Trade Shows and Scooters

I’m back from the first combined Outdoor Retailer/Snow Show trade show in Denver.  The most impactful thing I brought back from the show was the flu.  You guys who had dinner with me Thursday night- let me know if you got it.

You know, last year I came home from Denver with what turned out to be pneumonia.  Two years before that I was hospitalized in Denver with a staph infection in my knee.  I don’t know- maybe I’d like to see us back in Vegas.  I never got sick there.

With what were probably inevitable glitches and inconveniences resulting from combining two shows in a new location (took me 15 minutes to find the new coat check location and they now charge $3.00), the show got off to a great start.  It was busy, positive, and high energy.  It reminded me of the SIA show in 1995 or 1996, when exhibitors spilled out of the main hall and filled every nook and cranny they could be shoehorned into.  There’s no doubt these two shows belong together, and I’ll spare you my opinion as to what took so long.

The previous week, I went up to the KnowShow in Vancouver to make a speech and walk the show.  That was very valuable.  Sometimes I forget about, or take for granted, regional shows.  Denver was upbeat, loud, crowded and positive.  The KnowShow was positive too.  But it was focused, disciplined, and structured.  What you had was reps and distributors meeting with retailers to do business.  Sure, there was some beer and dinners.  It wasn’t loud or crowded but you felt and saw the business getting done.

Perhaps as we think about the future of trade shows, we need to remind ourselves how cost effective and business focused the regional shows are and how well they fit industry needs in the days of the functionality offered by the internet.

There were no scooters at Agenda, the Know Show or, as far as I could tell, OR/SIA.  I wrote about scooters back in November.  It garnered surprisingly little attention, but Nick Adcock, currently the CEO of Spyder Active Sports and a former executive and consultant with many industry brands we all know, made an insightful comment.  It might be useful to follow the link and read his at the bottom of the article.

Here’s how I interpret, or maybe add to, Nick’s comment.

When I pull my phone out of my pocket, or sit down at my computer, or pick up a tablet, it’s because I’ve chosen one of those three tools for some task.  There may be other tools I could choose for the same task, and sometimes I use them.  For example, I often take notes with a pencil on an actual piece of paper.  I find it helps my thinking.

My suspicion is that the scooter kids don’t think of digital devices as tools to be selected.  It’s not a considered choice.  It’s just what they do.  They’ve never known anything else.  It is the environment they operate in.  Not by choice, but by inevitable cultural bias.  It’s the way they think, but they don’t actually think about it.

I’m I grave danger here of representing that I actually know what a 10-year-old kid with a scooter thinks.  I don’t.  Call it a hypothesis.  But I haven’t seen any scooter brands at trade shows.  I haven’t seen them running ads.  Yet I have this troubling sense that there’s a market out there we, or somebody, is missing.  Here- if you haven’t seen it- is an article on scooters that was in Rolling Stone.  Oh god, if it’s in Rolling Stone maybe it’s reached its peak and is down trending.

There’s apparently some ongoing competition (if that’s the right word) among scooter kids and skaters at parks.  Sounds a bit like the competition between skiers and snowboarders in the early 90s.  That ultimately turned out to be positive for snowboarding.

Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, skate brands don’t seem interested in scooters.  They either don’t believe in it as a category or fear damaging their existing brand due to the tension between skate and scoot.  Feels a little like the decisions the skate brands made when longboards first appeared on the scene motivated by the same factors.

I guess they’re right- there is some risk.  But risk seems inherent in our existing environment (or any business environment- business is a risk).  And an opportunity in a new category (if it still exists) is inevitably full of risk.  Want to avoid risk?  Be like all the brands that waited to get into longboarding once it was firmly established and “lower risk.”  They looked lame and defensive.

If I were a skate brand I might find one of these scooter brands, buy it, and set it up miles from my headquarters to do what I could to avoid contamination and damage to my skate brand.  I’d give them a little working capital, support them with my back office, and see what happened.  Oh- and apparently all the kids with scooters wear skate clothing.  Might be some opportunity there, but I haven’t quite worked that one out.

Meanwhile back at the Denver show, I saw a few interesting things.  There was a booth selling bongs.  I suppose that was inevitable.  Somebody was selling a product for plantar fasciitis relief a nod, I suppose, to the fact that some of us are getting older.

I didn’t spot the usual handful of new, small, typically regional, snowboard brands.  Maybe that somehow represents an industry inflection point.

I liked 686’s Hydro Stash apparel with build in hydration in the jacket and SPY’s new snow goggles with electrically variable intensity for different conditions without changing lenses.  Hope I’m explaining it right. Here’s the link for the SPY product.  Can’t find one for 686.

Burton wasn’t listed in the directory, but they had a room though no booth.  Wonder if there’s a backstory there.

I talked to a few people at Sanuk.  It seems like 18 months after a badly needed management change, there’s a lot of progress being made.  Deckers has written off its huge investment in Sanuk and Martinez, the CEO who presided over the acquisition is gone.  I don’t think it’s too late for the brand to recover from earlier missteps.  The key is that Deckers not again place unrealistic growth expectations on Sanuk.  If they can clean up their inventory, revalidate the brand, grow sales some and make a profit I’d expect it to be a candidate for sale to a private equity firm.

