With an ongoing battle to maintain energy on the floor as the market consolidates and exhibitors weigh the pros and cons of trade show expenses, an old debate has gathered new steam: the extensive use of private meeting rooms at the Health & Business Show.
This year, more than a half-dozen companies had equipment showings, private parties and dealer awards in what a few have dubbed "the catacombs" -- the meeting rooms below the show floor. The exhibitors in the catacombs included FreeMotion Fitness, Horizon Fitness, Octane Fitness, PaceMaster, Precor, Smooth Fitness, Star Trac and TuffStuff. Koko Fitness, which dropped off the show floor in the last few weeks, teamed with Star Trac in its room. At least another two companies which were not exhibiting -- Hoist Fitness and True Fitness -- had meetings in nearby hotels, drawing attendees to their events and showings, sometimes during show hours.
"Each year, more and more people have gone downstairs," Trevor Glanger, Fitcorp USA owner with three store brands in Texas, told SNEWS®. "I looked at it, and I said, 'What the hell for? Do they have gold?' The show should be a show…. Upstairs, downstairs, upstairs, downstairs… We think it's a waste of time."
Another well-respected retailer's representative told SNEWS® that the "real" show isn't even on the floor, and the off-site meetings and showings "drain" the show floor of people and energy, leaving some to conclude there is no innovation and the attendance is low. All of that in the long run, he said, damages the only retail show the fitness industry has.
"It's an illusion that it's not as busy," he said. "The show is busier than people think."
He said that if the industry thinks the show is important then the companies need to keep themselves and the buzz created on the floor. Taking it off the floor only hurts the show, its longevity and, therefore, themselves and the industry.
Manufacturers on the other hand see it as an opportunity for concentrated, undisturbed meetings with retailers, even if the product is ready to sell. Those included Precor and Smooth, whose booths on the floor were little more than small meeting spaces to gather up folks to take them downstairs. For some, it's a chance to show rough prototypes for feedback on product that isn't scheduled or likely to be out until late in the year or the next year. Those included FreeMotion, Horizon and Octane. TuffStuff held a dealer awards function the afternoon of the first day, while Octane also had an invitation-only dealer party late in the afternoon the first day -- both during show hours.
For a smaller company like Octane, conflicting with the large suppliers' dinners and post-show events isn't possible, said Tim Porth, vice president of sales and marketing, since it would be hard getting attendees. The comapny couldn't book a convention center room for after-show hours, since rules mandate that an on-site event conclude officially by the close of the show, or 6 p.m., he said. And going off-site just wasn't in the company's budget. That left them with no alternative but a 4-6 p.m. drop-in allowing people to come and go, while also getting feedback on a product that won't be out until later in 2008, Porth told SNEWS®.
Off-site were manufacturers Hoist and True. Hoist held a crowded dealer breakfast and awards function on the second morning, conflicting with the show's first attempt at an early morning workout and not concluding until after the show had opened its doors. For the second year, True booked an exhibit space, and then a few weeks before the show opened, dropped out, this year going off-site to a hotel for the first two days. Neither Hoist nor True returned emails or calls seeking comments.
Precor's re-appearance after a number of years of non-attendance had the show buzzing, and show management swooning. The booth, however, had little except commercial product that was introduced in the spring and a couple of lonely looking staffers. The meeting room below the floor was where the action was, with a line of new and updated treadmills and ellipticals that were arriving at retail in August and September being shown to Precor's retail customers.
"There are a variety of reasons why," said spokesman Jim Zahniser for the private room. "For many companies, trade shows are all about 'opening new doors.' With a great dealer network, which is a very important part of our business, we already have the right doors. We work closely with our dealers, to support and grow their businesses. Rather than expand distribution outside of our dealer network, as appropriate we'll encourage new doors within our dealer network.
"I would say," he added, "that the bottom line is that there's no single best way to have a successful show presence."
Although Smooth's show floor booth space had nothing in it except a couple of tables scattered with literature, the meeting room below had an open door. Inside was its new Agile DMT, a sleek machine ("dynamic motion trainer") that would fall into the "A-Train" category -- a name that SNEWS® coined in its 2007 GearTrends® magazine for trainers that aren't quite ellipticals or steppers or hikers but a mix (click here to read that story, "Take the A-Train," on page 38.)
Denny deGrazia, vice president of sales for Smooth, which had a press debut of the product in a hotel meeting room in New York mid-September, said the company wanted a captive audience, one that wasn't distracted with show floor goings-on and passers-by, but mentioned that it would take a hard look at that decision. All that aside, the Agile is a sleek light-commercial machine (list $4,000) with 20 different resistance levels and 12 different motion ranges.
