Well, At Least It Can’t Be Any Worse Next Year; The Trade Show Schedule

The box on this page contains, as most of you are no doubt painfully aware, this year’s trade show schedule. Pretty intimidating. But of course it doesn’t include any key account presentations suppliers might have to make. Or regional shows. Or shoe shows, or bike shows, or toy shows or whatever other shows some suppliers and retailers might need to attend. And when’s that new ASR back to school show? When’s MAGIC? Granted, these aren’t all winter sports shows, but basically all retailers and many suppliers aren’t only in the winter sports business.

  
Show                                                 Date
 
Outdoor Retailer                               January 5-6
NBS                                                    January 10-13
Supershow                                       January 19-23
Winter Sports Market                       January 27-28
SIA                                                      January 29- February 2
ASR                                                    February 2-4
ISPO                                                   February 2-5
NSIA on snow                                  February 7-8
NSIA show                                        February 10-13
SBJ (Japan)                                      February 28-March 3
 
 
Now, I guess no single person actually has to go to all of these. Well, wait a minute. I can think of one guy. The guy who gave me this schedule actually. Maybe I can talk him out of some of his frequent flier miles. He can’t possibly use them all.
 
I started writing this sometime in mid January and, at that point, it was something of an abstraction to me. Now, sitting here in Long Beach for ASR in my hotel room on a Sunday evening in early February, it’s all too real. Tomorrow will be my seventh straight day of trade shows, and I don’t even have to fly to ISPO. I had a moment of clarity as I walked into the ASR show this morning and one of the security guards looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get through this.” Apparently, I had a bad case of trade show stare.
 
What the hell happened? How did we find ourselves in this position? What can we do about it? This number of shows of this duration this close together can’t possible be argued to be in the interest of retailers or suppliers.
 
Apportioning Guilt
 
In that great American tradition, I guess we should start by finding somebody to blame. Can’t be our fault we’re in this mess. I know- let’s blame the associations that put on all the shows.
 
I think pointing a finger there is at least partly appropriate. It’s not that all the show producers got together and decided how to make us all broke, jet lagged and exhausted. All of them, I imagine, know in their heart of hearts that there are too many shows, but it’s unlikely that any of them are going to volunteer to close themselves down. Organizations are almost organic in their tendency to survive and grow whether they should or not.
 
In a weaker economy with, as I perceive it, fewer retailers going to fewer shows and staying fewer days, the trade organizations find themselves competing with each other for “market share.” It’s no different than any other industry. In the computer industry, or the snowboard industry for that matter, too many companies fought for market share and many of those companies didn’t make it. But in the process of that fight, the customer got a constantly improving product for less and less money.
 
The customers of trade shows, of course, are the suppliers and, to a lesser extent, the retailers who attend the shows. But it’s the suppliers who pay whoever puts on the show to be there, in addition to costs for building, transporting and staffing their booth. Retailers pay to attend too, but they don’t have to build a booth or pay for space.
 
In most industries, the customers don’t rush to pay for and use more of something than they really need, want, or can afford. In the snowboarding business, where marketing is critical and many companies try to look bigger than they are, competitive pressures can make suppliers show up at trade shows, do more, and stay longer than they really want to. If they aren’t there, or their presentation isn’t what’s expected, the rumors start flying. Let’s call it the lemming affect- we all scurry in the same direction.
 
The longer shows are and the bigger the booths, the more money the organization sponsoring the show makes. Talk about a potential conflict of interest with your customers. Competition among trade show promoters doesn’t seem to result in the trade show customers getting a better, more affordable, product.
 
To the larger players, the cost, hassle, duration and number of trade shows may be a pain in the butt (an expensive pain in the butt), but it doesn’t threaten their ability to compete and survive. For smaller companies, or brands just trying to get off the ground, the need to make their presence felt at shows can be a formidable barrier to success. They just don’t have the people, booths and money to be everywhere.
 
In an industry that could use some fresh new products and brands, that’s too bad.
 
Hey, wait a minute! We can blame the economy and snow conditions. Well, that doesn’t really work. It’s true that if the economy was stronger and it was cold and dumping everywhere we might not complain as much. Cash flow covers up a variety of sins. But it wouldn’t change the existing issues with the trade show schedule.
 
