The end of last week, my coworker, Tom Roderick, spent a few days inside the motorcycle industry candy store, and I was a little envious. Although sending Tom was a wise choice by EiC Duke – Tom’s got a much better camera presence than I do – I wished I were the one winging across the continent to Orlando and the 2015 AIMExpo. This is where the dealers go to learn of new motorcycle-related products and possibly order some for next year. Think about it: Over 600 vendors in one place – all catering to the motorcycle industry – and all with something new to show off. Then toss in the dealers from around the country looking for products to sell their customers back home. On the final days, the fortunate local public has, in recent years, gotten to join in on the fun, but despite this development, these shows are firmly directed at the moto-industry as a whole.
Working a convention of this size has always been tough. You see a lot of running shoes on people’s feet. Tons of handshakes, small talk and new product releases are exchanged. Back in the analog days, only after returning from the show would we begin the hard work of writing about new products and analyzing the show for what it points to as far as trends (be they good or bad) within the motorcycle industry. Today, it takes an entire team to stay on top of things. Dick Clark’s AIMExpo Rockin’ Show editor Roderick handled the scheduled meetings with vendors, while our video guy Chris Blanchette shot the products followed by Tom’s standup. All the while Tom’s gotta keep us posted back at our home offices so that we can write up announcements of what he’s dug up along with the press releases flowing out of Orlando. Then, if any time remains, new companies with new products need to be scoped out.
Just months into my new gig as a motojournalist 19 years ago, my boss insisted that I accompany him to the Cincinnati Dealer Expo as a means of introducing me to the players in the motorcycle industry. My then employer, Petersen Publishing, had a two-story booth where attendees were given free copies of the current issues of the Motorcycle Group’s magazines. (Remember magazines?) Upstairs, a conference room with refreshments was reserved for the ad guys to put the screws to potential advertisers. At least once every year, at times when the indoctrination center wasn’t in use, I stood up there and marveled at the great swath of motorcycling companies just in the main hall. It was a truly humbling experience to see that much energy, excitement, and, yes, money behind the motorcycling niche.
However, the real story of industry trade shows, like the AIMExpo and the formerly strong Dealer Expo, isn’t in the main show floor with the major players. On my first year at the Dealer Expo, I was instructed to cover the main hall as quickly as possible. After that, I was told to spend the rest of the show working my way back to the main floor from the far reaches of the small rooms with the little overflow vendors. The theory behind this was that the small rooms were where motorcyclists with a good idea and a dream would open their booths to try to capture some orders from the dealership parts people or, even better, one of the national distributors. In these rooms, even during the poor sales years for new motorcycles, it was possible to gain a good idea of the overall health of the motorcycle industry. The number of people and smaller aftermarket companies that were willing to put their hard-earned money on the line to exhibit their wares pointed to the overall health of the industry – sometimes contradicting the impression from the new bike sales.
Every year after my first, I used the technique of working my way in from the fringes to the center because, frankly, it was fun. Yes, one of the things I love about the motorcycle industry is how devoted the people in it are, but these riders who were trying to break in with their new product were always incredibly excited and passionate about what they were doing. Remember, most of these people had a different job that they were taking time off from to attend the trade show. So, they were taking a risk just by being there. I’ve seen a number of companies blossom from these humble beginnings.
There’s an important place for these industry trade shows, but at the same time, we don’t want too much of a good thing. If too many are held, the effect gets diluted for all of those concerned. The nascent businesses need to choose which event to attend – or take the risk of spreading themselves too thin financially by attending too many. The dealers the vendors need to meet are faced with the same situation. The recent, though not yet publicly acknowledged, demise of the Dealer Expo, which was always oddly held in the winter in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Chicago over the years, and the ascendance of the AIMExpo may be a good thing. The AIMExpo takes place in a warmer climate where there is the option of demo-ing some of the products outdoors, and the timing appears, at least from my perspective, to be better placed for the upcoming motorcycle model year and the consumer holiday buying season.
Although it’s been a few years since I’ve been lucky enough to attend an industry trade show, I still get excited when show season starts coming around. Even if I’m not there, I get to look at all the news about the new, cool stuff that’ll be available to us as motorcyclists in the near future. I get to watch the videos of my coworkers who are actually at the event. Just like the hours I spent thumbing through the Sears catalog when it arrived on my doorstep every fall during my childhood, the news sparks my imagination for what the next year holds in store.
And I’m sure it’s gonna be the best year yet.