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MVPA Convention: A Hobby Barometer?

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Historic military vehicle enthusiasts from across North America with a handful of European visitors converged in Louisville, Kentucky, at the end of June for the 2014 Military Vehicle Preservation Association’s International Convention. With about 200 historic military vehicles on exhibit, it was one of the largest events of its type in the United States.

A hearty “Congratulations!” goes out to the MVPA and the hosting chapter, the Kilroy (Kentucky / Indiana Relics of Yesteryear) who organized the 2014 MVPA Convention. Working together with the city of Louisville, Kentucky, and the staff of the Kentucky Exposition Center, they maximized the quality of an event located centrally in the United States. With interstate highways converging at the Ohio River location and the International Airport within walking distance, the 39th Annual Convention promised great potential.

The Kilroy Chapter even worked out a cooperative marketing plan with Ron Dixon’s National Gun Day Show, held the same weekend in the same facility. This collaboration promised hundreds—if not thousands—of new people exposed to our hobby.

The weather was beautiful, the planning impeccable, and the facilities easy to reach. All of the elements that could or could not be controlled, converged perfectly for near week-long festivities. The MVPA staff and Kilroy Chapter did everything possible to make this the best, strongest attended event in the history of the organization. Even after seeing a spectacular array of display vehicles and vendors, many were wondering by Sunday morning, “Did the show hit its mark?

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

As the editor of the largest historic military vehicle magazine in the U.S., one of my main duties is to be a cheerleader for the hobby. On the other hand, I have to remember what my grandmother used to tell me, “Johnny, no one will want to listen if you don’t speak the truth.”

To the first point, I am a cheerleader of our hobby. I love the vehicles we restore, preserve and drive. I am a dedicated member of the MVPA, and try to always do whatever I can to promote the organization and the hobby. But, and this falls under the second point, I drove away from the convention trying to sort out how I would communicate the responses I overheard, and the feedback I received.

The most obvious response I experienced regarded the confusion concerning public attendance. This is nothing new. There has been a disagreement about when the public should be admitted to a convention as long as I can remember. This year was no different. Vendors were uncertain when the “public would be admitted.” Even the convention’s printed program was in conflict with the reality, indicating the public would be admitted on Saturday, when, in fact, for $10, a person could attend on Friday. Regardless, it is difficult for me to understand why the organization goes through all of the effort to organize and promote a convention, only to say to the local population, “You aren’t welcome for the first day (or two).”

I understand this is a tradition that goes back to the old days before computers. But honestly, is there any need to keep the public out of the convention just so the few dedicated members can walk around the show without rubbing elbows with non-members?

As a vendor, I want the most exposure to the most customers. I don’t want to travel to a convention only to find the doors aren’t open to anyone with a passing interest. I heard a lot of grousing from vendors about this, though I know the MVPA Board has been aware of this complaint for many years and has been extremely active in trying to find the right balance. I retain my confidence that they are still working on a convention program that benefits the members as well as the growth of the hobby.

Collaborations are Dicey

Having worked on books, exhibits and programs with various “partners,” I can only imagine how difficult it is to host an entire convention in collaboration with another show. Therefore, I am very impressed that the MVPA and Kilroy Chapter were able to work with The National Gun Day Show organizer, Ron Dixon, to share the Kentucky Expo Center in a collaborative effort. Ron’s show draws in thousands of people who are very likely candidates for historic military vehicle enthusiasm.

Though the predicted flood of people from the Gun Show never really arrived at the MVPA Convention, our hobby did receive great promotion through Ron’s television and media advertising. Ron is the undisputed king of promotion. Turning on the television in my hotel room, I saw Ron publicizing his gun show and inviting the greater Louisville metro to come out and see the military vehicles at the MVPA Convention. That, if nothing else, planted the seed in thousands of minds that, “Hey, I might be able to buy an Army vehicle!” Our hobby clearly benefited from Ron’s promotional efforts that included the MVPA in the program of the National Gun Day Show.

The overlap, though, was not seamless. By Saturday, when the National Gun Day Show opened to the public, the MVPA Convention was on its last day and clearly winding down. When the first cross-over customers came into the show, they found empty tables where vendors had already pulled out (some to set up at the Gun Show). That didn’t help our image as a viable hobby.

Regardless, the collaboration was a great step toward promoting our hobby. For years, the MVPA has had a murky view about firearms display. Hosting a show in collaboration with one of the largest gun shows in the United States should finally begin to erode that old-fashioned exclusivity and open the doors to future collaborative efforts.

