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Opinion: Interbike died an unnecessary death

Published December 7, 2018

Editor's note: Marc Sani is the interim publisher of BRAIN.

Interbike died Wednesday at the age of 36. It was a death with little grace. It was painful. Quick. The numbers left few choices. Business is business. Nonetheless, it's personal for those who lost their jobs and for those who, for years, met at Interbike. Long lasting friendships were made there. I know. Let's remember that, and let's think about that for a moment.

Among the dozen or so with whom I have talked, it came as a shock. Interbike — for whatever faults anyone may want to attribute to it — had stood as an institution in the marketplace. A certainty in uncertain times. Its founder, Steve Ready, if he were alive today, would only shake his head in sadness at the disarray that has befallen the industry.

And so, let the post mortem begin. Here's my take; feel free to share yours.

What's next? Yes, Emerald Expo says they want to regroup. Seek a location that offers lower costs, a new format near a transportation hub with a relaunch in 2020. It's possible. But I have my doubts. Emerald is big enough as a company to finance a relaunch. But is investing in an industry with zero leadership and vision, with no single entity offering a path forward in fast-changing times, with no clear goals worth it? I doubt it.

I will always say, and I have written as much in the past, that Trek and later Specialized are the key culprits in a trend that eventually has led to Interbike's death. Their decision to forgo Interbike, to go it alone and take their beholden dealers with them, was the beginning of Interbike's slow death march. More than a few people share that analysis with me.

Their reasoning, of course, was simple: We have to do what is best for our dealers and our bottom line. Sounds good. Sounds reasonable. But in a small industry — and the bicycle industry in the U.S. is indeed small — where several large companies hold sway over the fortunes of so many, their behavior was and is appalling. And that behavior continues as they force-feed dealers with ever more branded product, diluting the diversity essential to a healthy industry.

And there are countless dealers who should be alarmed by Interbike's passing. But I doubt many are. They, too, apparently have forgotten, it seems, that Interbike in so many ways was their best friend in the marketplace — not Trek or Specialized or Giant or ... and add your own names to the list.

Where else could dealers and staff go and attend dozens of technical seminars hosted in one location; attend seminars on management, finance and other topics. Or enjoy a veritable free-for-all testing bikes on a pile of rocks. It's easy to quibble with the quality of these programs, but Interbike offered them to all comers. Who is going to do that now?

How many times did Interbike attempt to bring dealers together at conferences, to improve their position in a competitive market, only to have so many snub their efforts. Let's be honest — Trek and Specialized make every effort to improve their captured dealer base and they do a good job. But what about the rest of you? Interbike made an effort, but apparently it wasn't good enough. And worse, no one, it seems challenged them to do better. And the dealer base continues to shrivel.

And today the industry is without a single organization, including the NBDA, with the financial muscle to bring dealers together, under one roof, to better position themselves in today's topsy-turvy marketplace.

Interbike has already notified PeopleForBikes, the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, the National Bicycle Dealers Association and other partners that there will be no financial support next year. That's hundreds of thousands of dollars out of PFB's budget, some $60,000 out of the BPSA's, and a minimum of $25,000 for the NBDA. Tell me how that shortfall is to be made up?

And what about the dozens of nonprofits who benefited from free space, who used the show to bolster their image and role in support of cycling? Who's going to help them? Interbike, its staff and its past show directors, whom I know personally, all hoped to make a difference for dealers and the industry. Yet still make a profit for the Mother Ship. Who's going to advocate for those left behind, especially dealers nonaligned with the power players? And those small to midsize companies with limited resources who banked on Interbike year in and year out? What about them?

I don't want to let Interbike off the hook. Let us not underestimate the escalating cost of exhibiting at Interbike. For too many companies, it became a near unbearable financial burden in a consolidating market. The show had become too complex; too many side shows, industry breakfasts and industry dinners as well as its ill-advised attempts at enticing consumers to what should have been the industry's crown jewel of a trade fair. Interbike staff was selling too many add-ons. It all left a bad taste for some. Too much of a focus on costly nonessentials. The bottom line.

Interbike failed to heed the distress caused by too-early product introductions that left dealers floundering, explaining to eager consumers why they couldn't sell them that latest upgrade. September had been a go-to month too long; Interbike failed to adapt, and dealers voted with their feet.

Interbike would have done better tackling that noisome issue several years ago. It would have been costly in the short term — major shifts in trade show dates is no job for the faint hearted — but Interbike, perhaps, would still be with us today rather than in the morgue of trade shows past if they heeded dealers who found mid-September out of sync with the market.

And, in retrospect, Reno, as a city, was a poor choice. But Interbike's choices were few. Exhibitors and dealers — in their oftentimes whiny denunciation of Las Vegas — demanded a move yet failed to give Interbike meaningful guidance and their full-fledged support. The whining, backbiting and criticism, combined with Interbike's fateful decision to move to Reno has truly been dispiriting.

The industry needs a strong, national show. I believe that. Steve Ready believed that, and I stand with Steve on that belief. The industry is not made up of brands, as Ready well knew. It's made up of people. And a trade show, well executed, brings people together. Interbike, for all its faults — perceived or real — attempted to do that: bring people together.

Topics associated with this article: Interbike

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