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iHobby 2013: Back to the future

iHobby Expo’s return to Illinois left show organizers with plenty of ideas, and input, for improvements to next year’s show
By Nick Bullock
Published: November 12, 2013
A hobby dealer tests a new airbrush from Grex Power Tools Oct. 4 at the 2013 iHobby Expo in Schaumburg, Ill.
Photo by Nick Bullock
Within a week of the 2013 iHobby Expo, held Oct. 3–6 at the Schaumburg Convention Center in Schaumburg, Ill., attending exhibitors received a categorized self-assessment of the trade show from the staff of Hobby Show Promotions.

There were nine categories in the assessment letter: venue, hotel, decorator services and operations, exhibitors, trade attendance, consumer attendance, seminars, attractions and communications. Of those nine categories, Hobby Show Promotions gave itself five average or poor grades.

If providing a better value was iHobby Vice Chairman Dave Swanson’s focus heading into the 2013 trade show, then, judging by the self-assessment, straight talk is his new focus coming out of the show.

“We’re not trying to PR spin or sugarcoat everything,” he said.

To be sure, not all of the numbers pulled from the show needed sugarcoating. Total consumer attendance for the show, according to Hobby Show Promotions, was 20,124, up nearly 50 percent from the roughly 14,000 in attendance at the 2012 iHobby Expo in Cleveland. It was the second largest consumer turnout in the show’s 29-year history. Trade attendance saw a 2 percent increase from 1,321 in 2012 to 1,351 in 2013.

Other numbers, however, tell a different tale. iHobby preregistered 1,530 people. Combined with on-site registration, Swanson said he and his staff expected to see close to 2,000 trade attendees — far from the 1,351 who showed. Additionally, although iHobby officially sold out, numerous booths were left empty by exhibitors. And the absence of a couple of the industry’s largest manufacturers was also felt, Swanson said.

These numbers support what many industry dealers and manufacturers told Model Retailer during and after the show: iHobby Expo is still struggling to return to its heyday of five or 10 years ago.

“I don’t know about the health of this show,” said Dave Kennedy, North American marketing manager for Carrera of America Inc.

And Hobby Show Promotions confirmed suspicions that if the 2014 iHobby Expo doesn’t improve in some key areas, changes will follow.

The return to Illinois
For most iHobby attendees — both dealers and manufacturers — the move from Cleveland back to the Chicago area was a step in the right direction.

Jeremy Truxillo owns Big Boys Toys & Hobbies in Lafayette, La., with his wife, Melissa, vice president of the National Retail Hobby Stores Association. Jeremy said the 2012 iHobby Expo in Cleveland offered more in the way of new products than this year’s show — not a good sign considering last year’s show was unusually light, he said.
But the city of Schaumburg provided a much better experience for attendees, Jeremy said, even compared to Rosemont, Ill., the show’s home for many years before it moved to Cleveland.

Swanson said there were generally two reactions to the new location: People liked the area, and people were surprised by the area. Reactions to the hotel and convention center were similarly positive, he said.

“Folks liked the fact that, for all intents and purposes, it’s a relatively new facility. And when you contrast that to a World War II manufacturing plant that’s been converted, that difference is very obvious,” said Swanson, referring to the I-X Center in Cleveland.

The facility’s free drayage was a hit with exhibitors, while the free parking made dealers and consumers happy, he said.

Hobby Show Promotions doesn’t keep figures on how much an average manufacturer saved by exhibiting at the Schaumburg Convention Center compared to previous locations, but Swanson said there were exhibitors who saved between $5,000 and $10,000 just on drayage.

One area where attendees felt the Schaumburg Convention Center fell short was concessions, Swanson said. Unfortunately, he said, that’s an area over which Hobby Show Promotions has little control.

But numerous attendees who spoke with Model Retailer praised both the volume and quality of off-site eateries, especially compared to those available at the Cleveland show.

The show’s new location and venue, however, wasn’t the only focus.

“I like Schaumburg,” Jeremy said. “There’s a lot to do within a short drive of the convention center, and the convention center and stuff was nice. And the city was nice, and we would go back to Schaumburg.

