Trade Shows Re Re Re Re Re Visited; I Got an Idea. A Couple Actually. Hope One is Good.

Since ASR closed, and before that actually, we (well, me at least) have been struggling to figure out the role of trade shows as the economy, technology, and the industry changed. How do you get retailers to attend shows (paying them isn’t a good long term strategy)? Should consumers be involved somehow? What sports and products should be represented? Are shows about buying, or networking, or seeing new product or all of those or none of them? Do people even need to go to shows? How big should shows be and how long should they last? How do you keep the costs down? Do we even need another one?

Various organizations in the industry have been focused (and as far as I know, are still focused) on doing their own show individually or as a group. I’ve had a call from an organization that’s not in our industry but that does trade publications and shows for other smaller industries that wants to publish an action sports business magazine and maybe do a trade show. The existing trade show organizations are thinking about growing, or starting new shows, or just benefiting from the fact that companies that were at ASR need to exhibit somewhere else (I’m not sure that’s true).

I fell into the same thought process everybody else seems to be going through. Then I had a conversation last week with Roy Turner at Surf Expo. I always enjoy talking with Roy. He’ll tell me when he thinks I’m full of shit, though as a Southern gentleman, he’ll do it in such a way that I’ll somehow like being told. I’ve got to learn how to do that.
After I talked with Roy, I was thinking about what the action sports business really was (and has always been, actually), the role of fashion, consolidation, the impact of vertical retailing, and SIA and Agenda. I also reread an earlier article I wrote on trade shows right after ASR died.
I decided that I, and everybody else I think, have been focusing on the tactics of trade shows. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to do, but it keeps you from answering the fundamental strategic question of why ASR failed and what, if anything, should replace it. It’s kind of like when you buy an old house, you can remodel it. But it often makes more sense (financially as well as stylistically) to tear it down and start from scratch to get just what you want.
But we’re a pretty incestuous industry and momentum, resistance to change and cognitive dissonance (god, I love that term), makes it hard to throw out the old model and try something new.
What works? SIA seems to be doing really well. Why? First, because they are a one season business and just need one show. I’ve said that before. But what I’ve never realized, or at least what I so took for granted that I never thought about it, is that everybody there is somehow connected to sliding on snow. That’s strategic. It defines their purpose and who should attend.
The further ASR got away from that, the more they got in trouble. Like the old saying goes, if you try to be important to everybody, you end up important to nobody. Their attempted fixes were tactical, not strategic. It feels like as an industry some of that same mistake is being made because we want to dance with who we brung.
I’m not sure we can because there are a lot of party crashers out there. Maybe there’s a need for an “action sports” trade show but the real action sports industry is composed of those brands and retailers who cater to the participants in the sports and the first level of non-participants that associate themselves with the athletes and lifestyle. It’s pretty small. Most of the customers of most of our brands and retailers don’t fit into the action sports definition I used above.
What do they fit into? I’m tending towards youth culture. Hardly a new phrase, but I think very powerful if you think of a trade show in those terms, and begin painting with a blank canvas. Right now, Agenda seems closest to focusing this way and it’s interesting to watch them grow. But I’ve got a little different approach in mind.
If I were going to create a youth culture trade show from scratch, I’d start by developing the list of brand’s I’d want to have exhibiting. Would it include some surf/skate/snow brands? Sure. But I think I might want Apple there (who knows if they’d want to come). And Facebook. And some music companies, and some game companies, and some other brands and activities that I don’t even know about because I’m not quite as cool as I used to be. Okay, maybe I never was cool. Different issue.
Now if you ask me why Apple would want to attend, well, I’m not quite sure they would. This concept is not completely formed in my head. Maybe what I’d do is visit all the coolest retailers in the country, or otherwise compose a list of them (online included) and create a list of the brands they carried. The show I envision wouldn’t be about skate or surf or moto or fashion though I suspect it would include elements of all of those and more. It would be about “STUFF THAT’S IMPORTANT TO PEOPLE AGES 14 TO 25.”
Is it possible to do a show that would kind of cross over industries like this one would? I’m not sure. Figuring out what brands to invite and explaining how they all tied together and could benefit wouldn’t be easy. Getting retailers to decide to attend a show that wasn’t completely relevant to what they sold might be a challenge although, as I think about it, maybe retailers who see themselves focused on youth culture would come precisely because this would be the best place to find new products and brands.
I’d also invite to attend (not to exhibit and maybe only for one specified day?) large companies who want to reach this demographic. And I’d charge them a lot of money to come. Maybe retailers wouldn’t be there that day and it would be a chance for brands to look for tie ins with large corporate players desperate to be cool.
A specifically action sports show made sense when we were all about action sports. Now, most of our business seems to be about youth culture (I’m open to a better term) so why aren’t we creating a youth culture trade show?
Partly, of course, because we can’t expect a trade organization to create a show that doesn’t cater directly to its members. But if trade shows are a waste of time unless retailers attend, then we damned well better create one that focuses on those retailers’ customer. Are they mostly action sports customers as I’ve defined them? Nope, they are youth culture customers.
It seems kind of obvious now and I have no idea why it took me so long to figure it out.  Please speak up if you think I’m crazy.



