You may have seen banner ads for the ISE Shows, floating around the Skinny Moose Network the past few weeks. These great expos are currently held in San Mateo, Sacramento, Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. You can learn more about the shows here.

Recently I had a chance to catch up with John Kirk, Director of Communications for ISE. John and his family live in Oregon. This is his 11th season with ISE.

1. Tell me a little bit about how the shows got started.

In the mid-‘70s Ed Rice, who was sales manager for a radio station in Eugene, Oregon, launched a sportsmen and boat show as a way to create more inventory (ads) for the station. At the same time, he was able to use his lifelong experience and passion for all things outdoors–fishing, hunting, top-fuel boat racing, sky-diving, etc. Ed was an adrenaline junkie and explorer, intensely curious and fiercely competitive with himself and others.
The show worked–booths and ads were sold, and people loved the show. Soon Ed was on his own, expanding the International Sportsmen’s Expositions (ISE) tour to events in Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Sacramento and Salt Lake. The events worked because of Ed’s deep understanding of and love for the outdoors, and because he always wanted to do what other folks had not tried or even thought of. Crucially, Ed spent the money it took to produce such events and promote them. Even great events fail if nobody knows about them! For example, carpeting a show may cost $20,000–that’s why very few producers step up. Ed did, believing good customers come to well-appointed events, especially if they are always promoting the best, newest and most exotic aspects of the outdoors. Again, he was right. Both high-end and other customers flocked to the ISE, which is what it takes to make the hundreds of Alaskan, Canadian and South African exhibitors successful. Of course, there are many other kinds of vendors, but the trip guys are a differentiating aspect of the ISE, and we want those folks to be successful.
ISE has been a leader in new features, contests, seminar venues, seminar topics and presenters, seminar-presentation tools, and in strategic content-development partnerships with commercial and norprofit organizations. As importantly, ISE has been aggressive in creatively promoting the events…on television, radio, newspaper, direct mail, outdoor advertising and, in the last decade, on the Internet, with a robust Web site, with broadcast emailings, enthusiast Web-site sponsorships and content partnerships.

2. Talk about how it has grown. Did it grow fast? Slow but steady? Is it still growing?

Many of us have seen or heard about the recently released outdoor-participation statistics. What’s happening at the national level with fishing and hunting is happening, to a lesser or greater degree, in specific markets. In Northern California, for example, our most mature show, in San Mateo, has 400 exhibitors and 20,000 paid attendees—fewer than in its prime. At the same time, ISE’s Sacramento show, 100 or so miles away, has doubled in size in the last decade. Our 2007 Denver show celebrated its 30th year by shattering the all-time attendance record. At only eight years old, the Phoenix ISE is growing, but more slowly. Believe it or not, since most so-called sportsmen shows are not really that—they’re boat or RV shows with a few smaller (we call them 10×10’s) booths thrown in—the public is slow to trust a producer’s claims to being the biggest, best or whatever. It takes time, and word-of-mouth, to get the word out about whether an event is really what it says it is, and whether or not it’s worth the consumer’s valuable time and money. So, even at eight years old, the Phoenix ISE is still getting the word out!

3. Have the shows changed over the years? The dynamics, the market, the vendors, the public?

A show is a product, and every product has a life cycle. Every show has its own unique character, as does the media landscape. Our response has to be investing more in what’s new at the show, then telling people about the ISE, using pretty much every communications tool we can! ISE has pioneered new types of media partnerships, which not only result in a wider variety of products and services at the shows, but more messages into the marketplace about the events! Working more closely with local exhibitors, whether clubs, government agencies or commercial exhibits, also helps us refresh the shows and get the word out. We’ve always done some of this, but now we work at it even harder, on a larger scale.

4. Do you plan on expanding your number of locations, or are you happy where you are?

Remember, a key difference with ISE is all those 10×10 booths, which bring so much variety to the market, but are much, much harder to get than some huge bulk-space exhibitors. We are looking at other markets. But new markets require a certain number of exhibitors to create an “ISE” show. Exhibitors have limited time and resources, Those folks have to do their bookings, then get into the field!

