January 07, 2022
A couple of years ago in January 2020, I penned a story for this space at Game and Fish that suggested that while the modern archery world might appear to be somewhat foreign to bowhunting’s legendary Fred Bear at first glance, it would have been far more familiar to him than most might suspect.
Ditto for the pandemic world we’ve all been living in for the past 22 months as the COVID-19 virus scourge rolls on. You see, Bear—a traditional bowhunter who helped start an arrow-flinging revolution in the hunting world—undoubtedly knew all about pandemics too.
Born in 1902, that would have made Bear all of 16 years old when the H1N1 flu pandemic ravaged the world 1918 into 1920, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Also called the Spanish Flu by the press—partly because Spain, neutral in World War I hostilities, was one of the few nations that actually reported flu case numbers—the influenza bug caused an unusually high death rate in young, healthy adults between 15 and 34 years of age, according to the CDC.
So Bear would have undoubtedly had a special understanding of the death, suffering and life change that a pandemic can bring, even one in a modern world like the one we find ourselves in a century later. And given his business and marketing skills that helped turn Bear Archery into an industry leader all these years, he probably would fully understand the change that has fallen upon the bowhunting world and archery industry, too.
ATA Show Makes Return
Against that backdrop, fans of the late Bear—who died in 1988—and bowhunting aficionados will gather later this week in Louisville, Ky., for a rebooting of the annual Archery Trade Association (ATA) Show, with the 2022 version of the show scheduled to run Jan. 7-9 at the Kentucky Exposition Center.
What can everyone expect? While no one knows for sure, there are some clues. For starters, the show looks to be just a bit smaller than the 2020 version in downtown Indianapolis at the Indiana Convention Center.
At that show—the 11th time that Indy had served as the ATA Show’s host city—the ATA had expected more than 600 exhibitors, more than 9,100 attendees, more than 3,200 buyers, and more than 400 media members traversing the more than 510,000 square feet of exhibit space.
After the 2021 ATA Show—also slated for Indy—was cancelled last year during the height of the fall and winter surge of COVID-19 across America, all eyes turned toward Louisville and this week’s much anticipated ATA Show return.
Earlier in 2021, it seemed as if the world was returning to some normalcy as vaccinations ramped up, numbers dropped for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and sporting events and big events resumed partial and/or full-scale operations. The 2021 Bassmaster Classic was held on Lake Ray Roberts, drawing a near-record crowd to Fort Worth. The ICAST fishing trade show was held again in Orlando. And consumer events like the Texas Trophy Hunters Association’s annual Hunter Extravaganzas all went off without any big problems.
But then came the surge of the virus’ Delta variant in late summer and early fall, followed by the Omicron variant surge as the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approached, leading to more uncertainty and more questions about what lay ahead in 2022.
And that included this week’s ATA Show in the heart of bourbon country, a show that will visit Louisville for the fifth time.
To be certain, the show appears to be smaller since it’s already known that several manufacturers won’t be there, and exhibitor numbers are just below 500 as of the time of this writing.
Why will numbers be down? For some, the ongoing specter of the virus itself is a concern. Like many other places, current case numbers are high in the Louisville region and there is certainly some risk involved.
The Importance of Face-to-Face
For Orvie Cantrell, Jr., longtime operator of Big O’s Archery Shop in Sherman, Texas (903-870-2114), he isn’t too sure how concerned to be, even as a cancer survivor and someone who has had people coming into his shop for many months now.
While Cantrell, his wife Lynette, and his son Orvie III haven’t contracted COVID-19, he knows that attending the ATA Show adds another element of risk. As such, he’s attending, and his wife will stay at home for the first time in a number of years.
"Am I nervous? That’s a good question," he said on Monday. "I think about it some, but I’m not too awfully worried about it. The virus didn’t affect me, in terms of deciding to go or not go, I will say that.
"I wasn’t conflicted by the thought of getting COVID-19 by coming to the show," Cantrell continued. "My shop has been open for months, I’ve been in touch with people for a long time now doing business, and sometimes, I’ve had to get a little close to get a draw length measured, stuff like that. I’m not as nervous as I might be, I guess that’s what I’d say."
Cantrell, who has attended nearly 40 trade shows since starting his North Texas shop in the late 1980s, knows how easily things like the fabled "SHOT Show Crud" or "ATA Show Flu" can get spread at this time of the year.
And while he isn’t worried enough to not attend the show, he admits that he’s going to be a little extra cautious while there, doing what he can to boost his immune system, and using a lot of hand sanitizer.
Aside from the obvious health safety concerns and protocols in place, he wasn’t even sure until a few weeks ago if he was going to attend this year despite never having missed an ATA Show in the past.
"I wasn’t going myself for a while," he said, noting that he expects the crowd to be a bit smaller than usual based on what he’s hearing from industry contacts. "Louisville isn’t my favorite spot for the show, primarily because the show is not connected with the hotels. And early on, I was hearing that they were going to have an archery competition in conjunction with the show and opening it up on the third day to anyone. That last day, that’s when I get a lot of my business done, so originally, I had decided to not go."