13 replies
  1. Bill
    Bill says:

    I think the concept you refer to would be significantly more profitable, and more popular, than many other specific market trade shows. You are choosing an age related market that is largely ignored in my view yet has huge purchasing power and a genuine interest in all things new and exciting.
    It would be a big job, but not a ‘hard sell’ in my opinion and would build into an exciting anticipated event. These are not old people happy with standard boring events. You need music there somewhere, alcohol would be a bonus !

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      I’ve never been at a trade show without alcohol, but I’d like to keep it away from the 14 year olds if this show involves consumers. I suspect that with maybe a dozen key committed companies, we’d reach a tipping point where people would flock to this. But I also know that doing a trade show is a lot of work. I’ve never done one myself so it’s possible I’m naive about what’s involved.

      Thanks for the comment.


  2. markfitzy
    markfitzy says:

    I attended Comic-Con for an appointment with a design client on Friday. All I know is the nerds got it right. C-C is open to the public, charged roughly $105 per attendee for any of 4 days and expected to draw over 200,000 people. That’s $21million dollars in attendee fees alone… The place was a mad house. I imagine this weekend would be utter mayhem.

    I approached the ASR team with the idea back in 2008, (being open to the public). They said, “Not Interested”. Funny thing is, Nielsen didn’t truly care about action sports and had no idea how to run ASR. Hence the failure of a relic (destiny). I bet Nielsen would sell their own souls to host a four day, $21 million dollar show in 2011.

    The future of action sports is all inclusive. Private, elitist, “cool people” shows are things of the past. It’s time for brands to speak directly to the end user. Otherwise, they are just another China made rag, in a sea of sameness.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      The Comic-Con analogy is a good one. I would think $21 million in attendance fees would get somebody’s attention. Done right, I think a youth culture show would be a show everybody would want to attend. Oh, we’d need the tattoo people there.


  3. markfitzy
    markfitzy says:

    oh yeah… and trust me, I am feeding my family off of a little Apple stock… They would want to come to your show. Unless, it was their show.

  4. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    I think some companies like IMG and brands like Nike and Vans already have kind of what you are talking about but in a less formal/trade show format where “taking order” and “writing paper” was the benchmark for success. These youth shows are kind of almost there already. Think about what the US Open and X Games and to a lesser extent Coachella and Warped Tour really are with the added element of the actual sports and/or music taking place at the same time. I am sure the Quiksilver Pro in New York will be as much or more about connecting youth culture to retailers, bigger non endemic brands and mainstream media than about anything like a “dream tour”.

    Maybe a 3 day show with the first day being a retailer only “lets show the line and take some orders”, the 2nd day open to the public and press to check it out and all of that leading into one of these showcase youth events.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Jeff,
      Yeah, I am certainly not the only one thinking along these lines. What I’m suggesting that might be different is the starting from scratch part to get the focus and participation dialed in in a way you can’t if you start from the perspective of an existing brand or show. As to the specifics of how it should be done, I don’t know the “right” way. I guess the first thing I’d like to see is people thinking strategically about shows instead of trying to change tactics under existing conditions/assumptions.

      thanks for the comment.


  5. Klaus Thurner
    Klaus Thurner says:

    hi Jeff, love your article, because of your idea.s but even more so because of your self reflections, you know yourself pretty well. if you look over the pond to good old Europe the most successful show concept today is Bread&Butter – started out as a cool insider action sports show, today the biggest “lifestyle show”. check it out. say hi to family

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Howdy Klaus!
      You’re right about Bread & Butter. I think I went there once while living in Europe, but of course I imagine it’s changed/improved in the last five years or so. I knew I couldn’t be the first, or only, one to thought about this.

