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Outdoor Retailer is leaving Denver for Salt Lake City, industry leaders promise to boycott

The Outdoor Retailer trade show that moved to Denver from Utah after industry angst over Utah's public lands policies will return to Salt Lake City in 2023. Colorado leaders see opportunity for consumer-friendly festival replacing the event.

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)
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Outdoor Retailer is moving its twice-a-year trade shows out of Denver and back to Salt Lake City. 

The national outdoor trade show with a $45 million annual impact left Utah in 2017 after industry heavyweights blasted the state’s leaders for supporting the reduction of federally-protected national monuments. It will return to its 20-year home in Utah for the January 2023 Snow Show. 

Emerald X, the publicly traded owner of the Outdoor Retailer shows, announced the return to Salt Lake City on Wednesday. In a statement posted at the trade show’s website, Emerald X said the show is returning to Utah “with a commitment to effecting meaningful change.”

“In reality, leaving after 2017 has not brought the change we had hoped for, so we will push back, not pull back,” reads the announcement. “We firmly believe that staying engaged and collectively contributing to the ongoing discussion, no matter how difficult, is far more constructive.”

Colorado positioned itself as an outdoor industry hub when it landed Outdoor Retailer in 2017. The state had a new outdoor recreation office and a growing roster of outdoor businesses setting up headquarters in the state, including VF Corp. The state’s support of public lands helped secure the show’s five-year contract with Denver’s Colorado Convention Center. 

Industry heavyweights — like REI, The North Face and Patagonia — earlier this year promised to boycott future Outdoor Retailer trade shows if Emerald X moved back to Salt Lake City. The state’s opposition to the Biden Administration’s restoration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments constitute “attacks on national monuments and public lands protections” reads a statement signed by 24 outdoor companies in February, all promising not to return to Salt Lake City. 

“Our position on the location of the Outdoor Retailer trade show remains clear and unchanged: The show belongs in a state whose top officials value and seek to protect public lands,” Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert said in the statement.

Conor Hall, the newly minted director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, said the departure of Outdoor Retailer should be seen as “a really exciting opportunity.”

As more industry heavyweights promised to boycott Utah, manufacturers and outdoor leaders began talking about a replacement event. Maybe something that could include consumers, with films, music and seminars. Maybe outdoor businesses could use an event that brings in consumers — not just business insiders — to highlight the industry’s work around climate, public lands and diversity and equity in the outdoors. Something like “a South by Southwest for the outdoor industry,” said Hall of Austin, Texas’ massive tech, music and media festival.

“There’s really not anything like that right now,” Hall said. “We are hearing from our industry partners that they’d like something that is more of event or festival that convenes around all these issues, like public lands and diversity and inclusion. What can we create here in Colorado that not only fills the void left by Outdoor Retailer, but matches the evolution and transformation this industry is going through? I’m incredibly excited, especially being new to this role, to help build what’s next and really match what we are hearing from the industry.”

The Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in January in Denver was a shadow of its former self, with anemic attendance compared to tens of thousands of attendees before the pandemic. Outdoor Retailer’s Summer Market show is set for June 9-11 in Denver.

Opposition to Utah as a once-again home for Outdoor Retailer rekindled last fall when Utah leaders announced plans to file a lawsuit challenging President Joe Biden’s executive order restoring the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante national monuments, which the Trump Administration in 2017 had reduced by about 2 million acres. 

The outdoor industry “is very concerned” about a lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden’s protection of Utah’s remote canyonlands, said Lise Aangeenbrug, the executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association. Recent surveys by the association showed members ranking advocacy for the protection of public lands as a top function of the association. 

Lise Aangeenbrug, Outdoor Industry Association Executive Director outside the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on Jan. 26, 2022. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The industry is ready to work with Utah to help it better protect public lands, she said. She said it’s not necessarily a matter of working from the inside or the outside.

“It was the industry’s view back in 2017 that we had been working with Utah from the inside and nothing changed. And now, from the outside, we still are not seeing a change, which is why so many of our members are concerned about the potential of a lawsuit,” said Aangeenbrug, whose group remains under contract with Emerald X to provide educational seminars during the trade shows. 

Aangeenbrug said her members want to explore how an event can help the outdoor industry advocate on important issues like climate, public lands and diversity. 

