No Room For The Little Guy?

By Adam Sullivan

In recent years, ASR has become a weekend forskateboardings largest companies to set up multilayered boothswith which to wow their customers. And it works like a charm.Likewise, in synchronicity with the rise of skateboardingspopularity, the price tag for one of these booths at ASR has risendrastically. Unable to compete, several of the smaller, regionalbrands are forced to withdraw from ASR altogether. Some of themfeel its still a worthwhile investment, despite the hefty price andtravel to San Diego every September to hock their wares. Theirbooths are usually modest in comparison, with the standard threewalls, an aesthetically pleasing display, and maybe a video running.

Granted, its a very small percentage, but for these smallercompanies, ASR remains a forum to see whats new in the industry,display their merchandise, and hopefully pick up some newcustomers along the way. This smaller percentage is generally madeup of regional brands, companies that exist outside ofskateboardings Southern California “bubble.” And although theymay be hard to find sometimes, they are always tucked in here andthereand whats more, many of them do quite well.

But what defines a regional brand? The answer varies fromcompany to company. Many have a core following, with supportfrom a loyal fan base. Several are newer companies that just haventbeen noticed yet, and some just arent interested in dominating theskateboard market.

So what compels these smaller companies to step, quiteliterally, into the ring with the industry giants? Necessity. Asidefrom elaborate advertising campaigns and high-profile tours, itsone of the only ways to get your company any recognition.

Smaller companies that shell out the money to secure ten-foot-by-ten-foot booth find that its a lot of hard work.Appointments, prebooking, and seeking out those new customersare what the show is, or was, about. These regional brands mustwork to attract the attention of potential buyers, if they want tomake the most of their time at the ASR.

However, some of the smaller, regional brands decide notto attend. When all the factors are weighed, Steve Rodriguez of5boro Skateboards feels its an unworthy investment: “We used togo, but for a company our size it seemed like a waste of time andmoney.” This is a common sentiment among smaller companieseverywhere. The hefty price tag that ASR puts on such a little boothmay determine whether or not a regional brand will choose toexhibit.

Rodriguez also feels that, on another level, your presenceor absence at ASR passes judgment on the prosperity of yourcompany: “One of the negative aspects (of not exhibiting) is nothaving the perception of being a successful company.” But overallhe feels that his money is better spent elsewhere: “Most of ourdistributors prebook by looking at our catalogs and dont need tosee the stuff in person, and if they do, it costs me less to ship themsamples than to attend ASR.”

Some regional brands have to travel overseas just toattend ASR. Joe Burlo, owner of London-based Blueprint Skateboardsoffers a fresh perspective. When Burlo first started with PanicSkateboards in 1985, the cards were stacked against him. Englandhad no discernable scene, and there were no London-basedcompanies to support. “No one thought that it would actuallysucceed,” says Burlo. But over the next two years, heads began toturn. “Others would say, Oh, my gosh, theyve done itmaybe wecan do it as well, and everybody loved it.”

Burlo isnt primarily concerned with becoming the hottestthing in skateboarding, which could explain why he has remained inLondon rather than migrate to the States. His position is both simpleand straightforward: “People know what they want. They know its(Blueprint) available. If people want to get involved with what wevecreated, and they like what weve created, its available to them.” Hisstance isnt entirely passive, though. Twice a year, Burlo makes thetrip to ASR, displaying his merchandise for customers both old andnew.

In 1997, Jérémie Daclin started Cliché Skateboards inFrance. Being just as far removed from skateboardings hub as Burlo,Daclin also understands the difficulties in gaining recognition so farfrom Southern California: “Its hard to get into the market when youare small.”

Starting out in Paris, Cliché had an immediate following allover France. The skaters were eager to support local business. SoonCliché expanded and spread all throughout Europe, eventuallybranching out to the U.S. and Japan.

So far, Daclin has survived without ASR and has in factmanaged to accrue a modest amount of business. Surprisingly, heattributes this success to the fact that Cliché is so far removed fromskateboardings capital: “We started in France, and then slowly byslowly, we began distributing all over Europe, because we offersomething more than a California brand.”

Cliché is growing steadily, but Daclin knows that he mustattend ASR if he wants to expand his business. For him, the decisionis simple: “When you need new customers, you have to go to tradeshows.”

Canadian-owned-and-operated Premium Wood has a bootheach year despite the drawbacks. In the past three years it has puthalf a dozen trade shows under its belt. Owner Max Dufour knowsthat its a big investment, but also that you can get a good return ifyoure prepared: “I think trade shows are a good promotional tool,but you definitely have to prepare yourself and your staff in orderto take advantage of it.”

Starting out as a smaller board company from Montreal inthe year 2000, Premium Wood quickly grew in size, expanding tothe U.S., Europe, Australia, and Japan. Dufour attributes some ofthis success to attending these trade shows. He has learned what todo and who to talk to in order to make the most out of the weekend.”Its really good to meet the international accounts. For ourcompany, the ASR has helped us grow,” he explains.

But although Dufours happy with the results, there arecertain things he would like to see change. “They should also makethe show more core and skateboard oriented,” he says. “The tradeshow doesnt need a tire company trying to get in the skateboardmarket. If youre going to just let anyone exhibit there, than whycall it a skateboard specialty show?” This is a common sentimentamong many skateboarding companies, regardless of size.

IOTA, a regional brand out of Minnesota, seems to bedoing well. Already two years old, the September 2002 ASR was thefirst show they exhibited at, and the interest that generated waspromising. “The response has been good, everyone who comes byseems to be really amped on our stuff,” says Part Owner JoeGieseking, who is no stranger to ASR. He knows that the trade showis the place to go to expand the business and reach new customers.For a small company, IOTA seems to be growing steadily, but its coreaudience remains in its hometown of Minneapolis. “We sell a lot ofour stuff in Fobia (Minneapolis skate shop), but we have accountscoast to coast,” states Gieseking

Its smaller, regional companies like these that tend to getoverlooked at the ASR trade show. Just as in the skateboard industryitself, its not easy to compete with the “giants.” But if you decide topay the price, as many of these brands have done, the rewards canjustify coming back for more.