The Big Show

In February 2017, the outdoor industry was in crisis. A month earlier, during the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah, Black Diamond founder Peter Metcalf, always an outspoken voice for conservation in the industry, dropped a bomb. He wrote an editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune calling for the show, which is owned and operated by Emerald Expositions, to leave the state that it had called home since 1996 unless Utah lawmakers repented on their holy war against America’s public lands in general and the new Bears Ears National Monument in particular. He reasoned that if the state’s politicians did not value the estimated $50 million that the show brought to Utah each year, not to mention the $12 billion outdoor recreation it brings to the state, it did not deserve to host the show.

“Political officials neglect the critical role public lands play in boosting Utah’s economy, making the state a great place to live, work, and play,” wrote Metcalf who also sits on Utah’s Federal Reserve board. “By our industry’s twice-annual trade show remaining in Utah, we are actually complicit collaborators in our own demise. It’s time for the industry to again find its voice, speak truth and power to power while making it clear to the governor and the state’s political leadership that this trade show will depart with the expiration of the current contract in 2018 unless the leadership ceases its assault on America’s best idea.”

Following suit, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard expressed similar sentiments in a blog post on his brand’s website. Then Patagonia made good on the promise, declaring a boycott on the Outdoor Retailer show, which had actually already begun taking bids from other cities, including Salt Lake, to move OR when Utah’s contract expired. All hell broke loose as the industry took sides. Arc’teryx, Polartec and a handful of other brands soon pulled out of Outdoor Retailer. The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), REI, The North Face and others argued the show needed to stay and the industry should fight for Utah in Utah rather than abandon the state and its 35 million acres of public land.

That internal argument became moot, however, when Outdoor Retailer, OIA and a number of outdoor bigwigs discussed the show and the state’s stance on public lands with Utah Governor Gary Herbert. They simply asked him to rethink policies calling for rescinding Bears Ears and the state taking control of 31.2 million acres of its federal land, which it does not have the budget to manage. Herbet flatly refused. There was an awkward pause. The conversation was over. Outdoor Retailer was leaving Utah.

Sweet Home, Colorado

Herbert’s intransigence created a new problem. Where exactly would the show move? While outdoor-loving states from Montana to Vermont made solid cases when it came to their authenticity and commitment to conservation ethics as compared to Utah, the Outdoor Retailer show, which takes place twice annually and plans on three shows in 2018, is a massive undertaking requiring floor space for 1,000 exhibitors and lodging for 28,000–30,000 attendees. Sadly, the city of Salt Lake had continually worked to accommodate the show, expanding floor space in the Salt Palace Convention Center and adding hotel rooms. Plus, booking a big trade show often takes planning years in advance to secure hotel room blocks and convention center space, not to mention the logistics of actually getting attendees from across the globe to the venue. And while they insisted they could no longer go to Utah, OR attendees also pooh-poohed big cities with the infrastructure to support a show the size of OR: Houton, Orlando, Chicago, Las Vegas.

Denver became the hot option, because it could, just barely, support the size needs of the show, but most of all because the state made a committed effort behind Governor John Hickenlooper to land it. Colorado had already created a department of Outdoor Recreation (a concept that ironically first came to light in Utah) and the state embraces outdoor recreation not just as an industry but also as part of the quality of life that has fueled an economic boom of companies including Google who want to base their operations here. Both political parties see that potential: Colorado’s Republican senator Cory Gardner, who votes lockstep  with his party on tax and health care issues, was a co-sponsor, along with New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of the Rec Act, which will officially quantify the value of the outdoor recreation industry, which OIA calculates at worth $887 billion annually in the U.S., larger than even the pharmaceutical industry.

One small wrinkle was that Denver already hosted the Snowsports Industry Association’s (SIA) annual trade show, which takes place around the same time as the winter OR show. Emerald Expositions, which owns Outdoor Retailer, ended up buying SIA’s trade show, however, and on July 6, Denver prevailed. The Outdoor Retailer show, which will include SIA, will take place at the Denver Convention Center on January 25-28, July 23-26 and November 8-11 in 2018, bringing an estimated 85,000 attendees and $110 million with it. But the larger long-term benefits for the state, Coloradans and even public lands and the environment could end up being much larger.

