Trade shows are an odd phenomenon. They are like little artificial malls where you go shopping but no actual commerce is conducted. The best you can really hope for is the promise of future business. I’ve been to trade shows for the musical instrument business, electronic security, computers and, best of all, bicycles. Only the trade show for the music biz could hold a candle to Interbike. But oh my God, it was louder than the Chinook helicopters that plucked friends of mine from the flood waters in Boulder, Colorado.
It used to be that Interbike was the place where dealers came to see the new line of bikes and then sit down with their rep to place their preseason order. It made perfect sense. Go to the virtual showroom, see the bikes in person, go over colors and pricing, and then sit down with the order sheet and start writing numbers in blanks. As recently as 2004, I can recall seeing a dealer sitting at a table with his rep and an order sheet. But lead times have grown over the years. Today, forecasting times have grown to the point that a bike shop’s preseason order needs to be placed before they ever arrive at Interbike. Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale all have dealer events more than four weeks before Interbike. The single biggest driver on the product management end in this is ordering product with Shimano; lead times with SRAM and Campagnolo are somewhat shorter, I’m told.
The other big driver that no one likes to talk about is the one on the sales end of things. No one wants unsold units in October. Those bikes get discounted and all the profits made through the year get nixed when you take a loss by dumping bikes. To the accountants, it’s not as simple as that, but the career of a product manager can end with a single bad forecast. Those discounted bikes used to be welcomed by retailers looking for Christmas deals. What has changed is that retailers are now being asked to guess how much product they will need for the year more than six months prior to singing “Auld Lang Syne.” The burden of forecasting has been shifted from the manufacturer’s shoulders to the back of the guy who is far less sophisticated. As a retailer, if you order too many bikes, it’s up to you to figure out how to get them all out your door. And if you order too few? Well, then it’s up to you to figure out what to sell because the manufacturer will be sold out of their most popular model by June, July at the latest.
So bike shops order the bikes they hope to be selling in July in … July.
The dealer events that the bike companies hold are pretty genius because the events serve their forecasting needs and give them a multi-day audience without the distraction of other companies. If a shop employee wants to go for a ride, and he’s at Trek World, it’s on a Trek, or a Trek.
The trouble for dealers is that these preseason events are smack dab in the middle of the selling season. Attending one is tantamount to leaving a dinner party you’re throwing at home to drive to work for a conference call.
All this begs the question of the point of Interbike.
Those who are desperate to see the latest, greatest, suggest that Eurobike in Friedrichshafen, Germany, could serve the whole of the market, but that misses the fact that there are models and colors peculiar to that continent and this. Further, if a dealer actually flew to Germany, he’d have the shock of finding out his rep wasn’t there. Who’s going to take that order?
Timing aside, Las Vegas continues to be anathema to all that the bicycle stands for. Cycling is a triumph of clean living and Vegas celebrates nothing so much as excess. All you need to do is wander through one casino at 8:45 am on a weekday morning and witness someone at a slot machine with cigarette dangling and Jim Beam on the rocks to know that Vegas aims to be the home to coloring outside the lines. This also begs a question, but a different one: Why Las Vegas?
That part is easier to answer. Because Las Vegas markets itself more effectively as a travel destination than any other locale in the contiguous U.S. Don’t believe me? Try to find a three-star hotel in any bona fide vacation destination that goes for less than $50 per night and you’ll be looking until the cows have come home and left again. Airfares are similarly discounted. You can fly for less than $200 round trip from any major city in the U.S. so long as you don’t book the day before departure. There’s not another city that wants you as badly as Vegas does.
That part creeps me out. Every other city on the planet is happy to see me leave. ‘Cept maybe Santa Rosa. Damn. I digress.
Interbike’s former marketing director, Rich Kelly, put forward the idea that the show should give into all the cries to move the show to Denver or Anaheim or Timbuktu and then let the disaster unfold for a year, maybe two before moving the grateful hordes back to the surface of the sun, er, Nevada. To demonstrate the particular genius of this idea, I note that a political pundit put forward the idea that if conservatives really thought Obamacare wouldn’t work they should let it be enacted and then allow—you guessed it—the disaster to unfold.
