LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Walk around the crowded aisles of the 2016 ATA Show for very long and it’s easy to believe that the entire gathering is about the rock-star celebrity like status that some of the industry’s biggest smiling personalities and television show hosts seem to enjoy.
That much seems apparent this week when you watch figures like Willie Robertson, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Jim Shockey, Eva Shockey, Lee and Tiffany Lakosky, David Blanton, Chipper Jones and many others holding court, signing autographs and posing for photographs.
In most cases – like wherever the Bone Collector trio of Michael Waddell, Nick Mundt and Travis “T-Bone” Turner happen to be – the lines are extremely long as fans seek a brief interaction with those that they watch on a weekly basis.
Think Beatlemania … with a compound bow in hand.
But look past the autograph lines and the Instagram and Facebook photos being snapped at the sprawling Kentucky Expo Center and one can quickly discover the real purpose for the annual ATA Show.
Not to mention the life-blood of a powerhouse industry that builds and sells archery and bowhunting gear to the 21.6 million Americans that participate in the art of bending a bow back and letting an arrow fly downrange.
A life-blood that comes from the business being conducted as manufacturers meet, greet and write orders with the archery shop owners and box-store buying groups wandering the show floor aisles.
“Everyone who works on the show understands it’s the life-blood of our industry,” said Jay McAninch, the CEO and president of the hosting Archery Trade Association, in an ATA news release.
“Everything is geared toward business and efficiency to maximize the net proceeds that help grow archery and bowhunting.”
If that’s the 30,000-foot view of the annual ATA Show gathering, then the ground-level view confirms that the annual event is the economic driver for countless mom-and-pop style pro shops around the country that live and die off of the sales of archery and bowhunting gear each year.
“It’s very important for me to attend the ATA Show each year,” said Orvie Cantrell, Jr., the longtime owner of Big O’s Archery Shop in Sherman, Texas, and a proprietor who has been attending the ATA Show since it first began two decades ago.
“It not only gives me insight into industry trends, but sometimes, it gives me the first look at a new and innovative product.”
And that’s vital to Cantrell’s success back home in North Texas where his customer base spans the gamut from hourly wage workers to multiple business owning millionaires.
“My goal is to come here and see what’s available so I can make orders and go back home to let all my customers achieve the best archery experience possible,” he said.
“The knowledge that I gain at ATA helps me to accomplish that.”
While some might view the ATA Show as an exercise in autograph signing and smartphone snapshots – not to mention the after-hours dinners, parties and social gatherings at events like the Badlands Film Festival – the show is actually a lot of hard and exhausting work by most of those in attendance.
“Our usual workday at the show runs 18 hours,” said Brian Brochu, owner of Brian’s Archery Shop in Barrington, New Hampshire, in an ATA news release.
“We’re out of our hotel by 7 a.m. and don’t return till 9 or 10 at night. When we get back (to the hotel), we sort orders and do paperwork until about 1 a.m.,” added Brochu.
“When I come home from the show, I have 75 to 80 percent of the year’s orders written.”
Those orders, which fuel the remaining 51 weeks’ worth of business each year for archery pro shops and bowhunting gear dealers across the country, also serve as a barometer of business health for manufacturers present at the show.
“When you exhibit at the ATA Show, you get a great measurement of how your company is doing,” said Jimmy Primos, chief operating officer of Primos Hunting Calls, in an ATA news release.
“At the SHOT Show, you’re just exhibiting. You don’t know how your products are really going over,” added the co-host of the Primos TRUTH About Hunting television show.
“At the ATA Show, you’re exhibiting and taking orders, so you know how retailers are viewing your products. The ATA Show measures you in dollars and actual orders.”
Those orders come only after plenty of pre-show research, in-the-booth trade show conversations and a good bit of tire kicking says Cantrell.
“Meeting with the people behind the products is really important to me (before I make an order),” said Cantrell. “Their innovations and insights help drive this industry forward.”
While those conversations can be enlightening, they can also bring stress as Cantrell and his wife Lynette walk the show floor with their business planner in hand.
“The most stressful thing – and the worst part of the show to me – is having to evaluate companies, products and pricing (very) quickly and still get (my) orders turned in by the end of the show.”
In addition to the stress of getting a year’s worth of business conducted in a three-day window of time, Cantrell said that other stresses also come into play during the ATA Show week each year.
“The show floor can be crowded and it’s usually held up north during the wintertime, so that can be problematic if the weather is bad,” he said.
“And it’s always in early January, so that sometimes means missing the end of our deer hunting season (in North Texas). That’s always seemed odd to me (the early January dates) for an industry that is fueled by the sport of hunting.”
But in the end, for Cantrell and so many others, the ATA Show is an annual can’t miss experience, no matter what the stressors and hassles might happen to be.
Because even at its most difficult moment, the show is all about archery and bowhunting across America, a national passion that continues to drive the industry and to lure thousands to attend each year no matter the what the weather, the where or the when happens to be.
“The show is always changing and evolving, but the best memories I have of past shows is (when the business is all done) and I get to meet the celebrities and legends of our sport who are (all as) passionate about archery as I am,” said Cantrell.
And that’s something that virtually everyone in attendance in Louisville would seem to agree on.
Even if they aren’t in a long line waiting for a celebrity autograph or a smartphone photograph destined for Facebook and Instagram.