Looking Back 25 Years At The SHOT Show

Last Thursday when I walked out of the SHOT Show Press Room and hoofed it back to my hotel room it ended an era for me.   I had now attended 25 SHOT Shows during the past 27 years and I determined it was time to move on.

Oh, sure,  don’t count me out that maybe in another 5 years or so I might stop back for a glimpse to see how the industry is evolving, but for the time being I’m moving on to some other opportunities in life that are not SHOT Show focused—at least on an annual basis.

Indeed, next year while many of my outdoors cohorts will reassemble in Vegas to keep alive the vibrant SHOT traditions, I will be spending my time in Orlando at an entirely different trade show—the PGA Golf Merchandise Show.   Oh, I’ve been to this show a couple times before, too, but it’s time to break out of my usual routine.

While the guns have always been a big attraction for me at SHOT, the people I've met have been even more important.

While the guns have always been a big attraction for me at SHOT, the people I’ve met have been even more important.

Yet, as I reflect back on SHOT over the years I have so many fond recollections.   Memories of products I first viewed at SHOT before they hit the market and became big sellers.   Memories of outdoor icons walking the aisles just like normal folks.   Memories of endless aisles and exhibitor booths that would honestly take a full four days of walking in an attempt to see it all.   Those are but a few of the constants to be experienced at SHOT.

But change happens.

I remember the days of SHOT when the entire hunting community was under one, single roof.   This was before the archery community found it necessary to fracture off and create their own, independent trade show now known as the ATA Show.   I don’t blame them.   As I recall their booths were rather scattered around on the SHOT Show floor.   If you came with the sole interest in archery you had to walk by a lot of guns and accessories to get from archery booth to the next archery booth.   I believe it was at this time SHOT recognized how grouping like items such as guns, clothing, outdoor products, etc. was a worthwhile undertaking for the floor layout.

Lots of firearms industry business occurs at SHOT during its four day run.

Lots of firearms industry business occurs at SHOT during its annual four day run.

So, yes, unless you are a bit long in the tooth you may not remember SHOT for also being heavily archery.   Yet, it most certainly was back in its day 15+ years ago.

I remember a day when the so-called black guns and related products were banned from the show.   Not sure if this was an official SHOT stance or not, but the word was made pretty clear how these were not a welcome sight.   I believe what essentially happened was after the archery factions departure from SHOT it created a vacuum for a new category of goods which has now fully evolved into the Law Enforcement Section.

Try to imagine a SHOT Show today with no Modern Sporting Rifles on display.   Indeed, 20+ years ago they did not enjoy the same widespread acceptance within the hunting community as they do today.   People’s attitudes change.   Obviously, SHOT has grown much more tolerant of changing buyer attitudes, as well.

Yes, I even remember a year when the folks at SHOT decided to wet their line, so to speak, in the fishing market.   Imagine that.   Buyers could drool for days over guns, but then before traveling home they could also purchase their sporting store’s fishing essentials.   The fishing show didn’t succeed.   I believe it was only attempted one year, but kudos to the NSSF for trying new things.

Even though SHOT is about business, it's the fun times AFTER HOURS where friendships are celebrated and cherished.

Even though SHOT is about business, it’s the fun times AFTER HOURS where friendships are celebrated and cherished often lasting a lifetime.

Another big change I have noticed is how product manufacturers interact with outdoors writers.   There was a time when you could walk down the aisles of the show with media credentials and the booth staff would try to lure you in for a product pitch and perhaps a sample or two.   Wow…has that changed.   Case in point.   This year I walked up to the Havalon Knife booth asking if they had any product samples for sale.   My intent was to purchase one of their new innovative knives with a replaceable blade for a potential product review and to establish a contact person direct with the company.   Instead, the booth attendant looked at my media badge and sternly informed me how they are here [at SHOT] only to sell to “stocking dealers.”   Really?   Not only did they lose a potential customer, but they lost out on an opportunity for me to write anything positive about their company.

Over time these sort of changes are inevitable.   During the course of 25 years you see lots of good and occasionally some bad.   It happens.   Part of the growing process.   And over this time SHOT has never stopped growing.   Oh, sure, some of SHOT’s new rules don’t particularly thrill me when they change the way I have enjoyed SHOT for so many years, but I understand why they are necessary.   Nothing stays the same even as much as you would like it to.

