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The Grapevine: Chaos, confusion and cost

Published April 15, 2019

Editor's note: This column appeared first in the April 1 edition of BRAIN.

Chaos, confusion and cost: It would be a superb exercise in mathematical calculation to divine how much money the industry will spend this year on trade shows, consumer expos, dealer events and other similarly aligned gatherings of bros and gals. Such counting of dollars is way beyond my ability — and time — but collectively it’s in the many millions. It also raises this question: How does any company, large or small, make money today even if they exhibit at only a few targeted events? Frankly, it boggles the mind. I’ve now had this conversation with more than a few folks, and most agree there’s a dizzy diaspora of events on the calendar, each of which has its own reason for being. Of course, each organizer promises fantastic reach to a given audience — and, amazingly, they usually deliver. Or they’re shading their attendance numbers, a charge which I choose to dismiss since most of these events — trade and consumer — have been around for years. Organizers must be doing something right. It’s either that or exhibitors are deluding themselves over that acronym we now collectively bow before — the ROI, a secular god to which all turn to for guidance.

Let’s check worldwide: First, this is a great exercise and anyone can participate. Make a list of events that have some cachet and see what you come up with. Here’s mine. First, start with the major international shows that generally attract a significant number of industry exhibitors. For those companies not exhibiting, most send staff to look around, kick tires and see what’s new. And that costs money, too. Those shows would include Eurobike, an industry favorite, Taipei Cycle and China’s Shanghai show, which has had its ups and downs as a must-attend event. And there’s a gaggle of smaller Asian shows crowding the calendar, and the same is true for Europe. Even Dubai has a show. Pick a country, and it has at least one trade show and multiple consumer events. Tack on international dealer events — think Trek, Specialized and a small but growing array of hangers-on — then start counting the dollars spent to force feed a relatively small cohort of dealers on the many blessings that these companies promise to bestow upon them. All this is serious money in The Book of ROI.

Let’s check out America: Start with CABDA. Jim Kersten appears to be filling the breach left by Interbike’s demise, although at a lesser price per show. So far this year CABDA has held two events, and Kersten is planning a hybrid third show outdoors in the Denver area. Next year he has three on tap: San Diego, Chicago and New Jersey. Up next, Sea Otter. It’s fair to say this is the industry’s favorite mid-April mega-event. Monterey huddles up next to the Bay Area, a metroplex filled with affluent enthusiasts. What’s not to like? Another favorite, though on a lesser scale, is the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS). But CABDA, NAHBS and Sea Otter are just the tip of an expo iceberg floating across America. In no particular order let’s count the following: Outerbike with four venues (Moab, Sun Valley, Crested Butte and Bentonville), the Philly Bike Expo, Bike Expo New York, Seattle Bike & Outdoor Show, and a first-rate event lurking under the radar screen, the recently concluded Sedona Mountain Bike Festival. The Tour of California, another exhibitor money suck, local races, a host of rides seeking a cure, and even RAGBRAI are scoring more exhibitors. And, no, we haven’t forgotten QBP’s Frostbike, a slew of dealer-only events, a mess of so-called “ambassador” programs, and then the jumble of on-the-road tech clinics. It’s no wonder industry profits are as skinny as a toothpick.

Wherefore art thou, Interbike? Ironically, we’ve seen only one show of any significance take a deep dive into oblivion: Interbike. It’s gone, even as some lament its demise. On the other hand, Emerald Expositions, Interbike’s parent, is attempting a resuscitation of sorts this November at its Outdoor Winter Show. It’s fair to say hope beats eternal at Emerald’s offices in San Juan Capistrano. A few days ago, I had a chat with Darrel Denny, an executive VP there, about the pending November show — mostly to ask why. (Just so our faithful readers are clear, BRAIN is no longer owned by Emerald, so let the chips fall.) Still, as a trade show junkie, I was curious as to what’s driving Denny and crew. Essentially, he said, there’s about 184,000 square feet of space at the Denver Convention Center that the outdoor industry is unlikely to fill. Last year’s November OR show, a first-time event, initially failed to wow the outdoor industry for a lot of reasons, although it seems to be on an upswing with The North Face and Patagonia back in. Still, there’s space.

Interbike: a redux? Denny is rolling the dice to see if some bicycle companies would care to exhibit at what he’s calling “The Park.” From his perspective, November makes sense for a lot of dealers. Dealers have sold through their inventory and their open-to-buy is open. (Be warned: Open-to-buy among most Trek or Specialized dealers is as skimpy as fur on a chihuahua.) Still, Denny would like to rebuild a national show, perhaps smaller than Interbike past, that’s timed right, with midweek dates, affordable space, lots of clinics and seminars, and cheap airfare with nationwide connections courtesy of DIA. Downtown hotel prices are a different matter. Denny also points to years of attendee surveys done at various Outdoor Retailer events that find about 3,100 unique buyers with some interest in bicycle products that they can pitch to attend. Once Sea Otter clears out of Laguna Seca, Emerald is going to make a major push to promote “The Park.” So stay tuned.

A final thought to ponder: You might think that with all this nationwide outreach that the industry would be booming. You would be wrong. Our outreach is mostly about the core. Whether it’s dealers or consumers, these events fail to move participation rates up among families, minorities and, to a lesser degree, women. Imports overall are down, unit sales are lagging, and while e-bikes are showing a spark of life, the numbers are small, which raises the question: Are these e-bike buyers new to the industry or are we selling to an already committed core of cyclists? We have no idea what or how much stuff is sold online, but I suspect most of those sales go to cyclists who know what they want at the expense of dealers. None of this is growing the pie. As we survey the show-scape, we might want to visit the question often asked but never answered: How do we grow the pie?


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