Strike up the band, fire up the pep rally. It’s homecoming for the Outdoor Retailer trade show, which is returning to Salt Lake City — its home for 20 years — this week after spending the past five years in Denver. To celebrate, show organizers are leaning into the theme by inviting the public to their version of the homecoming dance in front of the Salt Palace Convention Center on Tuesday, complete with a royal court and DJ, plus a beer garden and appearances by Olympic athletes.
“The community is so welcoming, it’s been really easy for us to kind of transition back,” said Marisa Nicholson, OR’s senior vice president and show director. “It just feels like you’re kind of coming home.”
As with anyone returning from a sojourn, though, Outdoor Retailer isn’t the same as it was when it left. It’s smaller, but perhaps also more diverse. It’s incorporating more interaction with the community and more forums. Perhaps most notably, it’s not as steadfast about its views on some of Utah’s land use and environmental policies, which contributed to its departure and haven’t budged in the interim.
Some say the show has changed for the better. Others say it’s for the worse.
In that latter camp are about 30 major companies that are boycotting the show’s return to Utah.
“Is it really a show if nobody appears?” asked Peter Metcalf, the founder and former CEO of Black Diamond, a major brand in climbing and backcountry ski gear based in Salt Lake City that is among the boycotting and non-exhibiting companies. “It’s dead on arrival.”
WHY DID OUTDOOR RETAILER LEAVE?
Outdoor Retailer blossomed into the central hub of the outdoor industry in North America during its two decades in Salt Lake City. OR’s two business-to-business trade shows, one in the summer and one in the winter, became the place for suppliers of things like zippers and fabrics to connect with distributors and for distributors to meet manufacturers and for manufacturers to show their upcoming lines to journalists and retailers.
Together, the two shows drew tens of thousands of industry personnel to Salt Lake City and generated an estimated $40 million in annual economic impact by filling hotel rooms and restaurant seats in addition to the Salt Palace.
The shows also became a time and place where outdoor industry leaders could bend the ears of the state’s political leaders. Metcalf recalled former Gov. Olene Walker inviting several outdoor and conservation group leaders to join her staff in a plane to survey Desolation Canyon after they raised concerns about oil and gas drilling in that area during the show.
When the federal government began bandying about Bears Ears as a potential national monument, outdoor industry leaders started working with then Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah legislators to formulate a policy that favored the designation. So it came as a shock when Herbert in 2017 signed a resolution calling for the federal government to rescind its National Monument status. Metcalf said the group felt betrayed and dismissed. They threatened to back out of the OR shows unless Utah changed its stance.
The next year, the show relocated to Denver.
“It is important to our membership and to our bottom line,” Outdoor Industry Association spokesperson Amy Roberts said at the time, “that we partner with states and elected officials who share our views on the truly unique American value of public lands.”
The differing views on land policy may have greatly tipped the scale, but it wasn’t the only reason for the move, Nicholson said. Salt Lake’s infrastructure in 2017 wasn’t able to accommodate the demands of the shows, especially the more robust summer one. Nicholson said she resorted to housing some attendees in dorm rooms, which didn’t have hangers or soap or any of the touches of a hotel. Restaurants had no free tables and the bars no available stools.
In the five years since, some changes have been drastic, and some not so much.
WHY DID OUTDOOR RETAILER RETURN?
Now Nicholson said she marvels at how many hotels have sprung up around the Salt Palace. She said she can count at least five from memory within a block of the convention center, including the Hyatt Regency that is attached to the Salt Palace and just opened in October.
“Just having that additional capacity to allow the attendees to come back closer to the event,” she said, “is a big sell.”
The other big selling point? The proximity of Salt Lake City to recreation areas. The knock on Denver is that the mountains are at least an hour and a half away — with no traffic. In SLC, people could be testing a snowboard or bindings at a ski resort, using a new line of carabiners while out rock climbing or observing the ease in which a kayak could glide through a river all within a 40-minute drive.
Even the airport is closer, with a seven-minute drive — or, now, a short trip on the Trax green line — vs. 25 minutes to and from Denver International Airport.
It didn’t hurt, either, that the economics worked out in Utah’s favor. Utah is a right-to-work state, meaning lower set-up and take-down costs for vendors than in Colorado, which is a modified right-to-work state. It also has a lower cost of living.
So a little more than a year before OR’s contract in Denver was set to expire, it began surveying participants about where the show should be held. Options included Anaheim, Calif., Las Vegas, Orlando, Denver and SLC.
Hands down, Nicholson said, SLC was the winner.
OR originally signed a three-year contract but recently extended it to five years.
