Ask Ryan Cook how long he has been involved in the aquatics hobby and he will get a smile on his face, laugh and respond, “since I could walk.”
Now, the 33-year-old is a manager at Bermuda Triangle, an aquatics store in Chattanooga, Tenn.
When Cook found out that Reef-A-Palooza was going to be held on the East Coast after 10 years of successful shows on the West Coast, he knew he had to come.
“You have got to come and see what the new toys are,” Cook said. “We have limited advances in our area [of the country]. You have to see the new products, new foods. You can call and talk on the phone to [manufacturer reps] but it is different to see them and talk to them in person.”
Cook wasn’t the only one who was traveled a distance to attend the Orlando, Fla., show in April at the DoubleTree Universal. Organizers said they gave out 1,000 admission wristbands within 10 minutes of the show opening, and estimate several thousand people attended the two-day event.
Like the Aquatic Experience, attendees were a hybrid representation of the aquatics industry and ranged from longtime hobbyists and those looking to get into the hobby, to manufacturers, retail store owners, breeders, wholesalers and those who just wanted to learn more. It also brought in people from countries from as far away as Chile, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Ecuador, to name a few.
Local retailers, and their customers, also took advantage of the fact the show was close.
“You get to check out rare corals, frags and new products,” Brad Lewis, owner of The Fish Tank, in Daytona Beach, Fla., said.
Lewis has been in the aquatic industry for about 10 years, and bought the 44-year-old store a little over a year ago.
“[Shows like this] help keep people in the hobby,” he said. “Technology and social media have really helped better [the industry]. There are a lot of nice shops and you get to see what others are doing up close.”
Growth In Aquatics
After attending Reef-A-Palooza for years, Victor Fornari, co-founder of World Wide Corals in Orlando, Fla., really wanted the very successful West Coast-based trade show to come to Florida.
“After the 2010 MACNA [Marine Aquarium Conference of North America] was in Orlando, the industry seemed to grow like weeds over the past three years,” Fornari, one of the East Coast show managers, said. “Florida has really taken the number two spot when it comes to popular areas for aquatics and continues to see tremendous growth. There was a need for a show.”
Fornari plans on making Reef-A-Palooza Orlando a yearly event, especially given what he described as renewed interest in the aquatics field, which he attributed to, among other things, technological advances like LED lighting and the popularity of TV shows, such as, “Tanked” and “Fish Tank Kings,” as well as movies like “Finding Nemo.”
Many of the manufacturers exhibiting at the show were pleased with the turnout, and agreed with Fornari’s assessment.
“The past 6 to 8 months, the industry has been just booming,” Omar Mojena, northeastern region sales manager at Hikari, said. “They are asking a lot of questions and are excited about our new products.”
Mojena added that he thinks the growth is partly tied to the economy leveling off after an unstable few years.
“People are getting used to the way things are and are getting back into their hobbies,” he said. “They are starting to do more things for themselves.”
Scott Kohler, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Red Sea, agreed.
“The economy has improved a bit and the shops are getting a renewed sense of enthusiasm at the retail level,” he said. “There are still good advancements in equipment and products happening, which improves the retention of the hobby.”
Shows like Reef-A-Palooza are a great way for manufacturers and retail stores to work together, he explained.
“We have tons of consumers say, ‘Where can we get this?,’” Kohler said, explaining that’s when they can direct them to a local retailer, because Red Sea doesn’t sell direct to consumers during a show like Reef-A-Palooza.
Just during the first few hours of the show, Kohler met representatives from retail stores as far away as Wisconsin and Atlanta, in addition to at least five Florida-based ones.
While some might consider a show like Reef-A-Palooza a “consumer” show, that perception is changing. The reality is these specialized shows attract both hobbyists and retailers.
“People are starting to target specific audiences better,” Aleck Brooks, who runs commercial sales and special events at San Francisco Bay Brand, said. “Traditional trade shows are massive.”
Instead, he explained, shows like Reef-A-Palooza are starting to attract a blended audience, because it’s a place for both retailers and consumers to see cutting-edge products and what’s happening in the industry.