One Too Many? Surf Expo and ASR launch rival back-to-school shows, but can both shows survive?

Three things became apparent after attending the two rival back-to-school shows this past March. First, ASR and Surf Expo are both capable of hosting a successful back-to-school show in California. Second, many retailers and manufacturers don’t think the market is big enough for two shows. Finally, neither ASR nor Surf Expo apparently have any intention of admitting defeat or scrapping their long-term back-to-school plans.

Yep, the simmering feud between ASR and Surf Expo rolls on and onlookers looking for a first-round knockout may have to settle in for a drawn-out slugfest — or at least another round.


Surf Expo West was held March 11-12 at the cavernous Anaheim Convention Center and featured a who’s who list of heavy Southern California and East Coast retailers. The company spent 25,000 dollars “buying in” retailers, and it showed. Exhibiting apparel brands included Quiksilver, Billabong, O’Neill, Rip Curl, Rusty, Ezekiel and others (but no Volcom or Hurley).

“I never make appointments at trade shows,” says Becker’s Dave Hollander. “How can you see a line when there’s mayhem going on around you? I made four appointments for each day at Surf Expo. It was great. I will do all of my fall buying at a working show.”

The ASR Back2Skool show was at the Waterfront Hilton in Huntington Beach on March 19-20, and seemed to have more buyers — but perhaps not the same concentration of surf-industry retail bigwigs. Exhibiting brands included Hurley, Volcom, O’Neill, Lost, Counter Culture, and others (but no Quiksilver, Billabong, or Rip Curl). “We got 75 percent of our business done in two days,” says Alex Juelle from Bora Bora in Puerto Rico. “ASR got the right vibe.”

Both shows had their strengths. The first-day roundtable meeting at Surf Expo still has the industry buzzing, and the free beer cart at day’s end was a hit. ASR had its own list of hits: free parking, free breakfast and lunch, and its location. After talking to retailers and manufacturers who attended both shows, it appears more people preferred the ocean views of the Hilton than the halls of Anaheim. However, if the BTS market takes off, it will be easier to expand the show at the Anaheim Convention Center than at any Huntington Beach venue.


“We’re happy with the Surf Expo West results,” says Surf Expo/dmg world media Vice President Lori Kisner. “We received nothing but positive feedback from manufacturers and the quality retailers in attendance. Surf Expo is aggressively moving forward with the second year of a five-year back-to-school plan.”

David Loechner, president of VNU Sports Group, was sounding equally upbeat: “We sold the show out, we cherry-picked the best accounts, and we filled it up with buyers. We understand the dynamics of the California lifestyle market needed to pull this thing together. We’re committed to the market long-term. Whatever this market needs, that’s what we’re going to do. We’ll do a show anytime, anywhere, for any reason if it serves the market’s needs.”


However, Kisner maintains that in launching Surf Expo West, Surf Expo answered an industry call that had gone unanswered by ASR for too long. “The market told us they wanted a back-to-school show and we’re not in the habit of ignoring our customers,” she says.

Loechner says an ASR back-to-school show was always planned, but admits ASR probably didn’t do a good job communicating that to the industry: “I don’t care if you’re first, last, or in the middle, if you’re not right you’re not serving a purpose. It was important to first move our February show into January. That way we wouldn’t be competing with a March back-to-school show. It just took us longer to get the February show back into January than we wanted. We knew doing this show would be valuable, we just didn’t think it would be in the best interest of the market to do it before the February show moved to January.”

But at this point, that’s all history.

What matters is that there are now two similar — but hardly identical — shows serving the back-to-school market. It will ultimately be up to the manufacturers and retailers to vote with their feet and decide which venue serves the market best — or decide that there’s really a need for two shows.

Loechner thinks this process will happen soon: “I think two shows will launch and the market will accept one or the other — and I expect that decision process to happen this year. The market won’t accept two shows again — they won’t do it. They will not go through two shows of 100 booths each next year.”

Kisner isn’t convinced: “Some may think that all the retailers will demand one type of show, but the retailer base on the West Coast is so diverse that both shows might be able to coexist. I don’t think that’s best for the market though. ASR should just go away.”

Kisner laughs, but it’s clear that she’s also serious.

“It’s still a duel,” she admits. “We’re one year in to a five-year business plan that has us losing money for a long time, but we’re here for our customers. The diamond in the rough is that it may have taken years to build the importance of the back-to-school market in the minds of the retailers. Now retailers are saying to themselves, ‘If ASR and Surf Expo are willing to fight over the back-to-school market, it must be a pretty important thing.’ Ultimately, that will help the entire industry — which is both ASR’s and Surf Expo’s goal.”

What did you think of the back-to-school shows? E-mailTransWorld SURF Business and share your thoughts with the rest of the industry.