It’s been a bit of a rough ride lately for The Woodworking Shows, by far the largest and most well known touring show catering to hobby and small shop woodworkers. As you may have heard, TWS, as the show is typically called, is under new management, changing hands only after first being put up for sale in a deal that fell through at the last minute. It was all a bit confusing, but now that the dust has cleared, the show has emerged with brand new owners infused with the energy and excitement that comes from the challenge of creating something better.
To appreciate where TWS is now, a bit of history is in order. It all started with Art Schwartz, whose management company ran the AWFS show. Art grew the once small show into a major biannual woodworking industry event. Then about 25 years ago, he decided there needed to be a show that traveled to local markets all over the country and was aimed not at industry, but at hobby and small woodworkers. To that end, he created TWS, lacing it with a mixture of exhibitors and educational opportunities.
His assistant, Irene Divine, bought the shows from Art in the mid-1990’s. Prior to that she had been a school teacher, and was a very astute business woman. She managed the show from top to bottom and had her hands in everything. Sadly, as the shows grew, the stress of it wore her down.
About seven years ago, she retired and sold the shows to her salesman, Todd Rosholdt. Todd bought the show with money from a group of backing investors called the Rocky Mountain Capital Group, and ran it for three years. At that point the investors, unhappy with monetary returns, took over the company and Todd was asked to leave. After briefly trying to run it themselves, they put the show up for sale.
American Woodworker magazine, which itself had recently been bought from Readers Digestby the former owner of Popular Woodworking magazine, approached the group about buying the shows, but ended up walking away from the deal. That left everyone high and dry, since Rocky Mountain had already stopped putting effort into the show. By the summer of 2007, ownership was in question and the staff was without direction. As a result, when September rolled around, nothing remained of the show but a schedule and a few contracts for venues. That meant a lot of small independent companies might be out of work if someone did not step up and take over the shows.
That’s where Joe and Ann Strong, the owners of Bad Dog Tools, entered the picture. I spoke with these long-time exhibitors who are two of the five new owners. They explained why they made the plunge into TWS, and what we can expect in the future.
“For almost twenty years we’ve been exhibiting at TWS,” Joe and Ann explained, “so we know everyone on the floor, and know who likes to come to the show and what they want from it. We feel we know what both exhibitors and attendees are looking for when they come to a woodworking show. In addition, we exhibit in some 250 shows per year, including auto, building, and other trade shows as well as woodworking shows, so we have broad experience in the field.
“Rather than let it collapse, we stepped in and bought TWS on September 4th, 2007, along with Bill and Mickey Thompson, and Bryan Joachim. Our company, Bad Dog Tools, primarily sells drill bits and cutters. Bill and Mickey own Woodline USA, which sells primarily router bits and is another long-time exhibitor at these shows. Bryan owns a company called Nantucket Sheds which designs and builds custom wood sheds. The five of us formed a company called Straightline Productions to run the shows, and started over with a clean slate.
“Admittedly, there was some altruism in our decision. Because we do such a small portion of our total business at the TWS shows, it was not particularly in our self-interest. Our initial goal was to try to put together a much larger group of the frequent exhibitors to buy it to keep the show going, but it ended up with just us. Because we are on the show floor with them, our exhibitors know that we are in the same boat and care about it in the same way
“Of course, we would like to see the shows be successful by themselves. However, Bad Dog and Woodline are both fairly substantial companies on their own, and neither of the two companies need to derive an income from TWS. That gives us the freedom to concentrate on making the shows better. The money from them can all go back into improving the shows rather than paying off investors or high priced employees. We all have staff that can chip in to do some of the work, but we also hired three new office people just to focus on TWS.
“At present, we are doing 25 shows per year, and we try to combine both education, over 90 percent of which is free, with a strongly represented sales floor. We feel you need both. Because we have so many shows and a large attendance, we are the only ones able to draw the larger exhibitors.”
I asked Joe and Ann what changes we can expect to see to the show itself, and was delighted with the answer. “The whole look of the show will change,” they insisted. “You’ll see a lot more education on the floor. When you walk in the door you will be given a set of free plans. A free seminar teaching you to build the item in the plans will be running throughout the day, and everything you need to build it will be available on the show floor. We’re also going to focus more on hand tool demonstrations. That’s something that seems to be gaining in popularity. To top it off, one lucky attendee with win a pickup truck full of tools.
“As part of our education goals, we give guilds, clubs and colleges free booths. We’re also starting a series of free 15-minute workshops geared to the novice woodworker called ‘Strolling Seminars.’ Taught by local clubs and guilds, they will cover topics like wood identification, scroll saw basics and ‘what can I make with wood turning.’ It’s quick, painless, and allows people to still have time to do the other things for which they come to the show. There are also free classes on finishing, cabinet making, band saw use, and other subjects taught by a variety of experts in the field. Some, like long-time lecturer and demonstrator Mark Hensley, are not only teachers, but entertainers who keep their audiences laughing while they learn.
“In order that both exhibitors and attendees to have a good show, we want to get the attendance back to where it once was. That means 8,000 attendees per show and some big name woodworkers in attendance as well. That’s something you won’t see anywhere else.”
All that led me to ask the big question. In this Internet age, does it really make sense to mount a hands-on woodworking show?
“You can download music on the Internet,” Joe and Ann pointed out by way of example, “but it is not the same as going to a live concert. We really want people to come away saying ‘I just went to TWS and it was great!’ We want them to walk in the door, have a really good experience, and leave thinking ‘I can’t wait until next year.’ When you start having big, happy crowds, that’s when it starts to make sense.”