“But the show needs more vendors.”

Growing pains
Some say the best way to attract more exhibitors is to attract more dealers. Others say the dealers will come when the vendors are there. It’s a debate waged seemingly every year.

Melissa Truxillo of Big Boys Toys said iHobby Expo is a Hobby Manufacturers Association event, therefore it’s the HMA’s and the manufacturers’ responsibility to pull in the dealers. “If they want to have a good show, I think they should be promoting to all of their dealers that they’re going to be attending the show, telling their dealers that they’re going to have show specials, and that the show specials are only going to be at the show,” she said. But Truxillo didn’t place the entire burden on the manufacturers. In order for the show to find success, she said, dealers must care enough about the industry to attend.

Part of the problem, Truxillo said, is that many dealers don’t know the benefits of attending iHobby. “I think they think that going to a show is just about seeing product — which, yes, it is about seeing product,” she said. “But it’s also about building relationships with other dealers and with your manufacturers and distributors.”

Several manufacturers interviewed by Model Retailer said they value that relationship as well.

Jim Broberg, president of Du-Bro Products Inc., said he talks with dealers at the show to try and gauge how the hobby industry is faring.

Like Broberg, Carrera’s Kennedy said the trade days are more important to his company than the consumer days. Neither Du-Bro nor Carrera sells direct to the consumer. Both are there to talk with dealers.

One thing on which attending dealers and manufacturers both agree is that the show is hurting without attendance from some of the industry’s largest manufacturers.

“I think some of the bigger manufacturers have forgotten where their bread and butter’s from. ... I hear dealers complaining that these big companies aren’t there and they want to see them,” Broberg said.

Reeling in the big fish
iHobby’s self-assessment letter read: “While we did sell out the show, we are still troubled by the fact that certain large companies are not participating. We believe that not participating in the only HMA-sponsored trade show sends a clear message about not wanting to support the industry or the distribution channel.”

In an interview, Swanson identified those companies as Traxxas and Hobbico. He said he reached out to both many times leading up to the 2013 iHobby Expo.

“Traxxas’ issue in being there was not so much that they didn’t want to be at the show,” he said. “It’s that they had other commitments with their race series. So they just didn’t have resources they felt they could free up. And, you know, I’m somewhat sympathetic to that.”

Traxxas did not respond to requests for comment.

Hobbico did not attend the 2012 iHobby Expo either.

“Certainly with Hobbico, I think we’d done everything we could to try and ad-dress the issues they told us about,” Swanson said.

According to Swanson, iHobby offered to reimburse Hobbico for its expenses, including staffing, if Hobbico was unsatisfied with the show. Hobbico turned these offers down, Swanson said.

“My conclusion is, right, wrong or indifferent, there’s probably nothing we could have done to incent [Hobbico] to come to the show,” he said.

Hobbico declined to comment for this article.

Hobby Show Promotions didn’t take over planning of the 2013 iHobby Expo until early January 2013, and the location change wasn’t announced until later that month. Swanson said that with a full year to plan the show and with the same location already set, he hopes Hobby Show Promotions can convince these large manufacturers to attend the 2014 show.

Trade vs. consumer
Another challenge for iHobby Expo is balancing the desires of varied groups of manufacturers and dealers.

Some manufacturers sell direct to consumers while at the show. Others, like Carrera and Du-Bro, do not, which, for those manufacturers, reduces the importance of the show’s final two days.

Hobby Show Promotions’ technical objective for the 2014 iHobby Expo is to increase trade attendance, Swanson said. “That’s our No. 1 focus, no doubt about it,” he said. “With that said, we don’t know what amount we can increase trade attendance.”

Should trade attendance once again fall short of Hobby Show Promotions' expectations at the 2014 show, iHobby will be forced to either reduce the number of trade days or reduce the hours of the trade days, Swanson said.

Numerous exhibitors and dealers interviewed by Model Retailer said that if trade attendance stays the same, they’d welcome fewer trade days.

“Half the time we’re twiddling our thumbs,” Broberg said.