“I think hosting the shows gives us an opportunity to showcase the innovation and leadership that Colorado has within the ORec Industry,” says Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Office. “This brings the conversation to us, which is an exciting prospect.”

In particular, Benitez thinks the show can create a ripple effect that buoys smaller communities in Colorado, as evidenced by booming towns in the state including Eagle, Fruita and Buena Vista, which have latched themselves to the outdoor recreation economy. That dynamic proved true in Utah when it hosted the show in communities like Ogden, which grew from an afterthought railway town to the base of operations for brands like Salomon.

Amy Roberts executive director of Boulder-based OIA, which represents outdoor business in the political arena agrees. “The history of the show’s 20-year stay in Utah tells the story,” she says. “Companies visited the state during the show, became familiar with Utah and, as a result, many companies located headquarters, stores, sales offices and distribution centers in the state during that time. The same opportunity now moves to Colorado and I have no doubt we will see the already significant footprint of the industry expand in the state over the next several years.”

For their part, Colorado outdoor businesspeople themselves are feeling very optimistic.

“I’m already seeing growth as a small business owner,” says longtime industry vet Eric Henderson, who founded Meteorite, a PR and marketing shop with a focus on Colorado and Rocky Mountain brands in Boulder in 2017. “Media and retailers are excited about attending OR and spending time in the state before and after the show. Currently, I have a mix of 26 media and retailers attending a pre-show event in Boulder. I’m confident the mix of progressive thought, tech-savvy business and world class recreation the OR show offers is only going to grow here.”

Others are waiting to see how the show itself will impact their business. “I see a lot of risk on the horizon for independent shops and brands that already call Colorado home,” says Jimmy Funkhouser, who opened hip retail shop Feral Mountain Co. in Denver in 2016. “There will be winners and losers, and there will definitely be some local companies counted among the losers. But there’s no doubt it’s a net win for Colorado as a whole, and we couldn’t be more excited about that.”

The Real Value

While the show will undoubtedly fill local coffers and encourage long-term investment, can it speak to the original reason for picking up and moving in the first place? Can the show, the state of Colorado and the outdoor industry in general really have an influence when pitted against politicians dead set on getting rid of federal land as well as the extractive industries who bankroll them? To succeed, the industry may have to rethink the way it positions itself in the national conversation.

While moving the show and boycotting Utah may have made the outdoor industry feel as if was throwing its weight around, it did little to save Bears Ears or budge Utah’s conservative politicians. The industry does not want to come off as toothless.

“What’s happening in Utah is a direct threat to our industry,” says Don Bushey, who owns Denver’s Wilderness Exchange. “It was disheartening to see that, despite the monetized value our industry brought to the state of Utah, the extractive industries still hold so much greater power over the legislature and policy.”

“It’s one thing to celebrate the size of our economy, it’s another thing to learn how to wield its political power,” says Benetiz.

Funkhouser agrees. “I think the industry is whiffing on the tremendous opportunity that we have right now to frame the conversation on public lands the right way. The battleground is not on the congressional floor, it’s in the community. We have a tremendous opportunity as an industry to connect people with the intrinsic reasons why we should protect public lands. Those are the things that truly resonate with people. We need to reframe the ‘why’ if we want people outside of the industry to truly go to battle with us.”

This is the big opportunity of Outoor Retailer in Colorado, but it will depend on how the industry can reframe the debate. How can it come together and work to enact actual change rather than just make gear and declare boycotts?

“I think it’s time to create something we haven’t seen yet, a multi-state, bi-partisan effort towards a collective vision and political platform for our ORec industry. Colorado has an opportunity to help create an appropriate landscape to foster a conversation like this,” says Benitez. “Stay tuned, we’re just getting started.”

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