Friday, February 25, 2011

On Handmade Bicycle Shows

[image via prollyisnotprobably]

Continuing with the theme of framebuilding, today is the first day of NAHBS 2011 - the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, held this year in Austin, Texas. I received a couple of invitations this time around and for a brief moment considered going... then remembered the state of my finances and swiftly came down to Earth! Besides: To tell the absolute truth, my feelings on NAHBS are mixed.

[image via YiPsan Bicycles]

On the one hand, NAHBS is a great thing. A trade show where some of the best independent framebuilders and component manufacturers showcase their newest work, it is a spectacular multi-day event. If you are into handmade bicycles, attending the show will enable you to visit numerous framebuilders all at once, compare their work, and chat to them about their process. There is also media coverage, which gives exposure not just to individual framebuilders, but to the culture of custom bicycles at large.


New designs, accessories and components are shown off at NAHBS, making rounds on the bicycle blogs and giving us all something to talk about for weeks.

[image via J. Maus]

So, what's the downside? I think there are several issues here. First off, it seems to me that the culture that has developed around the show creates unfair pressure on framebuilders to exhibit, which in turn is a huge financial strain for most of the builders. The fee for a booth at NAHBS is quite a large sum. Add to that the price of airfare and housing, plus the transport and insurance of numerous expensive bicycles, and the cost of exhibiting quickly adds up to several thousand dollars. Most framebuilders I know - even the "big names" - can hardly make ends meet as it is, and feeling compelled to exhibit at NAHBS every year and swallow the expenses involved makes life more difficult still. While it is true that no one is forcing them to go, there is implicit pressure. With NAHBS positioning itself as the biggest/greatest handmade bicycle show, potential customers who follow all the hyped up coverage start to expect framebuilders to exhibit at NAHBS. It is as if exhibiting in itself is perceived as a sign of industry recognition - which in actuality it is not: Any framebuilder with appropriate credentials can pay for a booth.

The other major issue for me, is that I am simply not a fan of centralised and grandiose anything. I don't like the idea of there being "the" handmade bicycle show, which is how NAHBS presents itself. Instead, I'd prefer numerous smaller, regional shows, where the framebuilders exhibit on their own turf and visitors get to see not just the bikes themselves but also the flavours of the local framebuilding cultures. To me such a system seems more interesting, more diverse, and less wasteful of resources than what we get with NAHBS. I know that many may not agree with me, and I mean neither to offend nor to push my views on others - but that is how I see it. We do currently have some regional shows, and my wish is for them to grow stronger and more influential in the years to come. I heard great things about the Philly Bike Expo last year, and will try to make it to the New Amsterdam Bicycle Show in NYC this April. While I follow NAHBS with interest, I do not consider it to be a fully representative display of framebuilding talent.

24 comments:

  1. Well put. I agree.

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  2. Well stated! I agree COMPLETELY!

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  3. Very interesting post. I had never considered the NAHBS in this way before -- thank you for sharing this perspective.

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  4. The regional shows appeal to me. I'd love to be able to attend a show like this, but a multi-day, out of state trip isn't likely to happen. Not having been to NAHBS, I have to wonder if this show is consumer or industry focused. In a previous work life I worked for an engineering company and we'd go to shows that were focused on industries, like oil and gas. So all the focus was inter industry and everyone's "customers" were other industry companies. Whereas auto shows are for customers, getting interest and enticing buyers of the end product (cars). It's be so cool if bicycling was at the point where you'd have the Detroit (or KC or LA, etc) Bike show.

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  5. davidrestes said...
    "...Not having been to NAHBS, I have to wonder if this show is consumer or industry focused. "


    I wonder about that as well. I know that many bicycle manufacturers attend for the sole purpose of scoping out the trends and then applying watered down versions of them to mass produced bicycles. For that sort of thing it is great to have as many good builders as possible display in one big show once a year. (Of course, whether it is good for the builders is another matter.) Also, for the media it is great to attend one show as opposed to several regional ones. But I do wonder how many potential customers go to NAHBS, unless it happens to be local to them on that particular year.

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  6. When I saw the title of this post, I somehow knew it was going to be a pro/con thing! ;-)

    I've been to NAHBS once, when it was here in Portland in 2008. It was a mixed bag for me. The show itself was great, lots of great bikes and all. But I also volunteered (as a way of getting in for free.) I was supposed to check tickets at the door. Pretty much the moment I started my shift the fire marshall decided the venue was overcapacity. So I spent a good hour or so refusing entry to plenty of pissed off folks! I'd be pissed too, if I had just spent $15 or so for an event I couldn't get into! Guess NAHBS in Portland was too successful.

    I've liked the small shows that have happened in Portland since NAHBS. While I wouldn't travel to NAHBS just for the sake of going, I would go if it's in a place I'd like to go. Like Austin.

    More smaller/regional shows are a good idea. There's one coming up in Portland in April. It's not focused on handbuilt, per se, but will definitely have some builders there.

