Surf Expo: The surf industry's version of a convention
In 1976, while I was still trying to figure out who to ask out to senior prom before graduating and going off to college, Ross Houston, an avid surfer from Melbourne, Florida, had a fantastic idea to gather as many surf industry manufacturers together as he could, under one roof, to showcase their products to their counterparts and to potential buyers, i.e. surf shop owners. It was both a bold undertaking and a great idea. He aptly named it Surf Expo. As he remembers, it was initially local surfboard manufacturers and hard-goods suppliers for wetsuits, leashes, fins, and board bag companies who were the first exhibitors…not to mention representatives from surfboard blanks, resin, and fiberglass cloth companies. It grew annually but suddenly spiked, upon the advent of surf fashion companies like Quiksilver, Ocean Pacific, Sundek and the many others that followed, large and small. What was previously a small niche sports industry suddenly became the theme and driving force of a worldwide surf fashion industry. Surf apparel became mainstream and surf shops were the launching pads. While surfboards, wetsuits, etc had lower profit margins than the margins associated with surf clothing and their accompanying accouterments, like hats, flip flops, and sunglasses- just to name a few, both the trade show and the surf industry exploded. It also produced more “surf-shop” openings.
As the annual event continued to grow, Ross kept having to host it in bigger and bigger venues, starting basically out of a small hotel meeting room with 30 some odd booths. By the early 80’s, it had grown to the point where it was moved to the Tupperware Convention Center- probably one of the largest convention centers in that area at the time, showcasing hundreds of exhibitors. Surf Expo was THE event to attend if you were a participant in any part of the surf industry! It wasn’t open to the public and you had to have proper credentials to either be an exhibitor or a buyer. In 1983, I had the good fortune to first attend Surf Expo, as an exhibitor for Freestyle Fin Systems. I first entered the surf industry working as a machinist for Freestyle Fins, owned by my mentor, Donn Leva. It was the coolest event I could have ever imagined being a part of, from a surfers standpoint. I can not even imagine how cool it was during those first years when it was solely focused on the surf hard-good, core products of the time! Even in 1983, the exhibitors were all still squarely focused on displaying and selling their products to either other surf industry manufacturers, particularly surfboard builders, or, on the fashion side, to surf shops only. If you had a booth, trying to sell any non-surf related items like seashell ashtrays or blow-up floats, you would quickly realize that you were at the wrong trade show.
Back then, the moniker, “surf shop”, had a different connotation than it does today. It wasn’t as hardcore as the “surf shop” concept that Dale Velzy first pioneered, where his surfboard factory was in the backroom and his showroom was upfront, selling nothing more than an inventory of his beautiful, hand-shaped longboards, some “Velzy” logo printed t-shirts, paraffin wax, and stickers to the local California surfers. That was the foundation of the original surf shop concept (and honestly all that was available at the time) and it was a big hit. Other surfboard makers of the time soon followed Dale’s lead. If I could go back in time, I can assure you I would go straight to Dale Velzy’s original surf shop. Hands down 🙂
Even in the early ’80s, if you identified your business as a “surf shop”, you stayed true to your core values of the type of products you were allowed to sell as an “authorized dealer”, to your target market…surfers! Back in those days, it was difficult to even open a surf shop and become an authorized dealer for any of the well-known brands without first having to prove yourself worthy by selling smaller, lesser-known brands and you were also required to show at least 2-3 years of operational history! Then maybe they would send their representative over to physically check you and your store out! If you were anywhere near a current dealer…forget about it. I’ll never forget scoring my first “authorized dealer” status with Stussy! It was all about credibility, brand support and staying specialized by properly promoting the sport while coexisting with your competitors. Each shop would sell a different name brand. Both in surfboard labels and with clothing lines. There were rules, business ethics, and core values and lines drawn in the sand-all designed to be competitive while spreading the love to the surf customer. You sell X…I sell Y…the customer has more selection and diversity. Shops were not undercutting each other. You had to earn your way into what closely resembled a fraternity by how you represented yourself and operated your business more so than by the thickness of your wallet. Those were the days my friends. Simpler times…better times. A different time. So was the Surf Expo.
Since 1983, I have continued to attend Surf Expo annually. Do the math and that comes to me attending the Expo for over 3 1/2 decades. Of course, there have been many changes to the show along the way. Some good some bad, but it still perseveres as do I. The only difference now is that I never changed my core values. I never sold out. It is probably why I am not retired and sitting on a tropical beach sipping on my favorite libation. I am still aptly named Strictly Hardcore Surf Specialties for a reason and am about to celebrate my 35th Anniversary. Surf Expo, however, has changed…well, let’s just say diversified.
What was devised in good faith by Ross Houston 44 years ago, named Surf Expo, is now labeled as, “The Premier Watersports and Beach Lifestyle Trade Show”. It now has 10 separate categories. All of these categories are fairly equally represented by square footage, now located at the Orange County Convention Center, in Orlando. What I will refer to as “Core Surf” represents 10% of the convention floor plan. The other 90% is fairly equally divided between Skate, Paddle (SUP, Kayak, etc), Bluewater (fishing & surf brands that add “salt”), Swim (bikinis), Resort, Coastal Gift, Souvenir, Boutique, and Footwear. Keep in mind that a lot of stuff you see at this show has nothing to do with these somewhat bizarre sections of the show. I will say this…all the numerous rows of oddities really make surfers and their products look good. I mean…really good:) Except maybe the Swim section. They all look really really really good 🙂
Even though the word “Surf” is probably the glue that holds this crazy train together, it seems to have gotten smaller and smaller by the year, despite the diversification. Rumor has it that it is no longer cost-effective to purchase space at this unusual but entertaining, previously behemoth event that seems to be on the Jenny Craig diet. They added the newest craze this year to put on a little weight though…CBD. Allegedly, it’s the newest accessory any sector of the beach lifestyle industry can capitalize on. You can put it in your coffee, add it to your ice cream, hair shampoo, apply it on your face in sunscreen, on your body aches, on tampons and if you rub it on a penny, it gets shiny!!-You name it. It’s good for you and it’s good for Surf Expo! Unless, as one unnamed rep put it, “you don’t like money”. I had another unnamed rep tell me,” you’re blowing it”, when I showed no interest in carrying the brand he was representing that mimicked 3 other brands I preferred not to carry(refer back to the “Bluewater” category). Oh, the joys of the 2020 Surf Expo trade show drama. Where’s Volcom when you really need them?
I can not wait to see what’s new at the next “Surf Expo”. To the “Core Surf “ folks who have stuck it out all this time… I would form a committee and demand a free 10’x10’ space for keeping it real. You deserve it. That’s the least they could do. Then, we might see the return of more useful products that were either unable or unwilling to participate in the Expo like wax companies, lots of board bags, leashes, fin systems, foam suppliers, wetsuit companies, new hard good inventions, and every last one of all of the struggling domestic surfboard builders!! Where are the Argon gas filled surfboards? Where is the flying Silver Surfer board? It’s been in development for far too long! Otherwise, “The Premier Watersports and Beach Lifestyle Tradeshow” is actually a great name! It’s always nice to see old friends and wander the aisles aimlessly, but finding anything new in the surf world…well, that’s the rub…and rumor has it that CBD is the answer 🙂