“A vast majority of our member want new ways to convey their message and have asked that we all look at how we can include consumers,” she said. 

Emerald X in Wednesday’s statement said it was committing revenue from the next three years of Outdoor Retailer events in Salt Lake City for programs that support outdoor recreation and protect public lands in Utah. The trade show will convene outdoor recreation leaders and city, state and federal officials for twice-a-year meetings to discuss policies and advocacy of public lands. The company also said Outdoor Retailer would be “adding channels for the industry to interact directly with consumers” and “moving beyond the walls of a convention center to present unique opportunities for commerce, storytelling, advocacy, knowledge and celebration.”

Patagonia said it would not return to Salt Lake City and join Outdoor Retailer if Utah continues to fight Biden’s restoration of Bears Ears protections.

“We are disappointed the owners of Outdoor Retailer are blatantly ignoring the Indigenous Peoples, local activists and outdoor athletes who spent years working to conserve and protect wild lands in Utah by moving the show back to Salt Lake City,” Patagonia CEO Gellert said in an emailed statement. “Until we hear a firm commitment to protect our national monuments, we remain steadfast in our position and won’t return to the trade show in Utah.”

Outdoor Retailer attendees listen to Birds of Play perform at the Backcountry Access booth on the show floor on January 30, 2020 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Emerald X, and the trade show industry, has suffered during the pandemic. The operator of more than 140 annual trade shows and events saw revenues collapse since 2019, reaching $146 million in 2021, down from a high of $361 million in 2019. The company reported a combined net loss of $763 million in 2020 and 2021. The company’s stock has fallen from above $10 a share in early 2020 to around $3.50 in recent months.

“While we have begun to stage live events again, exhibitor participation and attendance at our events remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels,” the company told investors in its annual report filed in February

COVID is an easy scapegoat for the decimated Outdoor Retailer crowds in Denver in 2021. But the show has struggled as the role of the trade show shifts for outdoor retailers and manufacturers who have adapted to the pandemic with technology and less reliance on face-to-face business events. 

View from the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show at the Colorado Convention Center on Jan. 27, 2022. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Marisa Nicholson, Outdoor Retailer’s show director, surveyed show attendees twice in the last year. She said those surveys showed Salt Lake City eking past Denver by offering closer ski areas for on-snow testing of new winter equipment and closer water for summer demos. Another factor concerned dates in Salt Lake City that better aligned with member business needs. 

“Commerce is the most valuable aspect of the show that we deliver, so it’s important to be able to do that in the right timeframe,” Nicholson said. 

Also the costs are lower at Salt Lake’s  Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center, she said, noting the most significant difference in costs for exhibitors at the trade show “are around the balance between right to work and labor union rules, and the ability for exhibitors to have the option for labor support.”

Nicholson said choosing Salt Lake is an opportunity for the outdoor industry to work more closely with Utah officials on policies “that are important to our community and necessary for the growth of our industry”

“We have the ability to leverage the weight of our industry to make an impact,” she said. “We have always made it a goal to unite our industry … we want everyone to be there.”

Utah began courting Outdoor Retailer last year as Emerald X began negotiations for a new contract with Visit Denver, the city’s convention and tourism bureau.

Richard Scharf, the head of Visit Denver, said his team, along with support from the state and Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper put together “an aggressive package” to keep Outdoor Retailer at the Colorado Convention Center for its summer and winter shows. (Emerald X in 2017 originally booked three events a year but cancelled Outdoor Retailer’s first-ever November show in 2018, leaving Visit Denver to fill that slot for 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.)

Bennet and Hickenlooper on Wednesday issued a joint statement saying Emerald X was “ignoring the outdoor recreation industry’s strong desire” to keep Outdoor Retailer in Denver.

“While this news is disappointing, we stand ready to work with leaders in outdoor recreation on new opportunities to showcase the community’s strength,” the statement read. “Colorado’s longstanding record of supporting outdoor recreation and protecting our public lands make us a leader in this space.”

Scharf said his team was “pretty surprised” that Emerald X chose Salt Lake over Denver. 

But like Hall, he’s excited to see what happens next.

“This industry is really important to the city and the state so I do think there’s a lot of opportunity here,” Scharf said. 


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