Chris Cook, president of the Mobile Electronics Association (MEA), which produces KnowledgeFest, talked to Dealerscope about industry trends, and about what is in store for attendees at the upcoming KnowledgeFest, the organization’s 25th., running from Aug. 9-11. It will cover 110,000 square feet of exhibits, as well as offering dealer education, training and numerous networking opportunities.
Dealerscope: MEA regularly presents KnowledgeFests through the year in different regions throughout the country which serve as venues where locally based installers can take advantages of educational and networking opportunities with their peers as well as gain exposure to the latest products for the aftermarket. Talk a bit in general about how that installer community has had to evolve in the last few years in terms of knowledge levels needed to deal with changing technologies and the melding of both home and car connected technologies – and how KnowledgeFests have, in turn, evolved to serve these new needs.
Chris Cook: The car has been connected for quite some time, and there are different ways of connecting the car. So for us, it’s been a connected business from the beginning, integrating into the networks in the vehicle.
We do support different regions throughout the country. And that’s mainly because the majority of retailers – 80 percent – live within a six-hour-or-so reach of one of our events, giving them the ability to drive to them. About 60 to 65 percent of them do drive in, as opposed to flying in. Adding several events throughout the country gives us coast-to-coast coverage – and it allows the manufacturers to attend four events and reach close to 5,000 retailers as opposed to attending one event in Vegas and reaching a hundred or so retailers. They can reach their target market very quickly.
There have been 25 years of KnowledgeFests. We acquired the Mobile Electronics Association in 2009, and our first event was in Dallas in 2010. In 2015, we added Indianapolis, in 2018, added Los Angeles, and in 2020, we’ll add Orlando. We have about 80 unique exhibitors, and 60 to 65 of them are going to all of the events; some may go to one, two or three, or possibly four, but the majority of our vendors exhibit at all the events.
At our upcoming event in August, there’s almost 80 hours of manufacturer-specific training over three days. That gives them the opportunity to do a group training, rather than going from store to store. It’s very efficient.
What will be some of the highlights in Dallas that installers who attend can expect there?
We are adding an opening keynote which is described on knowledgefest.org – it’s by Bob Phibbs (The Retail Doctor).
The majority of our attendees, as a matter of fact – about 60 percent - are owners/managers, and about 30 percent are installers and the crossover percentages are in the sales and marketing areas. While some owners might do installation as well, the majority of folks coming are owners/managers. That percentage has increased over the past three years, with owners coming as well as sending their employees. We’re getting entire stores that are coming.
Our general education is done in three tracks: one is for the technician/fabricator, one is for sales and marketing, and the other is for the owner/manager. So there’s something for everybody in the store, from an education standpoint.
We’re running at about 65 exhibitors for Dallas, and we’re at anywhere from 55 to 70 exhibitors at any event.
The August event is where you will mark the 25th anniversary of KnowlegeFest’s inception. Please tell our readers about what you have in store for attendees there that will tie into that anniversary.
We’re having a members-only celebration on Saturday night (Aug. 10) at House of Blues with some live music, sponsored by MEA, Sony and [distributor] Dow Electronics. It will be a night of celebration. The difference between the Dallas event and the others is the Mobile Electronics Industry Awards. Every year, we recognize the best of the best in installation, sales, retail stores, and we recognize the top vendors as well as some other categories – distributor, sales rep; it takes in all aspects of the industry.
We expect attendance to be up – right now it’s running about 20 percent up, year over year. More people are aware of the event, and there’s a lot of word of mouth that gets new retailers in. In any given year, we probably have around 20 percent new who come to the event. Some of the bigger retailers, instead of shutting their stores down and sending everyone to one event, might send a few from each store to each event. That’s made it easier for them to get all their employees trained throughout the year.
We also have toyed with offering satellite trainings, but in 2020, we will be launching that again and will have some continuity between the events with webinars hosted for members and potential members.
What does MEA’s management view as some of the biggest challenges for the mobile electronics community of installers and manufacturers going forward? And by the same token, what will be some of the biggest opportunities for the community?
Running a small business is a challenge in any industry. We try to help with those challenges by teaching the managers better ways to run their businesses and to sell into market. The challenge in working in a vehicle is that the vehicle environment changes from year to year, depending on the automaker, and what vehicle is going to require what interface to do the installation; the integration with the vehicle is generally the challenge.
The biggest opportunities of the next few years are twofold. One will be in the safety products – all-around cameras, backup cameras and 360-degree cameras are still strong. Also, lane-departure assistance is a growing category, both in fleet and at retail – both handled by these retailers.
The other element, frankly, is in autosound, as formats change and we finally start getting away from the old, compressed MP3, and have the storage available for lossless, higher-quality music. As consumers gravitate towards better sound in the car as they have in the home, because they’re taking higher-resolution files and listening to them in the vehicle, once they get that taste of better audio at home, they’re ready to have it in the car. So I see an opportunity in higher-resolution audio, and better-sounding audio systems than are produced by the automakers right now.
I look at the retailers and see what they’re selling, and better audio is always on topic, because the automakers deliver “good enough” - but not good enough for everyone.
MEA offered presentations to attendees at CE Week in June in New York City. What will be some of the other benefits of the relationship between CE Week and MEA, going forward?
The benefits are focused on the OEM side and technology side of the industry. The idea is to talk about and foster new technologies. We speak about electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and challenges in infrastructure. So it is more of a focus not on the installer or the specialty retailer, but on the industry and the technology overall.
We had a great presentation at this CE Week from Consumer Reports– the speaker offered a great overview of electric vehicles’ history and future, to give a better understanding of where the technology is going. Same thing with entertainment in the vehicle. As vehicles become more autonomous, entertainment becomes more desirable, because now drivers need something to pay attention to, other than driving. So it re-invigorates the ability to entertain the driver as well as the passenger in the near future. I see growth opportunities in in-vehicle entertainment as well.
What presentations might work well at future CE Weeks?
All the sessions we did in 2019 went over well. I heard a lot of questions from the press regarding when and where as regards electric vehicles, and the growth opportunity for that - what would be hindering the growth, understanding where entertainment is going in the vehicle. And then, a big thing is the infrastructure for vehicle-to-vehicle communication. We also will be talking about – and this applies to the home as well – 5G.
There’s a lot of topics, and the one thing I can say about CE Week is whatever we’re doing there is going to be on topic and cutting edge for the industry – as will be the conversations we’re going to have there.