Big 3 East Media Show

Story & Photography by Oleg Volk

Alternative to Traditional Gun Shows Provides Manufacturers with Direct Access to Media

The Big 3 East media show started because trade shows are inefficient for most companies’ advertising plans. An average company spends a lot on a booth, brings numerous staff to stand around for several days, and then their efforts are diluted by the nature of their audience. A typical trade show has a mix of vendors, journalists, gawkers and competitors all rubbing elbows. A person at the booth has little way to tell if the visitors asking questions or requesting sample merchandise are well-known writers, possible volume buyers or “bloggers” out for swag and free samples. One top-tier optics manufacturer estimated that 90% of the sample scopes were neither written up nor returned, and of the remainder, half were presented in unfavorable light. US Army Gulf War veteran Dillard “CJ” Johnson, photographer and video producer Andre Dall’au and renowned publisher of the Book of the AK by David Fortier, came up with a way to improve the situation. Based on their brainstorming in 2007, Big 3 media event was born in Central Florida.

The idea was to pre-screen participants, making the event far more efficient for the presenters. Writers, photographers, videographers and other members of the media were invited on the basis of their known track record and later by referrals from current members. To enable the participation of this select group, part of the resources supplied by the exhibitors was used to cover travel and lodging expenses. In turn, the journalists would put the experiences of the event into the front of their writing lineup, generating reviews and news releases at a higher rate than typical of conventional trade show coverage. The first show opened up with three companies presenting to four listeners.

From 2008 to 2011, the event moved to Kansas, becoming in effect Big 3 West. Since most of the pro-RKBA writers are still concentrated east of the Mississippi, and also because Florida was home to two of the three founders, 2012 saw the return to Daytona, Florida—Big 3 East in its present form. The site is about an hour from the Orlando International Airport. To keep up with the fast-changing field of small arms and supporting gear, the shows are held in October and March. Currently, around 40 companies present to 50-60 writers and media producers. Usually, at least one and sometimes a couple of live audio broadcasts are conducted during the event. Video content from several crews and more individual videographers come out in the days and the weeks following the show.

For business, Big 3 East (B3E) has acted as an incubator of ideas and initiatives. Individual inventors have used B3E as a springboard for their concepts, either to generate sales or to get sufficient publicity to attract investors. On the flip side, such giants as FNH USA and Glock brought their wares to the hangar for the presentation and then to the range for live-fire experience. When the 100-yard range goes live, the cars and the binary explosives all turn to booms, smoke clouds and vapor. The 300-yard targets require a little more deliberation—actual medium-range precision separated competent gun-ammo-optics packages from the wannabes. The same is true of the suppressed rifle and pistol range at 25 yards: The difference in recoil between competing platforms, the degree of sound attenuation and other details become very obvious by contrast.

As participation grew, the vetting had to become more stringent. A typical media participant comes on the basis of multiple independent nominations from the current show members. The very presence at this venue brings considerable credibility to the writers and videographers. Of course, a return invitation depends strongly on the performance after the first show—if nothing gets published, it’s not likely that the person will be back in six months. Making useful content at Big 3 East is easy: you get to hear about the new designs, handle them, get all questions answered by people who know the products in detail and then try them out. Big 3 East training and range facility has three ranges, 25 yards, 100 yards and 300 yards long. The long range even has a three-level tower for variety of elevations. Part of the presentation hangar is also set up for Simunitions or similar training rounds, permitting almost-live-fire training and walk-through right by the stage.

The show always begins on Wednesday and ends on Friday, giving the participants nearly three days to explore all the options. Each corporate presenter provides a 5- to 15-minute presentation with the minimum of multimedia and the maximum of hands-on experience with the subject of the presentation. Where else would you get to talk about guns, optics and sound suppressors with the actual designers and not just the marketing department? The show floor is in a hangar located in the middle of the property between the three ranges. As of this year, the hangar has been air-conditioned, no small improvement for the hot, humid Florida weather. Two bunk houses fit those who prefer proximity; others get a beachside hotel 15 minutes away. The entire experience is designed to be as simple, easy and supportive as possible.

For the media, Big 3 East is also an opportunity to see each other in a compact environment rather than to greet in passing at the massively crowded NRA or NSSF conventions. Big 3 East is where a lot of collaborations happen, and the atmosphere is far more collegiate and collaborative than competitive. I began my participation in 2015 on the invitation of the writer James Grant, which was apparently seconded by three others. The environment was amazing, with the beautiful and lush greenery offset by rather oppressive heat and humidity. Last year, the event was cut short by a hurricane. This year, the site started out fine, got slightly muddy the next day and was fit for raised 4x4 vehicles only by the third day due to massive rainfall. The host and some of the guests who came equipped for the mud ferried the rest back and forth. The shooting and the filming continued, rain or shine. Everyone had fun—even the vendors who got turned into gun models and sent off into the downpour with rifles in hand. On the plus side, everyone present was genuine. Booth babe population: zero. Hydration and excellent catered food make the experience survivable and even pleasurable. Given the rough and tumble look of some of the B3E staff, I was privately surprised that freshly killed dinosaur steaks were not on the menu!

With Big 3 East celebrating its first full decade in 2017, it’s safe to say that the show format offers good value to presenters and the media alike. Some journalists drove or flew all the way from Canada to attend. The balancing of reach and efficiency made it both useful and fun, with none of the mafia-connected organized labor shenanigans accompanying the set-up and the tear-down stages of some large trade shows. Because of this excellent balance, the biennial event has been a much-anticipated destination for me and other gun industry creatives.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N2 (February 2018)
and was posted online on December 22, 2017


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