Notes from the Skateboard Industry Conference

It was, by any measure, a successful conference and IASC did a great job putting it on. Attendance, at around 95, was up over last year, which was also up over the first year of the conference the previous year. The attendees were the senior people from the right companies. The food continues to improve (breakfast still needs work) and the skating at Woodward West is outstanding. Getting there from Seattle is a bit of an effort and I made the drive from Burbank this time without getting lost (the first year, the sign that said “Paved road ends in two miles” sort of threw me.

IASC kept us busy for two full days on interesting topics that included a key note address by George Powell, social media and action sports, why athletes go broke (I’m still sorry I missed the chance to invest in the rafts that inflate under furniture to protect them from flood waters), ethical sourcing, Shop- Eat- Surf’s Tiffany Montgomery’s interview with former DC Shoes CEO Nick Adcock, and a retail discussion.

Angelo Ponzi from Board Trac was given the thankless task of making the last presentation that summed up everything that had been discussed during the whole conference. Word is he pulled it off and people wanted more time with him, but I had to leave for the airport and didn’t see it. That’s representative of why it can suck to be the last presenter.
I talked before Angelo, focusing on the action of some major brands (see my most recent articles on Billabong, Zumiez and Genesco on my web site) with regards to their efforts in retail and relationships with core shops.   I suggested that the decline in the number of core shops, the financial model that needs to be pursued given the economic conditions (lower sales growth, focus on gross margin dollars), and the evolving retail environment suggested some pretty obvious steps that skate companies needed to take to be competitive. I spent a few minutes discussing those steps.
I guess if I’d been planning the agenda I would have scheduled discussions that focused more on those steps. They include effective use of your management information systems, focusing on inventory turns- not just gross margin percentages, distribution (“The Industry” is not going to “fix” distribution, but most companies can manage their distribution better if they have better information), and the role of the existing skate distributors. Those topics are clearly not as much fun, but they might be more important to the long term health of the industry.
Skateboarding as a sport/activity/lifestyle- whatever you want to call it- seems to be doing just fine, though the individual companies have challenges. I thought skate’s problems and strengths were best framed by a brief exchange between an executive from a major retailer and a hard goods brand owner. The retailer bemoaned team riders showing up drunk,  showing up late or not at all, and not interacting with the kids. The owner said, more or less, “That’s the way it is. If you don’t like it, don’t invite them back.”
I’ve never managed skateboard team riders, but I have had some dealing with snowboard team riders. What I’ve always said is that I’d rather have the kid who was personable, professional, and showed up on time (sober) even if he wasn’t quite as good as some other rider so I probably tend to come down on the retailer’s side on this one. Yet the brand owner (a former pro skater like most of them) was defending something that is important about skateboarding and that has allowed it to maintain its edge and underground image even as it has mainstreamed.
That edge and image were also handily maintained by something called “hall bowling” the first night and by a report of somebody riding a rollaway bed down the driveway the second. That the bed was ridden was denied in the morning (but there was a mattress under a tree). But as I was printing out my boarding pass I did hear the lodge staff discussing how much to charge for a rollaway and wondering why anybody would allow this group an open bar. I of course, being the sober serious fellow I am, had nothing to do with any of this. Except for the part where I woke up at 4:30 to find that somebody had turned off the power to my room (and to others) and it was about 45 degrees. It’s cold at this camp at 4,000 feet elevation.
I can’t wait for next year!