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The Denver Mart, a huge event space and collection of showrooms is tucked into an industrial pocket of north Denver and opened in 1965 as a wholesale marketplace. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Todd Herrick sees opportunity in the chaos. 

The entrepreneur is hoping the roiling state of outdoor industry trade shows — coupled with the industry’s dynamic buy-and-sell cycles based on shifting overseas production timelines — will elevate his frill-free Denver Merchandise Mart as a safe harbor for outdoor brands, reps, vendors and retailers.

“Wheeling and dealing. That’s what the Mart does best,” Denver Mart CEO Herrick said as he strolled the labyrinthine corridors that span the 1 million square-foot, 35-acre facility his family has been involved in as limited and general partners for more than 15 years. 

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The Denver Mart has about 140 outdoor brands — mostly apparel — already using permanent showrooms where outdoor retailers can stock their shelves. Herrick hopes to add bike, ski, snowboard, kayak and stand-up paddle brands to the mix.

He’s ready to host regional or even national shows as Outdoor Retailer’s Denver trade shows adjust and consolidate. Herrick sees his venerable Denver Mart playing a role as Colorado works to establish itself as the national epicenter of the outdoor recreation industry.

“Outdoor recreation, CBD, craft breweries. All the stuff that Colorado is now is definitely what the Mart wants to attract,” said Herrick, who lives in Telluride and owns several businesses, including the Helitrax heliskiing operation and an angling outfitter in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. “We have the space. They have a need to gather for business. And what the Mart knows how to do is facilitate commerce. I think the outdoor realm is starting to see the benefits of being in a place like this and we are getting the critical mass we need.”

Since Outdoor Retailer’s move from Salt Lake City to Denver, Denver Mart is hoping to position itself as a year-round hub for retailers looking to connect with outdoor brands. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Herrick’s vision arrives as the outdoor industry heaves with growing pains that demand improved infrastructure to accommodate explosive growth. But the location of his Denver Mart — a concrete, windowless edifice dominating a pedestrian-unfriendly industrial zone along Interstate 25 — is a major hurdle for prolonged visits by the outdoor industry’s view-loving, tree-hugging business types. 

One representative of more than 100 specialty retailers said his members would revolt if he booked them for several consecutive days of business in the Denver Mart.

But Herrick is optimistic the industry’s growing demand for a pure business space — where deals between store owners and gear-makers can get inked year-round without the distracting noise of the national event — will draw outdoor businesses to his Denver Mart.

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

Accommodating the year-round selling cycle

A decade ago, retailers and outdoor brands could survive with two or three shows for buying and selling. Brands would showcase the latest gear and apparel at major trade shows in winter and summer and retailers would flock and order inventory for the coming season.

Smaller regional shows filled the gaps. Now, overseas production cycles have blown up those traditional calendars, and the seasonal buying and selling is a nearly year-round endeavor. 

The shifting state of trade shows has seen paddlesports splinter from larger shows to host their own expo in Oklahoma City. Trade-show giant Emerald Expositions in 2018 suspended Interbike — the largest bike gathering in North America — after 37 years, hoping to roll it into the company’s November Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Denver.

Last month Emerald canceled the November Outdoor Retailer show and merged it with the super-sized Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in January. 

It’s not just outdoor trade shows that are shifting locations and schedules. 

The Denver-based Western & English Sales Association hosted its first equestrian trade show in Denver in 1922 and last fall announced it was moving its twice-a-year International Western / English Apparel and Equipment Market trade shows to Dallas from the Denver Mart, starting in 2021. The move prompted several Western brands to announce plans to move their permanent showrooms from the Denver Merchandise Mart to Dallas. 

The Denver Merchandise Mart specializes in connecting sales representatives to buyers. It’s a strictly business-to-business market and not open to the public. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The loss of those major long-term tenants and trade shows could have been a fatal blow to Herrick. But he’s betting outdoor tenants and new outdoor trade shows can fill the gap left by the departing equestrians.

He’s got about 140 outdoor-oriented tenants right now, including Smartwool, Fjällräven, Optic Nerve, Gregory, K2, Chaco, Marmot, Swany and Helly Hansen. Now, with his giant ballrooms and myriad loading docks, Herrick wants to start attracting more hardgood brands that could use his vast space as a showroom for their bikes, skis, snowboards and paddlecrafts.

