Health & Fitness Business Show '08: Non-exhibiting manufacturers irk some attendees as show confronts future

Two months after the 2008 Health & Fitness Business Show closed its doors organizers and attendees have been left scratching their heads about the event's future, including what kinds of rules there should be on the increasing numbers of non-exhibiting manufacturers who continue to take advantage of the show without supporting it.
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Two months after the 2008 Health & Fitness Business Show closed its doors organizers and attendees have been left scratching their heads about the event's future, including what kinds of rules there should be on the increasing numbers of non-exhibiting manufacturers who continue to take advantage of the show without supporting it.

Despite dipping numbers, the show has remained a good venue for the specialty business -- the only one for fitness retail. Still, there are concerns: Attendance by non-exhibitors swelled this year but was only one of the issues show management Nielsen Business Media is confronting. For example, numbers were down again on both sides of the aisle, complaints and also compliments about the reduction to two days were everywhere, gripes about the show's continued return to Denver were heard in some conversations; and the show-supported fly-in of a small handful of new retailers caught some flack.

It's a turning point for the show, for sure, with the specialty market consolidation continuing and the downturn of the economy affecting everybody's decision about coming to, how to stay at, and what to do at the annual specialty retail fitness show -- the only one that focuses on retail fitness.

"This year with the economy it might be a little bit of an anomaly," said Andy Tompkins, group show director as of May for Nielsen's sports group that includes not only the HFB show but also Interbike, Outdoor Retailer and Action Sports Retailer. "But we've seen enough to see that the show might be on a certain trajectory and we need to take a look."

Certainly the show has its work cut out for it to try to amp up attendance, bring more exhibitors aboard, stop poaching by non-exhibitors, increase enthusiasm, and satisfy retail attendees from all corners of North America with its location. Tompkins knew when he came on in May that his team would be determining what features and events help make their other shows successful and finding ways to transfer those to HFB. In addition, the group has a pool of exhibitors at its other shows to tap into as potential HFB exhibitors.

But he also wants to take aggressive steps to stop any erosion, particularly by non-exhibiting manufacturers (NEM) who don't support the show with booth space but move into nearby hotel rooms or roam the floor having meetings in the aisles or nearby hotel lobbies.

Exhibitors and retailers alike have told SNEWS that they are fed up with non-exhibitors' stealth attendance and exhibiting: Manufacturers who do pay to exhibit and to meet with retailers question why they are supporting others who don't, and retailers have told us the show is so small that the NEMs could mean the death of the show itself.

“I really believe the show warrants the support of the vendors and manufacturers, and if they’re going to come to the show, then they should come so everybody can see them, not just go off-site,” said Carlos Vazquez, co-owner of Busy Body/Gyms to Go in Florida, who added he doesn’t see a problem with an additional invite-only area.

Another angry retailer, who declined to be named, said the non-exhibitors who solely hold meetings in neighboring hotels or meeting rooms or who just wander the aisles aren't supporting their customers: "I love this industry and it hurts me when I see my peers and manufacturers that don't support it."

Non-exhibitors on the firing line

SNEWS has written for years about the conflict between those who do exhibit and those who don't, in part due to the feelings expressed to us, the show a few years ago stopped renting on-site meeting rooms to non-exhibitors. But that came back to bite in 2007 when retailers and others raged to SNEWS about the "catacomb" meeting rooms run by exhibitors that dragged them off the floor repeatedly and conflicted with show hours and activities. Two exhibitors violated the intent of the rule by setting up a small booth on the main floor with either nothing but a greeting table (Smooth Fitness) or a couple of pieces of equipment that weren't new (Precor) so they could usher customers downstairs to private meetings. Three other companies didn't take booths in 2007 but had private meetings in nearby hotels (True Fitness and Hoist Fitness) or teamed with another company in a downstairs room (Koko Fitness).

Click here to read that Sept. 21, 2007, SNEWS story, "Private meeting rooms continue to draw debate."

True Fitness told SNEWS after last year's debacle that it was "guilty," realized the error of its ways and would not hold another hotel meeting. This year, it cancelled out of the HFB show in the final weeks, said Eric Severance, marketing director, because the earlier July show dates meant it would not have equipment ready. But, true to its word, it did not take a hotel room. Hoist Fitness had originally scheduled another hotel room meeting but found it conflicted with the show's changed schedule and indeed cancelled it. Koko Fitness is now formally in a business relationship with Star Trac and is officially in its booth, and Smooth Fitness didn't attend this year.

