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CO or UT? The Big Trade Show Showdown

Is Colorado or Utah the hub of the outdoor universe? With two major trade Shows—Outdoor Retailer and The Big Gear Show—swapping locations between the states—the outdoor industry is struggling to find its center.

Blue Period: The Colorado convention center will see a switch in shows.

This winter, Outdoor Retailer, the outdoor industry’s largest global B2B trade show, relocated from Denver to Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, The Big Gear Show—an innovative, joint festival with ebike show e(revolution) that boasts a focus on engaging consumers—which launched in Utah, is moving to Denver. The swap has left the community asking an important question: Which location is the epicenter of the outdoor industry?  

Both states have an omnipresent hand in the outdoor universe. Colorado is known for its world-class outdoor recreation and has a large number of gear companies headquartered in the state, including industry leaders La Sportiva, Scarpa, The North Face, Rab, and Osprey. 

Colorado’s outdoor recreation generated $11.6 billion in economic activity in 2021, leading the nation as the top contender in the snowsports industry, according to a federal report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“[Outdoor] is a community industry built on collaboration, working together, and having fun outside. [But] there’s some sentiment that’s changing, that something’s missing,” says Conor Hall, director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry. “We would really love to fill it, and Colorado is the perfect state to do that.”

However, Utah is also home to major outdoor retailers like Black Diamond,, and Salomon and it boasts a thriving outdoor recreation scene. The state’s recreation contributed more than $6.1 billion to the economy, a close second behind Colorado in revenue.

Outdoor Retailer Returns to Utah

Outdoor Retailer returned to Salt Lake City for its 2023 Snow Show after a five-year stint in Denver. The show, which called Utah home for 20 years, made a momentous decision to relocate in 2017 due to the rollback of national monument designations for Bears Ears and and parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante. 

Concerned Utah’s leaders were not sufficiently protecting public lands—the very lifeblood of the outdoor industry—the show’s move was a message to the state government to encourage a more proactive approach of preserving designated lands.

The popular trade show accrued about 40,000 visitors and $45 million to Salt Lake City each year prior, according to a news release from Emerald Expositions in 2017.

After its move to Colorado, despite the disagreement, “OR” decided to return to its former longtime location in Salt Lake City, citing a need to “push back, not pull back” when it comes to its commitment for change. The show also attributes its strong partnership with community champion Mayor Erin Mendenhall—a policymaker committed to clean energy and public lands preservation.

“Doing nothing gains nothing,” says Larry Harrison, former brand development director of Outdoor Retailer and Lifetime Achievement recipient. “The mayor of Salt Lake County called for help and support. Utah, they have to battle for every single thing they get.”

Outdoor Retailer has promised to commit revenue from its events in Utah over the next three years to funding outdoor recreation programs and efforts to protect public lands, as well as meet biannually with Salt Lake City officials, public lands leaders and industry stakeholders to discuss policy and allocate resources to protecting natural lands as part of their Business with Purpose initiative.

“The return to Utah included our desire to have a seat at the table and engage in discussion on important recreation and conservation topics,” says Jeff Davis, group vice president of Emerald – Action Sports. “Ultimately, the decision involved many factors, but the overriding reason is this is what the majority of the industry wanted.”

The decision has had a cool reception among some factions of the industry, however. Critics argue the show’s move in 2017 was a significant gesture of protest, and that returning to the state now sends mixed messages. Others view the show’s return as a capitulation to the state government, which has not changed its stance on public lands since the show left town. 

In protest, many industry-leading brands, such as Patagonia, REI, and La Sportiva, petitioned against the return and announced they would boycott the show if it moved back to Utah.

“Last year we signed the letter stating that if the OR show moved to Utah, we would not attend so long as the elected delegates of Utah continue their assault on public lands and the laws designed to protect them,” says Jonathan Lantz, president of La Sportiva North America. “We simply are putting our money and attendance where our mouth is in this situation.”

Despite these controversies, Outdoor Retailer remains optimistic about its return to Utah, and believes the show has a lot to offer when it comes to growing the outdoor recreation industry.

“We’re committed to driving positive change and are dedicating resources to making progress and protecting natural resources,” says Davis.

A New Show In Town

Although Outdoor Retailer has left Denver, the city is making room for a new trade show with consumers at the center of it all. Inclusivity, affordability, and experiential education are the three main pillars of Denver’s newest trade show, The Big Gear Show and (e)revolution. 

In a first-of-its-kind venture, the two shows are coming together to reinvent the wheel. Kenji Haroutunian, The Big Gear Show trade show director, says the event focuses on the various silos of outdoor sports, bringing them together to educate, collaborate, and experience gear by industry professionals and consumers.

