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Vosper: Do trade shows still matter in the post-Interbike, post-Covid era?

Published July 13, 2021

2020 will long be remembered as The Year Everything Changed. Tired of being stuck indoors, a new wave of customers descended on bike shops, only to find short inventory and long delays on everything from bikes to helmets and even repair parts.

We’re halfway through 2021 as of this writing, and as some of the demand slows, retailers are still making record sales with the products they can get, while orders in other categories are backed up two to three years from some vendors. But for many dealers, the sales they can make are steady, and profits are up for the first time since the Great Recession.

Now, as shops re-open to customers and at least some products are flowing onto dealers’ floors, there comes another sign the cycling industry is getting down to business as usual: trade shows are back.

Eurobike returns this year, with new dates, Sept. 1–4. It’s also announced a new venue, Frankfurt, for 2022. CABDA’s regional shows are back in full force: Midwest (Chicago) Sept. 15-16; West (SoCal, this year in the Ontario Convention Center), Oct. 12-13; and East (NYC Metro) Dec. 8-9. 

The Big Gear Show holds its inaugural invitation-only format (limited to 500 shops across a variety of outdoor disciplines), and will be based in Park City, Utah, Aug. 3–5. The Recumbent and Electric Cycle-Cons return to Dayton, Ohio, Oct. 8–10. There’s even a new industry conference, Cycle of Influence, in Bentonville, Ark., Oct. 14-15, plus CABDA Industry Summit at Florida's Disney World, Nov. 1-2.

Consumer shows with industry implications are back, too: Sea Otter Classic will return to Monterey, Oct. 7–10; its Canadian and European editions are back on as well. And the Philly Bike Expo returns to Philadelphia Nov. 6-7. Arizona's Sedona Mountain Bike Festival moves from its traditional spring dates to Nov. 12-14 for this year.  

And if you are a retailer with an outdoorsy vibe, you could visit the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Denver Aug. 10-12. Following the invitation-only Big Gear Show, the OR show will be the first major in-person, indoor trade show in a market segment close to the bike business.

Build it and they will come … maybe

The trade show business model is basically a high-stakes, three-way version of Catch-22. In order to have attendees, first you need to have exhibitors. In order to lure exhibitors, first you have to deliver attendees. And before you can get either of them, you need buy-in from the host venue and city, which want guarantees of both attendees and exhibitors.

This precarious balance of interests means trade shows can be a risky proposition for their organizers. The difference between making a lot of money in the trade show biz and losing it is surprisingly narrow. When exhibitors decline, so does attendance. When attendees and exhibitors both decline, so does interest from the host venue. The whole proposition can rapidly destabilize and spiral out of control, with months or years of work and preparation going down the toilet, along with the organizer’s investment. 

Just ask the folks at Interbike about that one.

Not surprisingly, show organizers are bullish on their prospects for 2021. “We’re about two months out from our Chicago show,” says CABDA owner Jim Kersten, “and our shop count is within 10% of 2019. So I’m confident we’ll equal or exceed the number of shops. Actual attendance may be down slightly because shops can’t just shut down in September (and bring the whole crew to CABDA) the way they can in February.” 

Lance Camisasca, former Interbike show director and current bike director for The Big Gear Show, is similarly upbeat. "Cycling makes up 43% of the registration currently and is expected to finish at this figure or slightly higher,” Camisasca says confidently. “Our goal for the show was 500 retail buyers in attendance across the categories and we fully anticipate to hit or exceed this figure. Registration is moving up every day and the event has a steady tailwind with just a month to go." 

Of course, it wouldn’t be the bike business if it didn’t have its doubters. Some exhibitors I talked to are cautious. 

Jason Rico, sales manager for the Americas for Vee Tire corporation, has this to say. “We’d planned on exhibiting at Sea Otter, but won’t for a few reasons. One, we have an almost empty warehouse and getting consumers excited about products that we won’t be able to deliver doesn’t seem like a good use of resources. And, as a fellow supplier said to me, ‘why do I want to sit in a field for 4 days and get yelled at because we can’t deliver?’” 

Benita Gram Warns, owner of Midway Bicycle Supply, tries to split the difference. 

“We’re exhibiting at CABDA Midwest and East; we alternate East and West each year,” she says. “We’re not going to any of the other events; they’re too expensive and they have very little value for growing my business.” 

A number of dealers have expressed similar doubts from the other side of the sales desk. In addition to ongoing health concerns, their general consensus seems to be, Why should I go to a trade show to see stuff I can’t get until 2023? To which CABDA’s Jim Kersten has a ready reply:

“If you can’t sell hybrids because you can’t get them, you really, really need to be able sell the stuff you can get, whether that’s clothing, accessories, car racks or trailers. If you can’t get bicycles, you have to sell something.”

Getting down to business

For supporters and detractors alike, the big news is not so much whether trade shows will pick up where they left off in 2019, but that they are back at all … and open for business to an industry that desperately needs them. 

Bikes are a fundamentally different business than most others. It’s one of the last survivors of a time when retail was dominated by small, independent dealers and suppliers, not national or international chains of cookie-cutter brands and stores. For those of us who love this industry, that’s what we marketing types would call a key differentiator.

A diverse brand and retailer ecosystem is a good thing, both for the bike industry, and for the culture of cycling as a whole. It sets us apart in the postmillennial McBusiness environment. It keeps us not just interesting, but relevant in the national and international landscapes. And trade shows — with the opportunity for buyers and sellers to come together and communicate on a one-to-one basis— are a key part of keeping that ecosystem alive and healthy. Not as a quaint relic of a bygone era, but as an example that there is more than one viable model for an industry to maintain itself.

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