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The Show Must Go On


by Mark Chesnut
America’s 1st Freedom, April 2014

When Britain-based Reed Exhibitions made the decision to ban the display of AR-style rifles—the most popular type of rifle in the United States—at last year’s Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show, few realized the devastating effect of the decision. Many exhibitors boycotted the show in anger over the ban; so many, in fact, that the show itself was subsequently cancelled for 2013. For Harrisburg, Pa., and the surrounding region, the result was an economic hit to the tune of some $88 million.

Just as devastating, the more than 100,000 attendees who looked forward every year to the 65-year-old show were left without their favorite late-winter pastime: glimpsing the latest and greatest in guns and other outdoor sporting equipment.

“As we watched this unfold last year, we knew things were going to be bad,” said Jeff Haste, chairman of the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners and Life member of the NRA. “For many local motels, the week of the show represents their entire first quarter. And some small mom-and-pop vendors who work all year making goods just to sell at the show saw their entire year lost.”

Sharon Altland, vice president of operations for the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau, also knew those cold, hard facts.

“Closing the show had very widespread effects—everyone from hotels, to local restaurants, to gas stations, to food service people at the Farm Show Complex, and employees working for all of those kinds of businesses,” she said. “It was absolutely devastating for the area.”

Once the decision was made to cancel the show, everyone involved realized that bringing the show back must be a top priority—for both the economy, and for the sportsmen and women in the area.

A total of 17 separate entities met with local leaders in an attempt to revive the show for 2014. Ultimately, it was the National Rifle Association’s plan that met with the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center’s vision for starting over.

NRA To The Rescue
“Right after it was canceled, I made the decision that NRA needed to go look at this and evaluate what it would take to produce this show,” said Kyle Weaver, executive director of NRA General Operations (NRA-GO). “I knew we were the right group to make sure it stayed in Harrisburg and continued to be the outdoor show it should be for all outdoors men and women.”

Weaver was well aware of the financial damage the cancellation would have on the area economy. But he also knew that the damage went far beyond the  financial realm.

“To me, the show is a generational history,” Weaver said. “When you talk to people at the show, they’ll say, ‘My dad brought me here,’ or ‘My grandpa brought me here.’ It’s not just an outdoors show. There’s a huge heritage and history that was just as important as the financial loss.”

Once the NRA was selected to produce the show, Weaver and his crew from NRA-GO rolled up their sleeves and went to work. But they were already several months behind on planning, and they were starting from scratch with a brand new show.

“The challenge we had going into the show is we started at zero on everything,” Weaver said. “We had nothing sold—nothing done—and we were four months behind. So we had to do probably twice as much work to get caught up.

“We had 15 or 20 staff working full time on it for five months just to get the doors open. It’s just a tremendous undertaking.”

But to Weaver and other NRA leaders, it was well worth the effort. After all, they had some specific goals set for the show, and they knew that those goals  were important.

“We wanted to ensure the show kept its history and integrity of being an outdoors show,” he said. “Plus, it was a great place for us to showcase the other side of NRA—to show there’s a home for all outdoorsmen and women in NRA. That was important to us.”
The list of changes NRA made from past shows was an extensive one, all made with one thought in mind—producing the very best outdoors show possible.

“We lowered the price to get into the show, lowered the price for vendors, invested a tremendous amount of money in trying to improve the parking,” Weaver said. “We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to make the show the best it could be.

“In addition, we selected vendors within the list, ensuring it stayed very outdoors-oriented. We even widened the aisles and gave up some floor space so people could get around more easily. Everything we did was to make a better experience for vendors and those who attended the show.”

A Picture Of Success
The rest, as they say, is history. When the doors opened on Feb. 1, the crowds were incredible. Even Gov. Tom Corbett showed up—not surprising in a state that sells more hunting licenses than any other in
the nation.

Attendees spoke by the volume of tickets they purchased. Crowds remained large throughout the entire nine-day show, despite very bad weather in the area.

“Based on what the city is telling us, it was larger than it had ever been,” Weaver said. “And based on the feedback we got from attendees and vendors, everyone I talked to said this is the best the show has ever been.

“All those changes that we made, they were noticed by people and we were thanked for doing them. If you walked around there and had an nra staff badge on, people would come up and say, ‘Thank you for saving the show.’”

Both attendees and exhibitors were glad to see the show back. For most exhibitors, it’s the largest consumer outdoors show they attend all year.

“It’s a very important show to our company,” said David Miles, director of marketing for popular gun maker Mossberg & Sons, Inc. Miles and his crew were busy showing off the company’s new Duck Commander line of firearms, which drew a lot of attention in this hunting-rich area. “Just look at the crowd we have here.

“I think it’s a breath of fresh air to have NRA producing the show,” he said.  “We would far rather support the NRA than Reed Exhibitions.”

Steve Jones, outfitter with Backcountry Hunts, also loved the show and the improvements made. We caught up with Jones between visits with prospective clients at his busy booth to get his impression.

“I think that it’s great that the show is back and better than ever,” Jones said. “I’ve been coming to the show for 13 years or so, and it is important to us. This year, it’s more upscale than ever before.”

A plethora of new activities—many of them oriented to families—proved very popular. According to Weaver, more than 6,500 kids went through the nra’s new AirSoft 3-Gun Experience. Another 5,000 shot at a separate air gun range, and a family fun zone drew another 4,000 to 5,000 participants.

According to Weaver, these activities, combined with many other improvements, set the debut of the Great American Outdoor Show apart from past shows. “The quality of the show was increased, as was the size of the booths, and the number of non-outdoors related vendors was reduced. There was an increase in seminars. And the NRA Country concert was oversold—we had to expand it just to get everyone in the room!

“Also, there has never been a shooting sports hall, and people loved that,” he said. “Manufacturers loved it as well. Many want to expand their booths for next year. And many that weren’t there want to be there next year.”

What The Future Holds
“It has always been a family event, and this year’s show has certainly lived up to that,” said Dauphin County’s Haste. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the way it has turned out. It’s a true win-win for everyone.”

Altland, of the convention and visitors bureau, agreed.

“The show has been around for 65 years,” she said. “We hope NRA will make it 165.”

For Weaver’s part, he said the long-range goal for the Great American Outdoor Show is to work hard to further improve it every year.

“There are a lot of little things we want to do differently,” he said. “One is we want to work with the city, Dauphin County and the Farm Show Complex to improve the venue itself. Both Saturdays it was completely full.

“We also want to have more than one concert, continue to expand interaction of the available programs—not just ours, but everybody’s—bring in more fishing exhibits, and expand the shooting hall.”

Improving a show that was referred to by many as the biggest and best it has ever been isn’t an easy task. But judging from the success of this first year, if anyone can do it, the NRA can.

“We just want to continue to improve the quality of the whole outdoor feel,” Weaver concluded. “We want to make it something people come to and spend a few days in a row because there is so much to see and do, that they can’t take it all in on one day.

“We want to continue to be the biggest and best full-encompassing outdoors show in the country. That’s our goal, and that’s what people can expect.”