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Big changes in the works for iHobby

The industry's largest trade show is set to receive a major facelift
Published: November 12, 2014

Another year, another round of changes. The Hobby Manufacturers Association held its 30th annual iHobby Expo on Oct. 2-5 in Schaumburg, Ill. And, as was the case following the previous three shows, drastic adjustments are expected as show organizers attempt to goose attendance and profit.

Following the 2011 iHobby Expo, the HMA signed a contract to move the show from the Chicago area to Cleveland. After the 2012 show, the first in Cleveland, the HMA handed the show over to Hobby Show Promotions, which moved it back to Chicago. Then after the 2013 show, Hobby Show Promotions shifted around responsibilities and brought in Gale Cousins to serve as the show’s general manager.

This time, the changes may take iHobby into uncharted territory. After another year of lackluster exhibitor and trade attendance, the hobby industry’s largest trade show may not even call itself a trade show much longer.

Hobby Show Promotions announced via a press release at the show that it has new ownership. Previous owner Randy Bachmann has sold the company to longtime business partner Dave Swanson, who has been heavily involved in iHobby’s planning since Hobby Show Promotions took over in January 2013.

“I think the show needs a significant change in the business model,” said Bachmann, who also owns Train Show Inc., which operates The World’s Greatest Hob-by on Tour shows, among others.

Right now, ideas for this new business model include rotating iHobby’s location and moving the show to the first quarter of each year.

The most notable change, however, will be the show’s target audience. Whereas iHobby has traditionally been known as a trade show with a consumer show tacked on, the plan for iHobby 2.0, as Swanson has called it, is to create a consumer show with a trade component.

The show that was

Although the 2014 iHobby Expo attracted the largest consumer crowd in its history with 21,382 attendees, trade attendance dropped to 1,196 attendees, down from 1,351 in 2013. Trade attendance was 1,321 in 2012 and 1,694 in 2011.

Hobby dealers placed more than $500,000 in orders with 45 different exhibitors at the show, Swanson said. He didn’t yet know how that figure compared to previous years, but he suspects that orders are also down.

“I’m afraid dealers don’t see the value,” said Noel Bays, manager of HobbyForce in Ontario, Ohio, and vice president of the National Retail Hobby Stores Association.

As an active NRHSA member, Bays attends iHobby virtually every year. But he admitted it has become easy for dealers— especially owners of smaller stores—to skip iHobby and still function.

To Swanson, this is a sign of the times. It’s also one of the reasons he believes trade shows are losing their importance as a communication vehicle.

“There just are more alternatives (for manufacturers) now as to how to communicate with their dealer base than there were 20 years ago,” he says.

Combine that with the continued loss of hobby shops in the U.S. and Canada, and it’s easy to see why trade attendance is declining—especially among hobby shops on the coasts. And that’s an important distinction.

There were two statistics that stood out to Swanson when he ran the numbers following iHobby. First, approximately 70 percent of the hobby shops that preregistered for iHobby are located in Illinois or an adjoining state. Second, approximately 50 percent of attending consumers had been to the show before.

“We want to get new people to see the stuff, to see the manufacturers, to either enter the hobby or become more deeply involved in the hobbies,” Swanson said.

Which is why, yet again, change is coming.

A new focus

iHobby Expo belongs to the HMA. Hobby dealers have their own show, the NRHSA Table Top Expo, and NRHSA has managed to rally enough dealer support to place the Table Top Expo on even footing.

Manufacturer support for iHobby has been tougher to come by, and Swanson said Hobby Shop Promotions has to do a better job of incentivizing HMA members to exhibit.

“We’re very value-focused,” he said. “And I think the value piece we haven’t been able to deliver on very well are the number of hobby shops walking through the door for what a trade exhibitor pays. And since we have been unsuccessful in getting more trade to walk through the door, we have to adjust the other side of that value proposition and lower the exhibitors’ cost for participating in the show and compensate that with hopefully an even better consumer turnout.”

That’s the direction Swanson, as the new head of Hobby Show Promotions, plans to take iHobby 2.0. He doesn’t believe trade attendance would rebound even if iHobby were to stay the course and continue its focus on trade. But he does think an emphasis on bringing in more consumers, as well as new trade members from different markets, will revitalize the exhibitor base.

This wasn’t, of course, the plan when the HMA hired Hobby Show Promotions to operate iHobby, so Swanson provided the HMA board with an opportunity to opt out of the original five-year contract.

Hobby Show Promotions gave the HMA board until Oct. 15 to make its decision. At its Oct. 5 meeting, the HMA board voted in favor of honoring the original contract.

So long, Chicago

As part of the focus on the consumer, Hob-by Show Promotions is considering moving the show to sometime in the first quarter of each year, as well as rotating the show around the top 25 consumer markets.

The best time to stage a consumer show, according to Swanson, is from Halloween to Easter. This is partly because hobbyists don’t mind spending a day inside during the winter and partly because advertising rates drop off after the holidays, he said.

A date for the next iHobby Expo has yet to be nailed down. There’s a small possibility, Swanson said, that Hobby Show Promotions will plan the next iHobby for the fourth quarter of 2015. Most likely, however, there will be no iHobby in 2015 and the next show will take place in the first quarter of 2016.

As for the location, Swanson’s initial preference for iHobby 2.0 is somewhere in the Northeast, where he said there’s a high density of hobby shops.

Hobby Show Promotions has surveyed both dealers and manufacturers to gauge their feelings about moving the show’s location. Dealers who must fly to Chicago for the show are excited about the prospect of a roaming iHobby. Dealers that are a reasonable distance from Chicago are noncommittal. And dealers located in the Chicago area are predictably opposed to the show moving.

Bays, located in Ohio, agreed with that notion, especially if iHobby 2.0 is more of a consumer show. “I’ve never sat down to plan a trip to RCX (in California),” he said. “Yet that possibly is one of the better consumer shows available.”

For Swanson and his staff, the challenge will remain attracting the larger exhibitors.


Damron Aktins, Traxxas’ marketing brand manager, said part of the reason the R/C giant returned to iHobby after a one-year hiatus was that the company values the Chicago market. “We love the crowds in Chicago,” he said.

Hobby Show Promotions’ survey, however, found that manufacturers are largely willing to travel for the show no matter the location. He said the key will be convincing larger manufacturers that iHobby 2.0 will be as valuable as the other big consumer shows such as The World’s Greatest Hobby on Tour and RCX.

“And I think the other side to that is we stand a chance of getting other companies, who aren’t currently doing the show, who are based more locally,” Swanson said. “And as the show moves, we will get a geographic distribution of exhibitors that are centric to that area, who maybe haven’t done iHobby in a long time.”

Ultimately, Swanson says he knows he won’t please everyone.

But what no one is denying is that the show, in its current format, isn’t working.

“We all agree,” Bays said, “the first day and the first few hours, I really felt like we were the lazy, slow buzzard that showed up late to the kill. ... And you can see that, too, in the distributors and manufacturers.”

So the show will evolve once again, and this time, after 30 years, iHobby will give way to iHobby 2.0.  —Nick Bullock