HFB show management also this year increased the minimum size of a company's floor booth that would allow it to rent a separate meeting room and queried companies about their intent for the room. PaceMaster decided to keep its meetings in its booth, while only Horizon Fitness held an event during show hours -- a two-hour dealer award presentation the last hours of the show's first day.

That may sound fine and good, but wait…. Show management told SNEWS there was a surge in NEM registrations, which normally cost $250 each (more on that later), with a post-show list revealing about 75, which is more than double last year's NEM registrations. Among those? The list included 13 (yes, that's not a typo) from Precor who were on-site, eight from True Fitness and seven from Keys Fitness. Thirty-five only had one representative, five registered two, and one had three -- what could be called normal non-exhibiting visitor numbers.

Not on the official list but also seen in attendance were Hoist, Nautilus and Redzone fitness, all of which must have slipped in surreptitiously with another borrowed registration, which Tompkins said concerns the show since it can also skew numbers. Mike Cochrane of Redzone told SNEWS he was holding meetings in a nearby hotel room but added he did not have equipment in the room. In contrast to choosing to be off-site Cochrane, when he was at Bodyguard, said in an August 2002 post-show SNEWS story, he believed in supporting the industry by attending the show: "It's always a good show. Networking is key here too."

Precor, on the other hand, had two new ellipticals set up in the Hilton Garden Inn across the street and was scheduling formal meetings, although SNEWS was told Precor staff told others coming to the show on the same flights it was only a coincidence they were headed to Denver at the same time.

"It's not our job to make sure the event is successful," Jim Zahniser, Precor spokesman, told SNEWS after the show. "We don't need the show."

Zahniser noted that in the current economy businesses need to determine what works for their situation. "Every year the business has to take a look at what makes sense for it. The consumer business is way down now, and we approached the show reflecting that."

Tompkins said the "true sense of the NEM registration" is for non-exhibitors to check out a show to see if they may want to attend officially another year. To that end, the show grants companies it deems as potential legitimate exhibitors a comp badge or sometimes even several. True Fitness, since it cancelled and lost its booth deposit, was comped a portion of its badges; Precor paid full-pop for all 13 badges ($3,250 or just shy of the cost of a 10-x-20 booth), SNEWS was told; most of the others paid for all or at least most of their NEM registrations.

NEM engineers with cameras

On the heels of what appeared to be violations of the spirit and intent of NEM badges, Tompkins said show staff is considering clamping down even further, but is still discussing how to proceed. He said show staff seems to believe that up to about three NEM badges may be "fair" but more than that may not be allowed or the company's intent would be put under the microscope on a case-by-case basis.

"It seems as if this show is of interest and we need them to be on the floor like everybody else," Tompkins said. "This is not what the opportunity is for."

The problem with show "poachers," as NEMs have been called by others, is how it affects those who laid down their money to put up their booth. Pat McGinnis of FreeMotion Fitness said his company seriously considered not coming because of the economy but worked with the show to downsize its booth without compromising its brand representation. He said it came down to supporting the industry as a whole. He said he is a big fan of industry shows with years of experience at Interbike and others.

"If you're a bigger company, you try to support the shows when you can because it's good for the smaller vendors," he said. "There's a bigger picture of the industry as a whole you have to consider."

To his chagrin, he reported seeing NEM engineers from True Fitness in his company's space inspecting its equipment and even taking pictures. He said he watched others "poach" customers right out of his booth as they walked out into the aisle. McGinnis said he is questioning whether FreeMotion should return based on this year's shenanigans: "If I'm helping my main competitors who are not helping the industry or the show, why should I invest it in?"

This is how what seems like one small action can send ripples that eventually could become the death knell for a show.

Timing and location

Another experiment this year was compacting nearly all the show's previous hours into two days instead of spreading them over three. In the past, the three-day event allowed for a noon start on the first day with a keynote and panel discussion prior to the exhibit hall's opening. The jury is still out on whether it really saved anybody any money but there are other advantages and disadvantages.

Some liked the compact format that allowed concise meetings and a quick entry and exit. Other retailers told SNEWS they felt they had no time just to peruse the small booths and new companies or to look around casually for potential products to carry since they were in back-to-back meetings with their main vendors.

The two-day event also left only one official show evening between the two days. With the Industry Party that night, there was no time for any other meetings, casual encounters and chatter, business dinners with clients or potential clients, or chance networking. It limited other companies' abilities to hold customer dinners if they didn't want to ask customers to come early, stay late or not attend the Industry Party.

