Brian Doyle had been to the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show in Harrisburg, Pa., as a consumer, but the Pasadena resident was looking forward to this year's event for a different reason. Doyle and Ken Kerschner of Centreville were going for the first time as the partners in a new venture, Hammer Hollow Outfitters, booking guided hunts on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
But Doyle, Kerschner and the more than 1,200 other vendors who were expecting to drum up business during the nine-day show considered to be the largest for the hunting community in North America will now have to look elsewhere. The show, which was scheduled to begin this weekend and run through next Sunday, has been postponed indefinitely and is likely canceled for this year.
The decision by Reed Exhibitions to shut its doors in Harrisburg came as a result of major sponsors, including the National Rifle Association, pulling out when the event's London-based owners announced last month that the company was banning the sale or display of modern sporting rifles — a category of gun also known as assault rifles — at the show.
"We weren't really sure how we were going to do in our first year," Doyle, whose company was incorporated in May, said Friday. "Our expectations were high. We were hoping to be able to cover our leases [at eight different farms to take hunters] for next year. For us, it was more of getting our name out there and getting some contacts and grow our business a little bit."
Asked about his reaction to his plans being disrupted by the politically charged controversy that erupted in early January, a few weeks after a massacre of 29 schoolchildren, teachers and administrators at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Doyle said, "It's disappointing, but we certainly understand the position of the major vendors and them pulling out in support of the Second Amendment."
Chet Burnett, Reed Exhibitions' president for the Americas released the following statement: "In the current climate, we felt the presence of MSRs would distract from the theme of hunting and fishing, disrupting the broader experience of our guests. … It has become very clear to us after speaking with our customers that the event could not be held because the atmosphere of this year's show would not be conducive to an event that is designed to provide family entertainment."
Burnett added that "as the national debate clarifies, we will have the opportunity to reschedule the event when the time is right to focus on the themes it celebrates."
Sean Mann, the son of an Eastern Shore gun shop owner and a former world champion goose caller who has operated a booth at Harrisburg since 1986, called the decision "a huge blow from a lot of perspectives — economically really big and spiritually equally as big."
"And when it's not held because of a chicken, politically correct move by the owners, it's devastating," continued Mann, who was scheduled to be a guest speaker at the event for the sixth straight year.
Local hunting expert Allan Ellis said he typically advertises the Harrisburg event on his radio show, but this year he decided against it, even before the major sponsors pulled out and the event was postponed.
"It kind of played to my advantage," Ellis said Friday. "I would have to promote an event that did not square with my own views when it comes to the Second Amendment."
While Doyle's financial investment was minimal — he said event organizers have promised to return the rental fees for the individual vendor's booths — many others likely lost a good deal of their annual income. Doyle said a friend in North Carolina who runs a similar type of hunting outfitter told him that "he will lose between $120,000 and $240,000."
That's about half of what Don DeGroft — "Grizz" to those who know the owner of Rawhide Big Game Guide Services in White Sulphur Springs, Mont. — believes he would have made as a result of going to Harrisburg for the 24th straight year, and where Rawhide has been going for 40 years each winter.
"You can't get to as many people going to smaller shows," DeGroft said last weekend at the NRA's Great American Hunting and Outdoors Show in Frederick. "That show drew from such a large area — up to New England and down to the Carolinas. I will see people here and they'll say, 'I'll see you in Harrisburg next week.' They'll talk to me here, get the cost involved, make sure everyone at home is good to go and then we usually will [make the deal in Harrisburg]."
Lesley Spraker of Lorton, Va., who represents a South African company that runs big-game hunts and photographic safaris, said the owner of Molopo Kalahari, Rudolph Grautner, stands to lose "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in contracts he would not get at any other show but Harrisburg.
"The Harrisburg show is such a good show, that is the one show that the owners fly over here for," Spraker said last week. "The intent of that show is hunting and outdoors, it's not a gun show. We book a significant amount of business at that show. They talk to us before and they sign the contract at the show. We're going to have to make it up at other shows, and I'm not sure where we can make up that kind of concentration of hunters."
What disturbs Spraker and others is that only a small percentage of the vendors are selling or displaying modern sporting rifles, such as AR-15s. Mann said he has been told that it directly affected five of the exhibitors who were displaying or selling modern sporting rifles.
"Even if there were a larger number of these rifles being sold, they're still legal," Spraker said. "What if people weren't allowed to sell peanuts because they're fattening? It's a legal business, and they have no right to say no to it. It's a private industry and they can do what they want, but you can see what happens when they do that. They had so many people pull out that the show was untenable. ... Sportsmen stick together."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun