H&F Biz show '04 -- Buyer numbers steady, exhibitors up

Attracting a larger number of exhibitors than last year, the sixth-annual Health & Fitness Business Show & Conference found buyer numbers and the number of stores they represented remained steady -- not bad in a market that has seen increased consolidation and stores closings in the last few years.
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 Attracting a larger number of exhibitors than last year, the sixth-annual Health & Fitness Business Show & Conference found buyer numbers and the number of stores they represented remained steady -- not bad in a market that has seen increased consolidation and stores closings in the last few years.

Early and unaudited numbers released to SNEWS® on the last day of the Aug. 19-21 show revealed 150 exhibitors, up about 8 percent over last year's show. Those manufacturers filled nearly 62,000 square feet of space, or about the same size as last year's hall. That relationship -- more exhibitors in the same space -- seems representative of the industry's suppliers downsizing slightly to economize while remaining viable and represented, VNU show marketing director An Le said.

Of those exhibiting manufacturers, nearly 40 were tagged as "new," with the caveat that new meant in some cases the company had been at the show before but may not have had a booth last year. In addition, there appeared to be a larger number of companies considered fringe or less traditional for fitness specialty, including those selling apparel, Nordic walking poles and pedometers.

Buyer numbers also held nearly steady at about 1,060, representing about the same number of stores as in 2003 with just over 500. Some 15 percent of those were international, management said. Various manufacturers told SNEWS® during the three-day show they had seen buyers from countries such as Turkey, Israel, Poland, Italy, Germany and South America, among others. In addition, the show continued its growing attraction beyond specialty fitness retailers; buyers from the likes of The Sports Authority, Copeland's, Dick's, Modell's, MC Sports and Forzani joined those from such specialty shops as Chicago Home Fitness, Busy Body Home Fitness, 2nd Wind Fitness, Bert's Bikes & Fitness, Fitness Showcase and G & G Fitness.

Reaction to this year's show from exhibitors was mixed, with most saying they were pleased with the business they did and the return on their investment. But even those sometimes noted they felt traffic was down in the aisles compared to last year despite attendee numbers that were status quo.

"It's been a very good show," said Bobby Krause, sales director for second-year exhibitor Lifespan by PCE, who still noted lunchtime lulls while also showing a schedule book with appointments after the 5 p.m. closing. "We've got quite a bit of momentum now, and we're building on that. We've easily doubled our retail base at this show…. Retailers have been more in a buying mode."

Phil Welch, vice president of Valeo, said he had meetings with everybody he wanted to, including most of the major sporting goods buyers. "I have no complaints," he added.

First-time exhibitor and newcomer New Balance Fitness Equipment (by Fitness Quest) had a "booth" that was nothing but a large patch of carpet with its equipment set up on it; nevertheless, Rick Pawlak, director of sales, on the last day called the show "great."

"The response has been more than we anticipated, quite candidly," said Pawlak.

Title sponsor Nautilus, with a new and sleekly modern booth that gave a much grander impression than its old one, had sales reps who were booked nearly the entire time all three days, said Senior Vice President Pat Warner, which he attributed partly to a series of new products and innovative product features the company rolled out at the show.

>>Note that in the next few weeks, the SNEWS® team will bring complete show coverage with category reports about products and brands, plus information about seminars, workshops, other events and demos, and market trends, not to mention a few interesting or simply entertaining tidbits and news. As is our tradition, you won't find more complete or more accurate coverage anywhere else.

Meanwhile, we'll tantalize your taste buds with a few news nibbles.

Meeting rooms and missing-in-action
Interestingly, more exhibitors than usual seemed to take the option of housing their products in a lower-level meeting room instead of having a booth. Notably absent on the show floor from its normal front-row position was True Fitness, which took a meeting room downstairs instead. On the last morning of the show, a SNEWS® reporter dropped in to see equipment, only to find the room being torn down, brochures and signage packed, and equipment half in boxes and unable to be seen.

Others in meeting rooms included elliptical-maker Octane Fitness; York Barbell; and Kevin Lamar's new company, Lamar Health, Fitness & Sport, with a small selection of early prototypes (see SNEWS® story, Aug. 18). Pre-show, organizers had touted the return of Precor, but noted the company was in a meeting room. On-site, however, no signage or handbook listing was available to find the company that SNEWS® was told paid a scaled-down fee for holding a meeting, but were said to actually be showing equipment. In fact, Precor was only at the show for one day we were told -- Day 1. More than a few exhibitors, including those paying full freight in meeting rooms to display wares, expressed frustration that the show would allow Precor to pay a discounted rate and benefit from the show traffic others were generating. Frustration was also expressed that Precor was not supporting the show by avoiding the show floor.

Icon Health & Fitness was another company that organizers proudly noted pre-show as a returnee, albeit to a meeting room. And although listed in the show guide, Icon had securely taped thick paper over its name and location on hallway signs and hid its door sign.