      Family good. Hope yous is the same.


  6. Ronnie Roberts
    Ronnie Roberts says:

    I do think you are on the right path Jeff, but the one thing I question is how interactive you can be with an apparel brand in a trade show environment. I would say most people attend consumer product shows such as electronics, music, and autos to explore new technologies. There are exciting products to look at and interact with. Companies spend a ton of money presenting and entertaining consumers during these shows. I find it hard to expect that guys would want to walk a trade show looking at clothes and shoes. Girls, well they would just want to buy everything now and not have to wait another 6 months.
    Agenda show is working right now because it brought everybody back to a level playing field where product was more important than giant screen tv’s and bikini girls. We are also in a cycle of smaller brands being important again, and the bigger brands wishing they were small brands again (im talking internally not necessarily financially). I would guess that Agenda will continue to get more pressure from the bigger guys to present their brand in a more aggressive nature and we will be right back to where we were with ASR.
    Trade shows like Bread and Butter or even Bright are exciting because they truly feel like cultural gatherings. They are held in environments that look and feel special. They allow even smaller brands to be creative with their space. They are not held in sterile environments like a convention center or hotel.
    One possible solution in the US is to focus on smaller regional sales shows and then twice a year hold a consumer show that is closer to the delivery season. Think of it as a kind of Hypebeast show, where everyone puts their best foot forward to impress their target consumers. You would have your athletes and celebrity associations present, parties, and cross promotions. This would be more of a cultural gathering that people would pay to come to. Brands would have the unique opportunity to connect with potential customers and retailers would have the opportunity to see which brands are hot.
    Just a thought…

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      I think some of your ideas and tactics are good ones. All I was trying to do was suggest a new strategic focus, and I admitted in the article that I wasn’t completely sure how to pull it off at the nuts and bolt level. That will take some people who know more than I do about trade shows. But whatever happens, it has to make the retailers want to come or it doesn’t matter how strategically clever the concept is. At the end of the day, that may be the biggest barrier.

      I agree that Agenda may come under some pressure to get bigger, but i hope they resist and stick to what they are doing right now as you describe it.

      Thanks for the comment,

  7. Cary
    Cary says:

    Jeff, you said in your post:
    “Like the old saying goes, if you try to be important to everybody, you end up important to nobody.”

    Then a few paragraphs later you suggested taking a very targeted trade show concept (focused on action sports) and broadening it to be a trade show about “STUFF THAT’S IMPORTANT TO PEOPLE AGES 14 TO 25.”

    A trade show that is about stuff that’s important to people ages 14 to 25 seems to be moving at a rapid pace in the direction of something that ends up being important to nobody. There is tremendous variance in the interests of people in any age group, but especially in the 14-25 age group where you have kids who can’t drive yet up to adults who are a few years into their careers.

    Most retailers got into this industry because they had a passion for the sports. This passion enables them to connect with their customers. When a customer comes into a specialty surf shop (for example), they expect to be able to have a conversation with someone who is knowledgeable and excited about the sport of surfing. This is one of the main reasons for a specialty surf shop to exist. I can’t imagine expecting any retailer to be knowledgeable about “youth culture” or “things that are important to people ages 14 to 25.” That’s not specialty retail. That’s a mall. Well, even a mall is not going to get close to offering the important things to “people ages 14 to 25” — but you get my point.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Cary,
      I do get your point. Maybe I am being inconsistent saying don’t end up important to nobody then suggesting a very broad age group. Then I have to ask the question where does that leave us (action sports) in terms of trade shows? If 14-25 is too broad an age group (I think you’re probably right about that) and youth culture isn’t a well enough defined category, what do we do? Nobody seems to be prepared to put on an “action sports” trade show as we used to define it. Fashion, youth culture, and sales of most of our product to non participants has inflicted itself on us to such a degree that that’s hard to do. Maybe we have to consider that vertical integration, consolidation, fast communications, an emerging tendency towards customizable products and a weaker economy makes a traditional action sports trade show obsolete. Hope not. I sure enjoyed them.

      Thanks. Hope to see you at Agenda next week and maybe continue the conversation.

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