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The Outdoor Retailer trade show returned to Denver this past week. Photo courtesy of Scott Martin/Outdoor Retailer
Adventure

Three Takeaways From the Pandemic-Tinged Return of Outdoor Retailer

After COVID-19 required the cancellation of last year’s convention, the pandemic’s effects could still be felt throughout the iconic trade show.

This week marked the return of Outdoor Retailer (OR) to Denver after the pandemic forced the cancellation of the juggernaut trade show in 2020. While the hoard of beer-swilling gear heads was a welcome sight for the hotels, restaurants, and shops that rely on downtown conventions for customers, the three-day show, which wrapped Thursday, was a mixed bag overall. Here are three major takeaways we had after visiting the pared-down version of one of the outdoor industry’s largest gatherings.

Low Turnout Still Benefited the Downtown Economy

Though the final numbers won’t be known for a few weeks, there’s no doubt that attendance was way down.

“Typically, Outdoor Retailer’s summer and winter shows are considered two of our larger citywide conventions,” says Richard Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, the nonprofit responsible for marketing the city as a convention and tourism destination. “It is our understanding that they were expecting between 8,000 and 10,000 attendees—about one-third of the normal attendance.” The number of exhibitors also dropped from 1,400 in 2019 to about 400 in 2021.

Those numbers, however, are still large enough to make Outdoor Retailer one of the city’s largest events this year and a lifeline for downtown: Canceled conventions accounted for some $1.2 billion in lost economic impact in 2020, according to Scharf. “Any group is a blessing for Denver and our hospitality community,” he says.

With the Delta variant surging across the country, attendance was in flux right up until the doors opened. At least one high-profile outfit, Oregon shoe company Keen, pulled out just a week before the show, and many of the companies that did attend sent smaller delegations or skipped the exhibition hall in favor of networking at the smaller, often open-aired happy hours and after-parties hosted by individual brands.

All this could be felt on the show floor. “We are probably running about a tenth of the normal number of appointments we’d have with retailers,” says Chris Klinke, president of Lafayette-based climbing gear manufacturer Trango. It’s tamer, too, he says. In a typical year, the trade show famously feels like a giant cocktail party with nearly every booth offering some sort of libation, but when he left the Trango booth at 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday evening, Klinke felt it was more like a ghost town.

Photo courtesy of Scott Martin/Outdoor Retailer

A Sense of Community Was Apparent

None of this is really a surprise.

“We made the decision to come to support our community,” Klinke says. “So it was baked into the equation.”

That sense of community is a theme Lisa Ramsperger, Outdoor Retailer’s public relations manager, has seen throughout the show. “This is the first time a lot of the attendees have traveled or it’s the first event they’ve been to,” she says, “so they are really excited about seeing their friends again.” Old acquaintances darted through crowds to hug people they recognized, despite half the attendees wearing masks. And strangers from rival brands waiting for happy hour drinks played games of Who Do We Both Know. All of it occurring as frequently as sales pitches on new products.

That balance of business and fellowship is Outdoor Retailer’s recipe for success, Ramsperger explains, and it can’t be replicated over video chat. Gear is tactile, and you can’t touch the fabrics, try on the clothes, and test the products when you’re a thousand miles apart.

“The energy is here. It’s just in a compressed area that has brought people together in a new way,” she says. “We’re hearing from some brands that you’re not trying to squeeze as much in so you can have longer, more meaningful conversations.”

An Opportunity for First-Timers

One unintended benefit of this year’s convention is that it gave some smaller brands a chance to shine.

“We’d have been way in the back corner in a different year,” says Becky Leinweber, the executive director of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, as she handed out cookies and non-alcoholic IPAs at her organization’s booth sandwiched between the venue’s two main entrances. “We’re having a lot of great conversations as a result.”

Another example was this year’s Fresh section, a curated selection of companies attending OR for the first time. In a different year, when floor space would be at a premium, those companies might have been relegated to the less-trafficked ground floor, says Ramsperger. Instead, they got a prime spot in the main hall. “It’s been amazing,” says Sarah Anderson, who’s Laporte-based Alpinecho, a soft goods company that uses 100 percent American manufacturing, was featured in the section. “Everyone is coming around to actually see what’s new. So that is huge for us because we can’t afford, you know, PR.”

Coming to Outdoor Retailer was a huge investment for her and her husband Ryan, who had just quit his job as a chemist two weeks before the show to become Alpinecho’s second full-time employee. So they were worried that low attendance might affect their ability to make the most of the moment, but it’s been paying off. For example, the manufacturer they’d lined up to start producing their own line of hats dropped them after it was swamped fulfilling orders for larger companies, but by her second day on the floor, Anderson had already gotten three solid leads for a potential replacement.

“I kind of wonder if the size of this year’s show will be a blessing in disguise,” she says. At the very least, it’s been an important introduction to a tight-knit community that’s willing to help its own. “It’s just the two of us, and we are still learning. But people have been really supportive.”

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