When the CHAMPS Winter Trade Show opens its doors on Feb. 27th, it will be the fifty-fifth mounted by CHAMPS and the fortieth staged in Las Vegas. Hundreds of businesses will be represented in a space that encompasses 245,000 square feet, the area of four and a half football fields.
The marketplace is booming and CHAMPS is proud to have backed the cannabis business community for two solid decades. No trade show is older and, certainly, no event associated with the use of cannabis can equal its rate of growth. In truth, CHAMPS is the unsung success story of our industry.
Of course, being “unsung” was a conscious business decision. Twenty years ago, Sherlock pipes, one-hitters, bongs, hand pipes and the like were as demonized as cannabis, courtesy of a 1994 Supreme Court decision (Posters ‘N’ Things, Ltd. v. United States), a ruling that still stands today. The Court rendered ceramic, metal and glass pipes—even rolling papers—all “drug paraphernalia.”
That made selling a bong problematic. In this uncertain atmosphere, Peter Gage and Jeff Hirschfeld founded CHAMPS.
Back to the Beginning
The year was 1998. For a few years, paraphernalia companies had successfully showcased their merchandise at one of the largest wholesale trade shows in the nation. But that September, the rug was pulled out from under those vendors. U.S. Customs officials warned that trade show not to allow the purveyors of illegal pipes to purchase vendor booths.
Peter and Jeff had invested heavily in Gage Water Pipes, their own company. They had bought booths at the show for the company, but were abruptly closed out. Which brings to mind what Albert Einstein said: “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”
“We reacted,” recalls Jeff. “Peter and I both had trade show experience. We saw the empty space that had been left behind. We got busy.”
The first show made its debut in February 1999 at the Gold Coast. It included just thirty-four 7’ x 8’ booths in a ballroom that comprised less than 4,000 square feet. The show was small, but they were heartened by the enthusiastic response of pipe sellers, especially the community of glass artists.
Back then, CHAMPS was known as the C.T.A. Show (Contemporary Tobacco Accessories). It may have been a disingenuous, but running a trade show that provided a business-to-business setting for paraphernalia manufacturers and head shop owners necessitated discretion. In other words, they hid in plain sight.
It was standard procedure for Jeff and Peter to decline coverage of the show by marijuana-themed publications. “You have to understand the level of paranoia,” Jeff says. “We didn’t want to be a target. It’s the way the manufacturers wanted it, the way head shops wanted it and the way we wanted it. Otherwise, vendors and buyers wouldn’t have come.”
Peter can laugh now. “Everyone’s booth featured signs that read ‘For Tobacco Use’ only. Everyone had to distance themselves from pot in order to do business.”
Still, the show thrived, moving on to convention centers. Significantly, its growth coincided with the rising popularity of glass smokeware. Although Bob Snodgrass, known as the “Godfather of Glass,” developed his techniques for glass pipe-making in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the mid-‘90s that these new instruments of pleasure emerged widely.
Glass smokeware was an instant sensation. The new pieces were unique and colorful, providing a singular smoking experience. Moreover, a colorful, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted pipe became a personal keepsake. Glass transformed the paraphernalia marketplace.
“We’ve always backed the glass community and tried to promote high-end glass, as well as the artists themselves,” Peter says. “After twenty years, we’ve become a family.”
Free Markets and the Feds
In the cannabis industry, the cultivators and the consumers are the two target markets. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the War on Drugs, the federal government has focused on arresting and prosecuting the two same groups.
In February 2003, the Feds decided to take down the paraphernalia industry, launching Operation Pipe Dreams and Operation Headhunter. Fifty-five people were busted for engaging in interstate commerce to transport illegal merchandise.
The raids shook up everyone. Attorney General John Ashcroft labeled paraphernalia manufacturers “no better than drug dealers.” Websites advertising glass pipes were taken down instantly and smokeshops cleared their shelves.
The raids also happened to be launched on the eve of the C.T.A Show. Nervous vendors canceled. The number of businesses scheduled to attend dropped from 180 to a mere 34. But Jeff and Peter opened the doors and got through the show without government harassment.
“We were on edge the whole time,” says Jeff. “But we stood by our people. We offered full refunds or full credits toward future shows. I remained confident that we’d continue and survive.”
Jeff and Peter pivoted away from tobacco and smoking and renamed the show. The C.T.A. trade show became C.H.A.M.P.S, an acronym for “Contemporary Handcrafted American Made Products Show.” The name highlights “America’s diversity of products and the creditable glass art industry,” Jeff says.
What remains funny—albeit sixteen years later—is Ashcroft’s boast about the raids’ success. He crowed: “We’ve taken decisive steps to dismantle the illegal drug paraphernalia industry.”
That would be news to—well—just about everyone. Today, ten states, plus Washington D.C, have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirteen states have decriminalized, but not legalized, and thirty-three have legalized medicinal use. Businesses that serve both consumers and cultivators have multiplied exponentially.
Not surprisingly, CHAMPS growth has been impressive. Plus, new features have been added to the event. In 2010, CHAMPS hosted the first Las Vegas Flameoff, with scores of artists squaring off. The Flameoff has evolved into the Glass Games with substantial cash prizes awarded in an array of categories. Also, at this show, CHAMPS is introducing CHAMPS Dispensary Plus, an entire division of booths dedicated to the demands of the burgeoning dispensary scene.
An Expansion for CHAMPS
Las Vegas is CHAMPS’ home base, but the trade show now stages events in Denver, Chicago, Orlando, and Atlantic City, with plans for shows in Michigan and New England in the near future.
Is there a secret to CHAMPS’ success? Not really. Jeff insists: “We listen to the community. I like to think that I treat CHAMPS in the same way I treat my life and my family—with respect. We believe in what we do, we do it well and we get better with each show.”
Peter puts it more simply: “The buyers power the CHAMPS Show.”
The buyers at CHAMPS are very similar to the traders who traveled the ancient Silk Road, the merchants who transported the precious goods of artisans in faraway lands back to the civilizations who crave them. Like them, the buyers at CHAMPS have access to the very finest products of the retail cannabis industry. And they’ll travel back to their own hometowns to delight customers with new treasures wherever they do business. Best of all, the promise of legalization is legitimizing their commerce at last.