More than anything SHOT has been a wonderful reason to make personal connections.   New friends, old friends…you can never be quite sure how attending SHOT will ultimately enhance your life until you experience it.   While many folks may focus on the new and innovative products to be seen, for me the networking and the people who attend SHOT has always been of great importance.

For sure, over the past 25 years I might forget some new product I first experienced back in 1998, but I won’t forget the character I briefly met on the elevator heading towards SHOT who taught me one of the most fundamental marketing principles I still use to this day.   You just have to be there to experience it.   I will miss those people next year.   Thus, I will also miss SHOT…but it’s time to move on.

Are Outdoors Writers Losing Significance At SHOT?

Times change and so does the delivery of information disseminated from events such as the SHOT Show.  Imagine a day when something big took place and it took days, weeks, perhaps even months before the news of “what’s happening” become widespread knowledge to the general public.

When I attended my first SHOT Show back in 1989 there was maybe 300 or so outdoors writers who annually gathered at the event.   It was old school film cameras and notebooks.   I don’t specifically recall, there might have been a few word processors, copying machines and a fax machine, but it is nothing like it is today.

Back then news spread the quickest if someone had a radio show or wrote for a newspaper and happened to cover the event.   In most cases, however, if hunters or the shooting world wanted to learn of new products coming on the marketplace introduced at SHOT they waited several months until closer to fall to read about those sort of things in a magazine.   It’s how the news was delivered back then and people generally accepted it.

Circa 1990. A radio interview is currently underway at SHOT in the press room.

Circa 1990. A radio interview is currently underway at SHOT in the press room.  Unknown participants.

Yet, in those early years there were some curmudgeons who had visions of better ways.   One particular writer whom I admired was Bill Clede, a prolific author on guns and matters involving police work.   Bill was an early adopter of what was evolving into the Internet.   Indeed, my first few years as a young writer was spent listening to Bill and and handful of others extol the virtues of an emerging possibility where instantaneous messaging and pictures could be transmitted from one computer to another clear across the country.

I know what you’re thinking.  Wow, those must have been the dark ages.   Well, in some regards it was a pivotal time in the transformation of information dissemination.   We used CompuServe and had forums with archaic bulletin boards that largely functioned similar to what Facebook does today, but lightyears ahead of that social exercise.   But at the time it was not the Internet.   At least not yet.

To access CompuServe I had to purchase a modem capable of a blazing 300 baud speed.   Eventually the 1200/2400 bauds arrived.   Either way, it required me to place a long distance phone call (in my case to Rochester, MN), to connect to the CompuServe portal and interact.   I was not one of the lucky folks who lived in a city where such a call was a local call.   Thus, I used a program called TapCIS which was a DOS-based program allowing quicker access to CompuServe.   In essence, folks like me would do everything offline—connect to the portal—TapCIS would quickly work its magic, and then I would end the phone call to read what was happening.

Doesn’t sound very efficient, does it?   Well, this happened to be cutting edge communication technology back in the 1980s, folks.   Suddenly a writer sitting in the Press Room at SHOT could theoretically start spilling the beans about new products and subscribers around the country could tune in and discover the news almost as it was happening.

Fast Forward To Today

The fast-paced press room of today at SHOT Show is all about technology and the people who know how to use it.

The fast-paced press room of today at SHOT Show is all about technology and the people who know how to use it.

Gone are the modems with the squealing hook-up noises.   Gone are the long waits for news of what is happening at SHOT.   Gone is the consumer’s patience to wait until mid summer to learn about what new products they will be buying next fall.   Gone is much of the life us pre-technology outdoors writers once understood to be business as usual.

Indeed, during the 2015 SHOT Show information will be blazing out of the confines of Las Vegas even long before the doors of SHOT open on that first morning.   No longer will a press kit filled with news releases and product shots hold the same significance as it once did to a writer.  In fact, most press kits these days are old news before the writer even gets a hold of them.

There was a time during SHOT Show when the organizers sent yellow windbreaker clad folks around on “camera patrol” making sure no pictures where being taken except by qualified journalists.   I suspect that policy is still in place, but let’s face reality.   Next week when SHOT gets underway there won’t be a smartphone at the Sands Convention Center without multiple images in violation of that policy.  To think otherwise is simply being foolish.

