The tickets were booked, the booths were paid for and the freight had arrived, but unfortunately for exhibitors and attendees of the September 2019 edition Surf Expo in Orlando, Florida, the show never opened. Mother Nature it seemed had different plans.
Hurricane Dorian’s path and strength were tracked by meteorologists since it was first spotted in late August in the central Atlantic Ocean, and organizers of the largest watersports, beach and resort lifestyle show in the industry, were watching too.
Roy Turner, senior vice president of Emerald Exhibitions, Surf Expo’s owner is no stranger to weather creating potential problems for conferences, but as a category five storm, Dorian was in a league of it’s own.
“That is a completely other ballgame, so you have to be realistic,” said Turner. “You have to look at the direction from the government in the state, if there are evacuation notices, and you have to preplan for airline travel in and out of the area.”
As the 18 Surf Expo team members based in Atlanta were watching the storm path and trying to figure out what to do, there was one central concern.
“Our main goal when we are looking at these things is always safety,” said Turner.
While Dorian was not the major threat to Florida that meteorologists were predicting that weekend, the decision had to be made well in advance of the exhibitor move-in.
“Our idea was to make sure we could make the announcement before people got on the plane,” said Turner. “The last thing you want is to delay any of those announcements and have people sitting in Orlando with no way home. We gave everybody a heads up, we communicated through every channel we had the opportunity to communicate through.”
The Surf Expo website was updated shortly after 2 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 2, with an email notification going out to exhibitors and attendees that the show was cancelled due to Hurricane Dorian and encouraging people to donate to the relief effort.
As we know, Dorian ended up wrecking havoc on the Bahamas, becoming the worst storm to ever strike there.
Even though Florida, was spared, Turner said, “At the end of the day, I think we made the right call and didn’t put anybody in harm’s way.”
After the safety concerns were addressed by cancelling the show, the next goal for Surf Expo became taking care of customers. This included “making it as easy as possible for people to get refunded and reimbursed but also work out the logistics of 200,000 square feet of freight going back to manufacturers,” said Turner.
In the show’s 43-year history, Surf Expo has only been affected by hurricanes twice, according to Turner. It just so happens that both cancellations were within two years of each other. In 2017, Hurricane Irma forced show organizers to close down a day early.
Artie Shaw, owner of jewelry company, Snazzy & Co., Deerfield Beach, Fla., was an exhibitor that year and remembers it well. “We did go, we did set up and they actually did cancel the rest of the show. Toward the end of that first day we had an amazing day because the few buyers that were there were wanting to buy stuff and a lot of vendors didn’t show up at all.”
He said the company probably did better than if it had been a regular show. But he remembers waiting for answers after the show was cut short as to whether there was going to be any refund and finally, he was reimbursed.
This time around, show management was well-prepared.
Shaw was also planning on exhibiting this year, and when the show was cancelled he got answers right away.
“They are being very quick about it and very fair about it this year,” he said.
“We understand the impact of weather, and we had preplanned ways to take care of our exhibitor base should there be a storm,” said Turner. “We do have insurance in place that covers refunds on physical booth space, but we also have a secondary policy that helps cover any additional expenses that manufacturers may have incurred.”
The downside of the cancellation is of course the lost business, which is difficult to quantify. Shaw says Surf Expo is Snazzy’s best show in the second half of the year.
“For us it’s a big chunk of lost income. No matter what anyone tells you, when you lose the usual income you’ll make at a show, it is very hard to get it back,” he said.
That’s because trade shows bring new business to vendors. Some 900 companies were expected to showcase products at the September show. Turner considers Surf Expo the main player in the beachware space in particular.
That’s what Ashley Louda had set her sights on. She recently opened a Gypsea Soul in Bradenton, Florida, and was planning on attending Surf Expo to find fashion items for the coastal-themed combination boutique and art studio.
Unlike AmericasMart in Atlanta where she said she had to go through “97 floors of stuff just to find a handful of coastal items, Surf Expo is really a great resource for coastal items because it is specific and I can do it in one day.”
She perused the exhibits in Atlanta for resortware to capitalize on the winter tourism in her area, was disappointed that all she could find there were sweaters.
“I had planned to go to surf and pick up sundresses and other items, and they shut it down,” she said. “It’s kind of a nightmare.”
A buying event in Miami helped a little, but was she was planning to connect with California vendors at Surf Expo. She’s now considering attending some other beach and coastal shows that weren’t initially on her radar such as the Ocean City Resort Gift Expo (Nov. 17-19 in Ocean City, Maryland) or Grand Strand Gift and Resort Merchandise Show (Dec. 8-11 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina).
Linda Guillot, a buyer for Thomas Lee Group was also planning on finding swimware and coverups for a resort she buys for in Turks and Caicos at the September show.
“It is kind of a bummer for me because I was hoping to see a lot more vendors that I had not had a chance to make contact with,” she said.
The situation is forcing Guillot to do more research to find individuals she can meet at other shows.
That face-to-face is important to her because she said, “I really like to touch and feel and know what I am getting, I don’t just want to go buy something that was online. Since this was specific to resort and beach, I was really looking forward to going to that one,” she said.
Of all the groups affected by the cancellation of Surf, manufacturers reps probably took the hardest hits to their pocketbooks, according to Turner. He talked to one California vendor who had more than 100 appointments lined up for the three days of the show. By comparison, that same rep might be able to visit about five customers per day from the road.
“There is some ground to be made up,” Turner said. As well, many of the show’s Caribbean buyers don’t get to see rep forces in their areas, “so they really count on a show like Surf Expo,” he added.
Surf Expo had to get creative to develop ways to connect buyers and sellers through online catalogues and videos in the weeks following the show’s cancellation. Emerald Exhibitions extended Surf Expo’s online marketplace well beyond the show’s scheduled end date so buyers could still view products and place orders.
Surf Expo holds two shows per year at the Orange County Convention Center, one in January and one in September. The next show is Jan. 8-10, 2020. As for the second show of 2020, Turner says the team is looking at options such as changing the timing, including a rain delay date and considering other locations to avoid another cancellation. Turner isn’t sure changing locations, however, would solve any problems since the show’s core customers are in coastal areas that also carry the risk of hurricanes.
“We will work with our customers and talk to them in the next several weeks to come up with the best plan of action for everybody,” he said.