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Could the Outdoor Retailer trade show return to Salt Lake City? Utah wants it, but does it want Utah?

Lucrative event bolted for Denver during the 2017 Utah monument controversy.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show for outdoor industry manufacturers and retail buyers, August 3, 2016, at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

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Four years ago, the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer trade show left Salt Lake City in a huff over Utah’s stance toward public lands management, particularly its hostility to national monument designations.

Upset with Utah’s efforts to lobby then-President Donald Trump to erase Bears Ears National Monument, industry leaders pushed the show’s owner, Emerald Expositions, to bail on Salt Lake City after a 20-year run that had been a boon to both the city and the show, which brought in 45,000 people who showered $40 million on the area’s economy.

Since 2018, the show has been held in Colorado, where the political climate is more to the liking of companies that make camping equipment, climbing gear and apparel for the outdoors — and to the retailers who sell it.

Now the monument is back, under an order from President Joe Biden. Will Outdoor Retailer, or OR, return to Utah as well? Denver’s contract to host the event expires at the end of 2022, and some industry insiders wonder if the show would be better off in the Beehive State. Salt Lake City’s nightlife and restaurants might not measure up to Denver’s, but the costs are lower and access to recreation sites is far better.

Utah’s capital is the nation’s only city that can accommodate 30,000 conventiongoers yet is also close enough to recreation sites that those attendees can enjoy the outdoors, according to Tom Adams, who led the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation when the show pulled out in 2017.

Before his government service, Adams was an OR exhibitor as an employee of the French gear maker Petzl.

“I can’t tell you what great relationships I had with the people I got to ski, ice-climb or rock-climb with around the trade show, as opposed to going to dinner,” says Adams, who has returned to work for Petzl as an executive with its U.S. operations. “It is so much nicer to connect with somebody while recreating. You can’t do it in Denver.”

Visit Salt Lake confirmed it has assembled a proposal for hosting the show at the Salt Palace starting in 2023 but declined to discuss it. Other cities in contention, besides Denver, are Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; and Las Vegas.

Show director Marisa Nicholson said numerous factors will go into a final decision, including the opinions of outdoor industry representatives who have been surveyed.

“Easy access to the outdoors is also incredibly important to our community,” she said. “The magic of Outdoor Retailer is that it goes beyond business. It’s about unifying the industry so we can collectively improve the outdoor experience.”

The Outdoor Industry Association, the trade group that pressed for OR’s exit from Utah, did not make anyone available for an interview for this story.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trade show participants overlook the Ortovox booth as Outdoor Recreation stages their last trade show in Utah on Wednesday, July 26, 2017, before moving to Denver after two decades in Salt Lake City.

Utah governor makes his pitch

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox added his voice to the discussion with a video love letter to outdoor industry leaders, entreating them to come back home to Salt Lake City. His message played up advances in Utah’s hospitality industry, which can be attributed to the OR show.

“Of course, your trade show also witnessed amazing growth during that time, and I’d like to think we played a very positive role,” Cox said in his video. “We’ve missed you for the past several years, and we’ve made some improvements while you’ve been away.”

Outdoor recreation is central to Utah’s brand and state leaders, including Cox, have been playing that up as they woo technology-sector employers to the Wasatch Front. According to data cited by state officials, it accounts for $12 billion in economic activity, employs 110,000 people and generates, $737 million in tax revenue.

In his video, the governor highlighted Salt Lake City’s $4 billion airport upgrade and the 700-room Hyatt Regency being built near the Salt Palace, where the show had been staged for years.

“And we’re working with key stakeholders and the Department of the Interior to establish sustainable ways to manage Bear Ears National Monument and other cherished public lands,” Cox said. “Outdoor industry is important to Utah, and the outdoor retailer trade show is important to Utah. We invite you back, and we’ll take great care of you.”

Huh? Cox’s immediate predecessor, Gary Herbert, essentially told the industry to take a hike if it didn’t like Utah’s public lands policies.

