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Commentary: Interbike is us — If it wasn’t good, we’re not good

It’s not too difficult to come up with a word to describe the 2017 Interbike trade show, the last bike gathering to be held in Las Vegas. Diminutive. Lilliputian. Small. For old time’s sake, I bumped into a few people. It was awkward because we were the only ones in the hallway (apologies).

Interbike’s smaller size might confirm our fears about the bike industry. After all, we’ve seen the stats — The National Bicycle Dealers Association’s (NBDA) 2015 Industry Overview reported a decline in the number of bicycle shops in the U.S., a trend that has continued since. Is the industry dying? Should we be worried about the future of our beloved industry?

I don’t think so. That same NBDA report notes that participation in cycling was slightly up. Overall sales have been stable. It goes on to note that cycling’s outlook is “positive.” So why the contraction of the trade show? Interbike’s size and scope are simply a reflection of us, the bike industry, and our desire to participate in an annual gathering. If we choose to embrace a trade show to showcase our brands, Interbike will thrive. If not, it will die.

And while it’s understandable why many bike brands have abandoned the show, there is value in an annual industry-wide meetup. With Interbike set to leave Vegas for Reno next year, now is the time for the industry to decide what, exactly, it needs in a big show.

Some of Interbike’s problems are obvious. Vegas is expensive. With so many brands launching products, it’s tough to cut through the clutter. It falls at a strange time in the product cycle. So, few brands plunked down the coin to attend the show, and even fewer went to Outdoor Demo. Yet to call Interbike 2017 a failure would be to diminish what it really was: A moment to hit the brakes, see the people we love in this industry, and ask ourselves why we showed up at all.

No doubt there’s a need for an industry pow-wow in which media, vendors, shop owners, and fans get together to celebrate what’s great about us. When you distill Interbike to its most basic elements, the only missing component was dollar signs. For years, Interbike was the week when dealers placed preseason orders and media saw what’s new and cool for the year. Shops don’t operate like that these days. With the rise of social media, brands can now launch products on their own timeline. Many major bike manufacturers now prefer to launch product via their own press camps. And why not, considering Las Vegas’s expensive booths, hotel rooms, plane tickets, and food?

On the show floor, there was much head-scratching and hand-wringing. But there was also a sigh of relief: The contraction meant more of what we all came to love about this gathering in the first place: face-time and beverages with each other; a sneak peek at the new and cool; media, vendors, athletes, and shop owners all mingling, trading ideas, and discussing solutions to the contraction that affects us all. The show floor can and should be a breeding ground for ideas and partnerships, but that’s on us. It’s unfair to place the blame squarely on Interbike. If we fail, we fail together.

There’s value in getting together with a renewed focus. This is an opportunity for the industry to become proactive, to address cycling’s biggest roadblocks to growth: infrastructure and cycling safety. It’s also an opportunity for bike shop owners to come together to develop a strategy for survival and best practices. Interbike holds conference seminars that address e-commerce and advocacy. That’s a good start, but most lectures focus on granular topics like bike fit and store design.

Perhaps instead of fixating on near-term business goals or product updates, we should focus on how to improve infrastructure in the United States so new cyclists (perhaps some on those e-bikes) actually have a safe place to ride. Advocacy events like the National Bike Summit have been doing this for years. Interbike, however, is an opportunity to bring more of the bike business community together to tackle these challenges.

Attendees largely called the smaller Interbike a success. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the individual attention those vendors were able to give to media, bike shops, and other show attendees. Pivot Cycles, in particular, seemed to come out on top: It had the longest lines at Outdoor Demo and the booth in the show hall was packed from start to finish.

That’s great for Pivot, and it might be a selling point for Interbike moving forward. Or, it could have a different impact entirely. The next step in a bike brand’s evolution seems to be a personalized event on home turf, much like Trek’s yearly event in Waterloo. It’s an enticing proposition that could save vendors some much-needed cash, and it affords them a truly captive audience. The model seems to have worked out well for Trek and other large companies who hold events with the focus squarely on its own brand. Those vendors who won big at Interbike this year will probably head back to meeting rooms and discuss if there are any other benefits to showing up at Interbike besides a little bit of extra attention.

Admittedly, my take on Interbike is tinged with nostalgia. I first came to Vegas and stepped onto the Interbike floor in 2005 as a wrench for a small Arizona bike shop. My week consisted of a lot of free schwag, invites to special events like movie premieres and private limos to punk clubs, a lot of free booze, and face time with all the top industry celebs, from Floyd Landis to Geoff Kabush, Lennard Zinn to April Lawyer. In other words, it was fun. For a young shop rat like me, it was a crazy escape from the travails of an unforgiving real world. If it isn’t that anymore, that’s only because we’re not willing to let it be.

Interbike has always been a mirror image of ourselves as a community. If the big guys make moves based solely on dollars and cents rather than the greater good, we fail. If bike shops make moves based solely on history and what’s been done before, we fail. Like a team time trial, we’re only as good as our slowest guy. Let’s help each other out.

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