Get a room
How do some companies get private rooms? It's not just about laying down the bucks, although some do get a room as part of a sponsorship package. After a brouhaha a few years ago where at least one company that wasn't an exhibitor was allowed meeting space (and those who paid more dollars to be on the floor raised a ruckus), show management decided meeting rooms could only be had by those who also had a booth on the floor. The intention, although no limitations have been set, was for the space to be used for additional private meetings with dealers or to show prototypes. The continued fuss this year has show management reconsidering its policy, although no commitment has been made whether or not changes could be made.
"HFB is reviewing its policy on meeting space for future events," show director Lance Camisasca told SNEWS®. "Management may decide to adjust the rules on who qualifies for the opportunity to secure additional meeting space and/or how much time will be permitted in these auxiliary spaces. Meeting space at HFB has been a valuable menu option for many of the retail fitness segment's major players and will indeed be offered again in the future."
Lately, however, with the speed in which competitors can knock-off a newly unveiled piece and bring it to market at the same time or even before the company showing it, more and more companies have taken more underground.
"We really believe innovation is the lifeblood of a brand. It's the lifeblood of an industry," said Colleen Logan, vice president of marketing for Icon Fitness, parent of FreeMotion Fitness, which showed three prototypes behind a curtain in a room. Logan noted that Icon has nearly 200 patents and another 50 or so in the works.
"Patentable features are really really hard to develop," she said, therefore forcing the company to make sure that any piece is ready-for-market before it appears in a public forum like a trade show. "But," she also added, "once it's out and available to buy, it's on the show floor."
She also debated the argument that the private rooms distract or diminish the value of a show, but rather said they are still part of a show. She defined a "show" as the entire package of the experience for an attendee. That package may include show floor exhibits, private rooms, morning workouts, evening dinners and parties.
Glanger, of Fitcorp, said his company saw more great, new innovative products at this show than it has at a show in a long time.
"However," he added, "get rid of those rooms. "It's a trade show after all. If it's that confidential, we understand. But many exhibitors were showing ready-to-deliver products. Put it all on one level and we will all get more done."
SNEWS® View: We understand the need for some private meeting space since a trade show is about doing business and focused meetings are a part of business. We also understand the need to show rough pieces of equipment, prototypes, or designs in process to get feedback from retailers and others in the industry. With the show being a gathering of the industry, it becomes an ideal venue to get a lot of feedback all at once to further development. There are, however, two areas we don't agree with and which are points we believe caused the most voices to be raised in opposition:
>> Showing ready-to-ship product behind closed doors: If it's ready to ship and the stuff is going to be at retail within four to eight weeks or so, then why act like it's some government secret? Let the "wow" factor help energize the floor and even bring a buzz to a company's booth too. Nothing says "success" more than a booth that is busy with a vibe that reaches across several aisles, turns heads and gets people talking. Taking that buzz off-the-floor does a disservice to the show that is the annual meeting place for the industry. If the company feels it will benefit by being at the show, it too must see the value of said show, so why bite the hand that feeds by killing floor energy? That in the end could actually kill the show. Then what?
>> Holding events and parties during show hours: It's one thing to take a couple of folks here and there off the floor; it's an entirely different matter to take DOZENS of people off the floor all at once. With at least two and perhaps three end-of-day catacomb events being held, the show floor emptied. "Where'd everybody go?" Downstairs, it seemed. OK, so it's only dozens and there are a lot more than that at the show. BUT the show isn't big enough that dozens don't leave their mark. And once the floor starts feeling dead, others start to get the itch to head out. We applaud Bodyguard for having its party on the floor. Its booth was hopping. Show management even had drinks and munchies at the end of the second day in the Community Hub/SNEWS® booth. There's nothing better than something (food and drink helps!) at the end of the day to keep a floor buzzing and provide a networking opportunity. The show really isn't just about sizing up the newest motors, decks, belts and drives, but also about meeting people in a casual arena to strike up new business and get multiple brains churning on some idea nobody would have thought of sitting in isolation at a desk.
Then, of course, there is the matter of companies that go off-site to have their own shows that, gee whiz, just happen to be during the same days of the show. We will continue to hold a hard-line on those: It's an outrage. What it says is, yes, the show is important but, no, we don't want to support it by our presence or our dollars. Instead we just want to take advantage of it. Just like leeches, this practice draws life blood from the show host and does nothing for the industry as a whole.
SNEWS® most certainly doesn't want to flog the show or the majority of exhibitors. Show management is working hard to find the best solution that will help the show and help its customers. It is a show that needs to be supported by all, not just some. Raising your voices to the show about how you feel -- one way or the other -- would help it know there are opinions. It is important that all exhibitors ante up to support the only retail-centric show for this industry. Let's not let it die at our own hands.