By Chris Pearson
It was with some sadness today that I learned the iHobby Expo, formerly called the RCHTA Show, has been cancelled and is not expected to ever resume. The original RCHTA Show, (Radio Control Hobby Trade Association) was, as its name suggests, an association of RC plane manufacturers. In the fall of each year, they had an industry show, which at first was open only to hobby shop owners and others in the business. They later allowed first trains, then crafts and even things like doll houses and scrapbooking in. They also began to allow the public to attend the show. The last time I was there, Thursday and Friday until 6PM were trade days, Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday were open to the public.
The show was traditionally held at the Chicago Convention Center, now called McCormick Place. It was the largest hobby show in the US, second only in size to the Berlin (Germany) Hobby Show. In the 1980’s and into the 90’s, if you had a hobby business, you had to be at that show. Of course, the big two model rocketry companies, Estes and Quest, exhibited their new wares to the hobby shop owners and public. A smattering of other model and high-power rocket companies also attended, such as Custom Model Rockets, Starlight Model Rockets, PML, NCR, Aerotech and LOC/Precision. However, the hobby landscape changed in the late 90’s. It just wasn’t the Internet that hurt the hobby industry or caused the shuttering of hobby shops. The interests of young people changed from hobbies like plastic models and rocketry to video games and later social media. The last president of Centuri, Jeff Flygare, complained to me at NARAM-20 (1978) that “all the kids were putting their quarters in Pac Man games and not buying rockets anymore”. So the writing was on the wall decades ago.
It also became prohibitively expensive to attend hobby shows, either as a manufacturer or a shop owner. The displays for companies like Estes, Futaba or SIG were huge and it cost a fortune to build, ship and assemble the displays at the convention center. The Chicago Convention Center is controlled by the Teamsters, so you had to use union labor to unload your truck, move and assemble your display. You want an AC outlet to plug your VCR into? $75 per day per outlet! In later years, because of complaints, you were allowed to move and build your own display as long as you didn’t need tools to do it. You could also plug in your own AC cords, and not have to wait for an electrician to do it for you. Even if you were a hobby shop owner, the motel rooms around the convention center were expensive, even if you stayed in a second rate place like a Holiday Inn. Food and rental cars were also very expensive, compared to say, Orlando.
In 2012, they moved the now renamed iHobby show to Cleveland, Ohio and shortened the show to three days in an effort to reduce costs for the attendees. I, myself and others from NOTRA ran the booth for Tripoli and our club at the show. The result of the move was that many of the big-name companies, including Lionel, Futaba, Estes and Quest, chose not to attend. They moved it back to Illinois the following year, but held it in the Schaumburg Convention Center, outside Chicago. They then changed management companies and moved the venue to Edison, NJ, but the result was even more vendors and manufacturers fled the show. After four years of declining attendance and a general lack of interest by manufacturers and the public, the decision was made this past August to cancel the show permanently. In the end, it had become a two-day mid-week show back in Schaumburg, IL, which this year was scheduled for October 4-5.
The iHobby Expo follows other US hobby shows into oblivion like the IMS (International Modelers Society) Show.
The HMA (Hobby Manufacturers Association) who ran the now defunct iHobby show has started another hobby show to take its place. It is the Rocky Mountain Hobby Expo, and it’s being held in Denver, CO. If you absolutely have to go to a hobby show, here is the link:http://www.hmahobby.org
Unless you attended one of these shows at its peak, you could not understand the incredible excitement of going into a place as big as a football stadium and have it filled wall to wall with hobby stuff. The feeling was electric! It was an absolute geek fest and hobby sensory overload! On the public days, the line waiting to get into the show was wrapped around the building an hour before opening. Even though I was on my feet for 14 hours in the North Coast Rocketry booth some days, I really enjoyed the show. I look back on those days with a certain amount of nostalgia. I will miss it.