Health & Fitness Business '09: Small show draws mixed reaction, paves way for 2010 changes

Denver Convention Center staffer Harold was once again in the lobby to greet attendees and exhibitors with his cheery smile and perky, "Good morrrrning! And how are you today? It's a beeayoutiful day!" Who couldn't smile when you walked in the door no matter how small the annual Health & Fitness Business Expo was going to be? On the heels of what could be called a "micro-show," show owner Nielsen Business Media is taking a hard look at alternatives for 2010.

Denver Convention Center staffer Harold was once again in the lobby to greet attendees and exhibitors with his cheery smile and perky, "Good morrrrning! And how are you today? It's a beeayoutiful day!"

Who couldn't smile when you walked in the door no matter how small the annual Health & Fitness Business Expo was going to be?

On the heels of what could be called a "micro-show," show owner Nielsen Business Media is taking a hard look at alternatives for 2010. Indeed, as the show progressed, staff spent a lot of time meeting with exhibitors at the Aug. 6-7 event to gather feedback. Meanwhile, the show must go on, as they say, and go on it did, albeit with a floor that was nearly half the size as last year's already downsized show. Nevertheless, a lot of exhibitors and attendees were indeed smiling, just like Harold.

"This show has been great for us and a lot of positive things happened," said John Schiek, CEO of Schiek Sports. Prior to the show, Schiek said there was some apprehension about low show attendance in the office, but after SNEWS® on July 1 ran an editorial, "SNEWS View: Is the fitness industry killing its own show?", he stressed it was important to Schiek's business and he was going to approach the show with a positive attitude. "We will," he said, "write a lot of business because of the show."

Others, too, said they were delighted despite smaller numbers:

"We had a huge show, just huge," said Lance Goodemann, PowerBlock's national sales manager. "People still came."

"It was way beyond our expectations," said first-time exhibitor Steve Lindenau of Teutonic Sales. "We made some great contacts."

"Ironically, we did some really good business," said Bruce Hymanson, creator and founder of BodyBlade.

Keeping the spirit

Without meeting rooms booked for private showings -- a point of contention in past years because of its suck of energy and people from the floor -- the expo floor became the place to meet, greet, network and gather education. Life Fitness ran seminars for retailers in its booth -- three on Thursday and one on Friday morning, and its President John Stransky attended. Bodyguard rolled out an impressive happy hour that started about 3 p.m. on Thursday with beer, a full bar and gourmet food cooked on the spot. HFB and SNEWS hosted a happy hour in the SNEWS Community Hub on Thursday.

"We are trying to keep the same spirit," said Raymond Dutil, CEO of Bodyguard Fitness. "We come here for our dealers. The purpose of the show is to be all in one place."

Joe Marcoux presented a crowded session on retailing pre-show Friday morning, and the 5th annual SNEWS Fitness Forum and panel discussion at noon on Thursday covering State of the Industry trends and tips to survive the economy drew more than 100 (click here to download the presentation.) Pre-show, HFB in cooperation with SNEWS organized a service project benefiting the Boys & Girls Clubs in Denver, with a small but enthusiastic group attending. Click here to see that Aug. 10, 2009, SNEWS story. And SportsArt again sponsored the Industry Party on Thursday night at Lucky Strikes bowling alley with more food and longer hours.

Larger and known exhibitors noted over and over again they did plenty of business, although they were less crowded and saw fewer "tire kickers" since most retail shops had pared back attendee numbers to bare bones. Smaller and new exhibiting companies were the ones left sitting on their hands in some cases if they hadn't done pre-show hustling to promote and make appointments.

"We know a lot of manufacturers decided not to come this year, but we still see HFB as an important show," said Neil Taylor of Life Fitness.

Indeed, the show hasn't hidden numbers, which at this point remain preliminary:

>> 65 companies had 226 booth spaces to cover 22,600 square feet, or nearly half of 2008's 124 exhibiting companies. Not only are exhibitor numbers down but also the square feet they chose to occupy. This year, the average square footage per company was 347; in 2007, with 122 companies covering 55,200 square feet, the average per company was 452 square feet.