There was just one problem. Not only hadn’t Utah changed its stance on Bears Ears, it had doubled down. Earlier this year, state Attorney General Sean Reyes led an all-Republican contingent of state leaders, including Gov. Spencer Cox, in setting aside $5 million to file a lawsuit challenging the monument designation of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante and, more broadly, the 1906 Antiquities Act. They argue that the size of the monuments makes them unwieldy and that they would be better managed locally than at the federal level.
For at least 24 regular OR attendees, including major players like Patagonia, Arc’teryx and Utah’s own Cotopaxi, that was a step too far. They sent Outdoor Retailer owner Emerald Expositions a joint statement in February declaring they would not attend the shows unless Utah’s land policies changed.
The foundational question is: why come here? What are we celebrating in Utah other than ground zero for the most cancerous, horrific public land policies in America that metastasize here and go nationally?” Metcalf said. “So the industry has decided it’s not going to come here.”
WHO WILL BE AT THE SNOW SHOW AND WHAT WILL IT LOOK LIKE?
More than 400 vendors will be coming, however. Backcountry.com, based in Park City, will be there as well as Salt Lake City’s Grand Trunk. Many are soft-goods manufacturers, like Arctix, Hurley, Børn shoes and Sketchers, which has the largest booth in the show. Absent are many of the major snow sport players, like ski makers Salomon and Rossignol.
“It’s called the outdoor retailer trade show, that’s what Emerald owns, and it’s here, but it’s here in name only,” Metcalf said. “That’s just a totally different beast and an anemically shrunken one that takes up but a small fraction of the space that OR show that departed SLC took up”
In total, the number of attendees is considerably fewer than the previous OR Snow Show, which is associated with the Ski Industry Association, used to draw to Salt Lake City. Yet the boycott isn’t solely responsible for the drop-off. In fact, several vendors support the show’s return because they feel it gives them a seat at the table.
“Yes, there are policy challenges in the state, but let’s stay engaged,” Kenji Haroutunian, organizer of The Big Gear Show, told the Tribune in 2021. “We’re bringing the industry here.”
The Big Gear trade show has since moved to Denver.
So what else has kept companies from attending the Snow Show? A shifting retail landscape.
When COVID-19 hit, trade shows were called off across the globe, including OR. At the same time, people were immersing themselves in the outdoors in record numbers. So, retailers and manufacturers had to get creative to survive (many didn’t).. They met virtually and found great benefits and reduced costs in attending smaller, local shows. Or, they started selling direct to consumers, cutting out the need to attend trade shows altogether. Much of that lingers today.
Nicholson, however, believes trade shows like OR can still provide invaluable benefits to those who attend.
“As the industry evolves and things change,” Nicholson said, “we’re changing with it and making sure that the things that we’re doing are continuing to drive value.”
As an example, OR’s move to Salt Lake City came with three sweeping changes to the shows.
To start, this will be the last Snow Show. To better align with production schedules, Outdoor Retailer will move its traditional winter show to November starting in 2023 and relabel it the Winter Market. The summer show, the larger of the two, will still be held in June but will now offer a three-day, public expo. Called Outdoor Adventure X, it will take place at Snowbasin Resort and will offer demos and outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking and paddling. Finally, during its typical January slot, Outdoor Retailer will add a third event. Called The Summit, it will also include a public demo day at Brighton Resort as well as a small show (This week’s event will also feature a public demo at Brighton on Monday). At its center, however, will be a series of discussions about issues affecting the outdoor industry.
Even Metcalf has to agree that incorporating a discussion-based element into the show is a smart move. Why? It mimics an event he is helping organize with The Conservation Alliance, one of two outdoor conservation groups that encouraged its members to boycott OR, in Winter Park, Colo., in May. That event will also be called “The Summit” and will be a place where members can “discuss issues of great importance to the industry” especially concerning conservation and land use. The state of Colorado will help fund the confab, allowing The Conservation Alliance to make registration free to its members.
Those kinds of gatherings are the future of trade shows, Metcalf believes, and he’d like to see more of them in Utah. After all, he decided to move Black Diamond to the state decades ago after attending the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. Yet as long as the state’s caretakers prioritize profits over protection of state lands, he said, the industry as a whole won’t send out cheerleaders or organize a parade to welcome back the Outdoor Retailer trade shows.
“We are one of the centers of the outdoor industry and ski industry here and that is because, in great part, (of) the trade show showcasing what we have,” Metcalf said. “And so, you know, they have a lot of frustration in that it’s coming back under these terms. You have this false story to say, ‘Yeah we got [the Outdoor Retailer shows]. No you didn’t. It’s really tragic. It’s such a false narrative.”
Correction: Jan. 13, 2023, 2:15 p.m. >> The Big Gear Show is now held in Denver. This article previously stated that trade show was defunct.
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