Interbike, the Debrief

Show Floor

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.


  1. Ron

    Glad to know that I’m not the only one that felt the same way about the show floor.

    I know that who I had appointments with was a factor, but the fact is that I seemed to spend most of my time navigating between opposite corners of the show floor. All too often I would think that I was homing in on a booth, only to run into the wall and have to go “around the J” to find them on the other side.

    It was good to see and meet you and catch up with a bunch of other people, but I ultimately left frustrated.

  2. Patrick O'Brien

    Thanks, Padraig. That was an inside and insightful look into the ever changing retail and wholesale business of cycling. And Vegas and Interbike themselves must make a buck as well. I wonder if the trend of bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. that is occurring in other businesses will happen in the bicycle biz? Is the NAHBS model, moving locations every year, a better one?

    1. Author

      Ron: Likewise, it was good to meet in person, finally.

      Patrick: NAHBS is an event that trades more on tourism than actual business, per se. The irony here is that the builders showing at NAHBS would LOVE to be taking orders, but don’t very often. I’ve spoken to a number of builders for whom the math of the cost of NAHBS works out to two orders. That’s what it takes for many of them to break even. Realistically, moving the show is a huge undertaking, so moving it every year would be inefficient, and there really aren’t all that many places big enough to take it, unless it goes outside. The list virtually disappears once you’ve gone through Las Vegas, Anaheim and Denver. If memory serves, the Javits Center in New York would only hold about half of Interbike. As to your other question—if manufacturing will come back to the U.S., well, that seems unlikely due to the fact that labor is so cheap in Southeast Asia. Your $10k carbon lovely would instantly become $13 or $14k.

  3. Ron Callahan

    I have to agree on NAHBS. NAHBS can be flexible since at its largest, it would only take the space of one of the larger seminar rooms used during Interbike.

    It’s a great place for builders to show off their wares and artisanship, but the audience there is the general public and presents very little opportunity for either sales or marketing to the exhibitors.

    Given the logistical hurdles that the Interbike exhibitors went through with the new facility this year, I’d wager that many would just stay away if they had to deal with that year over year.

  4. Bill H-D

    This was a very interesting look for average consumers too, Padraig. It helps explain, for instance, why when I took a friend of mine who has recently been bitten by the cycling bug to my LBS to look over a bike, they had nothing for him to buy. And still don’t. Like me, he was in looking for something in the 56″ range and in the “endurance” category. Nada. I won’t name names here, but the bottom line is that both the manufacturer and the LBS risk losing a sale here to a competitor simply by not having available product.

    You came close, with your discussion of timing, to an analysis that might lead to some recommendations. Maybe this would make a good follow up?

    For me, I’d like to help out my LBS and refer business whenever I can. I want them to thrive. At the same time, if I send a friend in and they essentially learn that they can’t buy a bike in the forseeable future…well then I have to concede that going elsewhere may be a better call.

  5. Alex Yust

    Patrick, thank you for your insights. I wholeheartedly agree. It was very difficult to move around and make my appointments, and even booths such as Chris King, which I found on mulitiple wanderings, where impossible to find when you actually needed to find them. It was a strange layout that led to missed meetings. On occasion I would make interesting discoveries, but I would’ve preferred finding what I was looking for. I also knew about the Paddock, but was reluctant to even try to search for it. It seemed like a far away land that needed serious guidance to get to. Maybe next year will allow for an additional day to plot routes.

  6. Diane Lees

    Ah Padraig – I could not agree with you more. I too am not exactly a GPS unit, but I can usually find my way out of a paper bag… I finally gave up on a couple of exhibitors I really wanted to see. Forget getting turned around; the numbered aisles were inconsistent and often a “dead end!”

    There is one thing you didn’t mention and since most cyclists are also “foodies” I thought it was of note. I found that the actual offerings of Mandalay Bay – before, during, and after the show were very pricey, fewer, and not nearly as interesting or good at that of the Venetian.

    Lastly, thank you for your insight and as always outstanding writing!


  7. Rick Tillery

    Padraig, I found Lezyne totally by accident when I turned a corner and there they were. This was during a set-up day and I never made it back there…

    Great to see you at ODD, let’s try and ride soon.

  8. boroboonie

    I’ve visited Mandalay Bay several times in the past for SIA when I worked in the snowsports industry, so I didn’t have any issues getting around, but that’s probably the only reason. I had appointments almost every 30 minutes and yes, it was hard to get around. Overall I thought the show was great though! The paddock was a great idea but it was just too hot!! Moving it out of Vegas would be nice in theory but costs would go way up. Vegas is the cheapest place to have a tradeshow by far. Also, day two of outdoor demo was brutal!! I literally was blown off the trail from the wind!

