A Critical Look: Yet Another Toledo Show

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As I write this, I am on the bus home to Saginaw from our annual trek down to Toledo, and my impression and thoughts from the show are fresh in my mind. First, however, it's tangentially relevant to discuss our trip itself, and how the registration period for it was a prelude to the show proper.

With last year's disappointing trip attendance, Roger and I felt we needed to be transparent about how many people we required to make the trip break even this year. We usually price the trip with an attendance of thirty people in mind; any more than that, the trip turns a profit. Less, and we can't afford the bus rental. With that in mind, we alerted potential attendees we needed thirty people to green light the trip, fully expecting a marked uptick in registrations.

Instead, it came down to the wire, with the thirtieth and final passenger registering on the cutoff day, and no more coming in after registration was extended. We ended up taking only twenty-nine people down -- one person dropped out after taking ill -- and overall, this was the poorest attendance of any Toledo Trip since we took it over.

The Drone Racing Area didn't attract many people.

The Drone Racing Area didn't attract many people.

Sadly, our struggle to attract R/C pilots on our bus trip mirrored the Toledo Show as a whole. Attendance, though initially looking slightly higher, proved to be even less than last year. Additionally, even more booth space was sacrificed for an ill-advised drone racing area that, while it attracted some spectators, probably did not bring in anyone off the street without an already-existing interest in the hobby.

Hobbico, to no one's surprise, was not officially at the event, though Horizon Hobby expanded their booth to cover the one previously loaned to Hobbico. It was strange to see Great Planes products with Horizon Hobby tags on them. Also missing in action was SIG manufacturing, notable because I'm not sure they ever missed a Toledo Show since I've been going to them.

The most interesting aspect of the show, for me, was my conversations, first with Matt Arden from Horizon Hobby, and later with Terry Dean of Brodak, both of whom were very forthright and generous with their time. Matt was clear about the Hobbico-Horizon transition: they would like to make the change over as smooth as possible. For the time being, Tower Hobbies will continue to operate as it did (though I suspect we'll see a number of Horizon products begin to show up on the site). What the merger means for the brands is less clear; Matt indicated they will be looking at all the Hobbico properties on their individual merits and determine their fate one by one, and might even allow for some overlap; Monokote and Ultracote, for example, may continue to co-exist.

Matt was less clear when asked about the future of RC aviation, something I have discussed as being in decline a number of times. He said Horizon is always looking to innovate and grow the hobby, but declined to offer any specifics. We talked for the better part of half an hour, and I left with precious few of my questions getting any real answer -- frustrating, but not unexpected. Horizon tends to play their cards close to vest.

Mr. Dean, a veteran of the industry, said Brodak has found success in their 60" class of wood kits while their smaller fare has become less popular. They offer quite a variety of kits, and I for one am interested in the potential of replicating some of that success and bringing in some of their kits. We'll see if that ever comes to pass.

Overall, after talking to some of the senior staff within the Weak Signals club (who put on the show every year), I'm left more than a little scared for the show's future, and by extension, the hobby's future too. If the Toledo Show is a microcosm of the industry as a whole, and everyone we spoke to agreeing the industry is in decline overall, then the next few years look bleak indeed. No one had an answer to how we make the industry more appealing to a younger audience, and just looking around, I'd say the average age of show attendees being in the high fifties. Paul, our contact for the Weak Signals club probably said it most succinctly: This year is his 40th year in the club; when he joined, he was the young kid in the club -- and now, forty years later, he still is. The industry's problem in a nutshell.

I'm not sure the industry can recover. All the innovations and all the cost reductions and all the outreach can't make kids interested on their own. The future of the R/C aviation hobby is largely in the hands of fate, and if the Toledo Show is any indication, fate will have to intervene in a big way to save it.

While I don't have many ideas how to fix the R/C aircraft industry, I have a few ideas how to help the Toledo Show return to some former glory, and I'll detail those ideas in a future column. For now, what do you think? Is the R/C aircraft hobby at a crossroads? Can it weather the storm as is, or will it have to change drastically to survive? Let us know on our Facebook page!