>> 375 retail buyers attended, or about 60 percent of last year's 640. Also about 60 percent off was the number of separate retail businesses represented (197), compared to last year's 325. Included in the attendees were buyers from South Africa, Australia and Canada.

"The industry still seems to agree that the show is relevant and necessary for the long-term health of the marketplace," said show director Andy Tompkins. "Not only did we hear this from our exhibitors, but we also noted that a large number of non-exhibiting manufacturers made the investment to travel to the show suggesting being part of the event remains important."

Non-exhibiting manufacturers

Growing over the last few years as the official show floor has shrunk are the number of manufacturer representatives who decided to come but, sans booth, instead hold meetings in aisles or in the food court. Last year, SNEWS confronted the hot topic in a post-show story on Sept. 15, 2008, "Non-exhibiting manufacturers irk some attendees as show confronts future," and this year we will do the same in the coming weeks. The topic became particularly searing to many who spent the money to be on the floor this year, while the list of non-exhibiting manufacturers (NEM) attending but not exhibiting grew even longer. The list now includes: Batca Fitness, BH Fitness, BodyCraft, Diamondback, Healthmark, Hoist Fitness, Nautilus, Octane, PaceMaster, Precor, Sequoia Fitness, Torque, True Fitness, TuffStuff, Valeo and Vision -- 16 NEM attendees or a quarter of the show floor. A couple, like BodyCraft, were invited by show sales reps when they decided not to exhibit. A few others, such as Precor, bought NEM badges upfront. Many slipped in as guests or under other manufacturers' or retailers' badges.

"It's wrong to poach," said Brent Hutton, vice president, consumer division, Life Fitness, pointing to the small players who are stretched thin to exhibit yet can't do enough business to make it worthwhile. "It's just wrong, and it's a shame."

Regular attendee David Homa, owner of retail shop All Around Fitness in the Monterey area of the California coast, told SNEWS he would have liked to see more manufacturers on the floor but that didn't keep him from coming.

"We're here to support the show," he said. "It's a worthwhile show…. The economy had something to do with this, but there's just a lack of industry cooperation."

Both retailers and some exhibitors expressed concern about what would happen if the show were to go away. Said James Newman, CEO of Canadian retailer Fitness Town, "The industry needs this show."

2010 changes in the offing

Recognizing the need for changes -- be it due to the economy, industry changes or Denver malaise -- show organizer Nielsen is doing final assessments about what the event can become to better serve the industry.

Presented individually to both exhibitors and attendees was a loosely formed concept of a "hotel-based" conference and show -- one that would after more than a decade not be in Denver and may even rotate venues.

"I think we can all agree that a model change is in order," Tompkins said. "HFB management has reviewed a new solution to engage the industry in a mixture of product showing, additional education, and community interaction in a hotel-based concept which will provide a new forum for the industry to interact.

"The new hotel model concept is designed to provide greater ROI for exhibitors, lower costs for retail travel and allow the show to be more mobile and rotate locations on a revolving basis," he explained. "We look forward to engaging in more dialogue with the industry to finalize details for 2010 and continuing to provide a tool for the retail fitness marketplace to interact and grow."

SNEWS wrote on July 24, 2009, about a survey kicked off pre-show by Nielsen to seek feedback. To read that and access links to participate and to voice your thoughts, click here.

Still to come in SNEWS coverage of the HFB show: trends in cardio equipment, strength equipment, accessories and vibration, as well as reports about other less traditional gear seen on the floor, and reports about both the SNEWS Fitness Forum and other presentations.

We will miss Harold's cheery charm in Denver.

--Therese Iknoian

If you have comments or experiences regarding non-exhibiting manufacturers or about the show or want to share insights or raise questions, please email SNEWS will take a deeper look at some of the issues in the coming weeks.