The Outdoor Industry Really Doesn’t Like Utah

It has been a rough couple of years for Outdoor Retailer—the biggest outdoor gear show in North America—and Emerald Expositions, the company that produces the bi-annual convention. After making a much-publicized exit from Salt Lake City, UT to Denver, CO in 2017, OR has faced some challenges, including canceled shows in the summer of 2020 and winter of 2021 due to the pandemic. The two most recent events haven’t fared much better, with low attendance thanks in no small part to the ongoing COVID outbreak.

Now, the trade show is facing opposition from some heavy hitters in the outdoor industry, as it weighs a potential move back to Utah. The question is, if the move does happen, will attendees and brands follow? And perhaps even more troubling, is there a future for Outdoor Retailer at all?

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What is Outdoor Retailer?

If you’re not a part of the outdoor industry in some way, you may be wondering what Outdoor Retailer exactly is. OR—as it is known in the business—is a convention that is held twice a year, with one show taking place in the summer and the other in the winter. Those two events focus on products that will be used for the respective seasons. For instance, the Summer OR highlights tents, hiking boots, and backpacks, while Winter OR puts an emphasis on skis, snowboards, and cold weather apparel.

Primarily, the show is an opportunity for gear manufacturers to meet with buyers from retail outlets who are looking to order products to fill their shelves with items to sell customers. At the show, buyers from outlets like REI and Backcountry—as well as hundreds of local mom and pop gear shops—get a preview of the new gear that is coming in the next 6-12 months, and purchase those items directly from the manufacturer. This is how the gear we buy ends up in our favorite shops and eventually our closets and garages.

Outdoor Retailer also hosts a number of media outlets, with gear reviewers and outdoor-focused magazines, websites, blogs, and podcasts on hand to check out what is new. This helps to build hype for new products and is important for the brands, but is a relatively small subset of what takes place at the show.

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Exodus from Utah

For years, Outdoor Retailer was held in Salt Lake City, where the community welcomed the outdoor industry with open arms. It was a major event every time the show came to town, with local restaurants, hotels, and shops rolling out the red carpet for visitors. The central location for the SLC convention center made walking and commuting an easy affair and everything felt accessible.

But over time, as OR continued to grow, the convention center started to feel a little cramped and crowded. Additional tents and pavilions were added to accommodate an increasing number of attendees and exhibitors, which spread things out even further and made it a challenge to get around. This prompted Emerald Expositions to begin thinking about moving the event somewhere else that had larger facilities.

In 2017, controversy began to swirl within the industry due to the state of Utah’s stance on protecting some important pieces of land, including Bears Ears National Monument. When the Trump administration reduced the size of that protected space—and approved commercialization of the land on its borders—gear manufacturers like Patagonia, The North Face, and others decided to take a stand. A number of outdoor brands told Emerald that if Outdoor Retailer stayed in Salt Lake City, they would not attend the show. Facing pressure from some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry, the event packed its bags and moved to Denver instead.

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A Possible Return to SLC?

After five years in Denver, the contract with the convention center there is about to expire and Emerald is weighing its options. A number of locations have thrown their hat in the ring in an attempt to lure the trade show to a new destination. Amongst them, are Salt Lake City, which has immediately created controversy once again.

Last week, Patagonia, The North Face, REI, and more than 20 other companies in the outdoor industry threatened to boycott Outdoor Retailer if the show were to go back to SLC. Those companies believe that the state of Utah continues to take a less-than progressive stance on protecting public lands and the environment. By returning to the state, OR would be contributing to the economy of a place that these brands feel does not align with their core values in that regard.

For his part, Utah Governor Spencer Cox says that Utah doesn’t need Outdoor Retailer. The economy in the state is doing just fine and he feels that the industry abandoned the people there when the show left town. He has said that he would welcome OR back to Salt Lake City, but he is indifferent if the trade show doesn’t return.

Where Will OR Land?

Outdoor Retailer and Emerald now find themselves in a somewhat precarious position. Denver has been a good home for the show over the past five years, even if it did have a very different feel from SLC. But with some heavy hitters in the industry aligning against a move back to Utah, the show could lose leverage when renegotiating contracts with the City of Denver.

There is a chance that the show could move somewhere else. In a survey sent out to attendees following the 2022 Winter OR, Las Vegas and Orlando were mentioned as two other alternatives. Those sites have a lot to offer any convention looking to relocate, although they are not necessarily seen as traditional “outdoor” destinations. Vegas does hold more of an appeal in that regard than Orlando however, particularly with Red Rock so close by. Neither would make a great option for a winter show, however, which traditionally offers some opportunities for attendees to hit the slopes and test gear.

Emerald’s current contract is set to expire at the end of 2022, so it is scrambling to find a place to hold the show moving forward. If I were to guess as to where Outdoor Retailer will end up, I’d say it will likely stay in Denver. But it is possible it could go to another city or have the summer show in one place and the winter in another. We’ll just have to see how this plays out.

And a tip of the hat to the outdoor brands who continue to put their money where their mouth is by working to protect the spaces that we love and enjoy visiting.

Kraig Becker