‘The beer is stronger, the peaks are taller’: Denver hosts its first Outdoor Retailer Show

Jimmy Huh of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., arrives at the Colorado Convention Center to set up for the Outdoor Retailer and Snow Show Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, in downtown Denver. The show, which is the largest gathering in the United States for outdoor and winter sports industries, is making its Denver debut after leaving Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver • As Outdoor Retailer begins its first trade show here after 20 years in Salt Lake City, conservationists are celebrating a sense of relief to be out of Utah and in a state where protections for public lands enjoy broad political support.

Also: “The beer is stronger, the peaks are taller and the recreation is higher,” Maria Handley, of Conservation Colorado, proclaimed to a cheering crowd Wednesday night at a party welcoming the massive trade show to Denver.

Utah’s chances of recovering the goodwill of the outdoor industry’s leadership appeared to fade as Outdoor Retailer settled into its new home — with some still reeling from President Donald Trump’s December order drastically reducing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which Utah’s elected officials strongly advocated.

“If there’s any doubt that we made the right move coming to Colorado, I think it’s dispelled,” John Sterling, director of the Conservation Alliance, said to applause.

As exhibitors filled the Colorado Convention Center on Thursday, the focus was on sales — and vendors were cautiously optimistic that this year’s show, bigger than last year’s, would prove fruitful.

But on Wednesday night, in Denver’s crowded civic center, industry and government leaders stressed their public policy partnership in Colorado. Gov. John Hickenlooper recited a list of political victories for public lands, from Colorado’s bipartisan defense of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument to the Legislature’s tense but ultimately successful designation of the Colorado Public Lands Day holiday.

“Clean air, clean water, public lands,” Hickenlooper said, “that’s about the most nonpartisan position you could have.”

Outdoor Retailer’s organizers announced in February the twice-yearly convention was leaving Salt Lake City after an acrimonious phone call between industry leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert over the state’s push to reduce the newly declared Bears Ears National Monument. Herbert accused the industry of imposing an “ultimatum” as retailers demanded the state abandon its fight against Bears Ears; industry leaders said Utah’s position threatened not just Bears Ears but also all sites protected under the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to set aside lands without congressional approval.

“I guess we’re going to have to part ways,” Herbert said, concluding the phone call. The Outdoor Retailer shows brought at least $45 million to Utah each year, according to estimates by Salt Lake County’s tourism bureau.

Now that Utah’s government leaders have succeeded in their quest to reduce the state’s monuments, the outdoor industry should rest easy in its decision to leave, said Black Diamond founder Peter Metcalf, who led calls for Outdoor Retailer to boycott Utah.

(Erin Alberty | The Salt Lake Tribune) Black Diamond founder Peter Metcalf addresses conservationists and outdoor industry leaders at a party Wednesday night at the McNichols Civic Center in Denver to welcome the Outdoor Retailer show to Colorado.

“I can’t imagine anything worse than having this show in Utah right now, after the delegates got Trump to do their dirty work,” Metcalf said. ”…It’s surreal and emancipating to be in friendly territory.”

Renowned Salt Lake City ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich told Wednesday’s crowd that Outdoor Retailer’s departure was “bittersweet” but “such a powerful move.”

“I’m so proud of my industry for doing the right thing,” Gleich said.

She recalled working as an intern in Herbert’s administration in 2010, when mining industry representatives sent a basket of “I ♥ coal” sugar cookies to the office, in appreciation for an energy plan that was dominated by fossil fuel interests. Gleich said she hadn’t eaten all day and bit into a cookie.

“It was a really low point in my journey as an environmental activist,” she said, eliciting giggles from the audience. “I knew I had to say no to that job.”

But she begged the industry to not lose hope for her home state.

“We can’t give up on Utah,” she said. “I have faith we can keep changing Utah. We can have an influence from Colorado.”

