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Attendees test-ride electric bikes at the Big Gear Show June 8, 2023, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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.

Here comes the first step in a grand plan to establish a one-of-a-kind outdoor festival in Colorado. 

The Colorado Economic Development Commission last month approved a $50,000 grant from the state’s Strategic Fund to study the potential of an outdoor festival. Boulder’s Outside Inc. and Visit Denver last month asked for the grant to kick-start planning for what Conor Hall at the Colorado outdoor recreation office hopes could be an outdoor-centric South by Southwest-type festival. 

The combined Big Gear Show and (e)revolution electric bike showcase in the Colorado Convention Center this weekend is the test of that concept, with 100 exhibitors, 40 e-bike manufacturers in what is being billed as the first business-to-business-to-consumer trade show. That’s got the unwieldy acronym of B2B2C and the gathering marks the first time the outdoor industry has mingled trade show business with the public.

“I’m watching them build the e-bike test track right now,” Kenji Haroutunian, the director of The Big Gear Show who once ran the Outdoor Retailer trade show, said in an interview this week. “This is the first purpose-built e-bike test track ever and it’s 30,000 square feet in the middle of the convention center floor. It’s so wild. I can’t wait for everyone to see this thing.”

The hope is to build an entirely new outdoor event that combines the business-to-business aspect of traditional outdoor trade shows with educational seminars and a consumer-friendly component. Think film screenings, concerts, action sports contests, presentations, parties, retail sales and hands-on participation opportunities, like climbing walls, camping zones and e-bike tracks. 

Attendees test-ride electric bikes at the Big Gear Show June 8, 2023, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The state Economic Development Commission in 2017 partnered with Visit Denver to support moving Outdoor Retailer’s twice-a-year trade shows to Denver from the event’s longtime home in Salt Lake City. After the pandemic led to canceled shows and scaled-back events, the Outdoor Retailer shows — owned by trade show conglomerate Emerald X — moved back Salt Lake City in 2022. 

The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, Outside and Visit Denver last month asked the commission for access to $440,000 in unspent Outdoor Retailer funds to “advance Colorado’s status as the global hub for innovation and thought leadership in the outdoor and wellness categories by creating a multi-day festival celebrating the active lifestyle,” reads a presentation from Outside and state officials. If the initial $50,000 works out and The Big Gear Show is successful, the commission could open the remainder of the Outdoor Retailer booster dollars to Visit Denver and the outdoor recreation office to launch a bigger event in 2024.

They are calling it the Outside Festival. A slideshow presentation given by festival promoters to the commission last month drew comparisons to the 80,000-person Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, the 278,000-attendee South by Southwest rally in Austin and California’s Coachella gathering. 

Outside Magazine in 2019, before it was acquired by Pocket Outdoor Media and consolidated into the world’s largest stable of outdoor magazines and brands, hosted its first “active lifestyle” festival with brands and consumers on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, but that event was shelved during the pandemic. 

Outdoor vendors are set up at the Big Gear Show June 8, 2023, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Outside festival promoters’ most rosy projections estimate the first year of the event in 2024 could lure 10,000 visitors who spend $4.7 million over a three to five days. By 2027, the festival could draw 70,000 visitors who spend close to $54 million, creating an economic impact for Denver and the state of nearly $105 million. 

The first step toward that goal involves opening a traditionally business-focused trade show to the public. The Big Gear Show marks the first time the outdoor industry has welcomed consumers into what has traditionally been a business gathering for gear manufacturers and retailers. Brands from the bike and running world are very adept at interacting directly with consumers at major events and races. Outside Inc., with its magazines and events, also is well acquainted with hosting hordes. Paddlesport, climbing, hiking, trail running, camping and backpacking brands are less experienced in public events. 

Outside Inc. is a partner with Haroutunian and The Big Gear Show. Outside Inc.’s support of The Big Gear Show “is just a natural marriage” as Outside plans for a festival “in the spirit of South by Southwest with arts, culture, sustainability and open arms to consumers,” said Jon Dorn, head of strategy for Boulder-based Outside. 

Totem electric bikes are seen on display at the Big Gear Show June 8, 2023, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“What we bring to the table is a lot of experience translating the industry to consumers,” said Dorn, who envisions a festival of music and arts that incorporates business wheeling and dealing with seminars, contests, concerts and gatherings across Denver, the Front Range and Western Slope. “We’ve got big dreams and this could be something that touches a lot of different parts of the state.”

It’s a big shift shuffling a business trade show into a public event. Haroutunian says the move from business-to-business to business-to-consumer “is our big speculative factor.” It’s also the promise of transforming The Big Gear Show and (e)revolution into something new for the outdoor industry as the need for business-to-business rallies fade with shifts in consumer buying trends and overseas manufacturing timelines.

“The fact that our show is relevant to consumers makes a big difference,” says Haroutunian, who helped launch The Big Gear Show in a parking lot next to Utah’s Deer Valley ski area in 2021. “That’s where we are the seed of this dream that Conor has. You can’t just drop a South by Southwest into a new place. Every great event, like South by Southwest or Sundance, that becomes iconic globally, they start with a seed and we are that seed.”

Tickets to The Big Gear Show and (e)revolution consumer expo for Saturday and Sunday cost $12.50 online or $15 at the door. Buy them here.  

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,...