Times and attitudes have changed since then, but Utah’s political leaders and the outdoor industry remain miles apart on land management controversies.

Why return to Salt Lake City?

And that’s OK, says Kenji Haroutunian, who directed the OR show from 2007 to 2014. He believes the outdoor industry would probably have more influence on Utah policy if it staged its biggest trade show in Salt Lake City.

“It’s a philosophical question: Do you want a seat at the table to talk to Utah?” says Haroutunian, who helped launch a new outdoor trade show in Utah this year.

“How much influence does the outdoor industry have on Utah politics now? Not that much because you took your ball and went away,” he says. “It would be better to stay and engage and be able to share viewpoints.”

He hopes to steer the debate toward keeping the industry vital and promote outdoor recreation as a way to improve people’s mental and physical health and economic outlook.

“It’s part of the fabric of the state. It’s a paradise,” says Haroutunian, who is based in Southern California. “We can talk about how to manage the land, but, in the meantime, let’s make sure the industry is healthy.”

Whether the show returns to Utah depends largely on the preferences of outdoor industry members, and convenience may wind up playing a more important role than politics. Nicholson’s staff has gathered input from all aspects of the industry, including brands and retailers of all sizes, product representatives, nonprofits and media.

“We surveyed the industry this summer to evaluate both location and time frame for the summer and winter show,” she said. “From the preferred locations, we work with the cities to find dates that fit into the preferred time frames allowing enough time for move in, staging the show, and move out. We also work with local hotels and evaluate other resources needed to create the greatest opportunity for all to have a successful experience.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on the trade show business as industries struggled to adapt to life without big gatherings. OR was no exception.

“Outdoor recreation has seen tremendous growth throughout the pandemic, which has been great for our industry. At the same time, we’ve all learned to work in new ways in order to stay connected and reach the growing consumer base,” Nicholson said. “As the digital space continues to streamline how we do business, we are integrating new opportunities in conjunction with the in-person shows, such as online matchmaking and year-round content through our magazine.”

OR resumed action in August at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center with about a quarter of the attendance it saw at the show’s pre-pandemic peak in 2019.

“While more of the outdoor community wanted to attend, not everyone could at that time. Now, with the opening of international travel next month, and as we continue to move through the pandemic, we expect the 2022 shows to see more brands and retailers ready to come together again,” Nicholson said. “People are gradually moving around in the world more, realizing the benefits of face-to-face conversations and the impact of live events.”

But Haroutunian, Nicholson’s predecessor as show director, suspects lower attendance could be part of trend, rather than just a blip.

“Big trade shows can disappear overnight. Once they lost momentum, they struggled to come back or didn’t come back,” Haroutunian said. “It seems like investing in an outfielder that is past his prime as a player. Former strength and prowess are not a guarantee of future returns.”

This year, Haroutunian helped launch what he sees as the future of outdoor trades shows in Utah.

To be held annually at Deer Valley, The Big Gear Show represents a new direction in trade shows. It’s held entirely outdoors and combines cycling and paddling — sports that are no longer on the OR show menu — with other outdoor pursuits. It’s also much less expensive to attend. In fact, show promoters cover participants’ lodging.

(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.

“It’s a participation-based experiential event,” Haroutunian said. “Instead of walking around an indoor setting, you can throw your leg over a bike or fire up a stove to see if it can simmer or not. You can really do more to understand the gear, to play with it, to get it dirty and muddy and wet and see what happens.”

He agrees Salt Lake City holds numerous advantages over Denver for holding an outdoor industry show, regardless of the show’s structure.

Other observers wonder if the OR show has run its course and if it’s time to reconsider whether such massive gatherings really serve the outdoor industry well anymore.

“The outdoor recreation thing is a low-margin business. Most people are in it for the passion,” Haroutunian said. “They love being outdoors. They love participation. They are trying to maintain their lifestyle by being in the business. A trade show has to be a reflection of that business environment.”

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