Notes on SIA’s Denver Show and Thoughts on the Trade Show Slog

It was nice to walk to the Snow Show the second day when it was actually snowing. I think I’m completely acclimated to Denver, though I do miss playing blackjack with friends. And I still get confused when one of the people who works at the convention center says, "How are you today, sir? Have a nice day and enjoy the show." They actually seem to mean it. After so many years in Las Vegas, you can understand why I’d be startled.

Inside the convention center, the thing I heard most often was "I’ve got to leave for ISPO tomorrow." This was typically spoken by somebody with a resigned tone to their voice and slumped shoulders. It often included phrases like "Six shows down, two to go!" or "I don’t remember what my children look like."

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I wrote about the trade show schedule back in 2002 and much of the article has held up pretty well.  People complain about the trade shows and the schedule, but they all go. I’ll get back to that after mentioning a related issue.
 
Trade Shows and Outerwear
  
The related issue is that there seem to be mighty few snowboard industry companies that aren’t making snowboard outerwear.   Seems like all the hard goods companies are making apparel and many of the apparel companies are making hard goods. I suppose the logic of becoming a full line company is irresistible. "Well, we’re already selling them product X, so as long as we’re in front of them, and it’s consistent with our image as a snowboard company, we might as well sell them product Y."
 
Retailers, of course, already can’t/don’t/won’t carry more than a fraction of a large brand’s line, and I doubt that a brand expanding its product line will change that. Lacking some market growth, it’s just more good quality product that lacks fundamental product differentiation chasing the same customers. The scramble for market share and a source of growth continues. It’s not that there’s no innovation in the snow industry, but whatever advantage it confers doesn’t last long, as innovations are copied across the industry in about one season.
 
Who might be the winners of the rush to do outerwear? I think it might be companies like Arbor and Never Summer who, I’m pretty certain, won’t be doing outerwear.  I’m only half kidding when I suggest that companies like those may find their market positions strengthened and better defined as a result of all the other companies doing full snow product lines. Maybe I’m not kidding at all.
 
Let’s get back to trade shows. So you’ve expanded your product line. You’d probably like to sell some of this new product. This might require some new customers unless your existing ones are extraordinarily cooperative. How do you find those new customers if, as I’m suggesting, your existing retailers may not automatically just order your new stuff and throw out your competitors?
 
 Maybe by attending some new trade shows? If, for example, you’re in the snowboard business and make outerwear, going to Outdoor Retailer probably makes sense. Lots of people seemed to think so at any rate. But there’s diminishing return from going to more and more shows given the inevitable overlap in customers. We also need to remember that larger brands especially are seeing customers more and more outside of the trade show environment.
 
 Where going to all the related trade shows can probably makes sense is when you’re a new brand- especially one not limited to the snowboard or winter sports business.   The sock brand Stance comes to mind as a company that could benefit from extra trade shows. John, Ryan, hope you’re having a good time in Munich, or wherever the hell you are now. More coffee, less beer!
  
To summarize what I might have said in the last four or five paragraphs, the decision to expand a product line, with particular focus in this case on outerwear in the snowboard industry, is made at least partly with the expectation of expanding your market beyond the core snowboard niche. Especially as a larger company, and even more as a public company, you know (at least I hope you know) that the growth you can reasonably expect in the snowboard market probably doesn’t justify the effort and expense of creating and marketing an outerwear line. So you’re off to various other trade shows that have retailers who, to a greater or lesser degree, overlap snowboarding and you’ll look for some growth there.
 
And those dynamics are at least partly the reason why we’re so willing to go to so many shows.
 
Things I Noticed at SIA
  
I guess I’ve talked enough about everybody making outerwear, so let’s move on.
 
 I loved the 686 concept car, though I was disappointed to learn it’s probably not street legal. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to look for another ride.
  