As a journalist, Interbike is very useful to me. It’s useful to all of us in the media. Oddly, we may be the one user group for whom Interbike remains an unqualified success. It’s true that no one walks out of Interbike with a signed ad contract anymore, much the way dealers aren’t filling out order sheets, but the edit side of things often prides itself on being as clueless about actual commerce as possible, especially when it’s the commerce of one’s employer. I can’t be quite so cavalier as I’m the one cutting commission checks to my ad sales team, but I do my best to separate church and state. Sometimes it’s a bit like being at Four Corners with one hand in Colorado, another in Utah, one foot in Arizona and another in New Mexico, but you do your best.
Our ad sales director, Wayne, bumped into some guys from one of the local shops on his flight. In tow was a kid from the shop for whom this trip was a verified travel trifecta: It was his first trip out of Wisconsin. It was his first plane flight. And, of course, it was his first trip to Las Vegas. Last I heard that kid still wasn’t sober. That kid, [name redacted], is the perfect example of why some folks are perfectly happy with Las Vegas. The thing is, you could leave home everyone who is there to party and the show wouldn’t suffer a bit. Weirder still, by clearing out the halls a bit, people rushing from one appointment to the next, usually five minutes late (no names mentioned), would probably save 30 seconds of dodging the hangovered. Trust me, every little bit helps.
That last point is meant to help bring into focus the many conflicting elements that make up the single most important trade event for the bike industry in North America. By keeping the show in Vegas it continues to attract people for whom business isn’t their first priority.
This year, Interbike made two significant changes to its format, one small, one big. First, it allowed consumers to visit on Friday; second, it changed locations. Consumers have long visited the show as part of shop staff. This was just the first time that it was actually okay for that to happen, but only on Friday. Given the number of people we all see who don’t actually work in the industry who make their way to Las Vegas to attend, there was some concern that the show would be mobbed on Friday. I know people who made sure to leave Thursday night so they could avoid the influx. Only the multiplcation didn’t happen. If anything, the fear of the masses was so great that more people left than showed up just for Friday. The overall population seemed down.
The second change, that of venue, took it from the Sands Convention Center where it had been held for 14 years to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. I heard exhibitors complain about increased cost, poor placement, a lower ceiling (making it harder to raise big banners sufficiently high above above their booths to attract attention), gigantic support columns that were as easy to see around as a school bus stood on its end and tighter aisles. All of those may have been true.
For me, and all the other journalists with whom I spoke, the selection of Mandalay Bay was a certified miss. The biggest single issue was one of geometry. The Sands Convention Center is more or less laid out in a rectangle. Mandalay Bay? Not so much. The show floor was laid out in a kind of squared-off “J.” The upshot is that there were parts of the main show floor obscured from view. Navigation was an ongoing nightmare. I can’t recall ever being in a room with such a confusing layout that even after two days of walking around it I could still become—there’s no other word for it—lost. I pride myself on my sense of direction and I was 90 degrees from the direction I needed to head more often than not.
For the vendors who stood in their booth all day, this wasn’t a problem. Retailers, who have a fraction of the appointments that journalists do, had plenty of time to find their way around, but because my colleagues and I needed to move quickly from appointment to appointment, the confusion of the layout, the tight aisles and the lack of multiple aisles that stretched the length of the show made it easily the worst trade show layout I’ve ever encountered. I can put it in perspective this way: I’ve never actually criticized a trade show layout before. How badly do you have to screw it up to be criticized?
Wait, it’s gets better (or worse, depending on your view). There was a “paddock” outside on the hot asphalt. Nevermind that I was too busy to head out there, I didn’t even know how to find it.
As a business, Interbike benefitted from the return of a number of companies, such as Felt, to the show floor, but I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for Interbike. Exhibiting at Interbike can present the same expense as adding another full-time staff member. I think it’s just a matter of time before someone figures out better timing and a better venue and in that creates a better business model.