For many North Dakota residents, the mention of the phrase "Sweet 16" might conjure up images of a Browning shotgun and a field full of ring-necked pheasants.
But for longtime Bowhunter editor Curt Wells, it also means a plane ride to the American Midwest for another visit to the annual Archery Trade Association trade show, this time at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville from Jan. 10-12.
With a few moments of flight layover time at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Wells reflected on his previous ATA Show experiences.
“I would say Louisville is my 16th ATA Show,” said Wells. “At first, I was surprised at the size of the industry. It was larger than I expected but still small enough that it seemed everyone knew everyone else.
“I wasn’t sure I would ever get to know so many people but it comes with time. It’s a segment of society of which I am proud to be a member.”
Now the well known editor of Bowhunter magazine and host of the namesake TV show, Wells has a slightly different view of the trade show as one of the most recognizable faces and influential voices in the bowhunting world.
How does the show — and the industry — differ now from earlier in the 21st century?
“Well, it seems to be growing with fancier booths and such and the social media aspect is having a big impact because now bowhunters across the world can take part through videos and such,” said Wells.
But in other ways, the annual trade show gathering of the bowhunting world remains much the same, at least where meetings, friendships, business relationships, and industry networking are concerned.
“I suppose it has always been important to have a place where we can initiate and build relationships,” said Wells. “And it gives the entire industry an opportunity to interact. Of course, the primary goal is to get dealers to place orders for products to sell in their stores. That takes precedent over all else.”
Over the years, in addition to bowhunting invention and commerce, weather has been a frequent storyline with cold, snow, and ice making its January presence felt in several host cities.
With that thought in mind, does Wells have any weather warrior stories that would make the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore proud?
“Well, the timing is always a challenge when it’s held in the midwest,” said the easygoing Wells. “Fortunately, I’ve never had to stay home due to weather but many have. And the good news is I don’t have any (other) horror stories (to tell either).”
From his perch atop the Bowhunter masthead, Wells has noticed that the pace seems to be slowing in recent years, at least in terms of new products being heralded as the proverbial “reinvention of the wheel.”
“From what I have seen in recent years, the innovation has slowed down, especially in regards to bows, arrows, and accessories,” said Wells. “In other areas there will always be something new and ATA is the place to find it.”
With recent hunting seasons, Christmas Day and New Years Day only a few days in the rear view mirror, some bowhunters might be tempted to pay limited attention to the ATA Show this week. But Wells encourages the bowhunting world to take notice of news breaking out of Louisville this week.
“It’s always been important to stay relevant and up-to-date on what’s happening in any endeavor whether you’re a bowhunter or a target archer,” he said. “There is even change and innovation in the traditional archery market, as well as all the ancillary facets of bowhunting like decoying, scent control, high-tech clothing, and so on.”
With a wealth of new digital and social media content scheduled to flow into the various Outdoor Sportsman Group platforms this week, Wells notes that he isn’t in Louisville to play around and go to parties. Instead, he and his OSG colleagues are in town to report on what’s new in the world of bowhunting and archery.
“As a member of the largest multi-media outdoor enthusiast company in the world it is Bowhunter Magazine’s job to make sure bowhunters know what is out there, how it works, and where to get it,” said Wells. “It’s a tough job but…”
Believe it or not, for a guy that likes to bowhunt and shoot bows as much as Wells does, the trade show can actually deliver a slight bit of frustration.
Or more correctly, Wells’ appointment calendar can prove frustrating since it limits his ability to wander around and see all of the new bowhunting goodies for 2019.
“I spend most of my time in meetings but we have staff writers on the floor checking into every booth and new product,” said Wells. “Between them and the people I meet on the floor, I usually find out what is new and exciting and try to check it out myself. So we’ll see what pops up and (our OSG guys) will help us get the word out immediately (to the bowhunting community).”
Hopefully, by week’s end, Wells and his Bowhunter magazine staff will have a good handle on the state of the industry and what some of the sport’s important storylines will be in 2019.
“(The industry) seems to be in a downturn right now,” admitted Wells. “No one is sure if it is temporary or permanent but we need to figure it out.”
As he got ready for the final leg of his airline travel and a journey into Louisville, Wells reminisced a bit about ATA Shows in the past as compared to today’s show environment in a high speed, instant kind of world driven by the immediacy of the Internet and the 24/7/365 presence of social media.
One such new reality of today’s show landscape is how the timeline for the introduction of new products has changed. In Wells mind, he often pines for the way it used to be.
“I’ve always thought it was a mistake for bow manufacturers to release their new models before the ATA Show,” said Wells. “Competition drove that move but it has hurt the industry in my opinion. Back in the day, archery dealers would have customers waiting at their shop on Monday morning to see what was new at ATA.
“Now, they buy a new bow in the spring, shoot it all summer, and when they are sitting in a tree in October they get a message on their smart phone announcing the new model of their bow and they haven’t even shot anything with the bow that hangs next to them,” he added.
“Also, dealers tend to see sales slow down as those new releases approach right in the middle of hunting season. I also feel sorry for the bowhunters I know who work at the manufacturers because they end up working on the new releases in September when they should be out hunting!”
But wishful for the past or not, Wells didn’t get to the editor’s chair of one of the most important and well respected publications in the outdoor industry by turning a blind eye to current reality.
And with that, it was nearly time to board the plane, get ready for wheels up and a week of reporting on any and all things new in the world of bowhunting.
At some 16 years and counting in his ATA Show journeys, there’s simply no sweeter place for Wells to be in early January than getting on an airplane and heading to the midwest.
With the legendary names of M.R. James and Dwight Schuh occupying the Bowhunter editor’s chair before him, Wells remains happy and grateful that it’s a job that he gets to do each and every day.
Like he said, it’s a tough job, but then again someone has to do it.
We should all be lucky this week.