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A Different Vibe: SHOT Show in the Time of Covid

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Leading up to the NSSF’s 2022 SHOT Show, a lot of the buzz was about the exhibitors that wouldn’t be there. A number of industry companies made the entirely rational, calculated decision that shipping a lot of their personnel to Las Vegas for a week during the dreaded Omicron surge — and then bringing them home to work alongside their production staff — wasn’t a risk they were willing to take.

There was at least some apprehension among a lot of people TTAG talked to — industry types, exhibitors, and those in the media who cover the annual confab — about traveling to Vegas this year. Some of them had their own health issues and some live with others who do. We know of a number of publications that significantly cut back their contingents of writers in order to minimize exposure.

So we knew going in that things would be different given the current case spike and the various responses to that by SHOT Show regulars. Now, a week and a half after the show, how did the whole thing turn out?

We knew things were different when Jeremy and I drove up to the Boulder Rifle and Pistol Club a little after 8:00a on Monday morning. There were noticeably fewer cars in the lot than there have been in previous years.

Sure enough, the number of morning Range Day media drones like ourselves was clearly smaller than in a “normal” year. The good news is that made it far easier to get time to talk with the companies that were there and shoot their products.

Springfield Armory’s empty SHOT Show Range Day bay.

The other good news is, with maybe two exceptions, one of them above, all of the booked Range Day exhibitors were there and the bays were occupied.

As the show officially opened on Tuesday, the accommodations that the NSSF and the Sands Expo Center Venetian Expo Center made for holding a large convention during a pandemic were plain to everyone.

There was no shortage of masks and hand sanitizer for those who wanted them. Signs posted outside the convention halls made it clear that a state mandate required that everyone in attendance wear a mask. Signs in some areas noted that those who refused to comply could be ejected from the show. That requirement caused one of our writers to stay home. He didn’t want to be saddled with a mask all week.

And sure enough, grey-shirted “security officers” roamed the floors asking those who had dropped their masks to put them back on.

That said, compliance was…less than universal. While the venue did its best to enforce the state mandate, show-goer and exhibitor compliance steadily declined as the convention went on.

There were a lot of people walking with cups of coffee and water bottles, “drinking” as they went, which is, of course, difficult to do while wearing a mask. Our completely unscientific estimate of mask mandate compliance is that it was probably 80% to 85% on Tuesday. On Wednesday, that number dropped to 50% to 60%. And on Thursday, if much more than about a third of those there were masked, we’d be surprised.

How many exhibitors were there? It may surprise some to hear that the vast majority were there and doing business.

There were scattered empty exhibitor locations that were handled in a variety of ways by the NSSF and the companies themselves. Probably the most imaginative was turning what would have been the big Beretta/Benelli/Stoger/Steiner booth, smack-dab in a prime spot on the main floor, into a media center for video and audio production.

Most of the no-show exhibitors turned their booth spaces into lounges with “sorry we missed you this year” signs.

That gave those of us who were there plenty of pit stop locations on the floor that haven’t been there in previous years.

Some exhibitors just left their spaces empty.

And some got a little more creative with the unoccupied real estate.

But don’t let those photos fool you. The no-shows were far less prevalent than many expected. From eyeballing the two floors at the Venetian and the two spaces across the bridge at Caesars Forum, it looked like only about five to ten percent of the exhibition spaces went unused.

As for foot traffic, the reduced number of attendees was noticeable. We asked the NSSF for a headcount, but all they would say was they had 43,000 registered attendees. How many were actually there isn’t clear.

Given the addition of the Caesars space for the first time this year, those who were there were spread out over a larger number of square feet this year than ever before…692,000 square feet, to be exact. That made assessing attendance compared to previous years harder. Our wholly unscientific guesstimation is that the crowd was probably somewhere between 15% to 20% down from previous years.

The good news about that is it was far easier to navigate the show floors than it’s ever been before. There wasn’t the usual elbow-to-elbow jostling at the heaviest trafficked booths and it was far easier to find and talk to the people we wanted to talk to. The show this year also had a different, more relaxed feel to it than the usual frenzy.

That said, TTAG had the busiest meeting schedule — appointments set up with exhibitors in advance of show week — we’ve ever had in any previous year. That’s probably a reflection of the fact that after the insanity of the sales volume and production in 2020 and 2021, the industry has caught up to demand and is seeing things return to something approximating normal again. We heard that from a lot of manufacturers.

Another interesting note: an NSSF press release called the SHOT Show “a confidence builder for those who track Las Vegas conventions. SHOT Show and other trade shows are hugely important to the city’s economy.” That couldn’t be more accurate.

I talked to a Venetian manager in an elevator who sighed and told me that he was really glad the SHOT Show went ahead, especially after what he called the “disaster” that was the Consumer Electronics Show.

CES — an even bigger draw that SHOT — was scheduled for January 5 to 7. But that was right in the middle of the Omicron spike. The Venetian manager told me that all of the biggest hotels in Las Vegas lost “about 80% of their reservations” as a huge percentage of CES show-goers backed out.

He told me that having 30,000?, 40,000? gun industry types roaming the Expo Center for four days was a huge relief.

So in the end, it’s true that a relatively small number of booked exhibitors weren’t there. And the crowd was smaller, if more manageable than in past years. But for those of us who made it to Las Vegas, SHOT Show 2022 has to be called a success. I heard the same sentiment from a couple of dozen exhibitors I asked, too. They were glad they were there and happy to be doing something normal again.

That doesn’t mean everything went off completely without a hitch. On the plane home, I started to feel something in my chest. A couple of days later I tested positive for Covid (yes, I was vaccinated, for whatever that’s worth). I’ve talked to others who brought a little something extra home with them, too. That’s why we’re still trickling out SHOT posts ten days after the show.

To be fair the “SHOT Show crud” has been an annual feature of the convention that most of us have brought home at lease once.

In the end, my bout of COVID was mostly just a bad cold and I’ve since tested negative. I guess I owe the the SHOT Show a debt of thanks for my newfound super immunity. But I’m still glad I went and I’d do it again. I’m glad the NSSF put on a successful show and that it probably helped keep a good number of Las Vegas service industry types working.

My guess is that next year’s exhibitor count and attendance will be much closer to the historical norm, whatever the Chinese flu situation is 11 months down the road. In any case, we’ll be back again in 2023, as always.





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