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  7. The current economic and social changes going on in both America and the rest of the world will force a scaling back of all types of shows to be more regional , or local, in nature. The buyers ,or the fans, will have to travel more ,and further, to visit shows that are smaller in scale but richer in content.

    Todays shows are all about "the money" for the promoters which is why they are gala's that depersonalize the products being shown. Sensory overkill in my opinion. I'd sooner visit a few makers in my lifetime than be sensory swamped at a trade show.

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  8. adventure - I know, I seem to be incapable of just plain liking or disliking something, it's annoying : )

    If I were in Portland, I would love to see the Oregon Manifest Constructeur Challenge.

    Walt - but NAHBS began in 2005, so it has actually been thriving with the economic downturn.

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  9. Velouria said...
    "Walt - but NAHBS began in 2005, so it has actually been thriving with the economic downturn."

    Could be but fuel prices are going to be game changers on a vast scale few can even conceive of.....especially the younger generations of the hardships of life with less , or no, oil can bring.

    Society today survives on a thin film of oil. Once that film collapses a new closer to home life style will become the norm.

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  10. personally, i love it! it's like sturgis for bicycle geeks. some of them weird and some of them lovely;-)

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  11. Walt - It will be interesting to see how that plays out. I don't necessarily disagree with you, but that sort of thing is difficult to predict.

    Anon - Don't get me wrong, I'd definitely go if it were within reasonable traveling distance from me. I attend the New England Pen Show (fountain pens) every year, so the geek factor does not deter me : ))

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  12. I would have loved to go, I love anything hand-made (I build custom ukuleles). But it would have been expensive to me. To me the only downside maybe - is that is seems to be a hipster type crowd.

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  13. I was at NAHBS 2009 here in Indianapolis, it was an amazing experience. The city lit up with cyclist and cycling related activities, the event itself was awesome. Very nearly completely consumer focused. Lots of folks buying things, bags, grips, talking to builders about custom frame orders, etc...

    Smaller more intimated shows definitely have a place, but to be able to see sooo many amazing machines in close proximity was awe inspiring.

    If you actually saw some of the things on display in person you might change your thoughts about 'not consider[ing] it to be the most telling display of frame building talent.'

    The Cherubim and Kimori frames were amazing for their 'unusual-ness' and it was worth going just to see how far the form could be stretched.

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  14. Jammy - Oh I didn't mean it like that; some of my favourite framebuilders do exhibit at NAHBS and I consider them extremely talented. I also see new and interesting things via press coverage photos at NAHBS every year. What I meant is that it is not representative, because there are many equally talented framebuilders who don't exhibit due to financial or other constraints, so the stuff we see at NAHBS is only a limited window into what's out there.

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  15. Ah, gotcha :-)

    One thing to consider as far as the costs to the builders go, is that NAHBS, if done correctly is some of the best darn advertising money can buy inside the bicycle world. A large chunk of what they spend to make it happen should be tax deductible, something most business owners dig on. Yes you have to pay your booth and expenses out of pocket when you go, but next year it can help your bottom line.

    I personally really want to go to the Oregon Manifest...mmm constructor bikes.

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  16. As an owner of an emerging bicycle company I completely agree that show like this put too much financial pressure and expectations on independent craftsmen that it might be hard to enjoy their time there. Instead of investing all my financial resources into attending a similar national event I organized a local one with the goal of affordability and to strengthen the regional bicycle community. I would rather meet and raise awareness of my products locally rather than blasting into some expensive national event where my efforts might be drowned out.

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  17. Agreed! I was going to surprise my paramour this weekend with a bike ride that ended up at the show, until I discovered that tickets are $22 at the door?!?! Unfortunately, locals in Austin suffer alot when it comes to events: most of the time, we are out-priced and out-foxed and cannot go. Austin is the mecca of all things cool and hip (ref: SXSW in 2 weeks, ACLfest in October), but much of the time, we locals who do not earn alot of money but yet love the city and the forces its gravity attracts, are not able to enjoy them. Bummer....I was really excited. But perhaps you are right: if only it was a smaller show...

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  18. I'd pay $22 to go, but I can't pay for the airfare and accommodations. Maybe one year they'll hold it in New England.

    Anon - Personally, I think the best way for a framebuilder to "rise" is via an organic/democratic process. A couple of people take the plunge and order a frame. They love it and take lots of pictures, write about it, post stuff online, so others get curious and order the builder's frames as well, until the name becomes well known. No authoritative validation necessary.

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  19. Since I live in NJ and NAHBS was on the east coast last year, I went for the first time. I'd have to say, it blew me away. So many beautiful bikes and most of their builders in one big room. It seemed like anyone who was anyone was there.

    My husband and I are newbie framebuilders, growing our company since 2009. We feel the pressure you're talking about. It's like we're not "official" until we exhibit at NAHBS. After struggling with these thoughts and our finances, we finally decided to focus on regional shows, which seem to be popping up everywhere. After all, a grand majority of our customers come from the NY Metropolitan area. Last year, we went to the Philly Bike Expo and participated in various art shows, local festivals, and bike rides and events. This year, we'll be adding the New Amsterdam Bike Show to our list.