    1. Author

      Boroboonie: I hear that the SIA show is easier in part because of the two hemispheres the show is divided in, one half for skis, the other half for snowboards, so such a layout may help someone start to learn the room. And yes, day two of the ODD was a challenge.

  9. Ron Callahan

    The iPhone app was helpful, if cumbersome.

    Not only did it drag my battery down, but it also seemed to restart every time I selected it, so if my phone went to sleep while I was walking (or even if I switched over to my calendar app), I’d have to wait for it to come up, then select maps, then figure out where I was in relation to where I was going.

  10. boroboonie

    It is for sure. I was hoping the Tri/Urban/MTN/Etc Zones would have helped with that but it didn’t really. I was thinking at one point they should separate exhibitors by category…so bikes, apparel, softgood accessories, components, etc, though I know that’s unrealistic since you get companies like LG who do it all.

    Last gripe…I paid $7 for a small red bull. Lame.

  11. Rick Tillery

    And that right there is why Vegas is deceptively cheap. It’s cheap to get there, and for some hotel rooms but when you get to that city they empty your pockets clean.

    Move it to Denver. The convention center can handle it… granted you might not be able to stumble down from your room directly to the hall but we’re supposed to be grown ups there for business not a college drunk fest.

  12. Brian Jenks

    Patrick, your description of the experience of trying to navigate the show floor is spot-on. You assume too much about retailers’ schedules allowing more time to find their ways around, as I had only a day to make countless visits, many unsuccessful due entirely to the poor and/or at least unfamiliar layout, but we’ll forgive you that. Additonally the paper maps were not available until Wednesday, so we never had a chance to “study up” on specific vendors’ locations, or to plan an efficient path catching time with as many as possible.

    Interbike is a major investment (travel, hotel, especially food, and most especially time) for everyone attending, probably scaled somewhat according to a business’s size. The ROI has always been questionable, but now time would be better spent staying home and using a telephone. As a dealer with no need for, or interest in, any of the major bike brands, the prospect of making connections with a large number of specialized suppliers and vendors holds a lot of potential for a good trade show, but layout, navigation, and maneuverability are critical. Promoting a new sense of community in the industry? That’s great… I want to visit 20 vendors today… yep, to do business even. Unfortunately I had to come home having not visited all of them. Why? Mostly for the reasons you point out. If I wasn’t dodging the hangovered, I was just trying to figure out where I needed to go and the best route to get there. The aisles only seemed narrower to me because of the folks standing in the middle of them, in casual conversation, fiddling with a phone, drinking free beer, or some combination of the three. It should be easy to have twenty 10-minute conversations in one day, even with a lunch squeezed in. Lunch? No time for that, since it requires 1.5 hours… including two 20-minute walks (dodging the hangovered), 40 minutes waiting for the kitchen to cook it, and the remaining 10 minutes for seating, deciding, ordering, eating, and paying.

  13. Mark Ritz

    Great analysis as always, Padraig, and it was great to see you at the show. My only comment is that it’s slanted towards the big bike companies and the effects on them. Looking at the list of exhibitors, a large majority of them are accessory companies for which Interbike is one of a very few number of events where they can meet in person with their dealers. Our company has been at Interbike for the past 8 years and it has proven invaluable to cement relationships with dealers and other companies who purchase our products throughout the year. Maybe it was because of the ridiculous floorplan (which caused so many people to get lost), but even in our out of the way location, our foot traffic was very high the first two days, only falling off on Friday.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  14. Baird Webel

    As a small retailer, I find the long lead times to be very frustrating. We are in the midst of buying and stocking for winter riding, and all the clothing vendors are showing spring lines and don’t have any winter samples. This doesn’t help much when you are trying to decide which jackets to have in the store for November.

    Our conclusion has been that we’d rather risk losing sales from not having product than be stuck with a bunch of stuff that we can’t sell. We are basically refusing to take on the forecasting risk that the bigger guys want to stick us with, so we’ve been limiting the amount of preseason ordering we do. The exposure to the wide variety of stuff out there is invaluable, though, and I can’t really imagine not going to Interbike.

    As for the Mandalay location, I thought it felt a little cramped, but was ok. I won’t mind going back next year. Would a Denver show location require a car to get around? That was what seemed like a nightmare for Anaheim. How do you get to the show from the airport?

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