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Trophy business learns to adapt

Like just about every segment of society, businesses that manufacture and supply sports awards and trophies have been stiffly challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic since last March.

But those business owners in the Altoona area have also done their best to improvise, think outside the box, and keep their heads above water in this uncertain time.

And, with vaccines to fight the virus currently on the market, there’s a glimmer of hope that some semblance of normalcy will return in 2021.

Bill Kech, the owner and proprietor of the Shields Trophy Ad Specialties and Sports Accessories business at 2501 Union Avenue, said that the trophy and awards business has always been seasonal, but he also doesn’t deny that COVID has made a significant impact.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to hold our own,” Kech said. “We’re doing enough to continue to be profitable. Clearly, (sales) have been down from previous years, but it’s all because of COVID. Had there been no COVID, everything would have been good – business as usual.”

When the coronavirus first infiltrated the United States last March, it forced a two-month shutdown by Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf of many of the state’s businesses — including Kech’s trophy and awards business.

Things dried up until the end of May, when businesses opened back up again, and pent-up demand spurred a spike in sales for the Shields Trophy company throughout the summer months and even into October.

“We were swamped, our sales spiked dramatically in the summer and into the fall,” Kech said.

But another coronavirus surge late last year prompted another three-week shutdown of some businesses by Wolf, as well as a delay in the start of the PIAA winter sports seasons.

With no Christmas holiday basketball tournaments held in the area, there were no awards or trophies to be given out. Kech felt the sting.

“Typically, over the holidays, there are some (high school) basketball tournaments held in the area that we provide awards and trophies for, but because of COVID, those tournaments were not held this past December, and you can’t have awards if you don’t have the events,” Kech said.

Another big loss for the Shields Trophy business was the cancellation of a winter twirling competition for area high school majorettes at Penn State University.

“They’re not going to hold it this year, they’re going to hold it again next year,” Kech said. “Like we have with all of our other customers, we’ve retained them as a customer, but we didn’t get their (awards sales) this year.”

December and January are typically slow months every year for the trophy and awards businesses, but, barring a resurgence of COVID later this year, and with vaccines currently available, Kech expects demand for his trophies and awards to pick up in late February into the month of March.

“There’s a lot of seasonality in this business,” Kech said. “Typically, in the winter months, there’s not a lot going on, anyway. Normally, by the end of February and into March, we expect things to pick up again with the leagues we market to at the Summit (Tennis and Athletic Club), the Central Blair Recreation Commission, and the Jewish Memorial Center.

“That is, if there is no continuing impact from COVID,” Kech added. “God willing, with the vaccines that are now out, things look pretty promising, but we’ll see.”

The Shields Trophy business has been operating in this area for 31 years, and Kech has owned the business for the last 16 years. This has engendered a strong bond between the business and community for which Kech is grateful.

“When you’re in business for as long as we’ve been in business here, we’ve been blessed with some fiercely loyal customers,” Kech said. “And we alsomarket to a significant number of the local businesses, not just the sports programs and leagues.”

Shields Trophy also handles end-of-the-year awards presentations for area businesses, churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations, as well as manufacturing and distributing items such as embroidery, silk-screen T-shirts, and specialized pens with company logos.

“Our business is quite diverse,” Kech said. “We’ve evolved beyond engraving, and that mixture of activities has helped us.”

Steve Morrissey, the owner of The Award Man Trophy Shop at 1525 East Pleasant Valley Boulevard, has also been forced to improvise because of COVID.

“We’re finding other ways to make it,” Morrissey said. “We’ve been focusing on making T-shirts, signs and selling masks – anything outside of the standard awards, just to keep the doors open, until things are better.”

Morrissey said that the initial infiltration of COVID last March was very damaging to his business.

“We lost the elementary wrestling tournaments that we usually market to at the end of the high school season last year, and those are huge for us,” Morrissey said. “Those were tournaments where 400 or 500 kids would sign up to wrestle, and there were like 1,000 people in the gym.”

Martial arts tournaments that Morrissey markets awards to were also decimated by COVID. Before the virus hit, Morrissey was marketing awards to nearly 50 martial arts competitions per year, sometimes at a rate of 700 awards per competition.

“I was able to run my own martial arts tournament outside in September, but that’s the only one that has run since last February,” Morrissey said. “It’s probably going to be until this April or May until we can do them again.”

Business picked up for Morrissey last summer, when the area Little Leagues that he markets to were able to get their seasons going and completed. Indoor fall soccer leagues were a help, too, but Morrissey said that the state government restrictions late last year caused another lull for his business.

Both Kech and Morrissey said that, because of the uncertainty imposed by the pandemic, organizations and leagues aren’t planning events and awards ceremonies months ahead of time like they had previously.

“Last year, I had 50 weeks of work (scheduled) up on my board,” Morrissey said. “We don’t have anything yet this year.”

Elementary school sports leagues and their awards presentations have run largely as planned at the Central Blair Recreation Commission, according to Andy DeArmitt, the superintendent of recreation at the CBRC.

“The pandemic started at the end of last basketball season, so we were able to get through our playoffs and give out all our awards,” said DeArmitt, who said that the CBRC offers competitive basketball leagues for boys in grades 3-6 and for girls in grades 4-5. “Our basketball leagues run from December to March, and they just started up again this month. They are our biggest leagues.”

The CBRC also offers elementary flag football and girls volleyball leagues that ran without a hitch this past fall.

DeArmitt said that while participation numbers in all the leagues have been down significantly because of COVID, the distribution process of trophies and awards wasn’t impacted markedly, because only championship teams and their players in each of the leagues receives a trophy.

Despite the troubles of the past year, trophy business owners like Kech are approaching 2021 with a sense of cautious optimism.

“We’ve been in business for 31 years, and a lot of people have gotten out of the business,” Kech said. “There are very few left. Everybody has felt the pullback, but we’ve been fortunate that people are maintaining their contacts with us, and continuing to buy from us.”

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