The West Concourse of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando has the feel of the Vegas Strip when the PGA Merchandise Show comes to town.

The giant exhibitor hall is riddled with booths. There are the big boys, like Ping or TopGolf or TaylorMade, mixed in with family businesses, all looking for some publicity or sell products or make connections. 

Some booths are grandiose, with televisions, lights, speakers and technology. Others have signs and photos or samples and celebrities.

Carter Bonas is among the exhibitors, standing under a white canopy. The 11-year-old business owner’s booth sits in the middle of the apparel section at the Show, and it’s one of several exhibitors that aren’t just there to make money, but also to make a difference.

Bonas, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 10 months old, fell in love with the game of golf. Unsure and anxious about how this condition could impact his social relationships as he got older, thus making more nervous about his future in a work environment, he opened Spectrum Golf to sell quality golf gear and provide encouragement to everyone. Carter’s mother and business manager, Thelma Tennie, said the business took some development before it grew to where it is today.

“Carter started the business because he started golfing and he would say he was spending lots of money on clothes that were supposed to be comfortable, but they weren’t,” she said. “He has a skin sensitivity with his autism, so we shopped for different fabrics until he found the one he liked.”

Bonas settled on wicking polyester, a fabric used in both his shirt and pant lines. He’s quick to back up his choice with some stats.

“Cotton absorbs 7% of your sweat, but wicking polyester absorbs less than 0.4%,” Bonas said.

Several collections – all of which are designed by Bonas – are available on his website, including socks and gaiters with a puzzle-piece design, hats and visors with the Spectrum Golf logo, polo and long-sleeved shirts and blue and khaki-colored pants in men’s and women’s styles. 

Photo courtesy of Spectrum Golf

Bonas built encouraging messaging into his clothing, with each pair of pants donning an inspirational message on the inseam. Some designs charge wearers to “Lead the Way” while other designs remind users to “Be Determined.”

“He wanted that for golfers to feel confident about themselves and know that you don’t have to follow anybody else,” Tennie said. “You lead your own way. He loves that golf is for him, him competing against himself so that he can become better than he was yesterday.”

It’s not just business at Spectrum; there’s a nonprofit factor as well.

Five percent of Spectrum Golf’s proceeds are donated to a different autism charity every year. Bonas started a 501C3, where he offers free golf lessons for youth and free speaking engagements. The nonprofit hosts an annual golf tournament to raise money and give underprivileged youth materials, like gear and golf bags, and begin their journeys with golf.

“It’s amazing to be here to see such great companies and be a part of this,” she said. “The visibility for him, the ability to be seen is…”

Before she could finish her thought, Bonas did.

“Super fun and amazing.” 

“He loves that golf is for him, him competing against himself so that he can become better than he was yesterday.”

– Thelma Tennie

Bonas and Tennie aren’t the only booth at the PGA Merchandise Show who want to help individuals with autism. Across the exhibitor hall, The Big Easy had also set up shop for the week.

Raising awareness for a cause

Ernie Els Pet Products’ booth in the equipment section had plenty of color, showcasing products and art. The company has two goals in mind: creating all-natural pet products and raising awareness and funding for the Els for Autism Foundation.

Rob Goulet, Els’ longtime senior advisor, explained the company started after Sheldon Golub, the company’s founder, was looking to partner with Els and create a brand for the pet products he was selling directly to Trader Joe’s. Els wanted to grow support for his foundation, the two merged, and the rest is history.

Goulet noted that 72 million pets live in households across the US – a higher number than 18-year-olds that live in homes in the US – showing the large market that pets create.

The company launched in 2019 and now boasts a diverse lineup of products directed to cats and dogs. Dog treats, like bully sticks and chicken jerky, are sold alongside salmon treats for cats. Chicken is a large player in the product line, mixed with apple, rice and sweet potato in certain mixes. Toys like squeakers and golf-ball shaped beds are also sold. Profit is on the periphery, though.

“Anytime you can pay it forward it’s a good thing,” said Mark Segal, CEO of the company. “Our first thing is autism, then it’s pet treats, then it’s Ernie. Our objective is to make Ernie the next Paul Newman, he’s such a superb human being.” 

To get a better look at the company, you have to take a closer look at the foundation, where it all began. Els’ son, Ben was diagnosed with autism at age 3. 

“They couldn’t find the right care in the UK, so they moved here, back to the United States,” Goulet said. “There was a place in Palm Beach Gardens that they found, and that wasn’t good enough, so they built it themselves. It’s based on Ben’s needs, and they’ve built it up and created this world-class autistic facility in Jupiter (Florida).

“Our foundation has 300 full time students, the ages of 3 to 23, and 65 full-time employees. It’s a heavy lift to get all of the money to continue to keep the foundation going for all of these kids.”

The foundation offers plenty of opportunities like education, autism at work programs, corporate partners and a different environment where challenged individuals are given a place to learn and grow, including charter schools in Palm Beach County.

Fashion meets function

A five-minute walk toward the convention hall’s center will take you to a different cause: cancer.

Alyssa Adams partnered with her friend Melissa to launch a clothing line with a cause 17 years ago. Today, she’s working her first PGA Merchandise Show. Cabana Life, a female-owned business, was launched after Adams’ friend and now colleague received some news no one wants to hear. 

“She was diagnosed with skin cancer and was told to wear sun-protective clothing,” Adams said. “At the time, there was nothing out there that was stylish, and she thought ‘Does it have to be ugly? Can it have some style?’ She shared her story with me. So we joined up and launched Cabana Life, which is fashion meets function.”

Photo courtesy of Thomas Ehlers

Hotels and boutiques are the primary sellers of Cabana Life’s resort wear lines, and several country clubs around the nation enjoy particular lines the brand has created. The company is at the show to pick up more business from the country club and golf market.

One in five Americans will develop skin cancer before the age of 70, according to statistics on the company’s website, but Cabana Life’s UPF 50+ Clothing line blocks 98% of UVA and UVB rays. The company sells men’s and women’s lines, including swimwear and dresses for the ladies and swim tops and suits for the men. Polos, tanks, skorts and more are available, along with kids’ items and a variety of colorful themes.

Not only does the company provide a clothing brand to help others stay safe from the sun’s rays, but it gives back to further cancer efforts.

“We partner with the Melanoma Research Foundation,” Adams said. “We are the official clothing sponsor, and we do 17 races a year, Miles for Melanoma. We’re really excited about that.”

Excitement is a common theme between the three companies. Another is being mission-minded. As the three companies head back to their respective headquarters from the PGA Merchandise Show, Goulet and the staff of Ernie Els Pet Products, much like Bonas, Tennie and Adams, will be intentional in giving back.

“We’re cause-based and it’s something that Ernie, he not only talks the talk, he walks the walk.”

We’ve got more content from the PGA Merchandise Show. Thomas sat down with a few of the show’s first-time vendors; their stories can be found here.

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Thomas Ehlers is a copywriter and content creator with Trestle Collective. As a University of Georgia journalism alum, he loves the Bulldogs and telling stories.