Friday, May 16, 2008

Are the Arabs and eBay Killing Hamfests?

Interesting discussion threads are now active on a couple of amateur radio web sites about the fate of our hobby’s staple meeting event, the hamfest. In the past, these gatherings primarily featured flea markets (“boneyards”) and in-person contact between guys that typically only communicated with each over the air. Larger gatherings included booths manned by manufacturers and distributors and a number of forums, common-interest group meetings, and the like.

I suppose the discussion about how hamfests are faring is being kindled by the world’s largest—in Dayton, Ohio, this week—and how the gas prices and other changes in the hobby will affect attendance there. The general feeling is that eBay along with the ability to buy and sell equipment on the Internet has crippled the traditional ham gatherings. Stratospheric gas prices and other travel expenses are contributing to their demise. Many are struggling. I don’t dispute that times have changed, that some long-running hamfests are either gone already or fading fast, but I also see some events that are still thriving.

My observation—from a very narrow perspective, I grant you—is that small swap meets, pulling from a closer region, and offering lots of socialization and a decent boneyard, will continue to prosper. One reason is that a single bad year, due to weather or energy prices or some other unforeseen factor, doesn't put them out of business. Their investment is small so their risk is, too.

I remember back in the 1970s when the Birmingham Amateur Radio Club had designs on becoming the premier hamfest in the rapidly growing Southeast U.S. But we also realized that with the high rent and overhead for a suitable venue, the dependence on a few major manufacturers and suppliers to show up and support the event, and the other considerable expenses necessary to market such a major gathering, we risked bankrupting the club if something outside our control happened. A spike in fuel costs, a bad weekend of weather, somebody else in some other part of the country deciding to usurp “our” weekend—any of those things could put us out of business. Or a bunch of amateurs—“amateurs” in both radio and convention marketing—might simply not be savvy enough to break even, much less turn a profit.

The type of gatherings I'm thinking of that seem to do well, even with gas approaching $4 a gallon, is like the one at Dalton, Georgia. This is a prime example of a successful, flea-market-driven gathering. Oh, I believe we will continue to have several "national" events—Dayton, Orlando, Dallas, Visalia, and, yes, Huntsville, AL—keyed more to time of year so as not to conflict with each other and within short driving distances of a lot of people. There manufacturers will exhibit, key personnel from major vendors will be present, and important, personality-driven forums will be held. There will be less opportunity to socialize and flea markets will not be the primary draw (though both will continue to be factors). Discount dealers will offer bargain "show specials," distributors of parts and accessories will thrive because attendees can shop for all those odds and ends in one place, manufacturers will debut new gear and support loyal customers and early adopters, and we will all have the opportunity to learn from experts and take in top-line presentations by the "stars" in our hobby.

Certainly the economy and energy prices (as well as the Internet) affect many kinds of events. We see it in trade shows now. Thomas Nelson, a major publishing house (my publisher on the latest book, THE ICE DIARIES), pulled out of the industry's two biggest trade shows this year. Now they bring their key accounts to a big shindig at their place where they can control how they wow them and have their undivided attention…and save money in the process. For them, it is just a better way to do business. The annual radio broadcasters' show now has more exhibitors than attendees and could be on its last legs. Vendors are better off paying for customers to fly to their factory for some kind of roll-out party, knowing they don’t have to compete with the guy across the aisle or the casinos down the street for the customers’ attention. And again, it is much more cost effective than putting scores of employees in airplanes and hotels for a week and shipping tons of equipment to a convention somewhere.

Call it Darwinism, but I believe the shows or events that adapt, that offer what people want, will survive. But those that try to operate and rely on the same draws as they did in 1965, or who make assumptions about what will compel someone to come to their event, will likely go the way of the dinosaur.

That certainly seems to apply to hamfests.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Don I do agree what you have said here I think that the small hamfest will survive as well as the biggest ones in the market that you had mention as well but all others will have a very tuff time of it just to survive. I have never been to Dayton and may one day make it but from some of the other blogs that I have been reading it not looking good there as well. One said that you could have a few football games going on in the flee market at the same time and not only there were a bunch of spaces left there but in Hara as well.

But I will say this they will survive but will be a very different animal.