Across the U.S., outdoor brands, retailers, and members of the media are finalizing travel plans and preparing to descend on Denver at the end of this month. Outdoor Retailer (OR), the outdoor industry’s biannual trade show, is all systems go for its Snow Show January 26 to 28 at the Colorado Convention Center. With the Mile High City’s five-year contract with OR up at the end of the year, however, the question of whether the show, which provided a definitive economic boost to the Denver area in pre-pandemic times, will return next winter is still up in the air.
“There’s a really good chance” it will stay in Denver, Marisa Nicholson, OR senior vice president and show director, told Outside Business Journal last August. She also said that Anaheim, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Salt Lake City (which notably hosted the show for the 22 years prior to Denver’s reign) were all in the running, as well. At the time of writing, Nicholson was unable to comment on whether the list had been winnowed down. Rather, she emphasized that OR, along with its partners the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and Snowsports Industries America, continues to gather opinions from key stakeholders that will guide its decision on where the show will go in 2023.
In that vein, 5280 asked outdoor industry veterans about the show’s time in Denver and what its future might hold. Here are their insights.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What are the benefits of continuing Denver’s role as host city?
In 2017, OR left Salt Lake City in large part because Utah’s then-governor, Gary Herbert, supported legislation that threatened the protection of public lands, reminds Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of OIA. “We worked with our partner, OR, to identify a location that represented our industry values and business values, which includes the protection of public lands and investments in the outdoors and the outdoor economy,” Aangeenbrug says.
Denver’s other main selling point: “This is the mecca of the outdoor industry,” says Jimmy Funkhouser, owner of Denver-based outdoor indie gear shop, FERAL, pointing to the countless brands, sales reps, PR agencies, and, of course, consumers, who live here.
Richard W. Scharf, president and CEO of Visit Denver, also notes Denver’s appeal as a travel destination. “We continue to offer one of the best airports in the world and a state-of-the-art convention center within walking distance of 12,000 hotel rooms in a vibrant, active downtown at the base of the Rocky Mountains.”
What are Denver’s drawbacks?
While the Denver area offers plenty of exciting opportunities for exploration, “downtown [Denver] is far from the airport,” notes Beth Cochran, a 48-show veteran and owner of Denver-based What’s UP PR.
Industry participants also face expenses for booth set-up and teardown, which tends to be higher in bigger cities, notes John DiCuollo, PR account director with Backbone Media and 30-year industry veteran. “Bigger convention centers need to fill up the space. If they’re not filling up the space, then they have to raise the rates to make up for it.”
Keeping the show in the same spot each year also provides advantages to Colorado brands that companies from other states don’t necessarily get to share in, says Zeal Optics’ director of marketing, Mike Lewis. “Retailers and companies in other locations also have great access to public lands, transportation, and lodging,” he says.
Is there even a need for a giant trade show anymore?
More than 23,500 people attended the Summer Show in 2019. Comparatively, 7,600 people attended the Summer Show in 2021. Despite the 68 percent decrease in trade show attendance, an influx of roughly 7.1 million more people recreating outdoors in 2020 than 2019 has led to an unprecedented demand in outdoor industry goods. Though much of those changes can be attributed to the pandemic, it’s clear success isn’t tied to a biannual gathering. And yet, there’s still an argument to be made for keeping OR around, at least in some form.
“While we have thrived over the past two years meeting customers digitally, we really miss the meeting of the industry [and] getting everyone together to share ideas [and] experiences,” says Rhonda Swenson, founder and CEO of Boulder-based outdoor apparel brand Krimson Klover.
There’s also the simple benefit of gathering en masse to move the industry forward, whether that’s when making policy decisions on the national level or making product purchasing decisions on a smaller scale. “The thing we hear over and over in our industry is that people do see a huge value in getting together. There’s still value in a trade show, particularly for our smaller and mid-sized brands and our retailers,” Aangeenbrug says, noting it can be difficult for these brands to get their new products in front of retailer customers without this type of industry gathering.
Others, however, are more adamant that the current trade show model isn’t working. “The pandemic has accelerated and accentuated the demise of the old-school solution. It became evident last year, when we couldn’t do trade shows and sales actually went off the charts,” Backbone’s DiCuollo says. Brands began selling directly to consumers online rather than seeking retail partners. They also started launching new products on their own schedule, rather than in accordance with trade show dates. “There’s certainly a social element to the show that we all love, but the demand to do it is not there, and the costs to do it are going up every year.”
So, what should the future of OR look like?
OIA’s Aangeenbrug believes that how the industry answers a trio of key questions will determine what future industry gatherings look like. “Should the trade show just focus on trade and getting business done: seeing product, touching product, marketing, and building relationships in the industry? Do we need to include the consumer in an industry event and how? And then, where do larger conversations [e.g., the importance of the outdoors as an economic driver] happen that are so important when we think about the long-term future of the outdoors and our businesses?”
If the answer to Aangeenbrug’s first question is yes, the show should continue to focus primarily on “getting business done,” some feel there are still ways for the model to evolve. “It would be great to see the logistics scale back,” says Rachel Kaylor Popp, co-founder and CEO of Denver-based marketing and public relations agency, Big Fish Collective. “OR is such a production and there is so much waste associated with the show. Plus, the cost for just a few days is mind-boggling.”
Perhaps OR could “offer more opportunities to test products and reduce the cost of attendance,” suggests Zeal’s Lewis. Cochran of What’s UP PR agrees, adding that regional shows could be the answer: “I could see perhaps an East and West show with spending limits on booth sizes and rates.”
Others emphasize the need to rethink the invite list. Right now, OR is open primarily to brands, retailers, and members of the media. Perhaps there’s a future where outdoor consumers “can be involved and interact,” DiCuollo suggests. That could be brand athletes meeting with their fans, fashion shows, or even design contests with customers.
Given that COVID-19 has disrupted the outdoor industry’s workforce and its supply chain, while also prompting large numbers of people to get outside, even those making the decisions are flummoxed about the future. “It’s a challenge,” Aangeenbrug says, “But it’s also this gigantic opportunity about what we can do as an industry to engage people in the fun, joy, and wonder of the outdoors. At the end of the day, it’s not ‘If we build it, will they come?’ We have to build the show in a way and in a place where they want it.”