As difficult as that execution has been, Price is among many at the PGA who sees the long-term benefits it will bring.
“There are lots of advances and things we have learned that we can and will adopt for the Show in 2022 and beyond,” he said. “Different technologies and ways that we can better serve PGA professionals, exhibitors and other attendees. Things like having all those meetings, sessions and seminars on demand and making it possible for people to be even more efficient with their time.”
Price is looking forward to a good show in 2021, and even better one next year, especially with people being able to attend in person once again.
“It will be a real celebration,” he said.