There was also no extra time for seminars other than a luncheon talk presented by SNEWS on the first day. Without the seminars, it's more difficult to attract store sales staff since education can be a big draw for those who aren't buyers or owners. Plus, as McGinnis pointed out, it's a store's floor staff that brings much of the excitement to any show and, in fact, that's who he'd like to meet with since they are the ones controlling the sale of his equipment. He and others lamented the slow loss of any educational offerings at the event.

In the end, the flavor of an industry coming-together to share its interest and passion was lost, and the HFB show this year became a cut-and-dry shuttle to and from meetings about product followed by a quick shuttle back to the airport.

The July timing was earlier than its normal early August dates, which past surveys have shown to be the most popular. But, shockingly, there were a number of retailers in the SNEWS survey of HFB show details (Click here to read that Sept. 9, 2008, survey summary.) who voiced an interest in even earlier spring dates (March or April) to allow time for decisions before the busy season kicks off; SNEWS isn't sure if exhibitors, some of whom claimed July was too early to have equipment, would be able to swallow dates several months earlier than that.

As a location, Denver, of course, is a sticking point. If you haven't read the SNEWS survey about the show, do so now. (See the link in the above graph or click here and don't miss the comments gathering in the SNEWS Chat area below the story.) Opinions aren't clear-cut: Those who like Denver REALLY like Denver and those who are sick of it are REALLY sick of it. Although SNEWS finds Denver an attractive, accessible and health-oriented city, we can't argue that a different venue may attract a new bubble of excitement to rise to the surface. Unfortunately, many of the top options that are neutrally located (not East or West Coast) are usually mildly sweltering (!) in the summer. That includes Las Vegas, Austin, Fort Worth or Dallas, St. Louis, San Antonio or even southern venues such as Memphis or Nashville. Cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Portland (Ore.), Seattle or San Diego rise to the surface, but they may tip the balance too far east or west to help keep costs down for the masses.

At this point, the 2009 show is set for Aug. 6-7, again in Denver. Tompkins again said management is assessing that and still could choose to alter the dates or location depending on availability in different locations and the results of their own surveys and discussions.

All that jazz…

With successful, energetic and popular shows such as Interbike, Outdoor Retailer and Action Sports Retailer managed by the same group as HFB, it seems only logical the staff can come up with ways to rev up the show. But one has to convince folks to, one, come to the show and, two, attend the events once they are there.

This year, to help bring in retail buyers who had not attended or had not attended in a few years, show staff invited and paid for representatives from several retailers including MC Sports, Dunham's, Target and Big 5. Also invited to the "fly-in" were Busy Body Home Fitness and Chicago Home Fitness, although SNEWS knows they did not necessarily fit those criteria of past non-attendance. Some at the show felt it was a great idea to get new blood there -- people that may then come back (a free ticket is a one-time deal, the show noted). Others felt it was sending a poor message to those who had always attended and paid for it on their own. Tompkins said they wrestled with the idea but felt in the end it was an investment in the show's future.

Also, SNEWS has organized a pre-show benefit golf tournament that has become popular but has heard there is a portion of the industry that would never consider playing golf but would consider another pre-show activity. One respondent to our survey suggested an afternoon of giving back to the city where the show is by building a house or volunteering time to teach kids. We at SNEWS like the idea of giving-back, perhaps in some fitness-oriented way such as helping to set up a fitness center in a needy neighborhood and taking a few hours to hold a teaching and training session for kids and parents.

Certainly holding other business and training seminars would be helpful, but the show would need to know if retailers would, one, bring staff members and, two, be willing to come a day early or stay a half-day longer. One could also hold training sessions on a rotating basis in various booths, as a few attendees suggested to SNEWS, but exhibitors would have to be willing to not hold them behind closed doors and competing exhibitors (exhibiting or NEM) would have to toe the line and not send in spies.

How about inviting personal trainers and personal training studio owners to the show? That would not only bring a passionate audience but also make it worth their while to double-dip with an afternoon of continuing education seminars as well as business-oriented sessions applicable to their interests and the benefit of perusing new equipment and gear.

Tompkins said there are three prongs to any show: Product, education and community. At this point the HFB show has product, although not enough. It has only a smattering of education. And it frankly has very little community.

"It will make it tough for the Health & Fitness Business Show to survive if the leading manufacturers in our industry do not support it," said Jeanne Sheriff, co-owner of HealthStyles Fitness Equipment in the Denver area, "and I feel the survival of the show is an important factor in the health and vitality of specialty fitness."

If the show steps up to make all three legs of that stool stronger, the industry has to be willing to step up and support the event.

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