Interbike: The Exodus

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The bicycle industry’s largest annual trade show, Interbike, is the show of record. It has fended off upstart shows such as the BIO show of the 1990s, as well as challenges to its supremacy by international shows such as EICMA and Eurobike. EICMA, the Italian trade show based in Milan can boast style as only Milan can provide and sports more current and former Italian PROS than Wikipedia. However, when it comes to unveiling fresh ideas, Interbike has been the place to see new gear.

Still, Interbike is a trade show and shooting holes in it is easier than aiming a shotgun at a stop sign on a back road. There are the concrete floors crueler to feet than broken glass, the droning presentations, the slightly clothed models being chatted up by every wrench without a real purpose, the terrible overpriced food, the floating threat of the flu in every handshake and open bowl of candy, not to mention the cultural disconnect and general weirdness of the Taiwanese Pavilion. Each year, I take all that and worse just to have a chance to walk through what is a live-action Sears Wishbook.

This year is going to be different, though. Of all the big bike companies, only Specialized will have a booth on the show floor. I’ll say it again in the negative: There will be no show booths by Trek, Giant, Cannondale, Cervelo or Felt. Maybe you have noticed that these companies all have something else in common. They all sponsor Division I or II PRO teams. They all sponsor off-road athletes as well (okay, maybe not Cervelo). The clear message here is that athlete sponsorship is a more important driver for interest in their bikes than a flashy trade show booth, and that’s saying something because the most crowded new product intro I went to last year was Cervelo’s introduction of the P4. I felt like I was at a Paris fashion show.

At the other end of the spectrum are the small companies for whom Interbike is an expensive gamble. The age-old question has always been, “How many new dealers will we pick up?” But what if your primary clientele aren’t shops themselves? Verge Sport, VO Max and a new clothing company, Panache, have all chosen to forego a show booth this year. Panache’s Don Powell told me, “We’re putting our money into visiting our targets at their shops.”

Their disappearance can’t be blamed on a falloff in attendance on the part of dealers. Las Vegas’s economy is code blue and any dealer willing to fly to Sin City can get a room at the Gold Spike for $9 a night through Travelocity. People, I can’t make this up.

The decision not to attend Interbike isn’t an easy one for any company trying to do business in the bike industry and is rarely attributable to a single factor, such as cost.

Serotta and Seven will both skip the show, as will Lysnkey Performance. Mark Lynskey, known as one of the founders of Litespeed and now president of Lynskey Performance said, “We looked at our sales activity coming out of the show last year and the end result was that at best, it was a break even expense. I wish it did make sense for us to be there; I think we make beautiful titanium bikes and there’s nothing like seeing them in person.”

So how is he spending his marketing dollars now? “The bulk of our marketing is being devoted to the Internet: Google ad words, our web site, Youtube videos and the equipment to make those; we now have live chat on our web site and that has been a very helpful feature. We’re looking for the most efficient path to the consumer, and we monitor it in real time. We want to know who came, how long they stayed, did they live chat—we monitor each of these metrics.”

The big companies like Trek, Specialized Giant and Cannondale have the horsepower to hold their own dealer event each year, thus getting the retailer’s undivided attention. The chance to educate shop personnel about the product line results in increased sales and improved service. They are able to command the lion’s share of floor space at their retailers.

At the other end of the spectrum are the small companies, companies whose production makes them niche players and a non-threat to the heavyweights. They will almost always be able to find space on the floor of a retailer. Seven Cycles elected to pass on Interbike for the second year in a row.

“Our perspective is that Interbike and other trade shows offer two very compelling reasons to exhibit,” says Seven’s Mattison Crowe. “They offer manufacturers an excellent opportunity to meet new retailers and expand their distribution base, and they generate exposure for new product launches.

“Given those two reasons, we determined it did not make sense for Seven Cycles as a company to exhibit this year. We have an established and effective retailer network in the US and are not actively recruiting new retailers at this time. Retailer meetings will still take place during scheduled visits to our factory and are coordinated at the account level. Also, because of our flexible R&D and manufacturing processes, new product introductions will occur on a rolling basis throughout the calendar year. Our approach means no single event can provide sufficient exposure for the range of new products we will unveil in 2010.”

Okay, so big companies and small companies are focusing on their relationships with existing dealers. But what about those companies in the middle, companies like Cervelo and the Felt?

Retailers such as the Specialized Concept Stores, the Trek Stores and Giant Podium Stores give the Big Three incredible power over what lines the retailers can carry. No longer the niche players they once were, Cervelo and Felt are impressive lines that can compete at the high-end team-to-team with their larger counterparts. But they lack the horsepower to drive dealerships as a primary line.

Felt isn’t far off; with a line that runs from road bikes to full suspension mountain bikes and TT/tri bikes to townies, there isn’t a niche the company can’t sell. Cervelo’s line is more limited, but with a Tour de France win and several Grand Tour and Classic podiums, its place as a top-tier bike is assured in any shop. Which is why the Big Three need to muscle them out.

So one would assume that both Felt and Cervelo would be found on the Interbike show floor this year, right? In ’08 they were neighbors and their flashy booths attracted, as I mentioned, plenty of attention. This year Felt will only appear at the Dirt Demo while Cervelo won’t have any official presence at all. Not even at Dirt Demo.

Unlike the big three, neither Felt nor Cervelo has the ability to hold a separate dealer event to focus on education in sales and service. And both have too many dealers to offer the hands-on approach of a company like Seven.

