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The Outdoor Retailer logo stands in front of Denver's Colorado Convention Center on Aug. 11, 2021. Lingering impacts of the pandemic stifled attendance at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

PARK CITY, UTAH — Stepping off the free bus and hustling over to the temporary tent city in one of Deer Valley Resort’s parking lots, Cameron Wenzel had only one thing on his mind: bikes. “I went straight to the Pinarello booth, got a $12,000 road bike and rode up to the top of one of the passes,” he says. “I was only going to ride a little bit, but I just kept going and going and going. It was incredible.”

As a manager/partner at outdoor retailer Snowmass Sports, and one of the 421 retailers attending the Big Gear Show, the outdoor industry’s new business-to-business trade event, Wenzel’s enthusiasm was all in the name of research. And to be fair, he did spend his second day of the three-day event attending e-commerce panels, writing small orders and shaking hands with brands his shop already carries. But the purpose of that whole first day, he says, “was to go have fun and bike.”

That mix of demoing products while also doing business is a major component of Big Gear Show — and a big reason why Utah won its business.

The show had its inaugural event Aug. 3-5 in Park City, where a mountain backdrop provides a natural playground for highlighting innovations and trends in the paddlesports, cycling, climbing and camping markets — all less than an hour’s drive from the Salt Lake City airport.

“Salt Lake is unique in that it can deliver an international airport to bring people in from anywhere in the country with a minimum of hops and many direct flights and still allow them to be literally at the trailhead in 40 minutes,” Show Director Kenji Haroutunian says. “That’s almost unmatchable anywhere else.”

Kenji Haroutunian, director of the Outdoor portion of The Big Gear Show. The Big Gear Show at the parking area for Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah, on Aug. 3. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Big Gear Show isn’t the only major outdoor industry trade show setting up camp in Utah. In October, the three-day Fly Tackle Dealer Show will come to Salt Lake City after its hosts, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, broke their two-year contract with the Colorado Convention Center in order to move the show to Utah. Once upon a time, Salt Lake City also hosted the twice-a-year Outdoor Retailer, historically considered the outdoor industry’s preeminent trade show. 

The scheduling of two major outdoor industry gatherings in Utah this year raises the question: is it trying to get back what it lost four years ago, when the Outdoor Retailer show pulled up stakes and moved to Colorado in protest over Utah’s stance on public lands issues? Wooing back OR, which is nearing the end of its 5-year contract with the Colorado Convention Center, could help Utah reclaim its role as the hub of major outdoor industry trade events

Visit Salt Lake’s Chief Sales and Services Officer Mark White says Salt Palace Convention Center is indeed eager to welcome back OR’s summer and winter events. “In addition to the direct economic benefits large events provide, hosting OR, BGS and the Flyfishing Show all enhance our destination’s active lifestyle brand,” he wrote in an email. “Hosting any one of them is a win. Hosting all of them would be a powerful and positive message to everyone interested in the outdoors and the outdoor industry.”

Certainly, there are plenty of benefits to holding outdoor trade shows in Utah. With five national parks and about 22.8 million acres of public land (that’s about 42% of the state, according to Bureau of Land Management data), it’s a veritable outdoor playground. Attendees also valued the layout of OR when it was at the Salt Palace, saying the grid-like setup simplified navigation both when rushing from meeting to meeting and when methodically moving aisle-by-aisle in search of new products.

And as Haroutunian, who notably directed OR from 2007 through 2014, mentioned, Salt Lake City’s proximity to the mountains makes for a relatively short drive up to a lake or ski resort if the trade show has a demo component. 

“It’s much further from the Denver airport to get to … adequate demo sites in the Front Range/Rockies. It’s a few hours,” he says. “It doesn’t sound like that big of a difference if you’re going on vacation, but if you’ve got three days to attend a trade show and you spend four hours on a shuttle bus in one day, that is a huge chunk of time.”

Mike Moore, president of Seattle Sports, at the Big Gear Show in Utah. Moore says trade shows in Denver are expensive relative to other locations. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Another point in Utah’s favor, at least according to some: expense. Extra costs start with the Colorado Convention Center, where booths must be to be set up by union workers, says Mike Moore, president of Seattle Sports. Salt Palace’s labor contract allows exhibitor employees to do the work. Lodging is also pricey in Denver compared to other cities in the West, say Haroutunian and Tom Bie, who sat on the American Fly Fishing Trade Association’s  trade show committee. Cost, along with what Bie describes as a hard stance on pandemic-related refunds, was the primary reason the Fly Tackle Dealer Show left Denver for Salt Lake City. 