There was some talk about booths getting bigger again. Mostly from people like me who remember the two story Morrow booth with the helicopter on top at the absolute peak of the snowboard madness in probably 1995. The concern is that we’re getting profligate in spending on booths again.
  
I had a different take. While there did seem to be some size expansion, I saw a lot of less expensive soft sided booths and many of the booths reused the same components and materials they had used in previous years. Still, if one of you guys wants to put a main battle tank or maybe a small, temperature controlled, enclosed hill where you make artificial snow in your booth that would be okay with me.
  
The Mervin Manufacturing surf boards. Behind Mike Olson’s always smiling, happy go lucky, endlessly positive, demeanor is a guy who’s always smiling, happy go lucky, and endlessly positive. However, he’s also a guy who knows a thing or two about materials and manufacturing. He’s been working on surfboards for a long time, and if he’s ready to sell these I’m pretty sure it makes good business sense. This is going to be fun to watch. I hope the guys at Quiksilver, who owns Mervin, are as excited as I am.
  
I really liked the Recon system that installs in specially adapted goggles made by goggle brands. They have a built in computer that connects to GPS and shows you where you are on the mountain, how fast you’re going, and how high you jumped. It also gives you access to your phone, music and other functions. You wear a little control module on your wrist, but view it through a small screen below your right eye in the goggles. It does not interfere with your view.
 
It looks like it will take a bit of training to use it well, and some people may just not want to be quite that connected while on the mountain. But it also makes sense for other markets, and I suspect in some form it’s a piece of the future.
  
Then of course there was seeing former and long time- very, very long time- Burton senior executive Clark Gundlach over at the Quiksilver booth where he’s now in charge of the company’s snowboard program. Of course I knew the change had happened, but it still felt almost odd to see him there. Proof, I guess, that nothing is forever. Probably felt a bit odd for Clark too.
  
But when you think about it though, who else was Quik going to hire if they are serious about building their snowboard business? You can kind of imagine the conversation at Quiksilver. “Hey, we need an executive who has mountains of experience in all aspects of building a successful snowboard program in a large company environment. Let’s make a list of possible candidates.” Short list.
  
We came to the SIA show this year disappointed in the snow, though we got a storm the previous week and things seem to be picking up. SIA reported that sales through December were $2.2 billion, just 2% below last year’s record sales. Unit sales fell 10%, showing some discounting, and specialty store inventories were, inevitably, up 16%. Still, that’s not as bad as I feared it might be, and it’s definitely recoverable with improved snow conditions.
  
I want to point out that it would be a lot worse and not necessarily recoverable if, as an industry, we weren’t doing a much better job controlling our inventories. Keep up the good work.
  
Well, I’m home with no more trade shows on my horizon. The kids didn’t miss me because one’s away at college and the other is living on his own and has A  REAL JOB! My wife claims to miss me, but it may because I do most of the cooking. The cats definitely miss me.
  
Hope you all have a good trade show season.
4 replies
  1. Mary Jo Tarallo
    Mary Jo Tarallo says:

    Hi Jeff:
    Interesting article. Sorry I missed you at SIA.

    I think the moral of the story is that more customers are needed to buy all of this “stuff”. The industry continues to talk to itself and cater to the elite 1% of the 3% who participate.

    Let me know if you would ever like to chat about the purpose of Learn to Ski and Smowboard Month – an “industry initiative” designed to get children and adults to take lessons so they can actually learn how to ski or snowboard. Be nice if all of the industry supported it.

    THis was our fourth year and we are making some headway.

    I always enjoy reading your newsletters…..thanks. MJ

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi MJ,
      I saw you a time or two, but you were always deep in conversation with somebody else. If we don’t cater to the relatively small percentage who participate, then what industry are we in? The surf industry is a good example of an industry where an awful lot of the customers don’t participate. That’s certainly benefited the surf industry in terms of revenue growth, but it’s created some challenges as far as who they have to compete with. I don’t know the right answer to that one.

      Thanks for the comment,
      J.

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