“We’re creating a national gathering place, a thought leadership platform,” says Colorado’s Hall. “We’re building something that’s broader than just a trade show, and the consumer aspect is a key part of it.”

The Big Gear Show is different from traditional trade shows in virtually every way—by design. The structure of the show will include two days of original B2B retailing, with a transition zone that will then flow into two days of the consumer experience, which focuses more on experiential learning opportunities with the gear. 

“The whole model of The Big Gear Show is to make a more affordable, accessible platform that allows the experience of actually taking, and testing, a product in the great outdoors,” says Kenji Haroutunian, trade show director of The Big Gear Show.

With an expansive 90,000 square feet of floor space, The Big Gear Show is dedicating half of its show to an experiential zone, which will include a climbing wall and test track and other hands- and feet-on learning opportunities with the gear.

“We’ve seen smaller experiential elements built into shows before. But this is an entire show just for people to get on an e-bike, run on an uneven trail, or use vertical climbing gear,” says Haroutunian. “We want them to have the opportunity to test out gear in a controlled space, surrounded by experts of the product, rather than learning on the spot in a harsher environment.”

Attendees can maximize their time with a joint experience at (e)revolution, North America’s first trade and consumer show focused solely on ebikes, a cause bike show director Lance Camisasca says will revolutionize the fast-growing ebike industry.

“I spent my entire career in the cycling industry,” he says. “Being a dyed-in-the-wool cyclist, to launch a brand-new show that’s never been done before, that hasn’t had this kind of diverse audience component before, and to do it at the right time in the right place? That gets me out of bed and ready to go every day.”

Although the equipment and brands may differ between the two shows, the common factor of inclusivity with an emphasis on boosting small businesses rings true in both show models.

In addition to offering a more affordable exhibit space for specialty retailers, Haroutunian says the shows offer a subsidy for specialty retailers to help lessen the overhead cost of attending a trade show, especially from out-of-town. 

“Trade shows are for the small people to level up,” says Haroutunian. “If you’re in the show with industry leaders, you get the same exposure, the same opportunities to prove yourself. This is the most equal the playing field will ever be.”

Consumers Remain Royalty

As the era of trade shows evolves, so does the model. Across the board, the outdoor industry is seeing new faces left and right, both on the retailer and consumer sides. 

In the wake of the pandemic, many brands have found renewed value in face-to-face interactions. And the consumer is integral to The Big Gear Show’s mission. Allowing consumers to engage and attend is engrained in the fabric of the show’s making.

“The trade shows that I’ve been part of for over two decades are built around a different model, a different era. We’re out of that era now,” says Haroutunian. “Let’s allow consumers to have a dialogue and a relationship with brands and retailers.”

Haroutunian believes the future of trade shows lies in the relationships with consumers. While The Big Gear Show will still provide that classic retailer experience, he hopes brands will present themselves in a more down-to-earth way, with consumers as the No. 1 priority.

“Focus on the people and the product, not as much on the presentation,” says Haroutunian.

Through listening to customer feedback and providing new engagement opportunities while still maintaining their core values of commerce, community, advocacy, and celebration, Outdoor Retailer will also debut its first-ever consumer event, Outdoor Adventure X (OAX), in June at Snowbasin Resort.

Emerald recently acquired Lodestone Events, which runs Overland Expo, a series of vehicle-based, adventure travel consumer shows. The Lodestone team, with its expertise in consumer shows, will host OAX this summer.

“Emerald and Lodestone share a mission of championing outdoor recreation; there is a natural alignment between the overlanding and outdoor recreation,” says Davis.

With post-pandemic participation skyrocketing, and attendance up since Outdoor Retailer’s move back to Utah, the next step in the upward progression of the show naturally includes a public event through experiential on-mountain days.

“The goal of adding a consumer event is to enable consumers to directly touch, feel, and use products while empowering brands and retailers to connect directly with consumers in a beautiful location that lends itself to outdoor recreation,” says Davis. 

The Epicenter of the Outdoor Industry

The swapping of locations for these major outdoor industry trade shows reflects the evolving nature of the outdoor industry and the increasing importance of emerging brands in the market. 

Colorado and Utah will continue to play significant roles in working together to steer the industry. The outdoors is a major economic driver in both states, and the relocation of trade shows like Outdoor Retailer, The Big Gear Show, and (e)revolution to these states illustrates the growing importance of the outdoor recreation sector and its economic benefit. 

“You always have some healthy interstate competition, but more than anything, we view each other as collaborators,” says Hall. “We work very closely with the Utah offices and want each other to succeed.”

With trade shows like Outdoor Retailer and The Big Gear Show on unique journeys to attract different audiences, both events promise a bright future for the evolution of trade shows in bringing together the latest innovations of the industry. 

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