Herrick has converted an entire wing of his building to be more outdoor business-friendly, with a stone-and-timber common area, bar and more open spaces. It looks a lot like Industry, the shared workspace in the hip RiNo neighborhood not far down the road. 

“If anything we kind of missed the boat on coworking space because we are the original WeWork model,” Herrick said. “The Mart has been here since the 60s with shared work space.”

MORE: “There is a lot of uncertainty”: Outdoor industry facing $1.5 billion in monthly losses from Trump’s trade war

The Denver Mart, which opened in 1965 with plans for a car dealership that quickly evolved into a wholesale showroom space, has room for 400 tenants, with space ranging from about 200 square feet to more than 5,000 square feet. The sprawling campus of five interconnected buildings hosts about 100 events a year, from concerts and the state bar exam to trade shows featuring gems, toy trains, hot tubs, marijuana and more. There’s even a drive-in movie theater outside the building. 

Show hosts, Herrick said, love the fact the Denver Mart is outside the city of Denver limits in unincorporated Adams County, which means his events go down without the added cost of union contracts and labor. 

Plenty of buzz, but what about the neighborhood amenities?

Brands catering to retailers display their latest designs in showrooms far removed from the public.

Those shelf-stocking buyers can visit for a day and see several different brands. With a growing roster of brands, there’s “definitely a growing vibe” at the Denver Mart, said Bill Cotton, the president of Wheat Ridge-based Optic Nerve sunglasses.

“We want to have that awareness and visibility for our brand,” said Cotton, whose glowing racks of sunglasses in the Optic Nerve Denver Mart showroom are displayed as if they were on a retailer’s store floor. “There’s so much going on over there. Just a lot of buzz, you know. We talk about the dynamics and changing landscape of retail right now and the need for retailers to be experiential and that means everyone needs to be looking for ways where the retailer can be on the leading edge and engage with their consumers. That’s where the Denver Mart showroom serves us well as we work with those retailers.”

Brian Stevenson, of Ascension Sales, organizes a new shipment of climbing shoes. Ascension Sales moved to the Denver Mart from Golden last year. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Grassroots Outdoors Alliance is a coalition of 74 independent outdoor retailers from 37 states who have their own trade shows every spring and fall, called Grassroots Connect. The scaled-down shows enable the alliance’s retailers to meet with vendors and brands early in the buying cycle. The June show is in Knoxville, Tennessee, and last year the alliance announced a five-year deal to locate its fall show in Denver in the three days before the much-larger November Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Denver. The cancellation of the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market left Grassroots Alliance scrambling. 

“We had to renegotiate everything. What normally takes six months we had to do in about seven days,” said alliance president Rich Hill, who will host 1,000 retailers, vendors and media at the Colorado Convention Center in November. 

Herrick has been knocking on Hill’s door, inviting his group to check out the Denver Mart as a potential location for future winter shows. 

“We want that show,” Herrick said. 

The Denver Mart has has over 1 million square feet of space and the look and feel of a ’70s hotel. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Hill is reticent. The Denver Mart works well for Colorado retailers and is perfect for brands setting up permanent showrooms, he said. And the cost is much lower than in Denver. But it’s lacking for his members, he said. 

“I’m flying in close to 100 retailers. There’s no transportation there. No restaurants, no hotels. It’s totally car dependent,” Hill said. “If I fly my members into Denver and tell them they are going to spend four, five days in the Denver Mart, I think they will slash my throat. I like the idea there. They are super nice people and Denver Mart certain serves as a great regional host, but I’m not sure it will work for a national show. ”

Herrick knows his building isn’t a Las Vegas palace or big-city convention hall and he’s not vying to compete against the heavyweights in the convention business. 

“You know 15 to 20 years ago people were telling us ‘Oh the Mart is going to go under. The internet has changed everything,’” Herrick said. “There is no doubt the internet is a huge part of this business, but once or twice a year there is a need for a tactile buy-and-sell that requires people working face to face. It’s not all PDF files, you know.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...