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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)

The outdoor industry flexed its newfound political muscle five years ago by leaving Utah and taking its twice-a-year Outdoor Retailer trade shows to Colorado.

Outdoor brands and advocates, irked over Utah’s push to dismantle protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, moved their annual gatherings — which draw 85,000 visitors and stir an annual impact of around $110 million — to Denver’s Colorado Convention Center. 

Now, as Outdoor Retailer owner Emerald X negotiates a new contract with Denver and the annual Snow Show is set to begin in a week after skipping last year, Utah is lobbying to get the trade show back. And Colorado is not letting go. 

“The leaders of the outdoor industry have spoken with an articulate and strong voice that this cornerstone event belongs in a state that shares its values on public land and recreation,” reads a letter sent by Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to Emerald X executives on Wednesday. “Colorado is the perfect match to continue as the home of the Outdoor Retailer Show.”

The last five years have not been smooth for Denver and the Outdoor Retailer shows. The original plan when the shows moved from Utah was to hold three gatherings a year: a Snow Show in January, the Summer Market in June and a new Winter Market in November. Visit Denver, the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau, said in 2018 that it had moved several other trade shows to accommodate Outdoor Retailers’ need for three dates a year through 2022. 

After the first November show in 2018 — designed to give outdoor retailers an early start on the buying season — Emerald X canceled the 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 November shows and merged the market with the January Snow Show. 

Then COVID canceled the 2020 Summer Market and 2021 Snow Show. The Summer Market in August last year was scaled down, with fewer manufacturers attending due to pandemic concerns. The Snow Show kicks off next week with attendance again impacted by the coronavirus.

The Outdoor Retailer trade show at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Colorado, on Aug. 11, 2021. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Utah began courting Outdoor Retailer last fall, urging the trade show to reconsider Salt Lake City. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in a video that Salt Lake City’s hospitality industry saw “incredible growth” during the 20 years the city hosted Outdoor Retailer – “and much of that was attributable to you.”

“We’ve missed you for the past several years,” Cox said, noting the multibillion-dollar expansion of the Salt Lake City International Airport and a new 700-room Hyatt Regency hotel set to open at Salt Palace Convention Center later this year. He also said the state was working with the Interior Department “to establish sustainable ways to manage” the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

It was Utah’s plan for those monuments that sent Outdoor Retailer packing for Colorado. Former President Donald Trump, with support from Utah’s then-Gov. Gary Herbert and other politicians, slashed the size of the monuments by about 2 million acres in 2017, a year after President Barack Obama expanded them. 

The outdoor industry was establishing itself as an economic and political powerhouse back then. Federal economists were measuring its economic heft, ranking it among the top industries in the country. States were designating offices dedicated to outdoor recreation. The industry was growing from a loose band of fun-seeking hobbyists to a movement capable of shifting national policy on public lands and climate. And its first big move was divorcing Utah. 

President Joe Biden in October restored more than 2 million acres to the Utah national monuments, which Cox called “a tragic missed opportunity” and a demonstration of Biden’s “unwillingness to collaborate with and listen to those most impacted by these decisions.” Cox has suggested Utah will sue the Interior Department over the restoration of federal protections.

Case Davis with Got Bag speaks with Bryan Skowronek and Ruthie Johnson of Social Storm LA, a media and marketing agency at the Outdoor Retailer trade show at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Colorado, on Aug. 11, 2021. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Oh, Utah! Will you ever learn? You can’t have the things you love like clean air, wild lands and a stable climate and destroy them at the same time,” Aspen Skiing Co. chief Mike Kaplan wrote in an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday. “You can’t roll back historic land conservation practices and hope your state will seem welcoming to hikers, climbers, fishers and skiers.”

Kaplan said Emerald X must realize that outdoor companies “are not environment-agnostic anymore.” 

“The show that produces $56 million in revenue is about business, but business more than ever requires protecting the environment,” Kaplan wrote, highlighting Colorado’s “robust public lands protections and aggressive environmental leadership” in arguing that Outdoor Retailer remain in Colorado.