If There’s Action, There’s Response

In my opinion, the best aspect of the Convention was the procurement and use of several acres of grass field behind the Expo hall. Usually reserved for event parking, the fenced-off area was ideal for vehicle demonstrations. Jim Carter showed small crowds how his 1972 JI Case MC1150 Track loader and 1969 M2385 20-ton Hoist and Derrick went through their paces. The 14th Armored Re-Creations brought 5 of their M5 light tanks to the event. They used the grassy acreage to demonstrate how a full WWII Light Tank platoon deployed for scouting operations. Many people braved the hot Louisville sun to watch both of these “live displays” as well as static displays that included a large WWII Field Hospital.

The Kilroy Chapter also took advantage of the Expo facility’s state fair animal facilities to offer a “Vehicle Rodeo.” Unfortunately, this did not hit the schedule until Saturday afternoon, so many of the show attendees had already wandered to the Gun Show or began their trips home. Regardless, it was a very strong effort to put military vehicles back into action.

I have been a vocal proponent of refocusing historic military vehicle events from the “show and judge” format to the “Get in ‘em and drive!” approach. While there usually is room within an event for both of these styles, it wasn’t until I began posting videos and photos from the Convention on our Military Vehicles Magazine Facebook page that I felt some sort of validation.

In the “social media world,” its all about “likes” and "shares.” I began posting photos on Facebook on Wednesday, the day we arrived at the Convention. Each photo I posted received the usual 100 or so “likes” with 3-5 shares that reached about 1,500 people. That was the norm until I posted a video of the five Stuart tanks maneuvering behind the Convention Center. Within 24 hours, the video received 205 “likes” and 77 shares! More than 11,800 people had viewed the “in action” tanks. When I posted other videos from the convention, they similarly outperformed static photos. Clearly, our Facebook audience preferred seeing vehicles in motion over static shots of vehicles on the judging floor. My hat is off to the Kilroy Chapter for making great strides toward demonstrating how our vehicles operate.

The Proof is in the Pockets

It is hard for me to comment on the fiscal health of the hobby. Magazine subscriptions and back issue sales aren’t reliable indicators. Speaking to a variety of dealers, though, gave me a broader view.

Keep in mind, for every dealer who says he or she had “bad sales,” there is going to be another who says they had great results. Overall, most of the dealers to whom I spoke said they had a “Really good Thursday,” but quickly added sales on Friday and Saturday were “flat” to “abysmal.”

No one can blame the MVPA for bad sales, though. Bad sales are the responsibility of each dealer’s business acumen. I have said it many times before, but will repeat it again: “Everything will sell… you just have to find the right price.” Even though dealers were quick to complain about poor sales or lack of “public attendance,” I don’t recall seeing a single impromptu, “TODAY ONLY—DEEP DISCOUNT” type of sales being promoted.

Passivity Will Sink Us

The Convention was beautifully organized. It was aggressively promoted. There was even one of the best mix of vehicles on display that I have seen in years. And yet, in my humble opinion, it was poorly attended.

Every enthusiast who didn’t attend the largest show in the United States has a perfectly legitimate reason: Family conflict; expense; location; etc. We all understand those reasons. Because of the central location, I had great hopes for record attendance. Whatever the reasons, though, it didn’t appear this year’s convention showed any striking difference as compared to previous events.

Exercising our individual enthusiasm for the hobby, however, isn’t limited to the annual convention. It is a year-long commitment.

Each of us has a share in preserving the hobby: It stabilizes prices, protects the investment, and spurs continual discovery and restoration of historic vehicles. I know this probably isn’t the time to lecture, “Let’s get out there and promote,” bur there is a salient point for each of us to consider: If we are not always promoting the hobby, who is going to buy our Jeeps, trucks, tank, and other vehicles when we are ready to pass them along?

If you are interested in protecting your investment, it is imperative you get out to show your vehicles, share your enthusiasm, and invite new people to join our hobby. If you were in attendance at Louisville, you know how invigorating it can be to get together with like-minded collectors. If you missed the show, be sure to mark your calendar for next year’s Convention to be held in Topeka, Kansas, June 25-27, 2015.

In the meantime, renew your MVPA membership, vote in the elections, and share your comments and suggestions with the Board. More importantly, make the commitment today, to attend just one event before the end of 2014. It’s time we all show our “true colors”: Olive drab!

Get out there and drive, show off, and share the vehicles you love. It’s a passion that will readily infect others.

Share the enthusiasm,

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader

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