“The most frequent comment I heard from attendees was that Denver is really expensive,” he says. “It’s not expensive compared to New York or San Francisco, but I think they were surprised.”

But the question of operating costs is more nuanced than Utah’s boosters make it out to be, Colorado’s proponents say.

Participants at Denver-based conventions can find cheap lodging and flights if they’re willing to stay farther from the city or convention center or make multiple connecting flights before arriving at DIA, says Visit Denver CEO Richard Scharf.

And Outdoor Industry Association participants tend to look at the overall picture when it comes to assessing what’s the best location for a show, says Lise Aangeenbrug, the group’s executive director. That includes costs involved in lodging, travel, food and shipping but also factors such convenience of travel and the level of staff support.

Ultimately, price isn’t something groups like Visit Denver or OIA have control over. “The market demand drives the rates,” Scharf says. “If you’ve got strong demand, you are going to be spending more money, but if you’ve got strong demand, there’s a reason for that: You’re a desirable destination.”

Moving OR back to Utah would take some significant forgiving and forgetting on the outdoor industry’s part.

The Big Gear Show with Deer Valley slopes in the background on Aug. 3. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When the show decided to leave Utah in 2017 after a 22-year run, it did so for a reason: Utah’s then-Gov. Gary Herbert signed a resolution calling for the federal government to overturn the monument status for Bears Ears. Multiple brandsPatagonia and Arc’teryx among themsay their participation in OR was contingent on moving the show.

“Essentially we had a boycott with OR staying in Salt Lake City,” show director Marisa Nicholson says.

OR responded quickly, and after expedited polling of members of the industry, it established a new home. OR signed a five-year contract with Visit Denver (compared with the three-year contract signed in Salt Lake City, though that contract was renewed multiple times) to demonstrate that the show would be there for the long haul.

“We wanted to show that we were committed to moving to Denver and creating stability in the marketplace,” Nicholson says.

Haroutunian, however, stands by the decision to host an outdoor industry trade show in Utah. For one thing, he says, political advocacy at the state level is not the primary function of national trade shows. 

But when it does come up, he says, “it’s better to be engaged with the leadership while you have an interest in that state.” 

Pointing to experience working with current Utah Gov. Spencer Cox at industry events, he adds, “inviting lawmakers to an event on their ‘turf’ can affect policy viewpoints and outcomes, as well as inform our endemic media on nuances of the outdoor industry footprint in their state.” 

“We feel it’s better to engage than to run off,” Haroutunian says.

Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association at the Outdoor Retailer trade show on Aug. 11 in Denver. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Nicholson and Aangeenbrug say Colorado has been a good home for OR. Like Utah, it is undeniably a mecca of outdoor play, but its strong support of public lands is much more in line with the outdoor industry’s recreation- and climate-focused political priorities. 

That still matters, a lot, to industry members like Kim Miller, CEO of Scarpa North America. He believes Utah has had plenty of opportunities since OR left to demonstrate its commitment to public lands, yet hasn’t.

“Action is the only thing that shows real commitment,” he says.

Denver’s accommodations are impressive too. With more than 12,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center, lodging is accessible even if it is expensive. The Colorado Convention Center is also undergoing a $233 million expansion (set to finish in late 2023), including a 20,000-square-foot outdoor terrace with unobstructed views of the mountains, that will solve the problem of “museum fatigue,” as Tristan Friedman, head of business development for Outdoorly, describes the current windowless feel of convention centers.

But now that there are 18 months left in the five-year contract, OR is beginning to look ahead to determine whether the industry wants the show to remain in Denver. Sending out a survey 18 months before the contract expires is standard procedure, Nicholson says — an effort to get a pulse on the industry’s preferences for the show’s dates, length of time, and yes, location. 

OIA’s Aangeenbrug isn’t aware of anything changing with Utah’s politics that would make it more attractive to brand and retailer members who supported the move away from Salt Lake City.

“But that doesn’t mean (OR) would not look at other considerations,” she says.

