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Evolution of Outdoor Retailer trade shows mirrors industry’s transformation into political, economic force

The annual trade shows promotes advocacy and education alongside traditional wheeling-and-dealing.

Scenes from the 2019 Outdoor Retailer Snow Show. Denver Convention Center. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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It was not so long ago that retailers and manufacturers left the annual Outdoor Retailer and Snow Show trade shows with contracts for gear that would carry them into the coming season. The shows were all about wheeling and dealing among gearmakers and shop owners, with a scattering of media documenting the coming trends and toys. 

Now, the shows have morphed into twice-a-year events inside Denver’s Colorado Convention Center that blend a bit of business with a heap of advocacy. As the outdoor industry reshapes itself into a political and economic force able to sway economic policy and legislation on climate and public lands, so too are the industry’s annual gatherings evolving into rallies to galvanize a collective voice on critical issues. 

It’s not about simply balancing business with activism, says Nick Sargent, the president of SnowSports Industries America, which in 2017 sold its 50-year-old Snow Show to Outdoor Retailer host Emerald Expositions and last year SIA announced it had purchased the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Expo and its sister expo in Boston. Buying and selling and advocacy are inextricably connected now, he says.

“Buying, selling and being able to have a robust sales season depends on us addressing existential issues now,” Sargent says. “Our industry is evolving and we understand that we have to lead on important issues like climate change and public lands, otherwise, the health of our industry suffers. But secondly, our consumers are demanding that brands lead on these important issues too, so those core values needs to be part of every sales discussion. Brands have to be smarter and active participants in all of this now, and that’s why the discussions at the trade show have evolved in this way.”

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

The throes of dissent around the trade show timing, cost and business focus have been evident for years but are peaking as schedules roil, shows are cancelled and other trade shows emerge amidst the change. 

In March, three months after canceling the 2019 Interbike trade show, Emerald Expositions, the publicly-traded company that hosts Outdoor Retailer along with the Outdoor Industry Association, announced it would welcome bikes at its second November Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. Then in August, Emerald Expositions cancelled the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, citing demand for a single, unified show in the annual Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in January.

Last month two veteran paddlesport retailers announced plans for The Big Gear Show at the Salt Palace Convention Center, the former home of Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City and staged only three weeks after the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Denver. 

Around the same time, Cam Brensinger, the founder and head of Nemo Equipment,  wrote a column for industry website Snews saying the Outdoor Retailer show “has been declining in relevance for many years.”

“It seems unlikely to survive without a major reinvention,” wrote Brensinger, who urged the end to order writing, a limit on booth sizes to encourage newcomers and multiple stages around the convention hall for TED conference-like talks and events.

Following last year’s OR Snow Show show, industry marketing veteran Maro LaBlance penned an essay in Snews calling thrice-a-year trade shows a waste of money, time and resources that could be better directed. 

“If there is not a complete overhaul in the format, it will eventually die, and could stunt the growth of struggling brands in the process,” wrote LaBlance, who wondered why precious industry dollars were feeding a publicly-held convention company while vital media outlets and grassroots conservation groups were scrambling for support.  

Response, she said, was “overwhelmingly positive.”

Shifting production schedules, the increasing popularity of smaller regional shows and the growing costs of national events like the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show “are making it feel like it’s not worth doing,” said LaBlance, whose clients spend at least $70,000 to showcase at the Snow Show. 

“And here we are a year later having the same conversation and nothing is changing,” she said. “I think it’s time to take a step back and define these shows’ reasons for being. If they frame this show as the most efficient way to do business, it’s not working.”

The show has always been a blend of business and education, said Marisa Nicholson, the vice-president of Emerald Expositions’ Outdoor Group and director of the Outdoor Retailer trade shows. The blend is evolving as the industry takes on more critical issues. 

“When the community comes together, it becomes about more than just buying and selling. It’s about what we do to make our industry grow and be sustainable, especially as the world around us is changing,” Nicholson said.  

This year’s three-day show is heavy with breakfasts, meetings and sessions helping manufacturers and retailers minimize environmental impacts, spur policy changes to thwart climate change, drive participation in outdoor recreation and better develop the industry’s workforce. 

“This show is the forum for the whole community to come together and talk about these things and build momentum and take action,” Nicholson said. 

If the show was truly nothing but buying and selling, “we would have to be a month long,” Nicholson said. That’s where the flurry of smaller, regional shows serve the industry, she said, and the larger national shows can expand into educational arenas beyond business. 

“The national show is what brings it all together and puts it all in a collective platform,” Nicholson said. “It’s about how we sustain this industry and how we can protect the things that are important to us.”