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What's ahead for iHobby Expo?

While attendance dwindles, industry insiders share ideas to strengthen the trade show
By Nick Bullock
Published: November 26, 2012
HMA president Fred Hill (with scissors) cuts the ribbon to open the 2012 iHobby Expo, the first ever in Cleveland.
HMA president Fred Hill (with scissors) cuts the ribbon to open the 2012 iHobby Expo, the first ever in Cleveland.
Photo by Nick Bullock
Kids test slot cars on a large Slot.it race track at the 2012 iHobby Expo in Cleveland during the consumer portion of the show Oct. 13–14.
Kids test slot cars on a large Slot.it race track at the 2012 iHobby Expo in Cleveland during the consumer portion of the show Oct. 13–14.
Photo by Nick Bullock
Retailers examine radio control airplanes from SIG Mfg. Co. and talk to SIG representatives during the trade portion of iHobby.
Retailers examine radio control airplanes from SIG Mfg. Co. and talk to SIG representatives during the trade portion of iHobby.
Photo by Nick Bullock
Hobbyists paint figurines at Games Workshop's make-and-take booth during iHobby's consumer show.
Hobbyists paint figurines at Games Workshop's make-and-take booth during iHobby's consumer show.
Photo by Nick Bullock
It’s hard for Hobby Manufacturers Association President Fred Hill to draw a conclusion from the 2012 iHobby Expo, the first ever in Cleveland.

Yes, attendance at the event, held Oct. 11–14 at the International Exposition Center, was down from 1,694 dealers and distributors in 2011 to 1,321 in 2012. Yes, the number of exhibitors was down from 195 in 2011 to 180 in 2012. But 80 of those 2012 exhibitors were new to iHobby; compare that to the 69 new exhibitors at the 2011 show. Plus the consumer portion of iHobby continued to hold strong with more than 14,000 attendees, according to the HMA.

“You can’t judge a show by one year,” Hill said. “And then we had all these different variables.”
Hill is right about that: A number of changes conspired to make the 2012 iHobby Expo harder to evaluate. The presidential election squeezed out local advertising spots in a swing state. The relocation to Cleveland could also have put a one-year damper on the show’s attendance.

Hill, for his part, expects a bounce back next year. Some exhibitors were afraid to attend the inaugural Cleveland show, he said, and he suspects they’ll hear about the excellent facilities — a near universal sentiment — and sign back up. Plus, Hill said the show relies heavily on TV advertising to strengthen attendance, which was not possible because of the election.

Others, however, aren’t so sure.

J.C. Pell, K&S Precision Metals national sales manager, said his company expected a slight decrease in attendance and sales because of the location change, but not the 60 percent decrease K&S saw in Cleveland.

“I don’t want to pick on Cleveland,” he said. “But I don’t think it was a central location as far as where to fly into.”

Pell said he “looks forward to it being at a different location.” (The HMA currently has no plans for the convention to relocate from Cleveland, Hill said.)

As for the advertising problem brought on by the presidential election, Bruce Throne, National Retail Hobby Stores Association president and owner of Walt’s Hobby in Syracuse, N.Y., said advertising wouldn’t affect dealer attendance, only consumer attendance, which remained relatively strong at the 2012 show.

From the trade side, the days of using shows to view, research and order products are gone, Throne said. “Now days, customers know what’s new before I do,” he said. This takes away a dealer’s incentive for attending the show.

But for Throne, the biggest problem with the 2012 iHobby Expo was the lack of attendance from leading manufacturers, such as Hobbico and Traxxas. “I use the analogy of if you’re an NFL fan and you’re going to go to a game and it’s a preseason game and you’re only going to see the star players for one series, why are you going to go to that game?” he asked.

Interview requests for Hobbico and Traxxas were not returned. 

Some manufacturers, on the other hand, maintain that attending the show is increasingly difficult because not enough dealers attend. Aside from the cost of travel and lodging, Pell said there is an opportunity cost associated with being out of the office that is lost when he is at the show yet not making sales. 

Despite this, Pell said K&S will continue to support the industry by attending the show. “We think manufacturers need to be there because it’s our show. ... Me not going doesn’t do the show or the industry any good,” he said.

Throne, too, said he plans to continue attending. Even though the Internet makes conducting business outside of the show just as easy, he still sees value in meeting face to face with manufacturers and distributors, as well as his fellow dealers. 

But if other stores and manufacturers have their reasons not to attend, what can be done?

Andy Edelman, MTH Trains vice president of marketing, said he is one of several people in the industry that has floated the idea of reducing the trade portion of iHobby to one day instead of two.

“I think the exhibitors all felt that because there are fewer dealers going to these events, that [iHobby] stretched out over two days is just overkill,” he said. “You can walk that show in a day easily.” 

Edelman suggested holding the seminars and workshops for dealers on the Thursday of the show, then make Friday the lone trade day while maintaining the two consumers days.

Throne said the same goes for Walt’s Hobby. “Personally, for me, I could do it easily in one trade day,” he said. “You’ve got to remember, you can use Saturday and Sunday as trade days if you’re a store, too.

“That used to not be the case, because the show was so big and there were so many new things to see, you’d never get through it.”

That leads to another suggestion by Throne. Given the Internet’s ability to disseminate new product announcements and facilitate sales, fewer dealers find it necessary to attend trade shows. 

One solution, Throne said, is for manufacturers to hold off on the release of a few key items and then announce them at the show. “Make it known that, ‘Boy, if you come to the iHobby show, not only can you see these new things, but you can buy them earlier, or you can buy them at a show special or something. But you have to go to the show to take advantage of it,’ ” he said. “There’s got to be some incentive.”

From a manufacturer’s perspective, Edelman said this idea of staged product releases may work, as his company has seen evidence that some products are lost in the shuffle of the thousands MTH releases each year. 

But for MTH, and the model railroad segment as a whole, he said, the real key to the show’s future lies with the consumers.

“Being that we’re in a niche industry ... you need to be in front of consumers,” Edelman said. “When [iHobby] can get a good consumer crowd, it makes the whole event palatable from an exposure standpoint. 

“That’s really the way I look at it, and I think probably all of the model railroading manufacturers would echo that same sentiment, because we’ve all see the success of the World’s Greatest Hobby events, where they are getting big gates.”

Thus Edelman suggests greater focus on bringing in a large consumer crowd, which could bring in more manufacturers, which in turn could attract more dealers.

Edelman pointed to the Toy Fair in New York as an example of how a lack of a consumer crowd can hurt. “There the whole thing was dealer-driven and when it fell down, you just couldn’t justify [attending],” he said. 

MTH no longer attends that event.

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