But as registration and hotel deadlines approached, he kept hearing rumors from colleagues that perhaps this would be the last ATA Show. And when the other things—the archery competition and the opening up of the show floor at the end—didn’t happen, he reconsidered his decision.
"One of the biggest reasons that I decided to go is that because of the pandemic, I haven’t been able to speak face to face with some key contacts in the industry for nearly two years now," said Cantrell. "And I had some frequent flyer miles to use, so I literally decided just a few weeks ago to go."
Cantrell knows that some key manufacturers aren’t going to be there, and he knows that the crowd of attendees is likely to be smaller. But that’s not why he is or isn’t attending.
"With the fact of the show actually being cancelled last year, it undoubtedly opened up some company’s eyes to ways of doing business without actually having to attend the show," said Cantrell. "That might hurt the show some now. But I still think in-person is important—seeing products first-hand, talking to someone face to face, and being able to make orders and get deals in person. Otherwise, you’re just a faceless phone number or e-mail address somewhere."
While Cantrell has heard the rumor that perhaps this is the last ATA Show, that has never been voiced officially and he doesn’t really believe that.
"The last one? I don’t know, but I doubt it," he said. "It seems like to me that even if some of the big guys pull out this year–and some companies have pulled out before and then decided to come back—what this show will benefit and impact the most are the start-up companies. This is a real chance for them to gain some industry contacts first-hand, to show off their products to a lot of retailers, (and to try and get some market share). So, for several reasons, I don’t see this being the last one."
What the Future Holds
Cantrell knows that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is serious, but he also points at the progress being made from vaccination numbers to medical treatments to the current wave perhaps not being as deadly serious as the previous ones might have been. And as time goes on, he expects that health officials will get a better handle on treating the virus and reducing its spread.
Whatever the future holds, for now, Cantrell believes that the ATA Show is important enough for him to be there in 2022. His past business experience shows that and led him to book a flight and make hotel reservations a few weeks ago.
"I can think of several products that I carry in my shop now because I saw them first at the ATA Show," he said. "Now truthfully, I may have eventually carried them somewhere down the road, but it would have taken a lot longer.
"One is a solid broadhead that I first saw at the show. I was extremely impressed and decided to carry it that year. Before the show was even over, they were gobbled up by another company and it’s still a product that I carry in my shop because I saw it first-hand in its infancy.
"And another is one of the range-finding bow sights. I’m not sure I would have carried it—initially, at least—if I had not actually gotten to see it, to put my hands on it, and to see how it would benefit my customers back home."
Even with three dozen plus trade shows on his resume—including the SHOT Show for several years—since he opened Big O’s Archery Shop with his late father, Orvie, Sr., in 1988, Cantrell, Jr. knows this show in Louisville promises to be memorable for more than the usual reasons.
"Early on, it was really vital that you go to the ATA Show," he said. "Everyone introduced all of their new products at the shows, and you simply had to be there.
"Now, some companies introduce their products earlier in the fall; they contact you by phone, e-mail, or even social media; and there aren’t as many catalogs, price sheets, and paper products as before. In fact, last year, I didn’t get catalogs and such for a good portion of the year, even though some of my customers still like that. But again, in the beginning, the shows were must attend events and that’s where I learned about everything in the bowhunting world."
After 33 years in business, Cantrell has seen the archery and bowhunting industry weather a number of ups and downs, from downturns in the overall business climate, to inflationary and stock-market issues, to the current pandemic.
And right now, while acknowledging that the last two years have put some of his colleagues out of business, he says that business is remarkably strong even if supply issues persist.
"Right now, I think the industry, it’s strong," said Cantrell. "Sales are good across much of the archery and bowhunting industry and I think that they would even be better if product could be delivered in a more timely fashion.
"That’s an issue that continues to drag things down, in my opinion, but overall, most company’s sales are up from what I understand from my dealer reps and colleagues. And some of those supply issues aren’t completely pandemic-related either since some of the high volume in sales is undoubtedly helping to cause some of the lag time in deliveries."
Cantrell said that even here in the early days of 2022, that lag time persists. In 2021, he had unusual delays in getting new bows in his shop, as well as some arrows, broadheads, clothing, and accessories.
"Last year, some things took six months to get in after ordering, and some were even longer," he said. "And I actually have some stuff that I ordered last January, stuff that was supposed to be delivered in April, and I still don’t have it this January."
Even with the pandemic, even with the cancellation of the 2021 in-person ATA Show, and even with the supply issues that persist into the New Year, Cantrell has been able to ride out the storm, see a good fall and Christmas shopping season unfold, and be in a good place business wise now that 2022 is off and running.
"My sales have actually been really, really good," he said. "We were coming off about a three year slump in this region and some shops around here that had been in business for 8-10 years, they went out of business in the early days of the pandemic."
"But for us, and I’d guess for the others who have survived the last 22 months, business is good if you’re in the archery industry."
And with that, at week’s end, he’s boarding an airplane in Dallas and heading for Louisville, Ky. to make sure that trend continues, ongoing pandemic or not.