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Industry Leader — Mike Webster

Mike Webster spent more than a quarter century at Advanstar, launching its consumer motorcycle shows and overseeing the company’s B2B trade show. Now, the American International Motorcycle Expo (AIMExpo) is embarking on Year 3 this October in Orlando, and Webster is the man behind the growth at the industry’s newest — and largest — trade show.

As president of the Motorcycle Group at Marketplace Events, the AIMExpo ownership group, Webster has seen the show deliver to exhibitors, dealers, the media and consumers in its first two years. And with even more OEMs and aftermarket companies exhibiting in 2015, there figures to be plenty of growth ahead for the industry’s largest annual trade show in North America.

Now in his seventh year with Marketplace Events, Webster says the idea for AIMExpo originated long before its 2013 launch.

Mike Webster. President, Motorcycle Group/AIMExpo, Marketplace Events

Mike Webster. President, Motorcycle Group/AIMExpo, Marketplace Events

“When I left the industry after 27 years and got my head around Marketplace Events and their home shows, I continued to watch and listen to the powersports industry,” Webster said. “I would get calls and letters regularly: ‘You need to do something in our industry. It’s a mess, and we need your help.’ That’s what really caused me to step up and say ‘Yes, I want to do that, and I can do that.’ And the only reason I was able to do that was because of Mr. Larry Little, because for all intents and purposes, we did it together.

Little, the Motorcycle Group’s second hire after Webster, joined in 2011 with an eye on the 2013 launch. Fast forward to today, and the Orange County, Calif.-based division now has 12 employees. Industry veteran Bob Kay joined the group in October with a focus on building the V-twin aspects of AIMExpo, and Kevin Nixon, formerly of Twisted Throttle, is the new marketing manager at AIMExpo. Future traveling consumer shows have already been announced as plans for the Motorcycle Group, but Webster says AIMExpo is priority No. 1 for now.

“We have plenty of bandwidth with this current team, which is why we’re looking into developing other products that the industry is indicating to us that they would like to see us produce,” Webster said. “We can do more with the team we have, but we’re really focused for now on doing the right thing and providing the best customer service for AIMExpo.”

What is the biggest opportunity for the industry, and how can the industry take advantage of it?

The biggest opportunity is to “sell more of everything”… sell more motorcycles, scooters, ATVs, side-by-sides, parts, accessories, service and repair, installations, insurance, financing, etc. Everyone knows that the largest generation of motorcycle buyers was the Baby Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964. But before that, it was the Traditionalists born before 1946 who pioneered the sport in the U.S. and inspired the Boomers to ride motorcycles. And many of the Gen-Xers followed in the footsteps of their parents, sparked by family weekend trips and vacations to experience the best this country has to offer for motorcyclists and ATVers alike.

Racing events sold out to standing-room-only crowds, and the life of motorcycling was fun and exciting. Then came the Millennials born between 1981 and 2000, who preferred digital literacy, having grown up in a digital environment and never knowing a world without computers. This spawned the Gen-Zers, or Boomlets, born after 2001, who are mostly focused on cell phones, video games, texting, tweeting, Facebooking and generally want more digital in their lives. There is no easy answer on how to take advantage of the opportunity, especially knowing that the future buyers of motorcycles are savvy consumers, and they know what they want and how to get it, and they are brand aware in a world saturated with brands. And what they do buy must be unique and customizable to fit their individual desires.

How do we capture their attention and expose them to motorcycling? How do we inspire them to visit a motorcycle dealer, and how do we turn that curiosity into a sale? How do we show them that motorcycling can be a unique experience and one that is shared with their many friends and is extremely fulfilling. What will certainly help is something similar to that of the MIC’s Discover Today Motorcycling program … on steroids! Let’s create a method by which the motorcycling lifestyle can be shared with them in a very positive environment with spokespersons that speak their language. Let’s take it on the road to shopping malls, concerts, high schools, colleges, fairs and festivals and show them what the motorcycling lifestyle is really about and how it can enrich their lives. And let’s show them how practical and economical it is to ride a scooter around the college campus and to ride a motorcycle to and from work. And let’s show them how amazing and enlightening it is to experience the millions of miles of off-road that this beautiful country has to offer. And of course, let’s get their butts on a seat and show them first hand how easy and enjoyable it is to ride a motorcycle, scooter, ATV or side-by-side.

If everyone in our great industry gets more involved with this undertaking, we will certainly sell more of everything.

What has been the biggest challenge in your current position, and how have you dealt with it?

Our biggest challenge was to develop a new and improved show platform that would serve the needs of the entire motorcycle and powersports industry at large and help them grow their collective businesses. Having been a motorcycle enthusiast for more than 40 years, this gave me a perfect perspective about what consumers in general want, need and desire. While I am a longtime motorcycle enthusiast, I am also an enthusiast of the business of motorcycling.