(Erin Alberty | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renowned Utah ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich addresses conservationists and outdoor industry leaders at a party Wednesday night at the McNichols Civic Center in Denver to welcome the Outdoor Retailer show to Colorado. Organizers of the massive trade show ended its 20-year run in Utah in 2017 following disputes with state leaders over public lands policy. Gleich said the move was "bittersweet" but "a powerful move" in defense of conservation.

Metcalf was less optimistic. He warned that Outdoor Retailer would not be the final economic loss.

“The eBays and Goldman Sachs and Adobes have [moved here] because of how the outdoor industry has showed the value public lands bring to the community,” Metcalf said. “… Now you want to be the Ebola state of policies that destroy [public lands]? Utah is the only state in America that is waging this all-out assault on public lands.”

Survey results released Thursday by Colorado College show that on many conservation issues, Coloradans and Utahns who were polled agreed on most points — and the percentage of Utahns who labeled themselves “conservationists” leaped by 20 points since 2016.

Huge majorities in both states visited public lands within the past year, considered outdoor recreation and public lands important to their states’ economies. Most deemed habitat loss and low water levels to be serious problems, and most opposed expanding lands available to extractive industries.

But on some key points, Utahns and Coloradans differed significantly. More Utahns approved than disapproved of Trump’s handling of conservation issues; in Colorado, only 36 percent approved. Utahns were less opposed than Coloradans to mining lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon.

And on issues around national monuments, many Utahns opposed reductions at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante as well as other monuments — but they were far less opposed than Coloradans were. Seventy percent of Coloradans disapproved of the reductions, versus 49 percent in Utah.

Meanwhile, Utahns were less opposed than Coloradans to stricter technological regulations for mining and drilling.

For many rank-and-file show attendees, the new location has a major advantage apart from environmental principles. Amid the debate and boycott threats following last winter’s show in Salt Lake City, Snowsports Industries America volunteered to merge Outdoor Retailer’s Winter Market with its Snow Show, which was held each January in Denver.

That new show will be much larger than what had been here.

“It definitely seems more energetic,” said Wes Barnhart, marketing manager for Northside shoes in Marysville, Wash.

Vendors who in past years exhibited in both winter shows now are spending less money for a bigger audience.

“We used to have to have two complete sample sets to go to two different shows and cover the two trips,” said Thatcher Jacques, product manager for Volkl Ski U.S.A., which is based in Lebanon, N.H. “It’s good, consolidating the two shows.”

Jon Fewster, of Madshus Nordic skis in Seattle, said his products likely will fare better with the consolidated show. Although Salt Lake City had long promoted its proximity to resorts as an asset for on-mountain product demos, Fewster said nordic ski vendors lost interest after having inconsistent demo facilities in Utah. In Colorado, the on-mountain demo will be a two-day event at Copper Mountain, about 90 minutes away from downtown Denver. Nordic skiers will have a flat track to themselves to try new gear.

“OR used to have more of a Nordic focus, but that had ebbed away,” Fewster said. “Now that OR and SIA are together, all the buyers are here.”

All the same, he said, he and other attendees had an affection for Salt Lake City after so many trips there, and it’s bittersweet to leave Utah behind.

“I thought it was sad,” he said. “Whenever I went to Salt Lake, people were really nice and super excited we were there.”

But a friendly welcome in Salt Lake City doesn’t minimize the hostility the outdoor industry felt from Utah as a whole, said Jeremy Pazzaneze, product manager for Deviation Ski and Snowboard Works in Portland, Ore.

“I don’t blame OR for leaving,” said Pazzaneze. “Utah was pulling some shady stuff that’s not in line with the outdoor industry. ... [Public lands] is our bread and butter.”

The Outdoor Retailer shows brought 40,000 visitors and at least $45 million to Utah each year, according to estimates by Salt Lake City’s tourism bureau. With the move to Denver, Outdoor Retailer has added a November show. Organizers now estimate that the conventions will bring 85,000 visitors and $110 million to Denver every year.