"No one company broke the rules," VNU's Le told us, "and our intention is to bring in as many brands as possible to serve the fitness buyers, and to always maintain the integrity of the show…. We will review all comments and feedback from the industry and consider ways to improve the show for exhibitors and buyers, including comments regarding the meeting room exhibitors."

Missing-in-action on the show floor was normally prominent exhibitor Harbinger with its weight gloves, training gear and fitness accessories. The company had, however, been at another VNU-owned trade show, Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the week before showing its new line of outdoor adventure gloves. Also not showing in Denver despite a growing recognition of increased interest in mind-body activities such as yoga and Pilates were Hugger Mugger and Gaiam. But that gap was filled in by Spri, FitBall and Sissel, among others, showing balls and yoga props.

Parties, events and happenings
The annual industry party the first night of the show at the Wynkoop Brewery in the funky LoDo area of downtown was a smashing success. Music and giveaways by co-sponsor SportsArt added to the energy as did a great spread of food and free-flowing beer and sodas with free beer glasses helped along by co-sponsor Nautilus. The pool sharks packed the billiards tables and a few even dared to dance to a DJ. Allegedly ending at 7:30 p.m., the SNEWS® team snuck out closer to 8 p.m. and the place was still rockin'.

The annual Pacemaster retailer costume party, albeit invite-only, took over a ballroom at a downtown hotel after the industry party (this year's theme: movie, TV and cartoon characters). A peek in on the action by the SNEWS® team found the room filled with characters such as Shrek (ask Tom Staub about that), Gilligan and the Captain, Tom Cruise's character from Risky Business (strutting around the room merely wearing a shirt and briefs), a Three Musketeer, the Pirate of the Caribbean, Snow White (scary, indeed, to see Snow White with hairy legs, dealing poker hands with abash, telling off players in a deep bass voice), Superman, Spiderman (of course), and Superwoman (another man…what's with these male retailers choosing to dress as women?). Listening to them attempt Karaoke was a -- how do we put it? -- treat. Oh… yeah…

New to the show were morning Nordic walking sessions provided by pole manufacturer Leki. Although sparsely attended, we believe the activity of fitness walking with poles just being introduced to the United States will have legs (OK, bad pun) and will gather steam, as it has in Europe in the last year. The sessions weren't promoted as well as they could have been, unfortunately, but pole-makers Leki and Exel promise to come back next year, as may others. So bring your walking shoes.

Louis Stack of balance specialty company Fitter International didn't let rules about staying in a small, sadly lonely, curtained demo area hidden in the back of the hall (could there be a worse place?) stop his "demo" of his three-wheeled, self-propelled Trikke product. He and others rode them to and from the convention center as well as to the booth, attracting head-turning attention. Go, Louis! We like this kind of action in the aisles.

A first for the show was the SNEWS®/GearTrends® show floor beer kegger on Friday afternoon, which attracted a rambunctious bunch of show-goers eager to tap into the microbrew provided by our team for a little fun (gasp!) on the show floor. Many were more than willing to yell the password, "woo hoo," to receive a cold one in hand. Don't worry if you missed it or came after the keg ran dry (those folks were THIRSTY!), we'll get the energy hopping on the show floor again next year!

SNEWS® View: The construction now going on in and around the convention center in Denver promises to make the venue even larger and more attractive, so we look forward to next year's show (a bit later, though, on Aug. 25-27). What's intriguing is the number of exhibitors -- large and small, front and back -- who told us they thought aisle traffic seemed light, yet early numbers showed basically no change over last year. We're not sure if that means the buyers attending were getting their business done more quickly and in fewer days (and taking off for baseball games or Denver-area activities) or that smaller armies of logo'd shirts from one store traveling in packs gave the impression of thinner crowds. With continued consolidation (note our story Aug. 20 regarding yet another acquisition by Busy Body Home Fitness) and ongoing belt-tightening (fewer buyers from one store attending), the numbers actually could indicate an uptick in the market since they have remained the same. We think that's positive and bodes well for upcoming shows. Now, we do know that attendees would like more (and, dare we say it, better) educational sessions and workshops. The current offering of a short talk each morning -- two of which left some retailers wondering if they should have brought pillows for nap time -- isn't compelling enough for a store to decide it is worth it to bring additional staff for the education they'll get. We think that should be pumped up with energy and quality, and we have indications from show management that it will be.

In addition, with the influx of the companies with product that is less traditional for fitness specialty than iron and steel stuff, we'd like to see a "marketplace" or otherwise flagged area that better showcases the new and unusual so these folks aren't lost on the fringes. That would also better serve sporting goods buyers from most all the big-name stores who are attending the show despite its alleged emphasis on specialty. We would lay money that a showcase of that sort might happen next year, too. Such a featured area could also offer a demo area for these companies to better show off their product and activities since seeing is believing and hands-on works wonders for understanding. No matter what can be criticized slightly (after all, what's ever perfect?), the show remains THE show for specialty retail and its suppliers not only for product, but also for face-time and networking. It's a much-needed show indeed and should be supported by the retail fitness industry -- on the exhibition floor.

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