Dealer Expo 2009, Part I: Overview
February 19, 2009
Every February, powersports dealers from around the nation descend on grey, shivery, boring Indianapolis to see what’s new in the industry. It’s a chance for manufacturers, importers, and distributors to wine and dine their dealers and hopefully round up some orders for the upcoming riding season. This was our third year at DealerExpo, though it was our first with actual 2strokebuzz press passes. (in the past, we’ve posed as employees of Pride of Cleveland Scooters.) The show consists of two huge exhibition spaces at the Indianapolis Convention Center, plus the field of the Indianapolis Colts’ football stadium (which moved into the new Lucas Oil Stadium this year). Booths, exhibits, dealer meetings, and conferences also fill the many smaller dining rooms, hallways, and lobbies that link the hotels, conference center, and stadium.
With several hundred exhibitors competing for attention, the typical motorcycle show tactics are geared up a notch, so double all the misogyny and hillbilly antics you’ve grown to expect from, say, the Cycle World travelling show. But amidst all the fringed leather, neon, and booming out-of-date rap-metal, there are an awful lot of scooters, and the midwest-central location draws a lot of our favorite dealers. While Dealer Expo show mainly targets motorcycle and ATV dealers, scooters have clearly taken on a greater role in the industry in the past couple years. Despite the declining economy, motorcyle sales were in the black in 2008 and scooter sales were through the roof. Dealer Expo has become the premier marketplace for scooter manufacturers, with established brands fighting for market share, and the lesser- or un-known brands fighting for importers.
In this quest for both distribution and legitimacy, the Chinese scooter industry reserved a couple medium-sized conference rooms in an adjoining hotel in 2006 and 2007 and labelled it the “Chinese Pavilion.” Just a year later, in 2008, the Chinese Pavillion filled almost half the football stadium. This year, even though China seemingly stepped back a bit with fewer exhibitors showing fewer bikes, scooters still filled a majority of the stadium space. Of course, non-chinese scooters were all over, too.
With the economy being what it is, it was clear that almost everyone had scaled back. Attendance was visibly down, with certain corners of the show almost devoid of foot traffic as many dealers either scaled back their entourage to cut costs, or avoided the show altogether. Valentine’s Day falling smack-dab in the middle of the show probably kept a few folks home, as well. There seemed to be fewer exhibitors, too, and the cheapish fabric shopping bags, stickers, candy, and promo items found at many booths in past years were replaced by even cheaper plastic bags, and very little to fill them with. Even the hallways and staircases that were covered with directional signage and advertisements in past years seemed much more sparse this year.
Sadly, many of the big (and small) names in scooters didn’t even exhibit this year. Kymco probably started the trend when they bypassed the show last year and still had a record U.S. sales year. Needless to say, they weren’t exhibiting this year either, though they did send some representatives.
Last year, money was no object for Power Sports Factory, who had prominent advertisments on every flat surface (including the nametags), a large and handsome booth, and Mario Andretti in the house for an autograph session. This year, PSF had no presence at all, with CF Moto taking their place as big-spender on advertising and signage. Hyosung, who had a huge 2-story booth two years ago, wasn’t present. LS Motorsports ended their self-inflicted torture and chose not to display their Diamo scooters, let alone their vaporware Italjets or Fischer motorcycles. Schwinn, who had a huge compound and free beer in ’07, was gone. CMSI also stayed home, denying us our annual look at the TNG range and the now-surely-defunct “L-series” modern Lambretta-style scooter.
Despite an Italian Trade Commission compound that was even bigger than their home from last year, the Piaggio Group (Vespa, Piaggio, Moto Guzzi, Aprilia) was notably absent. Some Piaggio dealers I talked to theorized that Piaggio was afraid to face their dealers, with their reckless dealer expansion of the past few years already coming back to haunt them. Still, to be fair, few major motorcycle manufacturers exhibit at Dealer Expo, possibly because the Cycle World International Motorcycle Show tour overlaps Dealer Expo (in this case, running concurrently in Minneapolis).
With a few exceptions, the manufacturers that did exhibit generally had smaller booths than we’ve seen in the past couple years, fewer display bikes, and very few new models. Though some dealers and importers seem confident the scooter boom will reignite when spring comes, (and it very well may!) few are taking any risks.
Aside from actual vehicle manufacturers and distributors, which we’ll come back to in Part II, the show is mainly a showcase for parts, riding gear, and accessories. Giant middle-man distributors like Tucker Rocky and Parts Unlimited dominate the market, and obviously make the most of Dealer Expo, but hundreds of smaller outfits, many already distributed by Tucker Rocky or Parts Unlimited, also set up shop in the hopes of attracting new dealers. Magazines, business software developers, financial service companies, appraisers, and manufacturers of retail fixtures and displays also seize the opportunity to connect with customers.
Few of these exhibitors are directly scooter-related, and we were disappointed that Scoot! Magazine and Corazzo weren’t exhibiting this year, mainly because they usually throw a great party on Saturday night. Only two scooter-specific businesses were present: Jason from Battlescooter was manning a small booth displaying upgrades for the Honda Ruckus and other Japanese scooters, and Adam and Karrie represented Scooterworks’ wholesale division, Scooterworks Direct, in a booth adjacent to Genuine’s.
That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of great stuff to see. Helmets and riding gear seemed to be the one segment where some money was thrown around, possibly because there’s so much competition for dealers’ attention. Fulmer had one of the most talked-about booths, decorated in day-glow flowers and staffed with tie-died reps handing out colorful bandanas. Their booth featured a lounge with a couch, 60s music, and vintage rock posters on display, and they threw one of the very few big parties on Saturday night.
Our current favorite helmet company, Scorpion, had a slightly-scaled back but still large and well-staffed booth featuring live scorpions and a large metallic scorpion sculpture. Despite their misogynistic advertising, we’re in love with the EXO-400 helmet, especially in “Neon,” (day-glo chartreuse) and we were excited to see matching Neon riding gear and the the EXO-400 neon in kids sizes! (Milena’s growing fast).
Nolan’s N102 N-Com flip up, our favorite flip-up helmet, is available in a few new colors, too, including this Vespa-ish metallic green. O’Neal’s Rockhard helmet series features licensed helmets from Lynrd Skynrd, Kiss, Elvis, Motorhead, and Evel Kneivel.
A few clothing and gear brands are starting to “get it,” with utilitarian, non-ridiculous designs. Icon was looking promising in this respect, though they seem to be getting cornier lately. The motorcycle gear market in general remains perpetually five years behind trends. Will we ever escape tribal patterns, “Power Ranger” jackets, gothic type, faux-japanese dragons, and the like? It was nice to not see a single West Coast/Orange County Choppers-licensed item in the whole show (though we tried hard to not look too closely) but that trend is superseded by the “Ed Hardy by Christian Audigier” crap that filled at least two large compounds. I like retro tattoos, Ed Hardy’s probably a righteous dude, but a chain of stores selling tattoo-inspired apparel churned out by the same slick-looking frenchman that tarnished Von Dutch’s name for eternity has just about nothing to do with individuality or creativity. Models: cheer up! When you’re all oiled up and too slutty for Bebe, you’ve got somewhere to go.
That covers the overview of the show. In PART II, we’ll look at Genuine, TGB, SYM, Hammerhead (Venti!), and Flyscooter/CPI. Promise. In PART III, we’ll compare electric bikes from Vectrix, Ultra Motor, and E-Volt, and in PART IV, we’ll see what Taiwan had to say about themselves at the Taiwan Symposium.