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Guest editorial: Ray Keener says industry is dinged, not busted

Published December 7, 2018

By Ray Keener

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Editor's note: Keener is the executive director of the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association. But when it comes to this column, he said he is writing as Ray Keener, Industry Citizen, and says the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the BPSA, its board or company members.

Wow, and we thought the ASE and Performance bankruptcy was a big deal. I thank BRAIN for allowing me a space to reflect on A Day That Will Live in Infamy. The Day Our Trade Show Died.

It was shocking but not surprising. Interbike's people were usually selling hard this time of year, sending out contracts, taking deposits, sketching out a floor plan. Not happening. The jig was up. And the shock comes when you assess what a huge blow this is to our industry.

I'm hearing three categories of reactions out there; I'd like to address them one at a time:

One. The show was mismanaged, should have been held somewhere else, if they had only listened to me, i.e., I Told You So. Sorry gang, this is just not the case. Lance Camisasca, Andy Tompkins, Pat Hus, Justin Gottlieb, they all made annual and positive changes to improve a show that was basically a ship with a hole in the hull.

Dashed against the craggy shoals of modern business reality. Drained of attendees and exhibitor dollars by the inexorable rise to dominance of a few key industry brands. Abandoned by marketing directors thinking, "Wow, Facebook is free!" Wounded by a new demographic of attendees who no longer value doing business face-to-face, sitting in seminars, or having a few beers with long-lost buddies. When you're 28, you don't need any of that. Or at least not enough to get you out of your store and on a plane.

Two. The show was no longer necessary or relevant to the industry, I haven't gone in ages, no big loss, i.e., Meh. I told my 25-year-old son last night that the show was canceled as soon as he walked in the door. He works for an Interbike exhibitor, had a great time and his company a productive show in Reno. His response: "Meh" and a shrug of the shoulders.

That's a reasonable response from individuals, especially those who haven't been going to the show since it started. For us veterans, it felt, as Brandee Lepak texted me yesterday, " ... like someone died."

There's a bunch of us who work in and on industry institutions. PeopleForBikes staff, me at BPSA, BRAIN, Interbike, NBDA, IMBA, Camber, you know the list. I call it "inside the bikeway." We are all significantly and negatively impacted by Interbike going away, because Emerald was quite generous with our organizations.

Emerald (until just recently when contracts were renegotiated) was putting more than $1 million into the industry nonprofits, for almost no benefit to the company. Exclusivity and loyalty to their show was an easy "You betcha!" for all of us because, until recently, there weren't any other shows of substance.

That's about 15 percent of Emerald's gross revenues from Interbike. Trek, probably the industry company that puts the most back, let's guess they're at around 1 percent. PeopleForBikes dues, which some companies are struggling to pay right now, 0.1 percent. BPSA significantly less than that.

So there's a lot of hand-wringing and mourning coming from Inside the Bikeway. You can see why none of us is saying, "Meh."

Three. It's Trek and Specialized's fault. This wasn't on my list until this morning, when I read my dear friend Marc Sani's column. Calling the Big Two "key culprits" engaging in "appalling behavior" — so off base in my opinion, Marc.

I'm sure there's an approving audience out there for this contention. I call it The Peanut Gallery. "Big is bad!" "They're forcing dealers to buy stuff!" And similar claptrap.

Tell you what: Ask Trek dealer No. 1,000 in sales, or a similarly midlevel Specialized retailer: "Would you rather have these brands in your store, or in your biggest competitor's store?" End of discussion. T & S are doing a great job of gathering and retaining the strongest retailers in each market (with a few exceptions, of course).

Trek does it by helping its retailers strengthen their businesses so they can sell more product. Specialized does it more by innovating on the product side, with the same result. Part of this strategy is to have their own dealer events and spend money on themselves rather than paying Emerald and Vegas/Reno hotels, restaurants and drayage purveyors.

Which is perfectly within their rights. How is this "appalling behavior" if the companies decide that it's in their best interests to behave this way? T & S have certainly not abdicated their responsibilities. Would we have the current iteration of PeopleForBikes, BY FAR the most effective bike industry organization EVER, without the tireless efforts of John Burke? No freakin' way. Specialized has been less about leadership but still a strong financial supporter.

OK, now comes the part where the Peanut Gallery questions my objectivity. Yes, I work for the suppliers. Yes, I bought my bike shop in 1975 from Dick Burke and worked for him during the BIO Years. And yes, I'm an industry bikeway insider. As Rick Vosper likes to say, I don't drink the Kool-Aid, I make it.

Here's the bottom line for me: Cycling is better positioned in our culture than ever. The industry is going to be fine in the long run. Decades of trench work by PeopleFor Bikes, getting government funds, helping local advocates turn them into bike facilities, is changing the face of our cities and suburbs for the better.

Demographics are a bit of a mixed bag, with millennials both flocking to the cities (good for bikes!) and riding around on scooters (bad for bikes). Certainly the trend away from fossil fuel use is a good thing for bikes. Hello, states: How about some higher gas taxes, by the way?

Our retailers are definitely being hurt and killed off by consumers "wanting what they want" and "wanting something different" than the baby boomers who constituted our core market for decades. And as you've read here, the demise of Interbike has wounded our Inside the Bikeway institutions at a time we can least afford it.

It's odd how a three-year single-digit decline in sales can erode the foundations of the retail and nonprofit communities. Are we really that fragile as an industry?

I say no. Our supply companies, while they're clearly not thriving, are riding out the storm and looking forward to better times. Other specialty-retail-based industries (cameras and stereo gear come to mind) have suffered faster and deeper declines and lived to tell the tale.

So yes, the demise of Interbike is a shock to our collective systems. And I've observed over the course of my life that humans only change significantly when in a state of panic and/or desperation. So change we will, and I truly believe we'll end up being a stronger industry in the long run. We're dinged, but not busted.

Topics associated with this article: Interbike

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