Vancouver key to Taiwan’s bicycle export initiative

Country’s bike industry looks to B.C. for growth opportunities and to reverse sales decline

TAITRA Vancouver director Ruth Chang with the organization’s project manager for events marketing, Katherine Hsu | Albert Van Santvoort

One of the world’s leading bicycle manufacturers is taking aim at Vancouver as part of a push to increase business in North America, citing the city’s reputation for combining an outdoor-focused lifestyle and a penchant for upscale products.

That’s why officials from Taiwan – the world’s second-largest bicycle producer – made a stop at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver on September 19 while en route to the September 20-22 Interbike conference in Las Vegas, making a point to connect specifically with B.C.’s cycling community.

“Maybe some people wonder why we chose Vancouver out of all the cities in North America,” said Ruth Chang, director of TAITRA Vancouver – the local office of Taiwan’s non-profit trade development organization. “But even if the population in the Canadian market is relatively small, cycling is extremely popular here. And since there has been so much focus by government officials [in Canada] on cycling as a lifestyle, we felt this is a valuable opportunity to expand on existing relationships.”

Since at least 1990, Taiwan has placed among the top five economies – along with the likes of perennial leader China, Italy, Germany and Japan – producing the largest number of bicycles in the global industry. The Taipei International Cycle Show in March – one of the industry’s largest gatherings – drew close to 42,000 visitors.

Today, Taiwanese manufacturers like Giant Manufacturing Co. Ltd. and Merida Industry Co. Ltd. have taken leading positions among global bike producers, overtaking traditional stalwarts in the United States and Europe over the last two decades.

China is the largest producer of bicycles in a global bicycle market that was worth an estimated US$20 billion in 2016.

“I believe it is regarded incredibly highly,” said Brian Park, head of editorial at Pinkbike, an online community of cycling enthusiasts, about Taiwan’s bikes. “From a personal perspective, I know the quality is unbelievably high – having been inside those factories as part of Rocky Mountain Bicycle and working with the assembly crew. From a consumer point of view, the Taiwanese bike industry has replaced the original high-end offshore producer, which was Japan. That industry has waned, and Taiwan has taken its place as the high-end, offshore manufacturing hub.”

But there are signs of trouble for the sector – which might reveal another reason why industry representatives are exploring markets like Canada for expansion potential. According to industry publication Bicycle Retailer, bike exports to the European Union (Taiwan’s biggest market) fell 26% in 2016, while exports to the United States slid 27%. A Credit Suisse Group AG report late last year showed shipments could drop by another 10% in 2017’s first quarter, stemming from weakening global demand – particularly for low- and mid-end products.

Global bike exports in 2016 were down 6.7% compared with 2015.

Key new competitors in bicycle manufacturing are Cambodia, Portugal and Hungary.

With the North American Free Trade Agreement region (Canada, United States and Mexico) accounting for 21% of Taiwan’s bike export volume (some 610,000 bicycles), Taiwan is taking steps to reinvigorate global interest in its bikes.

Part of the plan is to move the Taipei cycle show from March to October in 2018 – mostly, TAITRA officials said, to harmonize the show dates with the time of year when manufacturers show off new models for the coming year, boosting the show’s role as an industry trendsetter.

“We really do feel that the show offers an international platform like no other for those in the bike industry – including our Canadian friends,” said Katherine Hsu, project manager for events marketing at TAITRA’s head office in Taipei. “So we are also taking this opportunity to try to bring some Vancouver businesses to the show, to make them aware of the date change.”

Chang added that the 2018 Taipei cycle convention will add several new components to cater to the changing taste of cycling consumers. Those additions include a technology focus with a section dedicated to “internet-of-things” products that link bicycles to wireless networks for services like route mapping.

The changes coincide with one positive aspect of the otherwise alarming 2016 sales numbers:
e-bike exports in 2016’s first eight months grew 105% to 93,000 units, signalling a potentially lucrative new market.

“I think people realize that Taiwan already produces such a high-quality bicycle product, and we have a reputation of embracing new technology,” Chang said. “So it’s natural for us to incorporate the latest technology into our bikes, because that’s what consumers want. E-bikes, therefore, is something we are definitely focusing on.”