Being public or owned by a public company seems to have been the kiss of death for too many of our industry’s brands.  On the other hand, who can blame the owners for taking the big pay day.

Not sure why SOLE, a maker of foot beds, wanted to sponsor all the restrooms.  Can’t quite decide if it’s brilliant or brand limiting.  I mean, I guess I’ll never forget SOLE, but is that the association they were hoping for?

I’m wondering if, as a result of consolidating two shows, brands saw new customer they might not have seen if they had previously only attended one of the two.  Results were mixed among the brands I asked.  I suppose that in the days of the internet and fewer small retailers, trade shows have lost some of their importance as places to find new customers.  And perhaps that’s why I was a bit surprised to see that November 8-11, 2018 Denver will host the OR Winter Market show followed by the OR/SIA Snow Show January 8-11, 2019.  This must be what their constituents wanted or Emerald Exhibitions wouldn’t be doing it.  Yet one of the reasons most of us applauded the consolidation of the two shows was for efficiency and to save a few bucks.  Now, for at least some attendees, that’s out the window.

I went to SIA’s intelligence day on January 24 and came away feeling more intelligent as usual.  I did miss former SIA Director of Research Kelly Davis’ dissection of the data.  That’s always been a highlight for me.  If you also miss that, you can find Kelly at the consulting firm of Davis + Kaplan.  Here’s the link.

I particularly enjoyed Vail CEO Rob Katz’s lunch time presentation that day.  I thought the most important thing he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that everybody gets excited when you say “innovation” but terrified when you say “change.”

He’s right, but we’re well and truly in a big fur ball of change and whether it’s in how you utilize trade shows or how you react to a bunch of kids on scooters operating in a way you aren’t completely clear on, being terrified isn’t likely to yield a successful approach.

18 replies
  1. Mark Cole
    Mark Cole says:

    The restrooms were sponsored by SOLE. They always are. God knows why. At the end of the show they are also sponsored by 5 other brands whose stickers end up on the towel dispensers.

    I suppose innovation is change on one’s own term. Good old fashioned “change” is often forced upon us whether we like it or not. An important distinction that I assume you can do a far better job of elaborating on than I can. Looking forward to it.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Mark,
      I changed from Soul to Sole. Thanks for pointing it out. I like your definition of innovation, though even if it’s on your own terms, that doesn’t mean you could have avoided doing it. I suppose we need to innovate to manage the change being required of us. Maybe when we willingly embrace innovation to manage the change we can’t avoid, we’re on to something.
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Joe Burlo
    Joe Burlo says:

    It’s interesting to see that there are ‘skateparks’ everywhere but there do not seem to be ‘scooterparks’ that I know of. Has the word ‘skatepark’ now become a generic word for a space with ramps and obstacles, kinda like ‘hoover’ for a vacuum cleaner?

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      I actually asked some people in a position to know, and they told me that so called skate parks work just fine for scooters. If nothing else, momentum may keep parks called “skate” parks even with scooters in them.

      • Joe Burlo
        Joe Burlo says:

        You are right, Jeff. Skateparks have always worked well for ‘Aggressive inline skates’, BMX, Scooters and since the early 80’s skaters have always been at odds with these people for invading their parks. In the main, scooters do not know the unwritten code in skateparks so are always ‘snaking’ – i.e. dropping in o, crossing over or ruining someone’s line without waiting their turn and causing chaos.

        Regarding scooters and impact, so many young school kids in the UK have a scooter which the mums bring with them when they pick their kids up from school so the kids can ‘scooter’ home.

        • jeff
          jeff says:

          Hi Joe,
          I’m aware of the issues in the parks- part etiquette and part a maybe healthy competition among different modes of using the park. Wish I had any data at all on market size.

  3. Glenn
    Glenn says:

    Do you own stock in a scooter company?
    No one in the skate industry is interested because even if Rolling Stone, or you, writes about them, they don’t make up a significant enough business for most brands to care. Kind of like fixed gear. Still exists, no one cares.
    They do business the way they do because that’s the only viable option.
    They are called skate parks because, for the most part, they are built for skaters. If a kid shows up in Heelys, does it become a “Heely park”?
    All respect but I think you can tell that I don’t understand your fixation Jeff.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Glenn,
      Always love it when somebody tells me I’m out of my mind. Keep it up! First, no ownership in scooter companies or anything else I write about. Second, you may be right. I’ve got no numbers on the size of the scooter market. But once, the snowboard market was too small to be of interest to anybody, as was the skate long board market and the home computer market for that matter. People started businesses in those industries anyway and for some of them, it worked out. Seems to me that if you’re prepared to take the risk, the exact right time to get into an industry is when everybody else is scared of it. Big risk? Yup. Your counter argument is that scooters have now been around 15 years and haven’t made that much of an impact. As I said, you might be right that there’s no growth potential.

