Outdoor Gravity

Here’s how the departure of Outdoor Retailer will impact Colorado and what Conor Hall, the state’s new Director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation plans to do in its absence.

When Colorado created its Office of Outdoor Recreation in 2015, Conor Hall told Gov. John Hickenlooper and other leaders that outside his role at The Trust for Public Land, the only other job in state government he could envision himself wanting was leading the new department.

Now, Hall, who grew up in Crestone and has dedicated his career to outdoor issues, is fulfilling that vision at a salient juncture for Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry. Not only is the industry in the midst of redefining itself, Outdoor Retailer, historically considered its biggest event, decided to leave the state of Colorado to return to Utah only a month after Hall took office.

“We’re excited to host it one final time in June,” Hall says. “But I also think if we’re being honest, they’ve got some real challenges to keep it relevant and bring it back to what it was. I wish them the best in doing that. More than anything, I view this as an opportunity to start fresh and create something new in its space.”

The New Platform

Outdoor Retailer originally left Salt Lake City for Denver in 2018 in protest of Utah legislators’ push for President Donald Trump to revoke Bears Ears as a national monument. The move to Colorado energized the outdoor industry and the show, held at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center, drew brands, athletes, advocates, and artists all under the same banner, looking to prove how the outdoor industry could become not just an economic force but also a political influencer. Luis Benitez, the director of Colorado’s Office of Outdoor Recreation at the time saw the move as a big win for a state with forward-thinking views on public lands. “The outdoor recreation community not only serves as a significant economic driver for our state and our nation, but it also plays an important role in contributing to the national dialogue regarding important issues around climate change, access to public lands, and the promotion of health and wellness,” he said at the time. “We are honored to have the responsibility of helping lead this dialogue at a national level and creating a legacy for our state to be proud of.”

But two years of COVID-19 that caused the show to go online and then return live with far fewer attendees as well as the costs of holding the event in Denver made Outdoor Retailer reconsider the move. Marisa Nicholson, the show’s director, said in a statement that spending the last five years in Colorado has not brought the intended political change in Utah and that engagement on pertinent public lands issues would be better achieved in Salt Lake City. “We will push back, not pull back,” she wrote.

Nicholson claimed the move was also due to logistics and costs. “We were working closely with Denver officials to try and find a location for on-water (access) for our paddle community, and also bike and hiking trails—the ability to do different outdoor activities in order for people not only to test gear but footwear and various products,” she told the Denver Post. “Our demo in 2019 took over an hour and a half in each direction because of the amount of traffic on the roads. It made it really problematic because people felt like they were spending more time commuting back and forth than being able to participate in the demo itself.”

But with brands, including Patagonia and The North Face panning on boycotting a Utah show, the indsutry has been left without a central gathering point. Even though Hall and his team are still in the early days of reimagining a platform to fill Outdoor Retailer’s void in Colorado, he is clear that a new gathering wouldn’t be in direct competition with the show or Utah, as divisiveness is the last obstacle the industry needs. His intention is to keep Colorado at the industry’s center by collaborating with stakeholders who consider the state an important touchstone for its natural resources, talent pipeline, brands, and outdoor recreation ecosystem.

“It’s been a really fun process of dreaming up an event that’s better aligned with the industry and more inclusive of folks across different sectors of the industry and Colorado,” says Hall.

Man with the plan: Hall (second from left) poses with the OREC Team.

New Perspectives

Only in the last five years has the industry fully realized its size and potential. The Outdoor Industry Association first measured itself as an $887 billion economic driver in 2017, and then the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis quantified the industry as being larger than agriculture and oil. Those numbers took into account all aspects of outdoor recreation, however, from RVers and boaters to hunters and anglers to backpackers and climbers to snowsports.

But with stakeholders in every corner, some longtimers view the industry’s broadening and widening as an identity crisis. “I hear people who have been in the industry longer than me and who are probably smarter than me say we are losing our center of gravity. What is the outdoor industry? What does it even mean?” says Brady Robinson, who is currently unaffiliated but previously led nonprofits like The Conservation Alliance and Access Fund.

The answer depends on who you ask, says Kim Miller, CEO of Scarpa in Boulder. As it pertains to OREC’s priorities, he says the definition contains all the different subcommunities of activities, including walking in open spaces and skiing in the backcountry.

“Just look at how outdoor sports participants and outdoor sports in general have changed,” Miller says. “That’s where the answer starts to show up. Those changes, in my opinion, are the forces that help us evolve and are the things we should be paying attention to.”

With or without a trade event, the industry is flourishing and evolving in Colorado. Robinson says it’s better that it’s becoming less of an insider’s club. However, he adds, if the benefit of being a juggernaut is bringing everyone into the fold, the sacrifice might be losing a north star to unify around. Traditionally, he says, that guiding light was conservation and protection of public lands and natural resources. Miller sees the industry’s priorities as sustainability and access, especially for underrepresented populations.

But with conflicting interests and priorities come more disagreements and confusion—a potential setback when it comes to engaging policymakers. “If we can come up with one coherent approach, we collectively are going to have a bigger chance of actually making an impact as opposed to canceling each other out,” Robinson says.

While Outdoor Retailer was a platform for those debates, the show’s departure doesn’t change the fabric of Colorado, Miller says. The outdoor businesses and organizations like Scarpa, VF Corporation, The Alpine Club, and others who call Colorado home remain mostly aligned.

“This industry, while it is wildly decentralized and disparate in some ways, is massive when it’s all put together,” says Hall. “It’s a sleeping giant that has never been able to really come together to use its voice in the same way that most other industries, like pharmaceutical, automotive, and agricultural, have been able to do.”

Hall’s task is to make space for the disparate entities to agree. “One of our jobs as Colorado’s Office of Outdoor Recreation is to create that common ground amongst all those disparate parts and to serve as a convening force,” he says.

Amelia Arvesen writes about the outdoor industry and environment. She’s also the creator of a newsletter called Honing Her Craft (@honinghercraft), about creative womxn in various industries sharing their secrets to success.

Cover Photo: Outdoor Retailer is leaving Denver to return to Utah.

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