I’ve been attending Dealer Expo since 1980, when I went there on a mission to determine whether it was worthwhile for my then-employer, Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA, to exhibit. A lot of years have passed since that time, and I haven’t attended every year since 1980, but I did attend many of the shows in the ’90s and have been in Indy regularly since 1999. It’s been interesting watching the show develop and change over the years.
As the industry started to regain its health in 1994, Dealer Expo began to get bigger and bigger, with more exhibitors and more attendees growing alongside the industry. At one point, the show was busting with more than a thousand exhibitors and more than 15,000 attendees. Many of you Indy veterans who were at the show before the Indiana Convention Center completed its expansion will recall booths filling all the existing exhibit space, even into the hallways, and overflowing into the Westin and Marriott hotels across the street. It seemed that you could wander into a closet and find an exhibitor.
My introduction to this year’s Dealer Expo and the American V-Twin Dealer Show was through the doors at the end of the hall that housed the registration areas. It was familiar and, at the same time, different and a little disorienting. I’ll confess that this year I didn’t have time to thoroughly tour the entire show, but I did see most of it.
In past years I’ve noticed that exhibitors don’t do enough at their booths to let dealers know that they’ve got something new or that they’ve made significant improvements to existing products. I recall seeing only one exhibitor with a sign featuring black letters on a hi-viz green background that touted something new. It caught my eye, and was reason enough to wander over to an otherwise pedestrian 10x10 exhibit to check it out.
Going through the Helmet Marketplace was like walking through an Easter egg exhibit — there were an infinite number of colors and designs, as well as types. The one brand that took a contrarian design position was Schuberth, which had an open display with black carpet, and black helmets mounted on black plinths. Schuberth exhibit staff dressed in black. It stood out in stark contrast to everyone else.
Tucker Rocky’s large exhibit at the show was divided up by product category and featured its house brands. Parts Unlimited, which used to dominate the floor with its tractor trailer rigs and large footprint, downsized this year, although the bright blue-and-white-shirted reps seemed to be everywhere. Western Power Sports (WPS) was probably the most visible major distributor, with a large, two-story exhibit that dominated that portion of the exhibit hall. You could tell just judging by the exhibit, and the number of WPS-clad reps walking around, that the good folks in Idaho have upped the ante in the distribution game.
The Chinese had a presence in a couple of locations. There was the Chinese Pavilion, with its collection of 10x10 booths and, some distance away, a number of vehicle manufacturers. (I’m always mystified by the products in the pavilion. While the range is pretty comprehensive, I find some products to be rather odd; for example, taillight and headlight assemblies, individual gears, various electrical components and so on. Who buys this stuff, and what does it fit? It seems to me that if you have need for a taillight assembly, you get one from the OEM or salvage yard, or you find an aftermarket item designed specifically for the motorcycle.)
I don’t see a lot of Chinese-manufactured vehicles at any of my local powersports dealers in Southern California, and I haven’t seen much advertising in the trades, and none in enthusiast magazines, so I was surprised to see as many as I did on the floor.
As in the past, there’s a lot of design copy going on. Honda’s Ruckus seems to have developed any number of Chinese twin brothers. Can-Am’s Spyder also has been cloned, though not anywhere close to the sophistication level of the original. It’s difficult to comment on product quality, but it appears to be uneven — some companies seem to be putting more effort into it than others, though no one that I looked at stood out.
What did surprise me about the Chinese vehicles was the number of electric-powered scooters and minibikes being shown. If these units prove to be reliable, and they’re able to establish a reputable distribution network, this could be China’s chance to gain a foothold in the U.S. two-wheel market. An electric scooter in an urban environment seems to make a lot of sense. Maintenance and reliability issues are minimized. The ability to re-charge on a standard household 110V outlet makes things easy. The limited range of electric scooters shouldn’t be an issue in an urban environment. And the capacity to carry packages like a bag of groceries is a definite plus. Maybe I’m stretching it too far, but EVs could be the Cub 50 of the 2000s, breathing some new life into our industry.
If you missed this year’s Dealer Expo and American V-Twin Dealer Show, you missed a lot. In spite of a market still emerging from the doldrums, exhibitors and buyers seemed positive and upbeat. The aftermarket is evolving, and bringing improved and new products into the market that will make powersports more enjoyable for all participants. You need to plan on going next year if you want to keep abreast of what’s new in products, trends, sales techniques and marketing.
This story originally appeared in the Dealernews April 2012 issue.