Is the SHOT Show really getting too big?

These days you’re often elbow to elbow inside the SHOT Show, but it wasn’t always that way. Rick Sapp looks at the rise and rise of the world’s foremost gun trade event.


In January, 1979, the first SHOT Show debuted in the St Louis (Missouri) Convention Center.

Considered a great success, the three-day event brought together 290 exhibitors and 4,700 attendees on 52,153 square feet of exhibition space.

No-one knew quite what to expect, so show manager Jerry Van Dijk eventually admitted that he had laid out the venture “with aisles on the diagonal to create the illusion of a larger overall footprint.”

Thirty-five years later, management firm Reed Exhibition is preparing for the 2013 Show (actually, its planning for the 2015 one now).

To be held at the Sands Expo & Convention Center in Las Vegas, it will have a floor plan almost 12 times the area of the original show: 625,000 square feet. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the show’s owner, expects to host 1,600 exhibitors and nearly 60,000 attendees at the expanded four-day event.


A growing concern

It’s a testament to good management and a vibrant industry that the SHOT Show has grown. It’s wonderful that it supports the NSSF, its initiatives and promotions, especially recruitment.

But has the event simply become too overwhelming? Do aisles teem with individuals from 50 countries, many of whom seem to have only a marginal relationship with the shooting sports?

In an age of costly and difficult travel, is it too expensive now and, well, just too much? Is bigger necessarily better?

The answer to those questions depends on your perspective. Twenty years ago an inflexible SHOT lost most of its archery exhibitors, about 10 per cent of floor space.

But a decade later, a more flexible organisation added military and law enforcement, and those categories may now total as much as one-third of the modern show.

As big as the event has become, NSSF’s Chris Dolnack says SHOT has actually downsized in recent years.

In Orlando in 2009, it covered 715,000 square feet. The Orlando shows (2003, 2007 and 2009) seemed spacious, almost luxurious, but their huge footprint and modest attendance perhaps gave an illusion of emptiness that the current space in Las Vegas certainly does not entertain. Since then, the show has steadily declined in net floor space.

The move to a relatively permanent exhibition hall at the Sands Expo & Convention Center was unpopular in its first year. Compared with Orlando, its low ceilings promoted a sense of claustrophobia.

Attendees and exhibitors complained about the confusing layout, weirdly numbered or misaligned booths and lack of signage.

Chris admits that customers were clearly not happy about being tightly packed into the rented area. He recognises that retail customers as well as exhibitors choose to attend SHOT; it is not mandatory.

“The Sands put money into the facility to spruce it up,” he says. “Then NSSF worked to improve navigation, provide additional signage and guides, supply additional food and beverage opportunities and widen the aisles. If people don’t have a good experience, they won’t come back. The NSSF took a revenue hit, but providing a sustainable venue that works for our customers is what SHOT is all about.”


Cheek by jowl

To an attendee riding the escalators or standing in line for coffee, it may be the number of other attendees, however, that gives the show a sense of overcrowding.

A figure of 20,000-plus was common into the 21st century – and three-day shows seemed crowded – but shooting, hunting and the outdoor trades are what Chris calls “a dynamic industry.”

Thus, in the past 10 years, SHOT has tripled in attendance size. Chris believes three things have accounted for this growth.

Firstly, with a great deal of promotion and despite initial suspicion of “black guns,” the US industry has successfully promoted semi-automatic AR-15s and their many accessory and after-market options to hunters as modern sporting rifles.

Secondly, there has been carry-over from the 9/11 attacks.

Thirdly, as square footage for traditional hunting commodities plateaued and even declined, the law enforcement and military market “really took off and in about 2007 we saw a dramatic increase in attendance.” Chris says SHOT’s composition “reflects what we see in retail shops.”

To illustrate this take-off, the NSSF reported 20,390 attendees in 2007 and an astonishing 57,390 in 2011.

Responding to complaints that the NSSF needs to screen attendees better, Chris says: “We have implemented additional screening layers to help remove non-qualified attendees at considerable cost, but with limited results.”

His suggestion to prevent overcrowding is to ask for the industry’s help preventing non-qualified persons from entering SHOT “under the guise of being exhibition staff or part of a retail store’s sales or purchasing staff.” This, according to Chris, is “being a part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”


Too big… or not big enough?

Of course, trade-show planning is an art. If a show is too crowded, a visitor can’t spend quality time at a manufacturer or distributor booth.

If it is poorly organised, like a mismanaged retail store, it will frustrate serious visitors and discourage repeat business – and trade shows, even our own SHOT Show and the IWA & OutdoorClassics, in Nuremberg, are businesses and makes millions of dollars for the owners.

If a show is too spacious or there are too many exhibitors or attendees for the time available, a retailer must budget time and progress carefully. At some point, it will cease to be productive and, perhaps even more importantly, cease to be fun.

Here are two contrasting views from exhibitors.

John Schild, the vice-president of Gamo Outdoor USA, is a specialist in developing promotional opportunities at SHOT. He does not think the show is too big.

“At a good show I can meet all my customers and make meetings on time,” he says. “There are a lot of tire kickers at SHOT, lots of mom-and-pop shops. Gamo doesn’t sell much directly to small stores, so I suppose the gauge for me is how well I can interact with key customers to discuss programmes and sales.”

At Canada’s FlashFog Security, co-owner Herman Arias says SHOT is definitely too large: “We started in the outdoor pavilion and now have an independent booth.

“I don’t think people have time to walk the whole show. We miss maybe a third of potential customers just because the show is so large, and we get lots of ‘miscellaneous people’ looking for ‘freebies.’”

Unlike the most attendees who prefer Las Vegas to other venues – and SHOT has only been held in Vegas or Orlando in the past dozen years – Herman prefers Orlando. Las Vegas has “too many distractions,” he says and, in Orlando, families can go to Disney World.

As if that wasn’t enough, there has even been discussion of extending SHOT to five days…

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