Which, in turn, is why of all the companies that have chosen to pass on the ’09 Interbike show, Felt’s and Cervelo’s decisions are most ominous. Both companies have large dealer networks, but in both instances the lines need the strongest dealers that can properly sell, fit and service some of the industry’s most sophisticated bikes.

Bike industry people have been bagging on Interbike for years. It’s the classic too-cool-for-school attitude, something I—quite frankly—have always viewed as total B.S. If you’re in the bike industry you love bicycles. And if you love bicycles, you love seeing new stuff, so don’t tell me the show is a drag. Las Vegas might be a drag, but seeing my favorite people in my favorite industry can get me to drive to hell on an annual basis.

So now I must reluctantly admit that looking at the map of this year’s show floor, I’m disappointed. So many companies doing fascinating things just won’t be there it’s kinda like going to your high school reunion and not having your closest friends show. It’s still worth being there, but you wonder what went wrong.

I’m not out to badmouth Interbike. Personally, I like the show and it has always served my purpose as a journalist, though this year I have to spend more time using Dirt Demo for what I should be doing on the show floor and less time using Dirt Demo for its intended purpose. In business terminology they call that misappropriated.

My concern is that there seems to be a great deal of agreement among the manufacturers of the bike industry that Interbike isn’t serving their needs as well as it could. Many companies will display for no other reason than they know no other way to do business. But those companies that have most readily and ably adapted to the 21st century are measuring the impact their marketing dollars have and in the grand scheme, Interbike isn’t cutting it.

As economies change, so do industries. Door-to-door salesmen used to be commonplace. We used to read printed newspapers and their ad revenue could support hundreds of families. It’s fair to ask if the Interbike trade show can adapt to the 21st century. After all, at some point the exodus will make the show irrelevant.

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10 comments

  1. Larry T.

    Well written Padraig! Why will I be there Thursday/Friday? You sum it up well with “but seeing my favorite people in my favorite industry can get me to drive to hell on an annual basis” In my case it’s fly into hell but I can see most (if not all, since I guess some of ‘em aren’t coming) of my Italian bike-biz friends in one place rather than drive all over Italy during our summer tour season- which is just impossible. Why the big boyz aren’t going may be their increased focus on minimizing the Independent part of Independent Bicycle Dealer. Interbike is for IBD’s to see the products they might want to have in their stores. The big boyz (as you note) have mostly written their 2010 orders and have their “concept” stores/dealers already committed to next year’s product. Interbike may be increasingly only for the niche lines that want to crowd into the small niche for other products “allowed” in those “concept” stores by the big boyz. For everyone else it’s a tough chunk of dough to justify in the depressed economy. I figure the aisles might be a little less crowded than last year and perhaps the line for the only edible food within reasonable distance (the spread the Italian Trade Commission usually provides if you know where to be and when)a bit shorter. The bike-biz is generally an upbeat group no matter how the general economy is doing so I’ll be there enjoying the show, though just for two days so I can spend only one hotel night in Lost Wages. No matter how cheap the rooms, to me it’s still the armpit of the world.

  2. Josh

    It’s worth noting that every one of those companies except Seven had at least some presence at Eurobike earlier this month (that’s according to the Eurobike website; I didn’t attend). Perhaps this indicates that trade shows are not obsolete, even if Interbike’s implementation of the concept has become stale. Or it might indicate that these new ways of doing business (aka The Internet) mean that, instead of one trade show per continent, the industry now needs only one per planet.

  3. Jason Kazee

    Wow…I thought I read somewhere Cannondale and Specialized would be on the floor.

    Shocked about Felt and Cervelo though. Felt had copious amounts of bikes and a ton of space the last two years. Cervelo had less space but lots of stuff on hand and always a crowd the last two years as well. Really surprised Giant isn’t there on the floor as well.

    Nice job touching base with Seven…love Rob Vandermark and his crew. Surprised to see Serotta taking part in the show this year.

    Have fun!!! I can’t make the trip this year but hopefully will be back again next year.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Jason: Specialized will be on the floor, but their presence has been reduced for the last three or maybe four years. Cannondale hasn’t been on the floor since something like ’03.

      Talking with Felt people off the record today they said that they will be sending their demo fleet to more shops this year to give more people a chance to ride their bikes.

      Everyone says giving people a chance to ride bikes makes a much bigger impression; much more effective than talking about what grade of carbon is being used in a frame.

  4. Dan O

    Interesting post and I can see why the “big boys” don’t attend the show. They can pull dealers and journalists to their own “shows” that they fully control – nothing wrong with that.

    I worked in a bike shop from ’81 to ’84, a completely different era. I don’t remember any trade shows at that time, or maybe it just wasn’t mentioned at the shop. I did attend Interbike in ’95 as a guest of IMBA (when the mountain bike club I belonged to won an award). For a full on Bike Geek, an awesome experience and I would attend again if possible.

    I’m sure bike industry types may get a little jaded about attending. Keep in mind though, there’s a slew of bike fans that would kill to attend – me included.

    What’s my point here? Open a day or so of interbike to the public. This should tempt Trek and other heavy hitters back to show, and increase the scope of the event for all involved. This would help justify the cost to bike industry folks and give bike fans a peek at what’s new.

    Make sense? Or am I missing something?

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    1. Author
      Padraig

      Jared: I did see Serotta with Ford on the show floor, but I never saw a word about the appearance in any Interbike literature prior to getting to the show. If it was meant to be a cross-promotion to help one or both companies, I’m not sure what the point was, and the only thing I’m certain it did was cause Serotta to get lost in the shuffle.

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