By the time I walked out of the Interbike show last Friday I was threadbare. My feet hurt like they never did when I went on long hikes in the Boy Scouts, but then, I was 30 years younger and the trails a good deal softer than the polished concrete floor of the Sands Convention Center.
Each year at the end of the show I have this nasty habit of walking through the parking structure on my way to my car during which time I will suddenly flash on all the companies I never met with. This year was a bit of a switch in that the flashes I experienced were of the companies that I realized hadn’t had a booth at the show.
I was shocked when I couldn’t find Ochsner Imports on the map. I was embarrassed when I thought back on having seen Rudy Reimer, my contact there, in the Italian Pavilion and told him I’d meant to make an appointment to see him, but that I’d drop by later. His response: “Yeah sure.” It seemed a little brusque at the time, but then my statement had probably seemed ingenuine. What a gaff.
I had expected to see Red Rose Imports, the distributor for Carrera, Olmo, and Nalini’s custom clothing line. I had expected to see custom clothing manufacturers Verge, Pactimo and VO Max at the show. It’s not uncommon to see a line like Serotta or Independent Fabrication be at the show for a year or two and then drop out, only to return the following year, but again there was no Indy Fab. Serotta was at the show but sharing booth space with Ford, to what purpose I’m still not sure, but when I did my initial search of exhibitors online, they didn’t turn up. I must have flubbed the search or just couldn’t read at the time.
Cervelo put on a very nice reception/party Thursday night, and while I had several fascinating conversations, I didn’t have any interesting/substantive conversations about the Cervelo line of bikes, which was, after all, my bigger mission at Interbike.
Cross Vegas was a great race and a wonderful event with more than double the turnout of the first year I attended, but I was tired enough by the time the men’s event got underway I would have been happier back at the hotel, getting ready for the next day. Each day I heard people tell stories about being out drinking and carousing until 3, 4 even 6 o’clock in the morning. Those who can pull it off have my admiration (and a fair dollop of envy). I try not to be a spoilsport, but even having the opportunity to write about such a fun industry is something I regard with gratitude and I don’t want to be falling asleep as I load photos, or am trying to string together subject and predicate to form comprehensible sentences. Writing good (well? decently?) stuff is a great enough challenge even when firing on all cylinders.
Most of the manufacturers I spoke with said they weren’t writing orders at the show. Their reps had done that already. Most retailers confirmed that practice and said their only reason to be at the show was to actually see their lines in person for the first time, or to check out other lines they were considering picking up. A few told me that they probably wouldn’t be back next year.
Interbike says numbers were up this year, despite the down economy. That might be true from an objective perspective. However, from my little crow’s nest, this was the weakest Interbike show since I last went to the Philly show back in 1995.
A great many manufacturers I spoke with refused to speak on the record about their challenges with Interbike. The two biggest complaints were: too little return on investment and too little time with the dealers. More and more companies are focusing their efforts on marketing directly to the consumer in print, online and sometimes TV advertising. And rather than constantly searching for new dealers, most manufacturers are working to strengthen their relationship with the dealers they have. A dealer even gives them a captive audience for days, not an hour.
The good news is that dealers are a savvier bunch than they used to be. Interbike used to be the perfect place to sell a line based on the parts spec of a bike. Most dealers I spoke with told me the questions they ask now aren’t about parts spec and frame material but about support. What kind of support will they get; what will the dating be?
For manufacturers, Interbike is most useful for selling a new dealer on your line. Existing dealers can be addressed in large dealer events like those Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale have or they can be reached out to with on-site visits with a demo fleet the way Specialized, Cannondale and Felt already do. Everyone seemed to agree that Interbike wasn’t a good atmosphere for education.
One aspect of Interbike I haven’t heard addressed elsewhere is how Outdoor Demo has changed the nature of conversations between shop staff. It used to be you’d hear retailers ask each other, “Have you seen the X?” Today, the question is, “Have you ridden the X?” Cycling ought to be a meritocracy and word of mouth between the people in the trenches can cause a powerful stir.
I like Interbike. I loathe Las Vegas, but I’ll go wherever the event is held. I like seeing the people, the new products, and watching how the industry trends. That said, I came away from this year’s show convinced that Interbike isn’t meeting the needs of manufacturers or retailers. Many people I spoke to go because they don’t have a better alternative, not because it meets their needs. There’s no one to blame for this; it’s not a matter of the folks at Interbike being asleep at the switch. Rather, the market is evolving and while people seem to agree that there is a need for a trade show, to be considered a success (not just passable), Interbike needs to meet the needs of a changing industry.
So here are my suggestions to the folks at Nielsen Business Media, the owners of Interbike:
1) Why not focus on a solely Outdoor Demo format? It’ll cut costs dramatically for manufacturers and give many companies an added incentive to offer more bikes to ride at the demo, thereby cutting down on the amount of time waiting to get bikes to ride, which would give riders more time to ride each day. Getting through more than eight bikes in a day was tough for most riders.
2) Were Outdoor Demo held in a space large enough, booths could be arranged in a large oval to keep those walking between booths on the inside of the oval and those leaving for rides on the outside of it. Think LAX—cars on the inner loop, planes outside the loop of terminals. This would cut down on the crush of bikes and walkers weaving between the 10×10 tents.
3) Leave Bootleg Canyon. Given the number of facial lacerations I’ve seen at the show the last two years, some of the trails are way beyond the skill level of at least some of the riders, but the blowing dust is hell on bikes, contact lenses and cameras. Were Outdoor Demo held somewhere a trifle more pleasant, say Marin County, equipment wouldn’t suffer so and there might be fewer injuries and a bit less sunburn. I know that Las Vegas is king because of the low airfares and plentiful and cheap hotel rooms, but if the show better met the needs of all attendees, I bet you’d sell space to Trek, Specialized, Giant and Cannondale. And if you were selling space to them, you’d be selling it to Cervelo, Felt, Seven, Lynskey, etc. And if all those companies were present, retailers wouldn’t pass it up, even if it were noticeably more expensive than this year’s trip to Vegas.
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.