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January 2005 Vol. 31, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dwindling DEMA 2004

— the Houston, Texas, show

from the January, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It’s long been the largest dive industry trade show in the world, but this year, the DEMA show seemed oh so small. Of course, DEMA — the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association — is more than its annual show. The organization is supposed to be THE advocacy group for the dive industry, with a formal mission and a set of goals. These include identifying key issues pertinent to the growth and success of the scuba and snorkeling industry, speaking on behalf of the sport, creating programs that positively affect the industry, producing an annual trade event, and engaging in marketing that promotes the industry and creates new customers. Lofty goals all, but it’s the annual trade show that has been the organization’s centerpiece. DEMA the show is the forum where dive store owners and personnel can meet face-to-face with the manufacturers, see new products, meet and evaluate resort and live-aboard operators, book Dwindling DEMA 2004 — the Houston, Texas, show travel, attend marketing and repair seminars, and check for new innovations. Perhaps just as important is the social aspect of meeting other people who share the same interests, problems, and goals, along with the cross-information all that socializing brings.

While DEMA the show has long been the premiere event of the industry, over the years DEMA the organization has had its ups and downs. In 1992, there were a series of lawsuits involving then-active director Bob Grey, his dismissal, and allegations of too much of the trade show profit being allocated to the personal incomes of DEMA’s officers, with too little being plowed back into the organization and its programs. Now, the assault comes from another side, with the biggest threat to the organization’s future being the dwindling attendance from both exhibitors and dive store retailers.

The show was empty
— the worst DEMA
attendance I have ever

This year, big manufacturers such as Sherwood, Scubapro/Uwatec, Aqua Lung, Mares/Dacor, Cressi-sub, and Underwater Kinetics announced early on that they wouldn’t be attending, presumably because the cost of attendance had gotten too high in comparison with other, more-bang-for-the-buck marketing initiatives.

The expense of exhibiting at DEMA is certainly a part of the problem, and this year, the location itself may also have discouraged attendance. As a travel draw, Houston is certainly no New Orleans, Las Vegas, or Orlando.

Whether the problem this year was DEMA’s increased screening of participants or the show boycott by manufacturers, or whether, in the words of political consultant James Carville, “it’s the economy stupid,” the show was empty — the worst DEMA attendance I have ever witnessed.

The lonely aisles made me nostalgic for the DEMA shows of old, with Dixieland bands marching through the show with fanfare, steel bands drawing crowds to the island booths, and controversy confined to debates like whether retailers should be called by the mom-and-pop moniker, “dive shops,” or the more professional-sounding title, “dive stores” — or how sexist it all was with bikini-clad exhibitors and cleavage-laden, poster-signing models. In those days huge dinner parties were included, tables upon tables of oysters on the half shell, shrimp, and Cajun crawfish or, on Mexican night, rows of tequila shots a thousand glasses long. It was an industry show unlike anything convention centers were accustomed to, with nary a three-piece suit in sight. I was somewhat proud of our diversity and our adventuring entrepreneurs.

Dwindling DEMA 2004

Empty aisles on Saturday, the shows busiest day

This year, the glory days seemed long gone. To say the dwindling attendance and lackluster show was because of DEMA’s Houston location, because of the economy, because of internal politics, because of the schedule shift from January to October — or even because of all of those things put together — would be an over-simplification. The complex issues facing the dive industry are impacted by the effects of the internet and how we do business, the aging population of divers, and a lessinterested younger population (who missed sharing the weekly underwater discoveries of the Cousteaus and the thrill of Lloyd Bridges getting his air hose cut in two by the bad guys on every episode of “Sea Hunt”).

Of course, the show’s primary focus isn’t on attendance levels, industry networking, or camaraderie. It’s on selling. DEMA’s press releases after the show had a host of quotes from exhibitors, ranging from the jubilant “by the end of the second day of the show, I had already written contracts on par with the best shows ever in the 16 years I have been exhibiting” (by Mike Ball, Australia live-aboards) to the bit more two-sided quote from Caribbean Dive Tours’ Ron Grzelka: “It was better than I expected. We came into the show really well prepared and we are actually writing business. I would like to have written more, if there were only more buyers.” Obviously, some exhibitors must have done well despite the low attendance, but I would have to balance these comments against the numerous negative comments I overheard, such as “I would rather have taken a check for the $5000 it cost me to set up, ripped it up, and stayed working at my desk! There were NO people there. NONE. I talked to 2 people the first day, 3 the second day, 2 the third day, and NONE the last day. . . Only a handful of people did well.” Ninety percent of the people I spoke to were disappointed in the show. While that’s not a scientific survey, it’s certainly not an indicator that the show went well.

At first blush, it’s easy to ask why we, as consumers, care about DEMA in the first place — except that when a new destination, live-aboard, or resort starts up, DEMA is where the fledgling venture gets off the ground and sells itself. When an entrepreneur comes up with a new equipment idea, it’s DEMA that will provide the exposure that brings the customers that make the item a commercial success. As dive consumers, we need DEMA to work so we will have new places to dive and new innovations in equipment.

We also need DEMA to promote scuba. We need to maintain a critical mass of dive consumers to provide manufacturers with incentives to produce new and better gear, to keep existing dive operations open, and to give new destinations a chance to take hold. If this year’s show is any indication, the folks at DEMA have their work cut out for them, and personally, I’m glad I’m not on DEMA’s board facing those tough issues. But I’m happy to be able to do my part as a dive consumer and buy equipment and travel to dive destinations.

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