New outdoor trade show tries to fill the gap left by Outdoor Retailer — with softer politics

Utah’s first annual Big Gear Show is taking place in Deer Valley this summer.

At the base of Deer Valley Resort, hundreds of colorful tents are arranged around a huge, red, pyramid-shaped tent, reminiscent of a circus big top. People mill about between the tents, chatting, inspecting merchandise, checking out the slackline and the mini bouldering wall.

This festive scene was the inaugural year for The Big Gear Show, a outdoor industry trade show that aims to connect outdoor products with buyers of outdoor gear.

If The Big Gear Show sounds familiar, it’s because Utah used to be home to a similar event — Outdoor Retailer, the largest conference of its kind in North America.

The Outdoor Retailer Summer and Winter Markets had a combined economic impact of over $40 million per year when they were stationed at the Salt Palace, drawing visitors to the hotels and restaurants of downtown Salt Lake.

However, the show ended its 20-year run in Utah in 2017, after former Governor Gary Herbert signed a resolution calling for the federal government to rescind Bears Ears’ designation as a National Monument.

Influential brands like Patagonia and Arc’teryx threatened to back out of Outdoor Retailer, and after a conference call between Herbert and outdoor industry leaders, the show relocated to Denver.

At the time Outdoor Industry Association spokesperson Amy Roberts explained the reasoning behind the move: “it is important to our membership and to our bottom line that we partner with states and elected officials who share our views on the truly unique American value of public lands.”

An alternative approach to politics

Kenji Haroutunian, director of The Big Gear Show, feels that that Outdoor Retailer’s move was “unfortunate.”

While he believes that environmental advocacy is an integral part of the outdoor industry, Haroutunian disagrees with Outdoor Retailer’s decision to disengage entirely with Utah.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Big Gear Show, a new outdoor convention that's in its first year, sets up at the base of Deer Valley Resort for a 3-day event on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. In future years it may hope to compete with Outdoor Retailer, the huge outdoor convention that left Utah over a political fight about Bear's Ears national monument.

“How are we going to affect policy in Utah if we’re not even in Utah?’” he asked. “[Outdoor Retailer] took their ball and moved to the next state.”

Haroutunian also pointed out that while many well-known brands threatened to boycott Outdoor Retailer if the show remained in Utah, those brands continued to benefit from Utah business. “[The brands weren’t] closing their stores,” he said. “[They weren’t] stopping sales in Utah.”

Not everyone agrees that moving the show was a bad idea. Chris Winter, executive director of rock climbing advocacy group The Access Fund, believes that the move had a significant positive impact. “It helped rally the entire industry around the issue of public lands,” he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Annabelle Joy shows off the Manta5 Hydrofoiler eBike at The Big Gear Show, a new outdoor convention that's in its first year, sets up at the base of Deer Valley Resort for a 3-day event on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Though Black Diamond, one of Utah’s biggest outdoor brands, is committed to outdoor advocacy, it had a booth at The Big Gear show.

In 2017, Black Diamond co-founder and CEO-emeritus Peter Metcalf was among the voices calling on Outdoor Retailer to leave Utah, claiming that Utah lawmakers had leveled an “attack on public lands.”

“Black Diamond has a heritage of fighting for access,” said Black Diamond spokesperson John Dicuollo. But he doesn’t believe that the organization’s effort to get Outdoor Retailer out of the state did much good.

“The departure from Salt Lake probably hurt the community more than anything else,” Dicuollo said.

Unlike its predecessor, the Big Gear Show plans to stay in Utah, build relationships with government officials, and connect with consumers, whether or not political differences arise.

“Utah is a fantastic home for the outdoor industry,” said Haroutunian. “Yes, there are policy challenges in the state, but let’s stay engaged. We’re bringing the industry here.”

Haroutunian says the show will advocate environmental stewardship and plans on making inroads with state leadership. In February, Governor Cox made a statement welcoming The Big Gear Show to Utah and describing it as a celebration of “the spirit of innovation and commerce.”

A smaller show for smaller businesses

However, political strategy isn’t the only thing differentiating The Big Gear Show and Outdoor Retailer.

Demo is integrated into every day of The Big Gear Show’s three-day run, not just reserved for the first day. The show was encircled by lush mountains and rolling hills, where buyers could test mountain bikes on nearby trails and take paddleboards for a spin on Silver Lake.

While each Outdoor Retailer show drew tens of thousands of visitors during non-pandemic years, the Big Gear Show is small by design, with only 500 retailers and an invitation-only selection of brands.

This size is part pandemic precaution, part business decision, since the overhead required to display at a large trade show can make it difficult for smaller brands to participate.

Kyle Stringham, an Ogden resident who spent five years designing his patented hiking pole water filtration device, chose The Big Gear Show for his product launch.

Stringham was drawn to the event because of its focus on demos. “I was just so excited for people to get to use [the product],” he said. “I figured this was the perfect platform.”

Mary Swanson and Caitlin Dickman of Lava Linens, a Colorado-based mother daughter company that sells sustainable towels, chose The Big Gear Show because it was “designed for smaller companies like ours,” said Swanson. “Bigger shows like Outdoor Retailer are not for us.”

As outdoor industry commerce has moved online and high-cost trade shows have begun to generate less return on investment. With a smaller pie, it may seem like a rivalry will arise between Outdoor Retailer and The Big Gear Show.

“Trade shows are losing value, especially big, industry-wide ones,” said Jonathan Lantz of La Sportiva. He explained that retailers and brands incur steep expenses attending shows and since fewer actual sales are made at shows these days, they must choose which ones are worth their time.

But Haroutunian denies that The Big Gear Show is an attempt to compete with the established industry giant that is Outdoor Retailer. He explained that there is plenty of room for both shows, especially after the pandemic has drastically increased participation in outdoor activities.

Ultimately, Haroutunian hopes that trade shows can get people excited about the outdoors. “That’s the key. No matter if it’s [Outdoor Retailer] or this show. We have a great opportunity, let’s not squander it.”