This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
When the Outdoor Retailer trade show pulled out of Denver this year to return to its longtime home in Utah, Colorado’s outdoor industry leaders promised the departure would be a good thing.
The loss of the twice-a-year trade shows — which irked brands that have been battling with Utah politicians over the state’s opposition to expansions of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments — was an opportunity to create a new type of event for the outdoor industry. Conor Hall, the director of Colorado’s outdoor recreation office, suggested maybe the state could host a business trade show that also worked as a consumer-friendly festival; a “South by Southwest” for the outdoor industry and its passionate fans.
The seed of that new event was planted this week as the nascent Big Gear Show announced plans to move from Park City, Utah, to downtown Denver alongside the first-ever (e)revolution e-bike trade show. The June 8-11 event at the Colorado Convention Center next year will host not just brands, manufacturers and retailers with two days of business-to-business wheeling and dealing, but will open to consumers for the final two days of the event.
The plan includes an entry fee, outdoor trails for e-bikes and climbing walls for testing equipment and, in a unique partnership with local gear shops, the ability to buy gear on the show floor. Plans are underway for ancillary events around the convention center to help feed the festival-like vibe.
It’s the first “business-to-business-to-consumer” event for the outdoor industry.
“This is bigger than just the concept of trying to replace the Outdoor Retailer show,” Hall said. “This is our push, with Gov. Polis, to make sure that Colorado is the gathering place for this diverse industry.”
Hall called the co-mingling of the Big Gear Show and the e-bike trade show along with public access “an important step in our broader push to create that South by Southwest feeling for the industry.” This may not be the event that becomes the international festival that cements Colorado as the epicenter of the outdoor recreation world, Hall said, “but it’s going to be a really exciting piece of our larger vision.”
The Big Gear Show and the (e)revolution e-bike trade show are owned by the same company, Lost Paddle Events, which is a collection of longtime outdoor industry executives and small-shop retailers.
Kenji Haroutunian, who launched the hardgoods-focused Big Gear Show in 2021, always envisioned an urban trade show but settled into a slopeside, outdoor venue in Park City for 2021 and 2022 to accommodate the angst of the pandemic.
“This is really the original vision,” said Haroutunian, a 35-year outdoor industry veteran who spent 15 years guiding the Outdoor Retailer trade show for four different owners.
In August he hosted about 1,800 manufacturers, brands, retailers and journalists in Park City, as he adjusted the Big Gear Show’s focus toward hardgoods, like bikes, paddle boards, kayaks, climbing gear and camping stuff.
The Big Gear Show mission has been a lower cost of entry for businesses, so the display booths are modest by comparison to the sprawling minimansions that populate the Outdoor Retailer show floor. That will remain for Denver, with many exhibitors using Sprinter vans or customized camping trailers to display wares on the show floor.
Haroutunian is making even bigger adjustments for year three: moving indoors to the big city, shifting the dates from August to June, joining another trade show and welcoming consumers.
The biggest change will be welcoming the public.
The final two days of the four-day trade show will be open to consumers. Folks will have to pay, but it will be “very affordable,” Haroutunian said.
“We want this to be accessible. Being in the center of the city location is about access. One of the most important things this industry needs is going to where the people are and bringing them into the industry,” he said. “We need to introduce the outdoors to new people and more diverse communities closer to their own communities. That is mission critical.”
Haroutunian is working out the technical challenges for gear-makers and brands converting booths from highlighting next year’s gear for order-writing retailers into booths showcasing this year’s gear for shoppers. An added twist: places to test the gear outside like a climbing wall and e-bike track plus a way for consumers to buy stuff on the show floor.
Especially challenging: How does a brand sell something directly to a consumer without hurting the specialty retailers who would typically handle that transaction?
“We want to protect and actually promote the specialty shops, so we will provide a way for specialty shops to have a role in transactions on the show floor,” Haroutunian said. “We will be pushing that any sales in the convention center will be funneled through local shops so they get the benefit.”
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There are a lot of details still being hammered out. There are plans underway with Boulder-based Outside Inc. to create interactive, consumer-friendly events around the two trade shows.
“As a Front Range-based business, we’re stoked to welcome our friends from the Big Gear Show to Denver,” said Jon Dorn, the vice president of strategy for Outside Inc., which oversees 30 outdoor brands. “We’re also excited about Conor’s leadership at OREC, which is creating real buzz in Colorado’s outdoor community. We’ve been collaborating with his team on several projects designed to increase consumer engagement with homegrown gear brands, and today’s announcement is fuel on the fire.”
Hall said he feels like “Tetris player one.” Different shaped ideas are falling and he’s assembling them into a cohesive, bigger block. He said “big projects” are underway and more details about a unifying outdoor industry event are coming soon.
“How can we make this bigger and better for everyone?” Hall said. “Our job is to make Colorado the best state for all things outdoor recreation and this is a piece of that effort.”