For over two decades, the International Custom Rodbuilding Exposition (ICRBE) has been the premier event where rod builders from around the world gather to learn, network, and experience the latest products and techniques. Hosted annually by Rod Maker magazine editor Tom Kirkman, the 2024 ICRBE promises to be the biggest and best yet, with more exhibitors, seminars, and opportunities than ever before for custom rod builders.
For this article, we sat down with Tom to learn more about this year’s expo to talk about all the reasons why rod builders should attend.
History Of The Expo
The ICRBE has come a long way since its origins in the early 2000s. According to Tom, “I attended the American Association of Woodturners symposium in the late 1990s and was blown away by the quality of the event, the way they put it on, and the number of people and dealers there.” Inspired by the large scale of this woodworking trade show, Kirkman began laying the groundwork for a similar custom rod building event.
He started small, partnering with a fly fishing show in Charlotte, North Carolina to run a “piggyback” rod building section with just a handful of exhibitors in 2002. “We had a great show. The aisle was packed. Everybody on the rod building aisle was busy,” recalls Kirkman. Encouraged by the success, he expanded the expo into its own standalone event the following year in High Point, North Carolina.
Over the next decade, the ICRBE grew steadily in size and stature, cementing its role as the premier annual gathering for the custom rod building industry. In 2013, it found a permanent home at the spacious Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, where it has attracted hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees ever since.
Strategic Location And Timing
When choosing a location for the growing expo, Tom Kirkman conducted extensive research to make sure that the venue would be as centrally located as possible in order to draw the maximum number of builders. “70-75% of all the fishing licenses in the country are sold east of the Mississippi River,” he notes. With most attendees wanting to travel in a single day, Winston-Salem’s central East Coast location proved ideal.
As Kirkman explains, “I started looking, and you wound up with a corridor that runs from probably about Knoxville, Tennessee over around Charlotte, and then back up maybe to somewhere in Southern Virginia.” Winston-Salem fit neatly within this region, allowing builders from all over the eastern part of the state to easily attend the event.
The expo dates are also carefully selected by Kirkman. In late February, most conflicts with fishing seasons and holidays have passed. But fishing season isn’t quite underway for most anglers.
“By March,” Tom says, “a lot of people in the country are back on water. They’re fishing. If you try to do it in the summer, kids are out of school.” The strategic timing maximizes attendance from rod builders across the US and beyond.
In 2013, the expo found its permanent home at the spacious Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem. As Kirkman explains, “I liked the facility. I liked the people. In fact, one of the ladies that’s operating the showplace had gone to work at the Winston-Salem tourism bureau. So I already had a good relationship with her.”
Winston-Salem’s downtown area also provides numerous nearby hotels, restaurants, and amenities within walking distance of the convention center. Kirkman remarks, ” Winston-Salem downtown is loaded with restaurants and shops. It’s just a really, really nice place.” The city’s infrastructure and facilities ensure an enjoyable experience for all attendees.
Winston-Salem is also conveniently located between the Appalachian mountains and the Atlantic coast, which means that a wide variety of fishing can be had for anglers willing to extend their stay a few days. You’re only about 4 hours from either the Atlantic Ocean to the east or major trout fisheries like the one in Gatlinburg to the west. And in between you have fantastic warmwater fisheries for bass and panfish, with several scenic waterways just minutes outside of town. These fisheries provide an opportunity for event attendees to mix business with pleasure.
Huge Selection Of Manufacturers And Suppliers
The International Custom Rodbuilding Exposition is renowned as the only event where rod builders can find such a massive collection of products and services under one roof. As Tom Kirkman explains, “You will find more rod building and rod hardware companies here than you will anywhere else.”
This year, major blank manufacturers like CTS, MHX, CRB, Northfork Composites, St. Croix, Rod Geeks, and Rod Forge will be exhibiting the latest in blank technology. Distributors like Hatteras Jack and Carolina Cast Pro will also be on hand showcasing thousands of blanks.
Component suppliers such as Mudhole and American Tackle bring their full inventories of guides, reels, threads, and accessories. Attendees can “handle the equipment, flex rod blanks by hand…you can just do it all in one weekend,” says Kirkman.
Visitors will even have the unique opportunity in some cases to talk directly with the engineers and founders who developed these high-end products. As Kirkman notes, “you go to one of the blank companies, and you’re talking to the engineer that develops those blanks.”
Valuable Learning Opportunities
Beyond the expansive vendor hall, the International Custom Rodbuilding Exposition is renowned for its educational seminars led by expert rod builders. Tom Kirkman notes that, “The seminars are not necessarily the primary draw. If you got rid of the seminars, it wouldn’t really change the total attendance figure for the expo. But I do like the seminars because I think it adds greatly to the cost/benefit ratio.”
Topics in 2024 will cover everything from guide layout with Ernie Horvath to decorative wrapping with Mark Krause. All free for event attendees.
In addition, the expo provides a unique chance to test the latest rod building machinery. Kirkman remarks that visitors can “walk in and test drive all the rod building lathes…the Alps machines will be there, Flex Goods machines, Renzetti machines are there, the foundation outdoor group CRB and Pro machines are there. Everything’s there.” This hands-on experience helps rod builders choose the right equipment.
Industry Trade Show And Networking
Beyond its consumer elements, the ICRBE has become a major trade event for the custom rod building industry. As Kirkman notes, “we find a lot of guys who previously were having to maybe make sales calls, get on an airplane and spend a month traveling to all these companies around the nation. Now, they come here.”
Perhaps most valuable is the opportunity for rod builders to network. Kirkman remarks, “it’s also about it’s also the greatest opportunity to learn and share anything that goes on through the year. What it really comes down to, is that it’s the people here who make the event.” The expo brings together hundreds who share their passion for the craft.
2024 Event Details
All signs point to the 2024 International Custom Rodbuilding Exposition being the biggest and best event yet. As Tom Kirkman outlines, “We’re north of 30 exhibitors already…and this isn’t just domestic business. This has gotten to where there’s an international draw.”
The expo dates are February 24-25, 2024 at the tried-and-true Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Kirkman notes that tickets can be purchased at the door for $15 for a single day or $20 for a weekend pass.
As always, the highlight is the Rod Maker magazine subscriber reception on Saturday night. Kirkman remarks that “we typically give away close to 100 door prizes…it’s just a time to mingle and talk down into the day.” With huge prizes like whole rod building setups up for grabs, it’s an event within the event for custom rod aficionados.
After over two decades of success, the ICRBE has cemented its role as the preeminent annual gathering for the custom rod building community. For any rod builder looking to learn, see the latest innovations, or connect with like-minded anglers, the 2024 expo promises immense value. Whether a seasoned veteran or newcomer to the craft, no rod builder should miss out on this unparalleled opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of custom fishing rods.