Industry Conference 2

Vancouver has played an important role in the evolution of skateboarding. The roster of pros and industry personalities who trace their origins to this piece of the Canadian far-west includes many individuals who have influenced all aspects of the sport and business. Vancouver has also hosted some momentous events in skateboarding’s recent history: the Expo ’86 contest at the World’s Fair, which put skateboarding before an international audience when the industry was just entering a boom; and the Slam City Jam, which for the past six years has been the first international event of the year, and a springboard for much of the area’s talent.

On the eve of this year’s Jam, Vancouver was also the site of another significant moment in the evolution of the skateboard industry. Thanks to the work of the International Association of Skateboard Companies (IASC), TransWorld SKATEboarding, Action Sports Retailer, and Surf Expo, about one-hundred industry representatives – primarily company owners and managers – gathered for the second industry conference to discuss issues affecting the business of skateboarding.

The conference itinerary was confined to one full day of presentations and discussions covering topics such as marketing, promotions, contests and events, skateparks, major-media exposure, and trade shows, to name a few. Mediated by IASC Director Jim Fitzpatrick, the meetings began with comments by topical experts followed by open discussion.

Beginning the day with a general overview of marketing and promotions – and the difference between the two – SKATE Bizcolumnist and business consultant Jeff Harbaugh discussed the changing marketplace and the importance of determining who your customer is. In the era of the X-Games, he suggested that skateboard companies aren’t selling to the same consumer they did just a few years ago. With the industry manufacturing so many peripheral products – like clothing and shoes – Harbaugh suggested that potential customers include everyone from the hardcore skater to people who may not necessarily even ride skateboards.

He also reminded the audience that big business wants to appeal to skateboarding’s young demographic – these companies are here, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it. On the bright side, says Harbaugh, big business has had a difficult time learning how to appeal to these new customers. They need help, and therein lie opportunities for smaller companies that dounderstand this market.

Quoting business guru Peter Drucker, Harbaugh related the idea that “marketing starts with ‘Who is the customer?’ not ‘What do we have to sell?'” Harbaugh pointed out that the industry has always mistaken advertising and promotional tactics for marketing. It’s time, he said, to focus seriously on marketing, which he characterized as customer segmentation – identifying your customers, why they buy your product, and what needs the product meets. He insisted that you have to answer these questions to compete successfully in the new business environment.

Harbaugh also discussed the industry’s consolidation, manufacturing over capacity, and the resulting effects on sales margins. Ultimately, he said, the dynamics affecting the profitability of some product categories are typical of evolving industries, and skateboarding is not immune to standard business cycles. “It’s not that you’re gonna have terrible business conditions,” Harbaugh said. “You’re gonna have typical business conditions.”

Harbaugh’s presentation was summarized in his column last issue. (See “Beset by Opportunities,” May 1999, Volume 10 Number 6.)

The rest of the morning was spent discussing trade shows and skateboarding’s marketplace. Court Overin of Action Sports Retailer (ASR) and Surf Expo’s Beth Morin discussed what their respective organizations are doing to help grow skateboarding. Both cite an emphasis at their shows on the skateboard section of the floor, on-site vert-ramp and street events, and efforts to draw new buyers. Overin cited ASR’s evolving relationship with the skateboard industry and the changes made over the years to accommodate it, including establishing the skateboard “neighborhood” at the shows, emphasis on the skateboard program at its East Coast show, and continuing cooperation with IASC. Though skateboard-related companies have been a part of Surf Expo for years, Morin said that the Florida show is making efforts to expand skateboarding’s presence there, and that their on-site vert contest continues to attract top pros.

I was also on that panel to discuss market research, making the point that definitive data are elusive. Skateboard companies are almost all privately owned, and generally don’t release their sales figures. This makes market research difficult, particularly for outside entities studying this business, but some research is being conducted and is available in SKATE Bizand through organizations like Board-Trac (949 858-9095) and American Sports Data (914 328-8877).

The afternoon session opened with Fitzpatrick’s lengthy monologue about skateboarding’s place in twentieth-century society, and the historic swings the market has experienced over the past two decades.

While some fear that those drastic sales cycles will return, Fitzpatrick suggested that the industry has learned its lessons and has been proactive in its efforts to stabilize the market. He cited the construction of hundreds of new public skateparks in the past year, and continued mass-media exposure for the sport. He also appealed to the skateboard industry to continue working together to promote skateboarding. To paraphrase, if the sport continues to grow and attract participants, then everyone benefits – as the pie grows, so does each piece.

“Can skateboard manufacturers agree to strive toward more stability with their support of skaters, sponsorship of teams, and continued development of products that will regain the confidence of distributors and retailers?” Fitzpatrick asked, citing a need for increased cooperation among shops and companies to promote professional skateboarding and professional skateboard products.

Fitzpatrick’s comments are also summarized in his column last issue (“IASC Update,” May 1999, Volume 10 Number 6).

