On the Record: Don Walker of NAHBS

On the Record: Don Walker of NAHBS

The 2016 North American Handmade Bicycle Show is barely a month away. The show returns to the West Coast for the first time since its last visit to Sacramento, four years ago. Word among builders is they are pulling out all the stops for this year’s event. We got show director Don Walker to sit down and tell us a bit about what to expect—Ed.

RKP: The show is in Sacramento this year. What made you return to Sacramento?
DW: Sacramento was our best ever show. After traveling the last 3 years, NAHBS needed to get back to the West Coast and an understanding and appreciative group of attendees. In 2012 when we had over 8,000 come through the door for the show, it made a serious impression on me that we definitely had to come back. I’m looking forward to it. 

RKP: Let’s talk exhibitors. How many exhibitors do you have this year and how does that compare to the number in Louisville last year?
DW: At the moment, we have 150 exhibitors, but that will change as we have about 8 booth spaces left. The number is fairly similar to Louisville, but the difference is that many of the exhibitors remember the crowds of Sacramento and went with a bigger booth space to accommodate the crowds. Bring them into the booth and hold their attention, I think is the plan. 
RKP: How many of this year’s exhibitors are frame builders?
DW: Its at least 50% of the total number.  We try and keep it to at least that number. 
RKP: You’ve been approached by some pretty big companies that want to exhibit. Over the years you’ve been approached by Shimano, SRAM, Campagnolo and plenty of others. Given that this is meant to be a grass roots event, how do you decided which big companies are appropriate to work with? When you tell someone no, what factors go into that?
DW: Shimano came on board really early, like in the 2nd year and we’ve had a great relationship with them because of their support for the builders. SRAM and Campagnolo have really been supportive as of late, and we enjoy their support and are happy they want to be with us. Specialized approached us this year, that is true.  It was a shame to tell them “no,” because the show benefits from the support of industry as a whole. The factors in allowing a bigger company like Shimano versus Specialized, for instance, is one of those decisions that I hate having to make. Shimano is the largest bicycle parts maker in the world, and their components are seen on a myriad of handmade bikes at NAHBS, plus Shimano has a builder direct B2B site, so the builders can buy from them at OEM pricing. That’s really the thing; Shimano supports the work of the builders, rather than competing with them.
With Specialized, they wanted a booth to show the prototypes that their R&D department had made. They didn’t want to show production models or anything. But given the response of the exhibitors I polled, they were not one bit interested in sharing the expo hall with them. If I had allowed Specialized in, I would have been giving refunds left and right to builders who would have been offended by their presence at NAHBS. I was open to the conversation with Specialized because their reach through social media is enormous and it might have driven a few thousand more attendees through the door. I’ve said for a while now, my job is to provide a venue for the builders, its up to them to “close the sale.” If you have a few thousand more folks who might not have known what a handmade bike was before and now they are in this hall, filled with the most beautiful bikes on planet earth, what’s to say that the next bike they buy won’t be a handmade bike?  The fact that a big company like Specialized wanted to exhibit tells me that we are on their radar and they like what we do. But the bottom line for not accepting them as an exhibitor was how the framebuilders felt about the issue. I picked up on quite a bit of resentment even for asking them. They felt that I would have “sold out.”  Sigh. 
RKP: I’ve heard that there are some pretty cool bikes in the works for the show. Any in particular you’d like to alert potential show-goers to?
DW: The show always has some of the coolest bikes on the planet, but honestly, the only one that I know for sure about that is going to blow the socks off of everyone is the one that Tom Warmerdam of Demon Frameworks is bringing. (Editor’s note: the Demon in question is featured in the photos.) Tom makes all his own lugs, dropouts and such. He’s a true artist and when people see the bike and see the work that went into it, they will be going nuts. I am going nuts by following him on Instagram, and especially because it’s the bike I commissioned him to build for me. You know when the NAHBS guy orders a bike, its gotta be something really special to get me to plunk down some cash. 
RKP: What sorts of events will be taking place in the evenings after the show lets out?
DW: We’re still ironing out the social schedule, but I know there will be some parties happening. I’ll let you know when its all solid. 
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  1. Walso

    I get that Don Walker is a businessman and his primary goal is to make the show (himself) money, but his sigh at the end of this statement regarding declining Specialized’s request to exhibit: “But the bottom line for not accepting them as an exhibitor was how the framebuilders felt about the issue. I picked up on quite a bit of resentment even for asking them. They felt that I would have “sold out.” Sigh[]” shows just how much money matters to him.


    See you at the show.

    1. Author

      In my conversation with Don, the sigh I heard was at having to tell someone no. And Don wasn’t resentful of asking the builders; he was frustrated that there’s no way to bridge those two worlds. If money really mattered that much to him, he wouldn’t be in the bike biz. I’ll also add that part of our conversation that ended up on the cutting room floor was how if a really big sponsor came in it could help underwrite the cost of the show for all the smaller exhibitors, making it more affordable for them to attend, and cost is invariably the number one criticism of the smallest exhibitors.

    2. Roman

      Wow Walso! I did not get that impression at all when reading the interview. Since I don’t know Don Walker at all, either you know something about him that I’m not clued in on or you have a bias that’s really coloring how you see things.

  2. MattC

    WOW! Can’t wait to see the pics of the finished bike…the lugs and tube-pics are simply FANTASTIC! Just the attention to detail in the lugs (can’t even begin to fathom how much work goes into making ONE lug start to finish…but I bet it’s a LOT), and then the gravy: the dropouts, water bottle mounts and cable stops…just incredible! Sure don’t get THAT from the big mfrs. I’ve never had a custom build bike before, but posts like this make me think my next one will be.

  3. Waldo

    Over the years I’ve read several Don Walker’s comments on Velocipede Salon regarding the fact that the show is primarily a business, which is the reason most of the shows have been in cities where Don doesn’t have to pay the warehousemen’s and union wages for set up, etc. If Don wishes there were a way to bridge the divide between Specialized and small builders he might as well rename the show, as it won’t be handmade bicycles dominating the floor. As it is, the show has been drifting down the slippery slope away from its initial mission.

  4. Puck monkey

    Of course NAHBS is a business and Don should be payed for the months of work he puts into the show. Herding cats is work. As for the big S, keep them out. NAHBS is a advertising media for small bike builders. No one needs to see any more Specialized ads.

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