Health & Fitness Business '09: Show director speaks to SNEWS about the show, its format and its future

Although the one show exclusively for specialty retail fitness, the Health & Fitness Business Expo has been the subject of increasing debate and discussion in the last one to two years. Partly due to a rather weak attendance on both sides of the aisles in 2008 and forecasts for even weaker turnout this year, the show's format, future, attendance and location have been batted about. We decided in light of the continued debate, we would go to the show's director, Andy Tompkins, for a few answers and additional information to help the industry continue the conversation about its own show.
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Although the one show exclusively for specialty retail fitness, the Health & Fitness Business Expo has been the subject of increasing debate and discussion in the last one to two years. Partly due to a rather weak attendance on both sides of the aisles in 2008 and forecasts for even weaker turnout this year, the show's format, future, attendance and location have been batted about.

On July 1, SNEWS® wrote a tough editorial questioning how the industry was handling its own show. (Click here to see the story, "SNEWS® View: Is the fitness industry killing its own show?") That, of course, brought quite a bit of debate in the Chat area below the story, with even more -- including those who took SNEWS to task for the message -- coming in personally to SNEWS editors.

We decided in light of the continued debate, we would go to the show's director, Andy Tompkins, for a few answers and additional information to help the industry continue the conversation about its own show.

Tompkins came on as director of the show in May 2008, although he is a veteran not only of the show owner Nielsen Business Media but also as a director for other shows it runs, including Action Sports Retailer. He has also worked extensively with both the Interbike and Outdoor Retailer shows. (Click here to see a May 30, 2008, SNEWS exclusive interview with Tompkins, "New HFB show director aims to bring passion to the floor.") He moved into the role as HFB director only a few months before the economy took its true downturn, so despite forecasting a positive trend in attendance numbers, that wasn't in the cards.

Below, we address Nielsen as the management company, the show location, its format and some possible changes, how to bring more to the show, and a survey that Nielsen plans to launch to help gather more information on changes.

SNEWS hopes this Q-and-A format interview will help the industry openly discuss what it wants and will convince it to not mince words about what it needs and, more importantly, where it thinks the show is going and what it will support. Tompkins and the rest of the HFB team want to know what you think. Add your two-bits to the Chat at the bottom of the story so you can share with the entire industry.

SNEWS: There has been some rather heated debate about this show, its format and its future. We have, of course, heard accusations that Nielsen is just a trade show organizer and really doesn't care about the fitness show, doesn't know anything about the market or understand its exhibitors. Can you address that concern?

Tompkins: We do understand these concerns and as show producers we have a vested interest in the long-term health of the marketplace -- not just professionally but personally as well. The H+FB staff is very active and avid about our own fitness -- I own several home fitness training tools and have since I was a young boy. Our team also produces the bicycle industry's trade show, Interbike, so fitness and health interests run deep here. With so many challenges facing American society through rising disease and obesity, the retail fitness market has a great opportunity to become engrained with a healthy lifestyle -- we're proud to be part of that. When I walk the floor of H+FB, I constantly think to myself -- I want one of those!

But there is no doubt we would like to engage more deeply with the marketplace. In many other market sectors in which Nielsen is involved, the presence of an association gives us more immediate access to key members and a more established feedback loop. We're lucky to have a partnership with SNEWS since you are so engaged in the marketplace. We try to attend as many retail fitness-related events as possible -- but we agree we need to do more. Some of our upcoming initiatives, which we will be able to discuss soon, will be an attempt to better understand the marketplace.

SNEWS: The show has been in Denver now for more than a decade. Although our survey last year (click here to see that Sept. 9, 2008, SNEWS story.) indicated many still like Denver, it also indicated many believe it is high time for a move. We have heard that topic come up yet again, with the thought that a new location may infuse new energy. Since Nielsen has not yet announced a location or even dates for next year, what is the company planning?