I love shows because of the face-to-face opportunities they create, which is especially important in the enthusiast market. It’s hard to find someone who works in the motorcycle and greater powersports market who is not also an enthusiast. This creates a great business dynamic. I began working in the motorcycle industry in the mid-1970s, helping produce motorcycle swap meets at the Orange County Fairgrounds during Harry Oxley’s Friday night Speedway Races. I also had the pleasure of working for Harry Oxley on the 1982 World Speedway Final at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, an experience of a lifetime. Also in 1982 I helped launch the first-ever series of consumer motorcycle shows in the U.S., the Great American Motorcycle Shows, now known as the Progressive International Motorcycle Shows, and in 1990 I also took over responsibility for the Dealer Expo and grew it to become the largest motorcycle parts and accessory trade show in the world. I know shows, and most importantly, I know that for a show to be successful it needs to serve the needs and wants of all segments of the business. Fast forward to 2011 after having stepped away from the aforementioned shows for a few years, I realized that there was a need for a new and different show that would better serve the needs of the motorcycle industry as it emerged from the doldrums and the global financial crisis.

All this experience taught me that in order to create a successful show or event, you first need to conduct significant research of all categories, including manufacturers, distributors, dealers, consumers and media. Equally important, the research must be interpreted properly. After conducting this research for two years (with help from my longtime friend and business associate Larry Little), we determined that the industry wanted and needed a platform, which we called the American International Motorcycle Expo (AIMExpo) and launched in October 2013 in Orlando.

The second part of this challenge is proving value and ROI to our exhibitors, dealers, consumers and media … and convincing them that this is not the traditional and now outdated trade show or consumer show that they have been used to for so many years. We had a successful launch in 2013 and experienced very good growth in 2014. And for AIMExpo to continue on this growth path delivering excellent value and ROI to all constituents each and every year, it should be a collective effort by everyone in the motorcycle and greater powersports industry and especially our exhibitor customers taking the initiative to invite their current and prospective dealers to attend.

We never assume that “if you build it they will come.” That only happens in fictional movies. You’re only as good as your last show, and together we need to work harder every year to keep it relevant, informative, progressive, exciting, a great learning experience with lots of networking, and in doing so, it will generate sales!

What is the best advice you can give others in the industry?

Working together toward a common cause or goal, especially in an enthusiast market, is vital to the successful growth of that industry. We are all in this together, and together we have a much better chance of winning. It’s about generosity, perseverance, attitude and having fun.

Don’t get greedy — longevity is much more important than a short term money-grab. The philosophy of our Marketplace Events Motorcycle Group, and in particular AIMExpo, is to first and foremost do whatever it takes to help the entire industry grow and prosper and sell more product and make more money. All we ask for in return is our fair share.

It’s all about customer service. Focus first on what the customer wants and always strive to provide the best customer service in the world, whatever it takes. Your competition is anyone the customer compares you with. We tend to get annoyed with our customers … don’t! Remember that your customers are both external and internal. If you find that you can no longer satisfy your customers’ wants and needs due to lack or resources or desire, get another job.

Always smile and move! Wake up, be thankful, be approachable, complain less, smile … really, start early and go long, go beyond expectations, be resourceful and resilient with no excuses, be attentive, engaged and interested. Be passionate every day, or go home. And most importantly, have a sense of urgency. Be happy!

What are the challenges you face as an independent show — one that doesn’t have a built-in, sure-thing base of exhibitors or attendees?

Marketplace Events is a great organization with a great culture, and they support what we’re doing, even though it’s for the most part different from the rest of the shows they produce. What we’re doing is a lot different than the other shows they do. We have their support 100 percent, and our financial partner, Stephens Capital Partners, is 100 percent supportive, too. AIMExpo has been a very big investment for us as a company because we wanted to put the appropriate money into it to guarantee its success and do everything the right way out of the gate.

That’s all great, but I would says the challenges really are that it takes more of an effort to get your attendees, primarily dealers, to attend the show, because the world is different for them, and their resources are a little different. They might not necessarily have the financial resources or the staffing resources to break away for a few days to attend the show. But if you’re a dealer or retailer or service shop or anyone in the powersports industry, you really need to be at this show. There are so many reasons why you should attend that you can take back with you and put into play the next day and start improving your dealership.

A lot of dealers have become a little complacent and have the thinking that since the Dealer Expo no longer worked, why would anything else work? That is absolutely not true. So we’ve put a lot of our resources and money into attendee marketing. I know the money that we spent at the other company, and that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we’re spending here because we have to re-educate the market. We had a good start, and the numbers are growing, and they’ll be better this year. Especially for the dealers, all the right components are in place, including the Powersports Business Institute @ AIMExpo educational seminars for dealers.

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