In its 16-year history, The Running Event has seen the debut and rise of many brands, but two that stand out to me are Hoka One One and On Running. Both of these billion-dollar brands had humble beginnings at TRE. Hoka arrived in a low-key manner and On Running caused a ruckus. Here’s how it all came about.
One Shoe Started It All For Hoka
About a month before the 2009 edition of TRE, we received a phone call from a French gentleman who inquired about buying half a booth. “That’s all I need, because I have only one shoe to show,” he told us. We didn’t take him all that seriously and told him to call us when he got to Austin, never expecting to hear back.
The morning the show opened, we observed a guy sitting in the lobby of the Hilton Austin and then later in the lobby of the Austin Convention Center showing this really strange looking shoe to anyone who would pay attention. The shoe was bright blue and white and had a giant outsole. These impromptu meetings went on for most of the day and we observed he was attracting a growing crowd as the day wore on.
At one point, we went out to the lobby and invited the guy to come on to the show floor and work from our booth. The founder, Nicolas Mermoud, accepted and by the next day, I noticed people running up and down the show aisles wearing these goofy looking shoes and talking about how great they were.
Hoka began legitimately exhibiting at trade shows the following year, attracted investment dollars from Deckers Corp. and became a major player in the athletic footwear market.
In 2019, a year after my partners and I sold The Running Event to Diversified Communications, Nico invited me to come by their booth for a champagne toast to celebrate their 10-year anniversary. By then, they had sold their business to Deckers and had enough money (and enough shoes) to have a nice big booth.
On Disturbs The Status Quo
In Spring 2012, I was introduced to this company from Switzerland called On Running. They invited me to meet them in New York, where one of the founders, Caspar Copetti, explained their technology and gifted me a pair of shoes. I ran in them that afternoon and thought the outsole technology was interesting but the fit was terrible. After a five-mile run, I discovered Caspar had given me a size 11.5 rather than my preferred size 13. He seemed like a good guy, even if math wasn’t a strong suit.
I also heard they were close to hiring industry veteran Ted Goodlake. “They are worth keeping an eye on,” I thought to myself.
Little did I know how right I was on a number of fronts.
That fall, On bought a 10 x 10 booth at The Running Event and for a little brand that no one had ever heard of, their booth was packed. “Man, how did they get the word out?” I wondered.
That question was answered about 4:30 p.m. when the manager of the Courtyard Marriott showed up at the show offices screaming at me and waving what appeared to be a “Do Not Disturb” sign. The “sign” was in fact a clever bootleg promotion that On executives had placed on doors of the hotel to attract retailers to their booth.
And it succeeded on two levels. It brought traffic to their booth and prevented maids from entering and making up the rooms.
Now I’ve been chewed out a number of times in my life, but this was about a 16 on a scale of 10. The manager ranted and raved, demanded to know who was responsible and told me that they would be liable for hours of overtime that he had to spend to get the rooms made up and if that if I didn’t turn over the perpetrator that his next stop was to call the sheriff and pursue trespassing charges.
I forget how I calmed him down. Maybe I just put on my size 11.5 Ons and hobbled away, but no one went to jail and the show went on.
Now if any brand executive reading this thinks that a bootleg promotion like this is a good idea, let me caution you that this was a one-time-only “Stay out of Jail” offer. We now have the sheriff on speed dial and I hear the jails in Texas are tough.