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Through the Grapevine: Memories of Interbike

Published October 13, 2019

Anyone who knows me can testify — without fear of contradiction — that I’m a cultural wasteland when it comes to music. And it’s mostly true. Still, the other day I heard a recording of Joni Mitchell singing “The Circle Game,” a song she wrote for an album in 1970. Her lyrics caught my nonmusical ear and piqued my curiosity. So I went to Dr. Google to find them:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game 

– Joni Mitchell

This was done as I was pondering late September — summer’s end and a new season soon to begin. That carousel of time. A sniff of the air — cool and crisp —  hinted fall. Leaves were losing their luster; the sunflowers were drooping, and the grass had begun its seasonal change to deep brown. This moment of interest, prompted in part by Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, brought back a surge of memories of Interbike. Frankly, I miss it.

It was about that time each year that our industry would begin its annual fall turn toward Las Vegas — our ritual gathering of the tribe. In offices near and far, the pace would quicken; excitement would build, dealers, distributors and suppliers — big and small — would look to a new year, new opportunities, new friends and, with luck, new sales as the new season beckoned.

The city’s bright lights, the clang of slots and, yes, a hint of sin would spark anticipation and excitement in equal measure. Dealers would make their way to that dusty bowl of rock at Outdoor Demo. And from there on to the convention floor. We had come to kick tires, tell stories and swap lies in those cavernous halls of the Sands and later Mandalay Bay.

Those days are gone. And while I am not prone to fits of nostalgia, I do regret the demise of our trade show. I miss that sense of urgency to be ready for opening day; hundreds of dealers gathering at 9 a.m. eager to swarm the bright halls packed with gleaming samples of the industry’s best hopes for consumers. But, most of all, I miss seeing the many friends I had met over time.

Ironically, it’s now dawning on most companies as well as dozens of dealers that Interbike’s withering away has been a colossal mistake. It pops up often in conversations I've  had of late. Sad.

We all know that the hollowing out of Interbike began when Trek, Specialized and others fled to launch events for select dealers, a defensible decision strictly from a business perspective. 

But it’s been my long-held conviction that it was a selfish act to turn their collective backs on the industry and siphon dealer attendance away from the only event that offered a collective experience for so many to enjoy. Perhaps there could have been a better way. But instead the majors Balkanized dealers into singular tribes defined by brand, which is where we find ourselves today.

Interbike’s dismal death last year in Reno was a relief. There's no question that Interbike’s owner, Emerald Expositions, failed to sense changes in the marketplace; it maintained a structure and pricing that too many  struggled to afford. And it failed to ignite that sense of excitement so necessary for success. Staff tried mightily; Emerald management failed completely. They failed to listen.

Emerald’s last effort to entice the industry to an add-on event at Outdoor Retailer in Denver this November was a flub of softheaded thinking. An embarrassment. Emerald’s senior management at the time had space to fill in Denver. Offer it to the bicycle industry, they said. Those senior managers have gotten the boot and, mercifully, new management canceled the November show in its entirety.

We can’t return to times past. But we can consider what others are doing. We can readily see how Eurobike has shifted to embrace the new world of cycling — e-mobility — and all the potential that it has for a new era of two-wheeled transportation. 

Last year Eurobike flirted with new dates and new programs. Bold moves to be sure. But after a raft of complaints from disgruntled attendees, management quickly decided radical change was unnecessary and returned to its early fall dates. Eurobike had done what Interbike failed to do — listen and act quickly.

Eurobike clearly glimpsed the industry’s future and aggressively embraced e-mobility, injecting new life into an event that once again ranks as the world’s best. More than 1,400 exhibitors. International guests from 99 countries. And thousands of visitors trekked to Friedrichafen over four days to celebrate cycling and its future. 

U.S companies and some key European brands — we don’t need to mention names — stayed away to continue hosting their own insular dealer meetings. But these decision-makers may have missed the bigger play. More than a few people have mentioned to me that ignoring Eurobike to pursue their narrow interests may be a long-term mistake. 

In the eyes of some, dissing Eurobike has marginalized them in the eyes of the broader market. And, worse, no one seemed to miss them. Or care. Slice and dice that anyway you wish, but when no one cares, well, that’s a problem. (As an aside, those companies sent dozens of employees to roam the halls, shake hands, chat up contacts and, in general, sniff around. Shame.)

Eurobike, to its credit, offered a home to dozens of new companies; they hope to gain a toehold in a new market, in a new era. Somewhere in Friedrichshafen’s halls, the Treks and Specializeds of the future are testing the market. Eurobike gave them a chance to breathe. That’s what a great trade show does.

I still have some hopes that a risk-taking entrepreneur will attempt a trade show comeback in North America. Sea Otter, it seems, is now a de facto trade show of sorts but with limited appeal. It’s a grand event, to be sure, but it’s not what an industry show should be. Or needs. 

For now, we seem stuck with a welter of small regional shows of various sorts — not that these events are bad — but their focus is narrow and they fail to unite wide segments of the industry. A bigger issue, and suppliers are starting to discuss it, is time and money. Too many shows; too much travel; limited dealer exposure; tough on staff and the cost to attend several events puts them in Interbike territory cost-wise. So we shall see.

Editor's note: A version of this article appeared in the October issue of BRAIN. CABDA show director Jim Kersten has asked to respond to some of the points raised in a op-ed piece that will be published in the November issue and online.

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