|WHERE WERE YOU WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKED?|
By John Copeland
Having just returned from the 1997 edition of Kart Expo International, I'm wading my way through lots of thoughts about the event and the karting industry in general. In the 3 years that I have been an exhibitor at Kart Expo the overall caliber of exhibitors and their exhibits has changed dramatically. Expo organizers have made it very clear that, while these events are "selling shows" for retailers, their primary focus is on manufacturers, distributors, and dealers meeting each other and the public. Each year fewer and fewer retailers set up stacks of bulk merchandise in hopes of selling it "swap meet style."
Instead, more and more exhibitors have concentrated on promotion, rather than direct sales. Chassis manufacturers show off their latest and greatest creations, then refer potential buyers to their nearest dealer. Accessory manufacturers, both strictly karting and more generally motorsports related, offer some direct sales opportunities, but their focus seems to be more on sales to others in the karting industry, rather than to the karting public.
The level of professionalism in exhibiting has gone up dramatically as well. The curtain backdrops provided by the exhibition hall are giving way to more hi-tech, hi-style professional displays. The printed signs identifying the occupant of each booth are being replaced by eye-catching, sometimes moving, company logos. In short, Kart Expo is beginning to look like a real industry trade exhibition.
The visitors to Kart Expo this year said a lot about how the event is evolving too. A significant portion of the traffic this year was people involved in the business of karting and kart-related activities. Representatives of retail kart shops, engine builders, and others toured the show, meeting current suppliers and looking for new ones. People in the industry, even if they didn't think that their business was big enough to exhibit at Kart Expo, came out to see what was new and exciting, and what might have an impact on their karting business. Along with scores of karters and other "casual" show visitors, they worked the aisles up and down, carrying their trade show bags of literature, catalogs, and samples.
It has always struck me as interesting to look not only at who exhibits at these events, but also at who doesn't. More this year than ever before, visitors at Expo asked me "Where's so-and-so?" "Does XYZ have a display?" At a time when American race kart chassis manufacturers are under more pressure than ever from their foreign counterparts, they were substantially outnumbered by Europeans. Only Margay and White chose to showcase their latest and best creations and to woo prospective buyers. Where were all the others? Expo visitors from overseas might conclude that there are only a couple of serious, professional chassis manufacturers in the USA. And how far off would they be in that assessment?
How about the manufacturers of clutches, wheels, brakes, tires, and so on? Of these, only Ohio-based SMC and industry stalwart Max-Torque were there to explain the workings and advantages of their clutches. At a time when interest in tire selection, as it relates to track conditions, is at an all-time high, no tire manufacturers were represented. The only brake systems and wheels on display were foreign-made. Why? Expo visitors had to draw their own conclusions. Some suggested that these major players in the industry probably felt like they had the business sewn up and didn't need to be there. The fact that visitors asked about them, coupled with the traffic that visited their competitors' booths, would suggest otherwise.
Finally, I was interested in the number of karting spin-offs that were at Kart Expo. Junior dragsters, Mini-Cup cars, and 1/4 Midgets were all represented. And they were not there to support karting. They were there to poach; to capitalize on a complacent karting industry and lure our participants, our customers, away from karting and into their form of racing, their industry. And based on the level of interest they generated, they probably will consider their efforts at Kart Expo a success.
We all know that karting is a wonderful family sport, and we can look with pride at how karting has grown and developed. But the participation in karting's only truly independent industry trade show reveals how the karting industry has yet to mature. It suggests that many in the industry, even at the highest levels, fail to recognize what other industries have known for years; top-flight trade shows generate industry growth, encourage cohesive marketing, and provide unbeatable opportunities to advance both individual businesses and the industry as a whole.