When I walked into the SeaGate Center in downtown Toledo, the first thing I noticed was the lack of elbows in my ribs. The entire convention center had fewer people than I’ve ever seen at a Toledo show. A few people commented to us that the aisles were wider, but that turned out to be false; the aisles appeared wider because there weren’t enough people to fill them.
The lack of participants extended to the vendors as well. A full two rows of tables were sacrificed for a mediocre FPV racing field, meaning a fifty fewer booths than the year before. Booths were less ornate than previous years as well. For the first time, multiple staff at the Hobbico booth asked if I had any questions – notable because they are usually one of the busiest booths. This year, most of their representatives were standing around, idly chatting.
We were able to complete our first walk through the show in an hour and twenty minutes – far, far quicker than previous years.
All of which more than illustrates my main point: the Toledo Weak Signals R/C Expo mirrors the current state of the R/C aviation industry: shrinking.
With the extra time available to us, Roger and I could talk with many industry-types from mainstays in the hobby industry. Perhaps most enlightening was my conversation with a long-time Horizon Hobby employee. I asked him if, in hindsight, he felt the emphasis on SAFE and AS3X was a mistake. While he didn’t answer my question directly (which isn’t surprising), he did say it was likely future releases would focus on their SAFE Select technology, allowing a pilot to disable the tech if desired.
He also mentioned that Horizon was curtailing their previous habit, resulting in the same airplanes being released repeatedly, was coming to an end. He also expressed hope that the new DX6e would help to jump start the Bind-N-Fly demand again, after years of sliding sales.
We also chatted with Du-Bro and SIG, among others, and all expressed hope for the future of the hobby, yet admitted things were currently less than ideal. Some blamed it on the election, some on foreign competition, but there was no consensus, either on a root cause for the slowdown, nor on a solid path forward. SIG mentioned the returning popularity of kits in the European market, and sounded hopeful a similar trend would happen here.
Overall, this trip confirmed my fear: no one knows how to fix what is broken, even among the smartest and most influential players in the industry, which doesn’t bode well for the future of R/C aviation as we know it. While we can agree that R/C aviation will never go away, it may be drastically different in ten or twenty years, and whether traditional hobby shops will play a big part in the future is up for debate.
If the Toledo Show is a microcosm of the entire R/C aviation industry, as I think it is, then the slow, steady pulling out of US-based distributors and manufacturers showcases the future of the hobby: more foreign makers and sellers, fewer domestic options, and even fewer consumers to go around.
This is the first time that I left the Toledo Show questioning the viability of a show that caters exclusively to the R/C aviation segment of the larger radio control hobby. I have called for the inclusion of R/C surface manufacturers, but largely because I felt there was a place for them. Now, I think the show requires a more diverse group of manufacturers, because the hemorrhaging of vendors the show is experiencing cannot be sustained.
Will this be the last Toledo show we charter a bus to? I doubt it, but I certainly left feeling dismayed about the entire thing. One thing is for certain: the problems we’ve seen within the industry are not limited to our region. Toledo’s lack of attendees, absent vendors, and overall bleak mood shows us just have far we, as an industry, have fallen. There was no clear answer, and while overall I am confident the industry will climb out of this rut, attending the show has driven home the difficulty of escaping this slump unscathed.