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Sea Otter to open in October with strong industry support

Published May 17, 2021

MONTEREY, Calif. (BRAIN) — Frank Yohannan paused while at lunch to consider how the pandemic had upended his plans for Sea Otter when the nation locked down in March 2020 — only a month before the April 16 event.

"Sea Otter 2020 was only a month away before the lockdown, and it was on track to be even better than 2019," Yohannan recalled recently while at the Old Fisherman's Grotto on Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf.

"Most of our sales were locked up; we had a good idea of overall athlete registrations; exhibitors were happy; and we were looking at — probably — 10% overall growth. It was looking really, really good," he said.

And, looking back at the 2019 Classic, Yohannan said he had every right to be optimistic about 2020.

Some 74,000 people attended Laguna Seca Raceway over four days under warm, blue skies. Consumers were testing demos, Little Bella rides were weaving through the crowds, and exhibitors were handing out swag, brochures, and chatting up consumers. It was a near perfect launch for the spring and summer season.

"Certainly 2019 was the highwater mark for Sea Otter. Up to that point, it was the best year ever," Yohannan said.

But as the pandemic swept through the nation, Yohannan dropped the April 2020 dates and booked Sea Otter for October. He also launched Sea Otter Play in September, a virtual event to keep interest up and to help maintain Sea Otter's position in the market.

Yet the pandemic again forced him to cancel the October dates, rescheduling for April 2021, its traditional time slot. Those dates, too, were canceled.

It's now mid-May. Yohannan and his staff are moving quickly to open Sea Otter on Oct. 7-10. And barring the unforeseen, Yohannan said October is a go. Mask mandates have eased, more Americans are getting vaccinated, and events are popping up on the calendar.

Several shows are scheduled before Sea Otter. Two will open in August — The Big Gear Show, Aug. 3-5, in Park City, Utah, a curated invite-only event. Outdoor Retailer Summer Market is set for Aug. 10-12 in Denver. Eurobike is scheduled for Sept. 1-4. And CABDA Midwest will be in the Chicago area on Sept. 15-16. CABDA West, in the LA area, is Oct. 12-13, soon after Sea Otter.

Still, Yohannan, when asked whether current show schedules would hold, pauses, shrugs his shoulders and says, "Who knows?" Nonetheless, Sarah Timleck, Sea Otter's expo sales manager, said interest in Sea Otter is high. Current sales are on track to touch 2019 numbers when some 500-plus brands filled the expo area.

To date, 75% of exhibitor space, about 175,000 square feet, has been sold to 350-plus companies. Those exhibitors, like Diamondback with its multiple brands, account for more than 500 brand names. And the roster of bicycle suppliers is robust, despite concerns over demo bike availability.

Specialized is a major sponsor, discussions are underway with Trek and Dorel. Bianchi, BMC, Canyon, Scott, Marin, Santa Cruz, Rocky Mountain, Norco, Pinarello, and upward of a dozen e-bike companies, some new like Blue Jay Electric, have signed on.

"Overall, compared to a month ago, it seems as if the tide has turned," Timleck said. "The big issue is still supply-chain disruptions, but some companies say they plan to launch new products."

The Italian Trade Commission is planning a major presence hosting several dozen Italian brands, she added.

Yohannan and Timleck said the October show also could have a strong B2B component. "Some companies are requesting more space to hold meetings with vendors and the media, and maybe with more dealers," she said. "Some exhibitors told me they're concerned about travel to Eurobike because of Europe's COVID issues."

As for Sea Otter, visitors from Taiwan, Germany, China, and other nations are uncertain as yet whether they would attend, but if not, U.S.-based staff will handle on-site activities. "Exhibitors are saying they have to be there and explain to consumers why they don't have enough bikes or accessories right now," she said.

The decision to launch an October show and then follow up six months later on April 7-10, 2022, barely caused a ripple of concern among exhibitors, Timleck said. A 10-by-10 booth costs $2,300, about 9.5% higher than in 2019, and October exhibitors can maintain their same spot in the expo area, if they want, for the April show. "Exhibitors are just really anxious to get out in front of consumers," she said.

Yohannan put it this way. "The thinking behind the October show, from a business standpoint, was that we need to get back in the saddle. It will have been 2½ years since we held a show," said Yohannan, who kept his staff on payroll throughout the shutdown. "Exhibitors are anxious, too, to get back. It just made sense to support the industry, take advantage of consumer pent up demand, and at this point, we're not getting any push back with a six-month turnaround to April."

A key Sea Otter event has been the annual PeopleForBikes Bicycle Leadership Conference presented by Sea Otter,  held three days before the expo opens. There will be no conference this October, but Yohannan is planning a new executive-level conference for April. His agreement with PeopleForBikes, the BLC's owner, ended, and PFB, which has had two virtual BLCs during the pandemic, is planning a live edition with dates to be announced soon.

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