Despite lackluster trade attendance, a reduction to the number of trade days won’t take place until the 2015 show at the earliest, Swanson said.

“We want to make sure that before we reduce [the trade days], we’ve done everything possible to generate trade attendance,” he said. “We want to give it a full year’s effort.”

Both Broberg and Kennedy said the show’s second trade day was far slower than the first. The numbers support this observation: Sixty percent of trade attendees claimed their name badges on Thursday, Oct. 3; only 13 percent did so on Friday, Oct. 4, yet 17 percent picked up their badges on Saturday, Oct. 5, and 10 percent on Sunday, Oct. 6, according to iHobby.

Hobby Show Promotions was surprised by the number of trade attendees who arrived to the show during the consumer portion, Swanson said. Yet, at the moment, he and his staff have little idea why.

“Obviously,” he said, “that’s an area we’re going to research.”

2014 and beyond
Hobby Show Promotions has already decided on a number of changes for next year’s iHobby Expo.

Perhaps most notably, the 2014 show will start on a Wednesday and end on a Saturday. Yom Kippur begins on Friday, Oct. 3, in 2014 and ends on Saturday, Oct. 5. By moving the show up a day, trade attendees may attend while still observing the holiday. Hobby Show Promotions has also found studies of similar shows that suggest consumer attendance on a Friday would be better than consumer attendance has been on Sundays.

The 2014 iHobby Expo will also be sold differently to exhibitors than in the past, Swanson said. Exhibitors will have the choice of signing up to exhibit for just the trade days, just the consumer days or all four days. “I don’t want to say we’re dividing it into two shows,” he said, “but we’re certainly selling it now as two different shows for people who want those options.” The previous rules surrounding exhibitor attendance for the trade versus consumer portions of the iHobby Expo were “fuzzy,” Swanson said.

Swanson hopes this change will better accommodate manufacturers who benefit much more from one portion of the show than the other.

“The only thing we don’t want them to do,” he said, “is sign up for neither.”

But Swanson said he believes the consumer portion of iHobby is as valuable if not more valuable than the trade portion.

“Driving consumer awareness is critical to future success,” he said. “Even though the auto manufacturers all have dealerships in every city, they still all do auto shows to create excitement about their brand and to build brand awareness.”

Some attendees will be happy to hear iHobby also plans to use a different decorator next year. Hobby Show Promotions used the Schaumburg Convention Center’s recommended decorator for the 2013 iHobby Expo, but said in its self-assessment that the choice was “clearly a mistake.”

Issues Hobby Show Promotions had with the decorator ranged from the decorator’s quality of work to its small staff to its inability to respond to last-minute requests, Swanson said.

Despite organizing numerous shows at the Schaumburg Convention Center, Hobby Show Promotions had never before used the center’s preferred decorator. It decided to do so for the 2013 iHobby Expo because it thought there might be advantages to working with the center’s preferred decorator, Swanson said.

Using an outside decorator for the 2014 iHobby Expo will also cost less, he said.

The show’s seminars will also be handled differently next year, Swanson said.

“We didn’t do the right job of getting the seminars locked in early enough and then getting the information out and then really giving them the hype they deserved,” he said. “We had some excellent quality seminars there that I think we could have gotten more people to. And maybe that would have driven some more trade attendance if we had done a better job of promoting them.”

Finally, Swanson said Hobby Show Promotions should have done a better job communicating with attendees both at the show and leading up to the show.

Better communication would have made Hobby Show Promotions aware that so many preregistered dealers and exhibitors wouldn’t attend, he said. Given that it was Hobby Show Promotions’ first time running iHobby Expo, Swanson said he and his staff should have talked more with exhibitors and dealers during the show.

Du-Bro’s Broberg, however, said he was pleased to see a member of the Hobby Show Promotions staff walking around asking exhibitors if they planned to attend in 2014. He said he hadn’t seen anyone do that in at least three years.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m glad you came around, because by you coming around and at least asking the question gives me some encouragement that we could talk about some things and how to make things better.’ And we did,” Broberg said. “I said, ‘Put me as a strong maybe, and I want to see what you guys do.’ ”