    I hope to see more regional bike shows in the future and really appreciate your post on the topic.

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  20. Certainly, all of Velouria's comments are well thought out and accurate, but "it is true that no one is forcing them to go" runs to the heart of it. Bicycle building is a mix of business, art, and ego.

    A builder that indulges the last two at the expense of the first should do some careful self-examination if his/her build business is not starving for customers. If business IS lean, the smart builder will examine marketing options and might decide the expense of a big show will not achieve enough business reward compared to an organic marketing approach.

    Nobody forces automotive manufacturers to go racing internationally, but many famous companies have gone broke doing it. For a few, the racing built the company. Why should bike builders be any different?

    The bicycle world would be poorer if national shows did not exist, even if I, personally, would be unwilling to pay even $22 to go to one and even though my own reaction to many of the bikes is "that may be a pretty bike, but it'd be completely USELESS in the real world."

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  21. In my youth, I attended three of the International Bicycle Shows at the old New York Coliseum. It was an industry-oriented event: I got in only because I was working in a bike shop and the owner took me as one of his guests.

    It was pretty much the only show in town, literally and figuratively, for bicycles in the US. All manner of bike makers, from the ones who manufactured the lowliest K-Mart specials to the finest artisinal builders, were there. So were component and accessory makers, from Campagnolo and Mavic down to the (then) cut-rate manufacturers from Taiwan.

    Then the bike business was something of a cult. That meant that there was a certain geeky "cool" factor about being able to attend. But there was an interesting dynamic between the suited executives of companies like Shimano and neo-hippie bike shop employees at the show.

    I've never been to an NAHBS. If it were near me, I'd go just to have a look, as I appreciate finely crafted bikes and other things. Still, I have mixed feelings about it.

    I got into cycling at a time when it was still largely a mom-and-pop business. But, ironically, there didn't seem to be the infrastructure, if you will, of regional shows that's been developing over the past decade or so. If you wanted to learn about some framebuilder's latest project or the newest component technology, you pretty much had to go to the IBS. And it was not open to the publc. That, in the days before the Internet.

    I'm happy to see those regional shows, and that NAHBS is open to the public. However, the prohibitive costs Velouria cites could lead to further domination by the big, institutional companies like Trek and Giant. Will we lose some of the smaller builders and "niche" companies? If we do, we probably won't have the regional shows anymore, either.

    All of what I've described roughly parallels what's happened to racing in Europe over the past 25 years or so. Until the mid '80's, racers earned their reputations in regional races and the one-day classiques. Eddy Mercx won something like 400 such races during his career. The Tour de France wins were icing on the cake. Today, however, the sport is increasingly dominated by the Big Three--le Tour, il Giro and la Vuelta--all of which are sponsored, as the teams that participate in them are, by large companies like Nike and Coca-Cola.

    What this means is that there are fewer cycling fans in such former cycling hotbeds as France. And, because the emphasis on bigness has made cycling a much more expensive sport to get into, many athletically talented young people (particularly those of African and Middle Eastern descent) are opting for football (soccer) rather than cycling.

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  22. I'll take a well-stocked swap meet over a trade show any day of the week. At least at the swap meet I might come home with something.

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  23. I enjoyed the Larz Anderson Bike Show last year very much, but wish they'd had more mid-tier stuff for sale. Most of the bikes and components were either collector's pieces or the dregs of basements, but not much in the middle.

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  24. My impression is that NAHBS is set up to do pretty much what Velouria is asking for. It's a small industry so it can't support annual shows for each region; instead it wanders around, letting local/regional shoppers and builders in on the fun as it swoops by. Sure, some nat'l acts display every year, but I bet there's a lot of regionalism at each stop. Of course, no one is stopping anyone else from doing smaller/local/regional shows. But it IS big and that certainly can be overwhelming. I enjoyed the rush of the Indy NAHBS (my neck of the woods) but it WAS intense. One needs to know how to "do" such events, which I don't. Being there the whole time seems smart: I eventually calmed down and honed in on why I was there. "Doing shows" is a skill -- but many do burn out. Also, the after-parties sure are fun. Meeting the Classics Rendezvous List folks at a dinner then going over to hang out at Joe's Bike Shop made for a memorable evening. 2 other parties, one hosted by Momentum, the other by Embrocation and Rapha capped things off. Regarding smaller events, I've heard the CR's Cirque Show is swell. They have new KoF bikes there, right? (Hmm, just checking their sites reveals a lull on one side but events still happening.) I'd think that most regions DO have nifty bike-ish shows these days. Here in Mid-Mich. we have a couple, with the QWS coming soon (3/5): I saw a young framebuilder there a couple years ago. It's cheap and good, with 100+ booths, 1500 folks -- a great cabin-fever buster.

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