The Conservation Alliance and Outdoor Alliance, which represents 270 outdoor businesses and 10 outdoor advocacy organizations, recently wrote to Cox calling his opposition to Biden’s restoration of the monuments “an assault on our industry’s most closely held values.”

Fighting public lands while courting Outdoor Retailer “is illogical and counterproductive,” reads the letter the alliances sent earlier this month

“It would run contrary to the outdoor industry’s values to return the show to a state that is openly hostile to public lands and waters, and that’s working to undermine two iconic national monuments,” the letter reads. “If the state continues pursuing this lawsuit, leading brands and organizations in our industry will refuse to participate in a Utah-based show, even at the risk of compromising the show’s future viability.”

This May 8, 2017 aerial file photo shows Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah. President Joe Biden in October restored nearly 2 million acres to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the sprawling national monuments in Utah that have been at the center of a public lands tug of war that has played out over three presidential administrations. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

The politics of the outdoor industry is not something Richard Scharf is focused on. He’s the longtime head of Visit Denver and he’s in the middle of negotiations with Emerald X, trying to keep the Outdoor Retailer shows in Denver. 

“We are an outdoor city and we are an outdoor state and we have not wavered on our  commitment to the industry or to our culture. It’s the same as it was six years ago,” Scharf said. 

Scharf said he has offered Emerald X “phenomenal dates and space” for the next 10 years for both the Snow Show and Summer Market. Scharf has a growing list of reasons why conventions should come to Denver. The city’s airport is one of the busiest in the world and is adding 39 new gates. A new 750,000-square-foot expansion to the convention center will be finished next year. Convention goers can walk to 12,000 hotel rooms downtown. 

“In terms of accessibility, affordability and destination appeal, we offer the best,” Scharf said. “And that’s what we’ve done. We have offered them our very best and we have been very flexible and accommodating.”

This isn’t all about Colorado and Utah though. 

The trade show industry was changing even before the pandemic. Now, after two years without trade shows, many outdoor business owners have figured out how to thrive without the annual deal-making gatherings that once seemed so critical to their businesses. 

And the always simmering division between snowsports and the rest of the outdoor industry has grown. The Outdoor Retailer Snow Snow and rival Winter Sports Market agreed in 2018 to co-locate their annual trade shows in Denver through 2022. Winter Sports Market last fall decided to move to Salt Lake City and host its annual gathering starting Thursday.

“Their decision divides the community at a time when, more than ever, we should be united,” Marisa Nicholson, Emerald’s Outdoor Retailer show director, wrote in a public letter last fall. “Despite this unforeseen fracture, we know our industry is stronger when we act together.”

Kim Miller, the president of Scarpa North America, the Boulder-based dealer of both ski and climbing gear, recently made the decision to cancel his team’s attendance at the upcoming Snow Show, due to concerns over the spread of COVID. He said it was not an especially difficult decision. He’s spent the past two and half years adjusting to the pandemic’s impact on demand and the supply of products from overseas. And he’s done it without attending trade shows. 

“The industry’s vendors and retailers are so far ahead of everyone else,” Miller said. “We have figured out how to do business without trade shows. I think trade shows are an endangered species right now.”

Artful Weston snowboards are pictured at the Weston booth at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show on Jan. 30, 2020 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Miller said the outdoor industry, while coming together politically on public lands and climate issues, is starting to fracture when it comes to business. The companies making tents and kayaks have different needs than the companies making skis and boots. The retailers and gear makers are dividing into camps that better suit their business needs. 

“We are not dealing with just one group, a united group that calls itself the outdoor industry. Now we are talking about the snowsports industry as a separate but equal community,” Miller said. “This industry is two industries with different opinions, different cultures and different priorities.”

Still, Miller said there is a large contingency of outdoor businesses that will not return to Utah if Outdoor Retailer relocates. 

“If people don’t stand up to Utah and that kind of attitude, it shows it really wasn’t that important to us a few years ago,” he said. “Who is going to show the next generation when it’s right to stand up and fight for your values?”

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,...