This is inconvenient, but at the end of the day, I’m afraid we’re going to have to look into the mirror and accept some blame ourselves. We are, after all, the ones who show up and nobody exactly puts a gun to our head.
 
SIA and What To Do
 
Vegas is our trade show run by our association. But, as I’ve made clear above, many suppliers and most retailers have trade show responsibilities and concerns that go beyond winter sports. It’s the interplay of all the trade shows and their schedules-not just winter sports- that really creates the problems. SIA can’t fix all those problems. What might they do?
 
SIA has a board of directors run by suppliers who are also Vegas exhibitors. They are responsive to our concerns because they are us, though they may not act as quickly as we’d like. Shows like Vegas get planned and contracted years in advance, so perhaps that’s inevitable. We’re the shareholders, so money SIA takes in goes to programs that help winter sports and, according to SIA, Vegas costs us less than a comparable show put on by a for profit organization. That’s all good.
 
This year in Vegas, the number of buyers was down 10.8 percent. Given the new dates, the economy, and, maybe most importantly, a Superbowl weekend, that wasn’t too surprising. The question for me, however, isn’t how many buyers were registered. What I’d like to know (and I guess we don’t have a way to get this number) is how long they stayed. That is, if you take all the buyers who showed up, and add up the days each stayed, how many was it and how does that compare to previous years?
 
My guess is that the total number of buyer days was down and by more than the number of buyers. That’s fine because this is now a preview show. The first thing I’d like SIA to do is cut the show down to three days. That’s a number most people I spoke with seemed to think was reasonable. I understand we’re down to four days next year from January 24th through the 27th,  I further understand that existing commitments can’t be arbitrarily changed. But three days seems about right. On day four I was there and it was very quiet. On days five, I was gone but I’m told that deserted might not be too strong a term.
 
Does that mean less income for SIA? From both a financial and a management point of view, I expect suppliers would rather pay higher dues than spend two more days in Vegas.
 
Next, let’s see if SIA can merge with Outdoor Retailer. Those discussions are apparently ongoing. When OR’s numbers came out, the gossip was that SIA was in the catbird’s seat for the negotiations. At Vegas, as it became clear that show attendance would be down, the handicappers seemed to give OR the edge. If SIA had been before OR, I’m sure the opposite would have happened.
 
Anyway, I think that merger makes sense though I can imagine that reaching an agreement between a for profit and a non-profit organization will require some creative structuring.
 
OR’s on snow is January 28th and 29th next year. Their show is January 30th through February 2nd. For those who have to be at both, that’s tougher than this year unless through some miracle there’s a merger that’s effective for next year’s shows.
 
Speaking of scheduling, I hope and assume that SIA does everything it can to keep Vegas from overlapping with ISPO and ASR. In fact, ISPO is February 1-4 next year, so that’s an improvement from this year for people who want to attend Vegas and ISPO. ASR, on the other hand, is January 23rd through the 25th, offering a two day overlap with SIA compared to one this year. I’d guess that most suppliers who go to SIA don’t exhibit at ASR as well. But there are a lot of retailers who would want to go to both. They have a problem
In Vegas, I saw bigger booths. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d see that this year. In this industry, at this stage of its development, are there still companies that think that booth size correlates with sales? Maybe, and I’m only half kidding, SIA should limit booth size. Of course, that would cut into their revenue and be in the interest of the smaller companies…… Personally, I think snowboarding could stand to see success by new, fresh, smaller companies, though a viable financial model is a hard thing to achieve.
 
I just got a phone call from somebody I respect who said he thought Action Sports Retailer would start approaching the snowboard companies. In the far distant past, they all went to ASR anyway. The timing’s more or less the same as Vegas, it’s just three days, most of the retailers will be there as they also tend to do either skate or surf, and in terms of the lifestyle and demographic, snowboarding belongs with skate and surf more than with ski. Interesting idea.
 
At the end of the day, the interest of trade show producers, on the one hand, and suppliers and retailers, on the other, aren’t necessarily the same. Perhaps SIA is an exception, at least in part. Change will happen because enough attendees, at whatever show, make it clear they won’t show up if things don’t change.
 
Wouldn’t it have great if five major companies at SIA had put big tarps on their booths at the end of three days with signs that said, “We’re Done. We’re Gone.”