The afternoon finished with a discussion of contests and events. This panel included Don and Danielle Bostick of World Cup Skateboarding, X-Games Producer Chris Stiepock, Chris Conrad of IMG Event Source, Vans Vice President of Promotions Steve Van Doren, and Paul Schmitt of Giant Distribution.

Much of the time was spent discussing corporate involvement in contests like the Vans Triple Crown of Skateboarding and the X-Games. While these events use skateboarding to promote companies and brands that have no apparent association with the sport, they do generate massive exposure and generally pay contest winners well. Danielle Bostick said that there is a place for grassroots events as well as corporate contests, and the industry needs to consider the benefits of the non-endemic events. “Everyone has the passion, and everyone wants the paycheck,” she said. “The money has to come from somewhere.”

When ESPN launched its Extreme Games (since renamed X-Games) in 1995, the Bostick’s signed on to organize the skateboarding program. At the time they drew a lot of heat from purists in the industry who saw the event as too mainstream and diluted by sports that have no connection to skateboarding. But Danielle cited the success of the Games, and the positive effect the exposure is having on the market and skateboarding’s reputation.

Stiepock said that ESPN has been doing its best to create an event that is not only commercially successful, but legitimate in the eyes of the participating skateboarders. According to Stiepock, the average age of ESPN’s viewers is 37, so it’s critical that the network attracts a younger audience. “I think we realize that there’s a revolution going on out there,” he said. “Kids aren’t picking up the baseball glove, they’re grabbing their skate
boards.”

Stiepock fielded several questions regarding ESPN’s presentation of skateboarding in its X-Games broadcasts, to which he answered that the network has consistently improved the event with input from skaters and the industry. This year’s Games, for example, will include rider commentary during the broadcast, as well as the names of sponsors on the skaters’ screen graphics. “We understand that it’s suicide to cut off the lifeblood of the industry, which is you guys,” he said to the group.

“There’s no X-Games, Triple Crown, or any event without athletes,” said Vans Vice President of Marketing Jay Wilson, suggesting that corporate involvement can be a great benefit to legitimate skateboarding events. He cited Vans’ partnership with Mountain Dew and G-Shock on the Triple Crown of Skateboarding as an example of a win-win-win situation. And even though ESPN has its own skateboarding events, he said that the network and Vans have worked out a deal to air the Triple Crown contests on ESPN and espn2.

When asked about NBC’s Gravity Games, which will debut this fall, Stiepock said that ESPN is concerned but not worried, because the X-Games has five years of trial and error to its credit.

A motion was made to establish an IASC subcommittee on contests and mass media. The subcommittee would be comprised of IASC members interested in working with these events, with the committee channelling advice and constructive feedback to organizers like ESPN. “If we can collaborate with these networks and make better events,” said Fitzpatrick, “it would be better for them and better for us.”

The conference concluded with a discussion of current sales trends, Internet “e-tailing” among them. Paul Schmitt compared Internet retail shops to blank skateboards – they’re there, and there’s not much you can do about it except find new ways to compete. For most retail shops that are involved with their local skate communities, Schmitt says there will always be a loyal customer base. If companies promote the sport on a national and international level, and shops remain focused on service and premium products, the partnership will work well. “It’s the retailer’s job to excite their local community, and it’s our job as manufacturers to look at the big picture,” he said.

The conference ended with the notion that cooperation has benefitted, and should continue to benefit the whole industry. Fitzpatrick reiterated that IASC will remain the cohesive element in the industry with projects that can serve to grow and stabilize the skateboard marketplace. “The conference does not end here,” he said, urging everyone to continue the conversations begun in Vancouver, and to communicate ideas that can serve the whole industry, and thereby each individual company.

Past efforts to bring various companies together have been mired in rivalry, but the Vancouver conference revealed that many top manufacturers are prepared to put their differences aside when it comes to growing the sport. While difficult competitive conditions – particularly in the hardgoods sector – may have contributed to the urgency of a new approach to the business, the emerging sentiment was that skateboarding needs to compete with other sports and hobbies to grow its market – and skateboard companies need to work together on this.

With a couple hours of sunlight remaining, some conference attendees spent the early evening touring the concrete skateparks of North Vancouver. The bowls are old and worn, but still manage to serve up a good time. Their longevity has allowed them to host several generations of Vancouverites, and the occasional visitor from south of the border. With the continued efforts of individuals all over the U.S. to establish public parks, perhaps such facilities will become commonplace there, too. The parks’ effects on the local skateboarding community are certainly well demonstrated in Vancouver.

That night skaters and industry representatives gathered for the TransWorld Skateboarding Awards, a ceremony recognizing skaters and companies for their accomplishments in the last year. For more on the Skateboarding Awards, see the September 1999 issue of TransWorld SKATEboarding (Volume 17 Number 9).

The gala event was followed by the 1999 Slam City Jam: an annual reminder that Vancouver – the city responsible for creating pros like Rick Howard, Colin McKay, Rob “Sluggo” Boyce, Moses Itkonen, and Rick McCrank – continues to influence the sport and business of skateboarding.