Are we happy where we are? We’re never satisfied. People always ask: “The show is over, so, what do you guys do the rest of the year–play?” Ha! We work year-round to make the shows different, better—then try to tell people what’s up. And, as the rate of change increases, you have to work smarter and harder to not just keep pace, but get ahead. I think our shows are successful, and better than many, because we work so darned hard on making them that way!

5. Overall, how do you view the “health” of the outdoor industry? What are some concerns?

We’re more concerned with the increasing cost of advertising and the near-infinite number of places to advertise—which means fewer viewers per place. Also, remember that the ISE are general outdoor shows, including fishing, hunting, boating, recreational vehicles, offroading, camping, and travel nearby and around the world. Not only does this show or company profile help us offer each marketplace more choices, but it attracts more customers to the ISE. So if one activity is off, something else is probably okay or up. This way of doing business works because most people who go outdoors engage in more than one activity—they shift according to opportunity. In other words, we don’t have all our eggs in one basket!

If you look at recent trends and research, such as the “2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation” and the just-released report, “Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation”, published this week on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Web site, there are challenges ahead. Long ago ISE saw the trend. For a decade we’ve invested in Youth Outdoor Sports Fairs, which now occupy 8,000 to more than 25,000 square feet in each of the five ISE! Each YOSF attracts as many as 10,000 youth over a weekend. These kids are catching and releasing a fish, shooting a BB-gun or bow, learning how to identify or call game, climbing a rock wall, practicing boat and four-wheeler safety. In other words, they are experiencing the outdoors is a safe environment, with experts at hand, and no charge for anything! It doesn’t matter whether the mom, dad or grandparent knows how to do these things, just that they want to give the child an opportunity. Youth who attended one of ISE’s early YOSF are now bringing their kids! Of course, this isn’t enough to sustain the business. But it helps. And all the YOSF partners–clubs, groups, fish and game departments–are making contacts, getting members, capturing donations and publicity at the show. Since they are a particular market’s 24/7/365 outdoor infrastructure, our once-a-year major spotlight helps them sustain and even grow the market the 51 weeks we aren’t in town. We are working together with such partners more closely than ever.

6. Talk a little about the Phoenix show. Where does it stand compared to the others?

Again, Phoenix is our newest show, and we moved to the new facility in Glendale last year. Nearly half of the people we surveyed at the 2007 Phoenix ISE said they were at the show for the first time. Eight of 10 people surveyed said they strongly liked the show and were very likely to return. I know this sounds mechanical, but it’s a wonderful thing! That’s because we were able to bring our exhibitors new customers. At the same time, survey results are bullish about the show’s future. Remember how word-of-mouth is key to growing an event—I’ll trust my buddy every time compared to an ad! As the area continues to grow, the show should keep growing.

7. What are some highlights of the Phoenix show?

What’s new? A larger, more active youth fair, Splash Dogs competition, outdoor-cooking demos, new trophy display, and new seminar speakers and topics. But even more, the ISE offers the state’s largest gathering all year of fishing, hunting and travel-related products and destinations. The Internet is an amazing tool, but it seems that people still want to meet face-to-face with somebody who could be guiding them—protecting their life–on a fishing or hunting trip on the ocean or mountain, or deep in the woods! Part of our appeal, I think, is the opportunity for so many people to share stories, which is a real strength of the outdoor industry. Few things bond people like fishing or hunting, which teach life skills and values, but also provide so many opportunities to do something new, be someplace different, see and do something you have never seen before. Remember Ed Rice, the new-experience junkie? Each of us is like him, more or less, and the outdoors is one of the best places to satisfy your jonesing for the new.

8. Will you be there?

Virtually every ISE staff member, including our owner, is at every ISE, for the entire show, from well before the exhibitors come in each day, to after every attendee and exhibitor has left the floor at night. We’re in town early to make sure the decorator has correctly marked the show floor for booth arrangement. We’re there to set up the fly pond or tear it down. We’re loading the truck after most of the exhibitors have left the show floor Sunday night. At show open each day, our ad manager handles crowd control (he’s a big guy), while I’m making sure Will-Call is going smoothly. I’ve seen our owner picking up paper so the show entrance looks as clean as possible! Does that answer your question?