      As far as how they do business, it seems to me we’re far enough into the internet/social media age to recognize that we’ve got a bunch of kids/potential customers who don’t find and consume information the way you and I do. Can they afford to run ads or do some other traditional marketing things? Maybe not as you say. Would they want- would it occur to them- to do it differently if they could? Would it be a valid way to reach their customers? Not sure it would.

      The thing that made me write about scooters again was Nick’s comment. I believe there’s a fundamentally important lesson there even if I’m nuts about the potential of the scooter market. I kind of threw in the Rolling Stone article gratuitously.

      Thanks for the comment. Always enjoy engaging with you.

  4. Will
    Will says:

    Scooters. From what I’ve seen over my 15-year old son’s shoulder, it seems this segment of activity has been fueled by the YouTube phenom- Tanner Fox. 10-13yo spend much of their time watching 90-second gameplay vids of Overwatch and the YT algorithm pops up Fox’s VLOG suggestions in the sidebar. The point being, you can VLOG your way into existence via YouTube algorithms and grow a market segment that guys like you and I shake our heads over. This age bracket seems to swing the fastest from one activity to the other. I realized this in the mid-2000s working in a ski shop and seeing the number of 10-13 yo snowboards switch over to twin tips. I can’t blame them for growing this slice of the outdoor-activity pie, because after all- these kids are just doing what any marketable spokesperson accomplishes and that is getting their ‘why’ across to their viewer.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Will,
      I agree with you- at least as far as I can tell. Which is the whole problem/opportunity isn’t it? Is there a market here that can be grown? Somebody must be making money on it. But how do we understand it if we just shake out heads out of lack of comprehension? Meanwhile, there are going to be other markets created and supported the same way. Understanding that may be way more important than scooters.

      • Will
        Will says:

        Good point and sorry I missed you originally asking that point. But, yeah. I suppose it’s about whether or not to spend time and effort to grow segment(s) like scooters. Or be dismissive and cap things off at supporting the snow/skate/longboard markets.

        • jeff
          jeff says:

          But remember Will, originally there was NO support for the long board market from the skate industry. It’s that kind of thinking that troubles me.

  5. Bud Stratford
    Bud Stratford says:

    Umm… I see a few problems here, Jeff. First, we are assuming that skate companies have the capital to buy a scooter brand, and set it up in a back office somewhere. I’d say the reality is that skate brands are probably having a hard enough time financing their own brands these days, let alone financing some scooter experiment.

    Then, we’d have to talk about core competency. Do skate brands understand the scooter market? Do they want to understand it? Do they even care? Like you said yourself, most skaters hate these things to the Nth degree. You’re not really advocating that we invest in something that we do not understand, do not respect, and do not like, are you?

    What skate brands really should be doing right now, instead of diversifying into some scooter channel, is investing their time, energy, and capital resources into shoring up their own businesses, organizing and/or hosting all-inclusive skateboard events, partnering with their retailers to do the same, and growing our own pastime- not helping the scooter kids grow theirs. You cited snowboarding as a success story of what happened with the ski-snowboarding rivalry… but look at what the ski industry did for itself in inventing the twin-tipped, wide freestyle ski, and making a horde of freestyle videos; they made a huge comeback, and skiing is bigger than ever, even outpacing snowboarding’s growth over the past few seasons. And the analogy is a little bogus, anyway. I mean, skis and snowboards make sense on the mountain together, just like skateboards and longboards make sense together. But try telling a ski (or snowboard) company to invest in snow bicycles or ziplines. That’s more like what it’s like to tell a skate company to invest in scooters.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Bud,
      So let’s forget about the tactics of whether they can afford to do it. If there is a market here, somebody is going to do it. Perhaps they will use another approach from what I suggest. Perhaps it won’t be a skate company. Perhaps it’s already happened. As for investing in something you don’t understand, respect, or like well, I am certainly expecting an investor to understand it before they did. As for respect and like, we’re trying to make a business decision here, aren’t we? If not, well, okay- I guess I don’t know what to say. Skate companies didn’t respect or like long boards. Ski companies didn’t respect or like snowboards. Surf companies didn’t respect or like soft boards or machine made boards from China.

      Let’s say for a moment I just accept your analysis of what happened to skiing. Does that mean it would have been a bad move for Elan to buy Burton in 1990? Yeah, Burton probably wasn’t for sale and Elan might have screwed it up. Though if they were farsighted enough to buy it maybe not.

      I admire your passion and commitment to skate Bud, but it sounds like you want to make things like they were before. That doesn’t tend to happen, though I’d be for it. You’re implicitly suggesting that brands have more control of their markets and their consumers than I think they have- and not just in skateboarding. You’re saying skate should get back to what worked in the past and it will work again. Should all skate companies rush out and invest in scooter? Nope. Maybe none should. Should they ignore it out of ignorance and for basically emotional reasons? God, I hope that’s not how we make business decisions.

      Thanks for the comment. I love it when somebody disagrees with me. Makes me think.

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