Next week all you will read about in every motorcycle magazine and blog will be EICMA. The 73rd Esposizione Internazionale del Ciclo e Motociclo (International Motorcycle and Cycle Expo) will burst into life in Milan, Italy, setting the tone for the global motorcycle industry for 2016.
It is the New Year, Christmas and I-Ching of the international two-wheeled world, not only because it presents us with all the new models, trends and technologies to look forward to, but also serves as a benchmark highlighting all that has worked and failed in the past twelve months of motorcycling.
EICMA is not the largest motorcycle show in the world (for sheer size, China’s CIMAMotor takes the crown), while attendance at events like India’s AutoExpo make EICMA look like a Legion Hall pancake breakfast by comparison. What EICMA does own, however, is stature. Anyone who is anyone in the two-wheeled business is there because if you are not, then you’re not a global player. In that regard, EICMA is the world championship, and other shows are the bush leagues.
I visited EIMCA for the first time as an intern at Piaggio sixteen years ago. Back then it was held at the old convention center in the middle of a post-industrial neighbourhood, inside a crumbling brick building complex that looked more like a meat-packing plant than an upscale trade show venue. By the end of that first day, my feet and mind were both swollen and numb.
It was spectacular.
Even in its smaller, amateurish form of yesteryear, EICMA radiated the kind of glamour one normally associates with events like the Venice Film Festival or Academy Awards. There were deep red carpets, linen-covered banquet tables inside roped-off VIP areas, and everyone was dressed like a movie star. Ordinary professionals from a dirty manufacturing industry pranced around in tailored Italian silks and wore $500 sunglasses indoors. Motorcycles were not parked on carpets but layered on plexiglass plinths or on elaborately propped dioramas, surrounded by models in evening gowns and four meter high architectural structures. Executives talked into large Nokia handsets, pacing self importantly.
Then there were the motorcycles. Production bikes of every description, as well as never before seen concept models from every brand in existence, from all corners of the earth. There was a China pavilion, which in 1997 was like finding motorcycles from extraterrestrials. The world came to Milan because Italy was the largest and most prestigious motorcycle market in the rich west, where in the late ’90’s manufacturers could sell over a million new two wheelers a year, more than the peak sales in the United States, in a country the size of Florida.
But that was not the main attraction. Milan, long flaunted as the center of design and fashion, inside a country long considered the global center of design and fashion, made it an easy sell to manufacturers looking for one annual shindig to show off. The region could boast, almost honestly, of being within a couple of hours drive from many of the most prestigious, technically advanced and innovative automotive and motorcycle suppliers, brands and educational establishments in the world.
Throw in attractive government incentives, excellent hospitality and the lure of spectacular after-hours shopping and recreation, and the vendors came pouring in. The national brands like Piaggio, Aprilia and Ducati put on out-sized displays of bravado, while smaller niche brands in the supply chain, most famously after-market exhaust company Leo-Vinci, put on hourly shows with high wattage music and stripper poles. EICMA was an irresistible, carnival like venue for any motorcycle industry brand aspiring to global status.
That all changed in 2005. Moving to impressive new facilities 40km outside of the Milan city center, the show has become more professional by an order of magnitude, while simultaneously getting even bigger and more important. With this new prestige a lot of the pantomime has faded.
Back in the old days, EICMA was a bi-annual event that took place only on odd-numbered years while another global motorcycle show, INTERMOT in Germany, carried on during even years. INTERMOT was the serious place of business, where brands could make power deals in executive rental suites on-site, connected to the kind of A-level infrastructure one expects in Germany. High speed trains and internet; glossy continental hotels across the street; exceptional organization. The Asian brands adored INTERMOT because it made the hefty annual investment in a global trade show a sure thing.
The rebuilt EICMA challenged that order. Inside its sparkling new fiera, EICMA now had all those accoutrements that its German counterpart boasted, but with added flair and much better food. The final nail in the coffin for INTERMOT’s aspirations came when EICMA announced that it would run annually, only a few weeks behind the German show on even years, forcing major manufacturers to choose where to spend their trade show euros. After a couple of years, the industry clearly chose Italy.
EICMA still has some of the pageantry of the old days, but is much more contrived and corporate now. Whereas in the old days, Aprilia’s stand was literally a building within a building, wildly out of proportion to other brands, and clearly in violation of many of the convention’s own rules and fire code, it went ahead anyway. In their bid to maximize floor space in the old cramped space, Japanese brands used to hire architects to build astonishing multi-floor sets to use vertical space in clever ways, creating Disney-land elevated pathways that focused visitors on new motorcycles in dramatic ways. Today space is hardly free or in surplus (the show sells out to vendors six months in advance) but the displays are lazier, more generic affairs out of commercial display case catalogues. It is all much more sanitized, reflecting the business gravitas of the event.
The motorcycle world congregates in Milan more than anywhere else because it is not only where business deals are done, but because it is where insiders go to sell, benchmark, and to dream. EIMCA deserves its place as the starting and end point of the motorcycle year for these reasons alone. It is where after months or years of hard work, designers, engineers and marketing people get to dress up and show off the fruits of their labours. To the public, it is the single most tantalizing display of what’s new and what’s next. For Canadians and Americans in northern states, half a world away and about to start our moto-hibernation cycle, it serves as a delightful teaser, perhaps even a stimulant to save up for a new ride come spring.
As a former member of the Yamaha and Piaggio establishments, I will never forget the build up. Advanced meetings would allocate who scoped out which rival brands, what innovations to look out for, and dictate the latest public relations protocols. Later as a consultant, I would rove around on the invitation-only press day, meeting clients, colleagues and journalists in a marathon ten-hour networking binge. Each year, waiting for the gates to open at 8 AM amid the kind of energized throng one normally sees only at championship sports events, I felt the communal anticipation of thousands of motorcycle addicts. To us, EICMA is less a trade show and more a cultural happening like Burning Man.
Next week will see the latest epic orgy of new motorcycle hardware and accessories in Milan. As is fit for such a globally important motorcycle event, CMG will be there en masse. This year we have no less than four correspondents on the ground and three unfortunate souls (including myself), who will be up way too early to receive the photographs and process the press releases of the latest and greatest motorcycles of 2016.
CMG’s EICMA coverage will commence on Monday 16th November with pre-show leaks and rumours and then start in earnest on Tuesday at 5AM Eastern Time – feel free to get up and join us, it is the biggest event of the year after all.