Tompkins: While Denver has provided a good central location for H+FB over the past few years and has a strong base of fitness dealers, we too feel a move is necessary to keep the show vibrant and fresh. This is one of the few opportunities that many retailers have to get away from their businesses, so adding some variety every now and then can be important. Initial feedback suggests Las Vegas may be a good location choice for H+FB, but, of course, we need to hear feedback and approval from the marketplace first. The criteria we will use to consider various cities is a strong regional dealer base, easy flight access, a wide variety of hotel and restaurant price points within walking distance of a facility, and a multitude of city attractions.

SNEWS: In addition to location, there have been concerns about the cost of trade shows in general and the continued sam' ol' format. SNEWS has heard over the years about the interest in more education, and we have advocated for additional networking opportunities as well -- although we too aren't sure what the industry will support with its attendance. Is Nielsen looking at new formats and, if so, what kind?

Tompkins: This is definitely the type of environment that you need to try new things to keep a show viable. I think we can all agree that some form of annual gathering of the industry is needed. Our challenge right now is to listen to retailers and manufacturers to learn what they want and need from such an event. Is it rows and rows of new equipment? Is it networking opportunities? Is it serious education and conference sessions? Along with the specific business needs from an event, cost is also a big concern of manufacturers and one that we intend to address. Our space rates are one factor but the overall spend of the industry is on my mind. In many cases retail fitness product is heavy and expensive to ship -- we're thinking of a show format in a non-convention center (like a hotel property) that doesn't have as many union regulations, and encouraging dealers to bring select product only and providing a digital solution to show the rest. We agree additional education is important. We'd like to present a new model in 2010 that involves less costs to exhibitors, but still accomplishes the industry's product showing, education, and community needs.

SNEWS: Over the last few years some in the industry have mentioned possible ways to make the show more vital, including adding more from the "vertical" or "light commercial" category, in which more and more retailers are involved with, and potentially joining with another show such as Interbike (if the timing were right). What are your thoughts on that?

Tompkins: I agree that the future of H+FB may involve reaching out to new buying categories that make sense to offer the industry a more efficient buying/selling opportunity by serving multiple channels in the same platform. We've discussed co-locating H+FB with our Interbike show, in an adjacent hall or nearby location since there seems to be a fair amount of synergy between the two industries. Many brands sell products to both markets and certain retailers are seasonal cycling and fitness dealers. Both industries share common fitness goals as well. But timing has been the major issue here as the H+FB and Interbike shows have traditionally been staged one to two months apart from one another. But I think it is fair to say that the evolution of H+FB will have to involve appealing to a wider buying audience to increase the ROI for exhibitors.

SNEWS: Of course, going back to our first question about Nielsen not really being part of the industry, what will the company do to get the most input it can from the fitness industry to plan what the industry not only really needs but will support?

Tompkins: To best determine the industry's needs, we plan to launch an in-depth survey designed to determine the optimal timing, geography and features that the Health and Fitness Business event will require in the future. We also plan to use the upcoming show to candidly discuss the future of the show with exhibitors -- we will be very present and try to solicit as much feedback as possible. [Editors' Note: SNEWS will announce this survey when it launches so you can have your say, and we plan to continue the discussion at the coming show, Aug. 6-7, with notebooks open and pens poised.]

SNEWS: Is there anything the industry can do at the coming show to help in this process?

Tompkins: Please bring your ideas and suggestions -- we also invite all exhibitors to join us on Day One at 5 p.m. for a meeting of the minds in the SNEWS booth/Community Hub (next to the lecture area) during the H+FB Happy Hour event to see if we can collectively determine what is needed for the industry's show.

SNEWS: Is there anything else you'd like to share with the industry?

Tompkins: We would definitely like to thank the industry for all of its support over the years. This is a great market that deserves a dynamic and relevant show -- it is our hope that we can all work together to accomplish this goal.

Now it's your turn -- take a moment to go to our Chat, below, and add to the discussion. It's all in the best interest of the industry.

--Therese Iknoian

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