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Big companies not wowed by Vegas show

Ping has the largest and most diverse introduction of new products in its 40-year history, from blades to fairway woods to a 2½-pound bag it calls the Mantis.

Maxfli is launching a new bag that could make walking 18 holes seem like backpacking, minus the mountains. Spalding is offering a new line of the Hogan Apex irons that have cavity backs and perimeter weighting and yet still are forged.

What do these companies have in common?

None will be in Las Vegas in four weeks for the International Golf Show, which is expected to attract nearly 20,000 industry types. Titleist and Taylor Made won't be there, either.

They are among several companies that are beginning to wonder if the golf equipment industry really needs two major trade shows each year.

Instead of the flashing lights and snappy booths in the Las Vegas Convention Centre, they are going about their business the old-fashioned way.

"We've just finished our sales meeting. We've put our guys on the road," said Jackie Beck of Spalding Sports, which is skipping the Vegas show for the second straight year. "Our time is more productive out in the field with the customers."

Ping is going in the same direction. Its national and international sales staff has been in Phoenix the past two weeks. Chairman John Solheim and other top officials are on a national tour with key media to show them their products, while the sales staff will seek out the retail accounts -- instead of hoping the business comes to them in Las Vegas.

In fact, even though Ping's headquarters is a short hop from Las Vegas, it may never return to the International show.

"The way things are now, it's likely we won't attend in the future," Solheim said. "The show never has been a critical part of the selling process. We're going to do some advertising and use our sales forces to meet face to face with the retail account. I really believe there should be only one show."

Solheim was referring to the PGA Merchandise Show -- THE show, some say -- which takes places in Orlando, Fla., the first part of the year. No manufacturer would dare miss the Orlando show, and most spare no expense.

The number of exhibitors was at a record 1,406 in January with more than 50,000 people in the Orange County Convention Centre.

"The Orlando show serves as a world-wide show. No one in the industry can afford to miss it," said Edward Hughes, vice president of marketing for Maxfli. "From our perspective, the strength of Orlando gives us such a strong trade show that it is sufficient. I think that's why the power companies have all pulled out of Las Vegas."

It's not like the Las Vegas Convention Centre will be empty.

Callaway Golf is the biggest name among the 800 exhibitors expected to show its latest wares in September. Callaway has a new set of irons with a tungsten matrix that is designed so they don't compete with the popular X-12 irons.

But the big product on the shelf -- the Callaway ball -- won't be launched until early next year in Orlando.

Orlimar and Adams, which has been battling Callaway the past two years, will also be in Las Vegas, along with companies like Cleveland Golf and relative newcomer Pure Spin.

"We're going because we believe there's going to be a lot of buyers there. It's that simple," said Bruce Parker, head of sales for Callaway. "We've been going to the show since its inception and we've done quite well there, so we're going to continue to go."

The Las Vegas show actually was started by the Southern California PGA Section in 1980 and was primarily a regional affair. The PGA of America bought the rights to the show in 1992, moved it to Las Vegas in 1995 and then sold the rights of both shows to Reed Exhibition in 1998 for $122 million.

"The Merchandise Show has become very well known as the place to launch, and so it's a place companies feel like they have to be," said Gail Billingsley, marketing director for both shows.

The Vegas show is typically important for soft goods, such as apparel. And some companies find the fall show much more valuable because of the additional exposure they get from buyers compared to the circuslike atmosphere in Orlando.

Billingsley has heard the tale of consolidating to one show, but she doesn't see it as practical.

"If you were to ask across the board whether to have one or two shows, many people are going to say one," she said. "But to get them all to agree on one?"

Some companies feel they have no choice, especially in a market that has taken its lumps over the past 18 months. Maxfli went to Las Vegas last year because it was ready to restart its club business.

This year is different.

"It's hard to justify economically two majors shows a year," Hughes said. "You've seen a lot of restructuring of major golf organisation's, and you have to look at the expense. And as more companies are not going, a lot of customers are not going.

"Then it becomes a chicken-and-egg situation."

But while Ping is hawking its first non-offset irons and Titleist take its Prestige ball straight to its buyers, the show will go on in Las Vegas. Billingsley concedes it has become a regional show, but an important show nonetheless.

"I guarantee you the show will be here 10 years from now," she said. ``It will go on because it's the lifeblood of the small and midsize companies."