Instead of a controlled group of media aiming to distribute the sights and glitz known as the SHOT Show it will be folks on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Flickr, blogs and a host of other specialized Internet sharing forums.   Within seconds of a picture being taken at SHOT that image and information will be shared to a hungry public willing to consume it anywhere in the world.

Truly, it’s a wonderful thing what has evolved in just a few short decades.   In every show attendee’s pocket/purse is the technology and more importantly the capability to spread the industry news at what once was an unimaginable speed.   Instead of relying on several hundred media types to eventually filter the news, now all show attendees feel motivated to share the excitement and the details from SHOT.

So, where does that leave the legitimate media who still attends SHOT?  Are they lost in the blur of an evolving world where communication flows freely by the masses?   How the hell does a person who desires to make a profession in media still carve out a niche where their efforts have some meaningful significance?

No doubt, it’s a challenge.  Long gone is the excitement of returning home from SHOT thinking your have some “scoop” of information just waiting to develop into a story.   Hell, these days if you wait until you get back to the hotel room you’re probably too late as someone else has already beaten you.

These are exciting times.   A person following the right #hashtags can watch a constant stream of information and pictures develop from SHOT.   Never before could a person lacking the qualifications to physically be AT SHOT feel they have a virtual seat within the halls of SHOT simply by sitting at their computer and following along.

Oh yes, I still have fond memories of what SHOT used to mean to me as an outdoors writer.  That said, I also realize how the future holds many exciting possibilities that perhaps we have not even dreamt of quite yet.

As with anything else in life if you want to maintain significance you need to be willing to change and be an early adopter of that change.  That’s what a few of us with vision did back in the late ’80s…and look where we ended up today because of it.

Why This SHOT Show Will Be My Last

I’ve been blessed. No doubt about it. Having now attended 25 out of the past 27 SHOT Shows has been an awesome experience. Yet, there comes a point in time where one must move on.

Over the years while attending SHOT I have experienced some awesome venues and host cities. Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Orlando, and of course, Las Vegas. Each location established its own unique personality and I watched the SHOT Show grow into what it has become today–one of the largest trade shows held annually in the U.S.

Over the years I’ve seen lots of unique and revolutionizing product innovations. After all, that’s what the SHOT Show is all about, isn’t it?

Perhaps, but what SHOT has provided most to me has been relationships. Relationships with fellow outdoors writers, gun buyers, exhibitors, manufacturers reps, industry movers and shakers, and many others who share a common interest of shooting and the outdoors.

The SHOT Show is an industry show meaning you can’t gain access without credentials. During the early years those credentials were pretty easy to establish. No more. Today, access to SHOT requires an approval process that certainly is meant to weed out the marginal attendees.

Indeed, SHOT has evolved into a highly regarded and respected industry trade show holding almost mystical dream-like possibilities for the average enthusiast who may never get to attend.

So, why would a sane person give up all of this for future years? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times over the past year as I’ve pondered this difficult decision. I honestly have no specific reason that sounds good to articulate. Just that sometimes you feel it’s time to move on to new experiences and break out of the routine.

Does this mean I will never attend another SHOT at some time in the future…probably not! Yet, I have already made commitments for both 2016 and 2017 that makes SHOT attendance those years out of the question.

In the coming days leading up to SHOT Show 2015 I plan a few posts reflecting back on my past SHOT experiences. I hope you will find them insightful, interesting, and perhaps even a bit thought-provoking.

SHOT holds lots of possibilities for everyone who attends. A good SHOT Show can make or break many businesses. Dreams come to life by upstart vendors banking on a new product’s acceptance. There’s local gun store buyers with a keen eye for those products that set them apart from the big box stores. Everyone who attends SHOT has goals and objectives to achieve.

This year I plan to soak up the SHOT Show experience with a vision of a person who knows they won’t be back next year or even the year after. It’s time for me to step back and focus on some other important things in my life.

During the next few Januarys SHOT will become an opportunity cost as I take my 6y/o daughter to places that help live out her dreams. Oh, yes…Disney strikes the same sort of magic in the hearts of youngsters of all ages much as SHOT has done for me for over two decades.

Indeed, the SHOT Show is very much like a temporary theme park for those of us who enjoy guns and the outdoors. But like everything else in life, there comes a time to say goodbye!