1982 - 2018
By R. CunninghamVikings
were farmers by trade. It was hard work, but it was seasonal - much like running a bicycle retail store. There was little to do in the interim between when their crops were established and harvest time, so they armored up, grabbed their swords, hopped into their long-boats and went night clubbing in Northern Europe and the British Isles. Maybe Interbike founders Steve Ready and Herb Wetenkamp knew these things when they founded a new trade show and moved it from winter - when dealers were either ramping up for Christmas or preparing for spring - to autumn, when they were cash-rich from the summer selling season and absolutely nothing was going out the door except inner-tubes for parsimonious college students.
Maybe they didn't, but their timing was right. After Interbike made the permanent move to Las Vegas, Ready and Wetenkamp had the entire bicycle industry clamoring into their boats, for what would quickly become a hedonistic week, loosely based around buying and selling bicycle stuff. Sure, it was a crappy place for cyclists, but in a few weeks' time most of the Northern Hemisphere was going to be a crappy place for cyclists. Flights were cheap, weather was always good, and everything you could possibly want was within walking distance. It was eat, drink, be merry, and talk about bikes - and you could expense every penny. Interbike crushed its competition and quickly rose to international prominence.
Interbike Co-Founder Steve Ready. BRAIN photo
In its heyday, Interbike was all of the above and then some. I attended almost all of Interbike's shows - as a little guy, displaying a couple of bikes in one of the peanut gallery's ten by ten-foot squares; representing a corporate brand in a central island; and a long stint as a tech editor. The expo was the most important event on the calendar for many years.Why Interbike Was Important
Interbike wasn't all fun and games. Orders were placed, money changed hands, but the main purpose that Interbike served was to become cycling's annual show-and-tell, where retailers, especially the ones who had their heads down and hands busy for nine months each year, could see, touch and learn about all of the coming season's products and trends. Ready got that. He crafted Interbike to be a gathering of bicycle people, where the most important business at hand was networking, developing new or strengthening old relationships, and having an opportunity to immerse your key employees in the larger picture.
Unless you date back to the '80's it may be hard to understand why that was such a big deal. Conceptualize a time before people were interconnected by mobile phones and internet apps. Dealers who wanted to preview a new product could page through a glossy catalog provided by bike brands, hope for a review to appear in a magazine, or if the shops were members of a larger brand's top 50 retailers, they might to be invited to an exclusive pre-show at corporate headquarters.
Consider how dynamic the industry was,
Anything and everything rolled through the aisles.
with mountain bikes, the purple CNC component revolution, freestyle BMX and Triathlon exploding, and you can understand why it was worth a plane ticket and the cost of a hotel to experience it all first hand.
The same was true for the media. If reporters were lucky, they would occasionally be granted an exclusive preview, but for most, expositions like Interbike were the first and only opportunity to preview and photograph the latest and greatest widgets. Miss Interbike and you might have to wait three months before the production versions were available. Bike and accessory makers typically valued positive show coverage by prominent publications more than sales. Show issues were so popular they often doubled circulation, so it was quite common for marketing managers to leap into the aisles like hunting spiders and physically pull editors into their displays.The Technology Gap
Trade-only shows hinged upon the old-school assumption that knowledge was passed from the manufacturing brand, to the retailer, who then used that information as a sales tool to inform the customer. Dealers provided customer feedback to bike makers, completing the loop. Interbike's aisles were the halls of learning where bike brands and retailers traded most of that information. Rapid technological changes, however, primarily from the mountain bike sector, created an ever-widening information gap which would forever rewrite that equation.
Many bike dealers, some of whom had fallen behind from the sport's inception, failed to keep up with the steep learning curve caused by a barrage of new frame standards, alternative materials, suspension development, and drivetrain innovations. Grass roots mountain bikers were the ones pushing for those improvements, so in response, bike brands turned to the media as a way to reach around retailers and take their message directly to end customers. Media launches soon supplanted the trade show as the most effective method for a brand to communicate its technology and identity, which spelled the beginning of the end for Interbike.
Media launches migrated to the summer months when riding conditions were guaranteed to be better, so by the time Interbike came around in September, journalists had to work hard to find interesting products to write about. More often than not, I would be met by a familiar brand manager at the threshold of a corporate display by, "Well you've already seen all of our new stuff, so would you like a beer?" Media launches, even those in exotic locations, also turned out to be more cost effective than trade shows. One by one, the sport's larger players opted out of Interbike altogether, preferring to sequester their retailers in private, where they could bring them up to speed in a similar, learn-and-ride context.Social Media Metes Out the Crushing Blow
Search engines and social media ripped down the veils that once retarded the flow of information between bike brands, retailers and riders. The smart phone made it accessible at any time and from almost any location worldwide. Bike brands could publish their marketing message and technical information unfiltered by the opinions of established media personalities. Retailers could access and compare technical information and pricing from every brand, and almost any other retailer.
The most empowered member in this chain of communication, however, was the end customer, who for the first time, could watch sponsored racer's instagrams for secret prototypes, Google product
images, and compare sizing, prices, specifications, reviews, action videos, and rider's opinions in a few minutes. Consumers could make an informed choice in private, and purchase on line without outside pressure. When everyone in the chain has access, it does away with the drama - which brings us back to the Vikings...
Pillaging Europe every summer probably took a while before it got old. Once you've hacked and burned every village and monastery beyond the far horizon a few times, however, you get to know the locals. Some of the Vikings put down roots there too, so besides the fact that the man whose head you are about to cleave might be your cousin, at some point, everybody in Europe who lived near a body of water was clued in that you'd be visiting in June, so they learned to have their gold and silver ready. Vikings thus became successful traders, but where's the fun in that? "Hey guys let's row our longboats across the North Sea to buy wool kilts from my uncle Thorson?" Good luck with that.RIP Interbike: 1982 - 2018
Doctors would probably say that the information age ultimately took the life of the longest running trade show in the US. We are interconnected now, we know how each other's kids are doing, who's fat, who's fit and which one of us is making bank. Social media had elevated networking to a global level, and by the time September rolled around, we'd seen about all there was to see that would be on display on the glitzy Island of Interbike. Nevada is a long way to row for a repeat performance. No surprise that many long-time supporters of the show left their boats moored in port. In a way, it was kind that expo owner Emerald
Expositions Events gave Interbike a Viking funeral before nobody was left to mourn its passing.
History, in its darkest hours, always provides a lesson. Interbike was successful because it brought the industry together, but in doing so, it excluded the sport's most important player. While industry bike warriors were busy fighting and reveling in Interbike's carpeted halls, the information age quietly handed the keys to the kingdom to their rightful heirs. Customers have all the power now, and the trade-only show, is dead.