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Powersports Market On Road To Recovery

It’s been nearly a decade since the economic meltdown of the mid-’00s dealt a way harsh wakeup call to a party the powersports community thought would never stop.

The Everest-like growth curve many believed/hoped/wished would go on forever collapsed like a 3-pack a day smoker on an Ironman swim-bike-run.

It’s against that backdrop that last week’s second annual AIMExpo powersports trade and consumer show in Orlando, in just its second year, seems to have planted their flag firmly atop the carcass of the once invincible Dealernews Dealer Expo, whose looming Chicago in December winter wonderland reincarnation of the event brand they once owned outright, seems now officially and forever dead in the court of public opinion.

Dealer Expo’s Free Fall Failure Astonishing

Launched in the ’80s, Advanstar’s steady growth as the aftermarket’s premier trade marketing event dwarfed powersports competitors efforts before and after the move from Cincinnati to Indianapolis in 1998.

For decades Dealer Expo referred to itself as, “…the largest powersports event in the world,” and for a few brief years mid-’00s that was undoubtedly true, owing much to mainland China’s support of their sketchy scooter-based powersports economy and the interest generated by a short-lived spike in gas prices.

AIMExpo booth girls get the party started in Orlando.

AIMExpo booth girls get the party started in Orlando.

The Indy move primed the pump for the Harley crybaby parts segment to launch their own 2001 show. It was wagons ho right back to Cincinnati, where V-Twin Expo launched as an extension of the Paisano Publication’s Easyriders brand in a strategy that also served to support the nearby Columbus bike show of the same parentage.

While there were some manufacturers and distributors who thought two different events two weeks and 100 miles apart made perfect sense, that particular logic was lost on most. Because neither they, nor the all important dealers they courted, couldn’t, logistically and/or financially, support back to back shows in the same market.

But the biggest problem was that this bifurcated philosophy could only benefit show producers, not the dealers who trod the aisles and who were cut off from discovering any cross-over connection they might otherwise make.

In Seemingly Good Times, No Need To LIsten

In the late ’90s I’d ask various Dealer Expo insiders why the midwest in midwinter when there were demonstrably better venues in warmer climes a quick plane hop away. The knee-jerk answer was always the same; draw a 150-mile radius around first Cincy, then Indy, and you could throw a blanket over a large concentration of the country’s powersports dealers. None of whom, presumably, longed for an opportunity to escape winter’s dreary cold clutches for a quick writeoff south to the orange blossom scented byways of Florida.

For the powersports crowd, it could be that a site somewhat more forgiving would be just as appealing. I’ve always thought Orlando just before Bike Week (or in the Fall, before the catalog season) would be a natural draw. But be that as it may, the show’s in Cincy, and in Cincy is apparently where it’ll stay.

In 2004, just before the bloom fell off the rose, I asked Paisano’s then marketing director why not do everyone a favor and move the show to Orlando? The answer was a stunner: she doubted whether or not Central Florida’s Disney-Universal Studios driven tourist economy could accommodate the V-twin crowd.

In 2005, American Motorcycle Dealer tasked me to research Southern California and Las Vegas venues for a combined four-day powersports trade and custom bike show, with trade first then consumer attendance. I recommended Orlando be included, which ended up scoring best on all counts including cost, travel, support, and proximity to a known quantity, BiketOberfest. The final decision was to promote a Sturgis Bike Week builder’s contest.

AIMExpo Challenges, Advanstar Obliges

By 2008, it was obvious the wheels were literally falling off. Dealer Expo was supported as much by lawnsweepers, cheap throwaway scooters, and flash in the pan “custom choppers” as by the traditional powersports core of aftermarket parts manufacturers. Rather than downsize and retain integrity, booths like Jack Daniel’s “Liquor In The Front, Poker In The Rear” frat boy display offered zero value to attendees. The show had become more of a flea market than a market driven value added dealer resource.

In 2012 AIME issued their challenge to powersports’ struggling Dealer Expo by announcing a 2013 trade-consumer show in Orlando. Advanstar responded by tying in an IMS show to run concurrently with Dealer Expo, beginning in February, 2013, and followed up by floating an improbable trial balloon of a second Fall show somewhere, an idea which evaporated faster than lizard sweat on a hot day.

Dealer Expo 2013 landed with a massive thud. The follow-on fall show that was to be a bridge to a permanent October event was scrapped, and it was announced that the premier venue would find a new home in Chicago for a December date in 2014 while totally skipping the traditional February expo. AIMExpo organizers Larry Little and Mike Webster couldn’t have been more pleased by the opportunity to host back-to-back trade shows while Dealer Expo took a year off. Cha-ching.

Powersports is not a monolithic market like motorsports. A show like SEMA can only exist in a venue like Las Vegas. All of this is to say that the powersports aftermarket finally understands that a Central Florida located, combined public-private event, synched to a nearby existing ride-in event like BiketOberfest, makes obvious sense. And dollars.