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This past January, Outdoor Retailer (OR), the outdoor recreation industry’s largest trade show, sent an email to attendees asking them to weigh in on which city should host the event next. Many people who took the survey found it curious.
OR’s parent company, Emerald X, had just moved the convention from Salt Lake City, the show’s original host for 22 years, to Denver in 2018 after gear manufacturers and other attendees threatened to boycott it in protest of Utah’s efforts to rescind Bears Ears National Monument’s federal monument designation. But Salt Lake City was once again one of the options attendees could vote for. Rumors swirled, and on Wednesday, March 23, OR finally, officially announced it was leaving Denver and returning Salt Lake City in 2023. This summer’s show, scheduled for June 9 through 11, will be the last in Colorado, at least until OR’s contract with Salt Lake City expires in 2025.
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In the lead up to Wednesday’s decision, many in the outdoor industry made it clear they hadn’t forgotten why the show moved in the first place. On February 14, the Conservation Alliance and 24 outdoor recreation companies—including heavy hitters like Patagonia and REI, as well as Colorado-based Sierra Designs, Smartwool, the North Face, and others—announced that if OR returned to Utah, they wouldn’t attend.
For its part, Colorado was taken by surprise, too, says Conor Hall, the new director of the state’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC), which serves as a central point of contact for Colorado’s outdoor economy, from nonprofits to gear manufacturers. “All of us that had been working to keep OR felt like we had put together a good and compelling package,” he says, “but we were also clear that Utah or another state somewhere could come in with a bigger offer. Colorado is a good steward of tax money, so we often get beat by bigger incentives.”
Losing the show could be a major blow to downtown Denver’s hospitality industry, which is already struggling because of a reduction in major conventions and events due to the pandemic. When it announced it was moving to Denver, OR estimated its then three-show slate of events drew some 85,000 attendees and generated around $110 million in economic impact each year. In 2020 alone, canceled conventions accounted for $1.2 billion in lost economic impact in Denver, according to Visit Denver, the nonprofit responsible for marketing the city as a convention and tourism destination.
But there is a silver lining, Hall says. “We are sad to lose the show, but it provides an opportunity to create something fresh.” Knowing OR could leave, OREC and other partners had been talking about new opportunities. “What we have heard is that there is a missing space for a consumer-facing event that provides more thought leadership on things like protecting public lands and diversifying the industry,” he says.
Planning for a new event is still in the early stages, but Hall envisions an outdoor recreation version of South by Southwest, the annual technology-focused festival in Austin, Texas, that combines music shows, panel discussions, film screenings, interactive events, and more. “We need to be responsive and aware of what the industry needs and wants so that we are not creating something redundant but also not missing this window,” he says.
The industry response could be significant. The reasons Outdoor Retailer left Utah haven’t gone away; in some ways, they’ve gotten worse. In spring 2021, Utah Governor threatened to sue the federal government if the Biden administration reversed President Donald Trump’s reduction of the size of the Bears Ears. President Biden did exactly that in October 2021.
“We are disappointed the owners of Outdoor Retailer are blatantly ignoring the Indigenous peoples, local activists, and outdoor athletes who spent years working to conserve and protect wildlands in Utah,” Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert says. “Until we hear a firm commitment to protect our national monuments, we remain steadfast in our position and won’t return to the trade show in Utah.”
For its part, Outdoor Retailer organizers addressed some of those concerns in Wednesday’s announcement about the relocation, stating, “We’re going back with a commitment to effecting meaningful change. It would be wrong for us to leave the way we did and simply go back as if nothing happened.” To that end, they plan to dedicate revenue from the next three years to fund protections for public lands and say they’ll form a partnership with local stakeholders to address challenges and direct support for and improve access to natural and cultural spaces.
Still, Hall thinks there is an opportunity for a new show in Colorado, in part, because OR had been slow to adapt. “The industry is experiencing a huge transition, and traditional trade shows are under stress. I certainly don’t want to bad mouth Emerald, but it didn’t seem like they were excited about changing the show in that fashion,” he says. The future event could be a place for the outdoor recreation industry to come together on important issues like public lands, equity, and access.
“This allows us a fresh start,” Hall says. “[The industry is] in the process of continuing to find our voice and collective power. There should be events and convening places to further that transformation.”