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When Will an In-Person Outdoor Retailer Return to Denver?

The outdoor industry’s biannual event has necessarily turned its Winter Market Show into a COVID-friendly virtual format, and the ripple effects can be felt throughout the Mile High City.

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Twice a year, the outdoor industry gathers in Denver for its Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade shows. You’ve probably seen the 12-foot-tall “OR” block letters—orange for June’s Summer Market Show and blue for January’s Winter Market Show—standing next to the Colorado Convention Center’s iconic big, blue bear. Perhaps you’ve even attended the event as a representative from a local brand, retailer, or nonprofit partner. Or maybe you’ve just had the misfortune of trying to get a dinner reservation downtown while the show is going on.

“The ancillary effects are evident throughout town,” says Luis Benitez, a member of the Visit Denver board, who—as Colorado’s founding director of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office under former Governor John Hickenlooper—was integral in securing the show’s current five-year tenure in Denver. “Team meetings and policy dialogue take place in ballrooms across Denver. Gear is tested and utilized on our rivers and in our mountains. Consider the hotels and restaurant reservations, and you can start to get a sense of the larger impact.”

Now, with COVID-19 driving OR to be held virtually for the second time—the Winter Online event is happening now through March 19—that larger impact isn’t being realized. And given that Visit Denver estimates OR brings in between $66 and $75 million in direct and indirect economic benefits annually, the loss is significant.

“Having the trade shows in Denver has had a huge economic impact for the city of Denver and the state overall with the amount of business travel and recreational travel that our teams tend to do once we’re there,” says Marisa Nicholson, OR senior vice president and show director. “Whether it’s people staying in the hotels or eating in the restaurants, taking taxis, flying into the airport, Uber drivers—it’s all impacted.”

Of course, OR isn’t the only trade show that’s gone virtual this year. In fact, Denver’s entire trade show industry stalled out in the middle of last March. Over the course of 2020, the Denver Convention Center hosted about 15 shows, compared to the 200 or more events it would welcome in a typical year. Rather than holding conventions and corporate meetings, the center has been reserved as a temporary overflow site for COVID-19 patients since April (the site is currently in the process of being decommissioned after never being used).

The economic impact of a slow year at the Convention Center has hit Denver hard, but not having OR is arguably one of the biggest blows. Though OR, with its 25,000 to 30,000 attendees each day, is not the city’s biggest trade show (in comparison, the Colorado Garden & Home Show draws 50,000 to 60,000 people over the course of a week), the fact that OR’s clientele is largely from out of town has significant economic reverberations that are felt beyond the metro area.

“Some of the consumer shows are a little bigger from an attendance standpoint, but they’re not necessarily bigger from a space standpoint or an economic impact,” says Rich Carollo, director of sales and marketing for the Colorado Convention Center. OR attendees are “mostly from out of town, staying in hotel rooms for four nights, where people from consumer shows normally don’t have that level of room utilization.”

OR, unlike some other trade shows, has a “ripple effect,” explains Shawn Stinson, director of communications & media with Salt Lake City Tourism. His city hosted the show for 22 years, until 2018, when it was moved to Colorado after being heavily courted by local officials. Stinson points to the catering companies providing food for OR events and print shops pumping out signs for last-minute parties as less visible beneficiaries of the show. “There’s a multiplier effect that we weren’t even able to gauge,” he says

Another stand-out aspect of OR: It comes reliably twice a year, whereas many other events bounce around to different cities. Plus, January’s Winter Market show is scheduled at a time of year that’s “historically one of Denver’s slowest hotel occupancy months,” says Rachel Benedick, Visit Denver’s executive vice president of convention sales & services.

Greg Leonard, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center, agrees: “The summer months are always pretty good for us. But to have OR here in January? That was a home run.”

The Hyatt Regency’s location right across from the Convention Center means Leonard’s hotel sees considerable business from trade shows, but the OR crowd still stands out. He tactfully describes them as one that “likes to network,” adding that’s a key reason why they staff up the bar. “When the show ends for the day, everyone is ready to eat and drink, and we get filled up real fast,” he says.

Economic impact aside, Leonard says the nature of the OR show, and by extension its attendees, resonates with his outdoors-loving staff. “It’s just such a strong connection with the Colorado brand. That’s what makes OR so special: They’re us.”

Now stakeholders are wondering when, and to what extent, OR will return to an in-person format. After all, it’s certainly convenient to attend a keynote address in pajama bottoms. And the savings in shipping and booth expenses (some brands spend upward of $100,000 per show) is no doubt appealing from a cost-analysis perspective, especially given that some company representatives say OR has become more of a marketing exercise than a deal-closing event.

“A lot of times we have our sales book almost done by the time OR shows up,” says Russell Rowell, senior vice president and general manager at Boulder-based Kelty Pack. “By the time we get there, we’re just shaking hands.” That’s not to say that Rowell doesn’t see value in the trade show—among other things, he appreciates the raw material research he’s able to do all in one place—but it does make him reflect on how his brand allocates its budget.

OR’s Nicholson acknowledges that future shows may include a hybrid format with an online component, but she also points to the benefits of in-person gatherings. Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA)—the trade group that represents and leads the outdoor industry’s policy, sustainable business, and participation effortsagrees. “The buzz of people seeing each other—you can’t recreate that virtually,” Aangeenbrug says.

Given that OIA is the official education provider at OR, she has first-hand knowledge of the shows’ benefits to brands. “You can recreate some of the transactions, being able to see peoples’ products, and the educational sessions, but you can’t recreate going to an educational session and then running into five of your colleagues and having a conversation about it,” she says. “I don’t think virtual is ever going to be a replacement for that community and connection that is such a core piece of our industry.”

Unfortunately, that desire for an in-person show doesn’t mean June 2021’s Summer Market event will be any different from the June 2020 or January 2021 virtual format. “Nobody knows how fast we can get the vaccine widely distributed, and even once the vaccine is widely distributed, I don’t think everybody is just going to be flooding the airport and flying all over the place,” says Walter Isenberg, president and CEO of Sage Hospitality Group, which owns the Maven Hotel, the Curtis Hotel, and a handful of other properties throughout Colorado. “It’s going to take time.”

It will also take a bit for the hospitality industry to rebuild. Leonard, the Hyatt’s GM, notes that his hotel alone has had to cut ties with roughly 500 employees, whether through layoffs or permanent severance. “It doesn’t just turn on like a light switch.”

Despite the many unknowns—including when large events like OR will be allowed again in Denver—Nicholson and the OR team are thinking through ways to make an in-person Summer Market event successful. Their parent company, Emerald Expositions, has already hosted two in-person shows (the Surf Expo was held in early January in Orlando and the International Gift Expo in the Smokies moved forward last November in Tennessee) and has developed an overall preparedness, prevention, and response plan that includes hand sanitizer stations, mask requirements, and even a no-contact policy requesting that guests avoid actions like shaking hands. Even with these precautions, the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 at such an event still exists.

But as the pandemic stretches into year two and vaccines become more widely distributed, the world is starting to move forward. And when the outdoor industry is ready, Denver seems eager to welcome the OR crowd back. “You can’t plan on hope,” the Convention Center’s Carollo admits, “but we’re keeping our fingers crossed we can see them in June.”

The Year That Changed Everything

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