Mat Manning catches up with industry stalwarts to see what airgun exhibitors make of the shifting show scene.
Shooting shows and events are changing and many businesses are switching from outdoor fairs to indoor exhibition halls.
Game fairs, shooting shows and the like are a huge deal for the shooting community, providing a wide range of business and social opportunities. The way these events function seems to be changing rapidly, though, and the shift is more evident than ever this year.
For most of us, the shows provide a rare opportunity to actually catch up with friends and colleagues in the industry who we rarely get to see face to face.
More importantly from the industry’s point of view, they serve as a shop front where big brands can showcase themselves to the shooting public and where retailers can deal face to face with their target audience.
As far as the airgun scene goes, the latter seems to be happening less and less. Manufacturers and retailers of airguns and accessories were thin on the ground at The Game Fair back in July, and, though it did feature a heck of a lot more for airgun shooters, there were signs of the same trend creeping in at The Midland Game Fair.
September’s Midland was always the highlight of my show calendar, as its Airgun Expo area was always awash with all the sector’s key makers and retailers and, therefore, lots and lots of airgun shooters. It served as a brilliant get-together for the airgun community and a good time was generally had by all.
At this year’s event, Weston Park still played host to the European Field Target Championship and the World Hunter Field Target Championship. On the industry front, Air Arms, BSA, Umarex and FX were well represented with impressive trade stands in the festival of shooting area, but the likes of Daystate and Weihrauch were absent.
Numbers of retailers of airguns and airgun accessories also appeared to be down on previous years, and several showgoers told me they were disappointed not to be able to spend the day browsing new gear and picking up bargains on the scale that they were used to.
We can all be guilty of looking into the past through rose-tinted spectacles (when was the last time you heard someone say things are better than they used to be?) but manufacturers and retailers I spoke with during and after this year’s shows seemed to notice the same thing.
The main reason, we all seemed to conclude, is not so much down to outdoor events getting worse as it is the indoor events getting much, much better.
Mike Hurney of The Shooting Party has been a long-time exhibitor at outdoor game fairs, starting out in the “golden era” about 20 years ago, but didn’t have a stand at The Game Fair or the Midland Game Fair this year.
“We gave up The Game Fair a couple of years ago after a financially disastrous year there and won’t be attending any outdoor shows next year. There used to be a time when you could sell three cases of scopes in a morning but the world is changing – partly because of internet sales – and things are very different now,” he said.
“The biggest problem is the weather, and there really is no such thing as a safe season in the UK. Changes in the way game fairs operate also have an influence – visitors seem to treat them as a family day out now and that’s the way organisers seem to be taking them.
“The Midland Game Fair’s old Airgun Expo area has turned into a huge food court – we were there a few years ago and we had a fudge shop next to us and someone selling children’s toys opposite. The shift quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – when the shooting traders go, the shooting visitors soon stop coming and then there is no reason for the traders to go.
“Indoor events like The British Shooting Show have got it right. We know that everyone who walks past our stand there is a shooter, even if they aren’t an airgun shooter, and that means they are there to spend money on shooting equipment.”
Tony Belas of Daystate echoed Mr Hurney’s sentiments, and explained that attending shows is a serious investment for a business, and not one they are willing to make if the risk becomes too great.
Mr Belas, who has been involved with outdoor game fairs and shooting shows for 38 years, said: “It is not just about the ground rent, it is also about having good display equipment and paying for hotels and staff. You have to think very carefully before attending a fair because it costs thousands of pounds.
“We were really blown down the hill at The Game Fair a couple of years ago, and you don’t want to take a gamble on something that might not pay. We attend these events to show our face and to support our retailers, and that reason disappears when the retailers are not attending.
“The dynamic is really changing and we now have sufficient indoor shows to be able to focus on those. The great thing with them is that rain can’t stop play.”
Paul Stewart of night vision specialists Scott Country International said that, though the business had a good year at The Game Fair, which he described as being “well run and well attended”, they would not be attending next year’s Midland Game Fair. He said even though the weather was good for the Midland, the event seemed to be geared less towards shooting than it used to be.
“We really like the indoor shows. The Northern Shooting Show and The British Shooting Show were brilliant this year and we are really looking forward to the British Shooting Show Liverpool next year – the people who run it really live for the gun trade,” he said.
“Not having to worry about the weather makes a big difference but the biggest thing is that the indoor shooting shows seem to gear their marketing much more towards shooters. That ensures that our target audience is there – people don’t go to the British Shooting Show for a day out eating cheese and fudge.”
But there is hope. Outdoor shows evidently still attract huge footfall, and though it may not be from dyed-in-the-wool shooters, those people could be just as valuable to the shooting industry as hardcore hunters and field target shooters.
Looking at the long game, attracting families who are not already part of the shooting community should be an excellent way to attract new recruits.
Jon Hatton of BSA Guns and Gamo said that, though there are undeniable benefits to holding big exhibitions in weatherproof indoor venues, the outdoor ‘country fair’ type shows play a significant role in introducing new people to shooting.
Jon and his team exhibited at most of the major shows this year, including The British Shooting Show, IWA and The Game Fair. Between the BSA ranges and those run by the BASC, the events provided the opportunity for around 6,000 people to try their guns – and most of them were prepared to pay for the privilege.
“It is very important to attract newcomers and although a certain percentage of showgoers may not be shooters, they are all potential shooters. If we can let them have a try, and make it a positive experience, then surely that has to be a good thing,” he concluded.