TAHE’s Jimmy Blakeney, left, features a SUP-YAK with retailer Keith Miller, president of California Canoe and Kayak of Oakland, California at the Big Gear Show. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Moving OR has potential to be a major blow to Colorado, economically speaking. Pre-COVID, the biannual event, held each June and January, would bring in between $66 million and $75 million annually in direct spending on things like hotels and restaurants and indirect economic benefits that roll over into the local economy. 

There’s also the reverberating effect of a city playing host to thousands of people, Visit Denver’s Scharf says. 

“There’s a lot of cross-pollination between exposing people through these conventions or through being a tourist,” Scharf says. “All of a sudden, they find us and they go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you had all this.’ Then they choose to bring their companies here.”

But the number of people descending on Denver for trade shows and conventions has changed a lot since COVID, leading to what Visit Denver estimates to be more than $1.2 billion of lost revenue since 2020 due to trade show cancellations.

Attendees at this summer’s OR, which saw about 400 booths compared roughly 1,400 in 2019, politely describe the event as “subdued,” observing that the smaller show made it easier for new brands to get noticed. 

The Big Gear Show, with 138 manufacturers/parent companies in attendance, was also declared relatively quiet, though with an invite-only model, that was at least partly by design.

“[BGS was] a success because it happened, but this can’t be the state of the show next year for it to continue,” says Ben Coates, POC Helmets’ North America managing director.

Event planners from both shows are quick to point out that numerous outdoor brands were under corporate travel bans — some still are — and could not commit to a trade show. And of those that did pre-register, some would-be attendees at both shows (notably Keen at OR and OIA panel members at BGS) pulled out last-minute because of surging cases of the coronavirus delta variant.

Everyone, even those with the most to lose, acknowledge the trade show industry is changing. But that’s old news. 

“That conversation has been going on for years,” Scarpa’s Miller says. “The thing that changed us was that we went a year and a halfliterally a cycle of three trade shows for a lot of peoplewithout trade shows. And because a lot of us thrive on innovation and the idea that we need to survive this, most people figured out new ways to do business.”

There’s no denying he’s right. Hosting sales meetings and new product showcases over Zoom is old hat now that the industry has adapted to conducting business online. Notably, that self-determined timeline is helpful for an industry that has always struggled with when to hold OR, an event that was originally slated to be a business show to connect retailers with brands, not just a marketing event. The conundrum: Apparel brands have shorter lead times on product development and prefer that the summer show take place in June compared to equipment brands that need more time for production and would rather have a show in August. 

That debate, which has stymied OR and OIA for years, is no longer an issue when outdoor brands set up meetings with retailers on their own schedule.

Brooklyn Nichols, with Trailhead Bike Shop in Ludington, Michigan, peruses Fat Chance Bicycles during the Big Gear Show. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

John Walbrecht, president of outdoor powerhouse Black Diamond Equipment, sees value in industrywide gatherings but says a disruption of the standard biannual event is long overdue. For one thing, with more than 1,000 booths to visit, plus education seminars and networking sessions to attend, trade shows were just too big to absorb in the three days allotted. Shows have also historically been expensive, with the cost of building a booth and renting the space generally running more than $10,000 and, in some cases, soaring upwards of $100,000. 

Walbrecht’s biggest critique, however, is that the outdoor industry overlooks what he calls its most important constituent: the outdoor consumer. 

“The model is to rent a hall, sell that space to the brands, the brands build big booths for presence, fly in the retailers, have them go around the show and the more brands or the more retailers or the combination of the two, the more successful the show. Really? The show’s not the outcome. The show is just a catalyst to the industry,” he says. “We’re guilty of this at Black Diamond too. The show is like a birthday party that we only invite ourselves to.”

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

By inviting consumers into the show to see the new products, test them and even offer critiques, the industry would have invaluable access to real-time research and development, Walbrecht says. 

“We all sit around in the industry talking about each other’s products, but we may have it wrong,” he continues, adding this is especially true given the pandemic’s silver lining of bringing millions of new users into the outdoor-loving fold, what he dubs “outdoorism.”

Location, format, attendees: Much about the future of the outdoor industry’s gathering is up in the air. As with so many things, the pandemic has created a turning point for convenings, connections and trade shows. 

We don’t have an answer yet, but it’s good to begin the dialogue, Aangeenbrug says.

“Now is the time to ask those questions,” she says.

Courtney Holden

Twitter: @CourtneyJHolden