Agenda- Trade Shows, Brands I Saw and Possibly Random Thoughts

What I most liked about Agenda this time was how refreshingly inviting it was.  Lots of open space and perhaps wider aisles.  Maybe lighter?  Especially on Wednesday, there appeared to be a lot of traffic and people seemed upbeat.  Apparently that might have had something to do with getting a few days of sun after a pretty gloomy late June.

Still, I wondered if the openness wasn’t an indication of fewer brands taking booths or maybe taking smaller booths.  I didn’t talk to anybody who told me straight up how great business was and certainly the role of trade shows (not just Agenda) continues to evolve.

More than ever cost is an issue.  A comment I got from more than one brand was, “Well, yeah, we write some orders here, but we’d end up getting those orders even if we weren’t here.”  I raised that issue more years ago than I care to admit and even wondered in an antique Market Watch column if there might not be value to some brands in pulling out of some trade shows (announcing it well in advance so it doesn’t look like it’s done out of weakness) and spend the savings on other marketing programs.

What I hear is that it’s larger brands that may tend to take that approach.  I’m beginning to think that for smaller retailers and smaller/new brands the trade shows are more critical than ever.  It’s the place where they can find each other.

Is that naïve?  Does the internet and social media mean that retailers can find all the new brands they want?

Yeah, I guess.  But a retailer doesn’t just need a brand.  She needs to know the people behind the brand so she can have some confidence in them and be comfortable with their plans for the brand.  A consensus on what a brand stands for and how it should be merchandised can go a long way towards success in a specific retailer.  It will be interesting how the need to “get to know each other” will be impacted by the tendency of brands to turn over so quickly these days.  Call me old fashioned, but I still like to shake hands, look somebody in the eye, and maybe have a beer with them.

And every brand executive I’ve ever talked to says that getting face time with retailers is an important reason to come to a show.

Maybe this suggests a new trade show component.  What if there was a schedule published in advance where new or at least not well known brands were each given ten minutes to make their “who we are and why you should care” speech to interested retailers?  That schedule would be given to each retailer on arrival as part of a package that included a one page brief on each of the brands.  Maybe it’s a separate event the day before the show starts.

Nobody at Agenda or any other trade show has ever sent me their financial statement (not holding my breath here).  I suspect that a lot of revenue comes from larger brands.  While smaller brands do pay, it’s common knowledge that some booth are given away or subsidized and sometimes retailers coming from a distance get help with expenses.

Nothing wrong with that.  It’s the trade show supporting the industry.  But it’s an interesting financial dance a trade show company has to do sculpt their show so that the right brands/retailers/people are there but the show also makes a profit.  As you know, I’m a big believer in businesses making a profit.

I’m thinking it’s easy to put on a great trade show if you don’t care how much money you lose.  Probably not quite so easy to do it and make a reasonable return.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Agenda was that the skateboard part of the show was a little more open and easy to access.  More ways in and out.  Big improvement.  I’ve suggested before that having the one entrance where you felt like you were crossing the moat on a castle draw bridge probably wasn’t as welcoming as they’ve now made it.

I walked by the Quiksilver brand booth and was a bit surprised by what I’d charitably call their bare bones approach.  I recognize where they are coming from, but maybe retailers could have used some reassurance that things were going to get better for the brand.  Interestingly, the DC booth didn’t suffer from this excessively minimalist approach.

I spend some time looking at the Primitive Skateboarding booth.  I like the way they are positioning and merchandising the brand.  Yes, it’s skateboarding.  But it doesn’t have some of the intentional rough edges that other skate brands have.  I hope this doesn’t sound like a terribly thing to say, but it feels like they could sell it in a boutique.  I mean that as a good thing.  They are positioning themselves for a broader market than some traditional skate brands.  Hope they are doing it on purpose and I’m not giving them too much credit.

Finally, I walked by Caravan Outpost, which I am quite sure is the first hotel that’s ever exhibited at Agenda.  It’s industry lifer Brad Steward’s concept.  He’s bought a number of air stream aluminum mobile homes, refurbished them to a high standard, and placed them on an attractive plot of land in Ojai.  This first hotel is kind of the proof of concept, and they are just launching.  There’s some work to be done if only because they don’t yet have their liquor license.

This is not roughing it.  Standard plumbing and electrical connection and everything!  Other brands are connecting their products to the travel/adventure idea but not in this way.  Brad and I talked about some possible product extensions and permutations, but he made me calm down.  He just wants to get the first one working perfectly first.  Still, I wonder where he’s thinking about putting the first retail store.

Nobody would ever think to do a strictly defined action sports trade show any more.   So the shows are evolving or maybe, in the case of Agenda, have been created in recognition that the market is both broader, offering more opportunities, but tougher to figure out as well.

5 replies
  1. Amy b
    Amy b says:

    For one, and having not been this time, all I heard was how D-E-A-D Aganda was. But too, the space you felt was, in fact the lightening of the show. Brands were offered double the space for free at the last minute. Maybe it’s a good thing with smaller brands getting back to the bones but I also heard a real estate company along with a hotel brand was there occupying a booth that is usually another brand selling the lifestyle dream. Is it evolution though? Or are we so stuck on how it used to be that we can’t get past our past? If you asked PRod if he’s cool selling to boutiques, what do you think he and his homies will say?
    I just got the Tillys catalog today and it’s very clear they don’t need to walk the show for anything new.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Amy,
      As I said in my article, giving away some booth space or discounting it to fill it up and paying some retailer expenses is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to Agenda. So I’m okay with reporting it, but reluctant to draw a conclusion lacking any information as to how much of this went on and whether it’s up or down from previous shows. It’s unlikely I’ll ever see that information. Too bad.

      I don’t know what PRod would say. But the ambiance of the booth was undeniable. At least half was used for product that was not skate hard goods. If PRod (who I don’t know) is a good businessman, I’m thinking he might be perfectly happy for the brand to be credible and influential in the core skate market but also have the potential to serve a broader market.

      There was a hotel at the show. It was Brad Steward’s new concept Caravan Outpost. I wrote about it in the article. Guess you missed that. My point is that this is not an action sports or a skate show. It’s a lifestyle show. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a skate brand (or a surf brand or a snow brand, etc.) but if you’re interested in the broader market you may decide you want to be defined a little more generally. It feels like the overall focus is on what I call “active outdoor” rather than just action sports at this point. That’s certainly where the growth potential seems to be.

      Thanks for the comment.

      J.

  2. Brad Steward
    Brad Steward says:

    Jeff, always a pleasure to see you.

    Our first retail store just opened in Ojai, on July 4th. Day one at the Outpost was sold out crowd. We had a community event where we raised 10k for our local skatepark to get some lights. Vans, Brixton, Real, Stereo, Deluxe, Patagonia and many other brands graciously contributed to our fund raising auction.

    My vision for being at the show was simply an excuse to stay close to the people and business I love, and feel greatly indebted to. Okay, maybe there was some intent to stir things a bit too…

    Only business comment I’ll make on the show is that I like it when the guitarist looks up from their pedals and plays loud to the dance floor. Anytime our industry has ever done that, joy has erupted in mountains, on waves, on city handrails and curbs.

    Come and see us soon. Fire pit waiting…

    With appreciation.

    Brad

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Brad,
      A pleasure and surprise to see you too. Can’t say I’m surprised to see you with a retail store already working. As we discussed, the synergies among the various possible pieces we discussed/envisioned at the show seem almost endless.

      Our industry could use a little extra joy/positiveness right now. As for visiting- as soon as you have the bar open!

      J.

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