Outdoor Retailer is staying in Salt Lake City, at least in the near term.
Nielsen Expositions, which operates Summer and Winter Markets, announced Tuesday that it had signed a short-term venue extension — a two-year contract — to keep both trade shows here at the Salt Palace through 2016. The previous contract expired after 2014.
The decision, made in conjunction with the Outdoor Industry Association Board of Directors, extends Outdoor Retailer’s 16-year run in Salt Lake, and is a credit to the city’s beloved outdoor culture and efforts to accommodate an ever-evolving event, said Show Director Kenji Haroutunian. At the same time, the short-term nature of the extension signals that Outdoor Retailer desperately needs more exhibitor and housing space for two of the fastest-growing trade shows in the nation.
“The city has been amazingly responsive to the show over the years,” Haroutunian told O.R.D., noting two expansions of the Salt Palace, in 2002 and 2006. “But we recognize that with the recession, building here has slowed of late. At the same time, the size of the show has gotten back to record numbers and growth.”
Outdoor Retailer Summer and Winter Markets both rank among the top 50 shows in the country in size, and few in that group are held in a small city like Salt Lake, Haroutunian said. Most of the large shows in the United States take place in Las Vegas, New York, Orlando, Chicago or Anaheim. Those cities have been considered as new locations for Outdoor Retailer.
Yet to a degree, what Salt Lake lacks in size and amenities, it makes up for with its outdoor culture and its small downtown, Haroutunian acknowledged.
“It’s that close proximity of rock, trails, lakes, rivers and ski slopes that expand the show beyond the convention center,” he said. “And at night, the show keeps going well beyond trade show hours. It leaks into a tight downtown Salt Lake scene where people feel comfortable, which might not be the case in a larger city like Chicago or Vegas.”
Denver, which matches Salt Lake City on outdoor culture, is another possibility for future Outdoor Retailers, but, like Salt Lake, has limited space.
Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of OIA, said part of the reason the group’s board supports the decision to sign a short-term extension is to give Salt Lake City and Denver more time to come up with viable, long-term solutions to host the trade shows.
“The extension would not have happened if we didn’t see significant overtures from these communities,” Hugelmeyer said. “But it’s clear that they need more time to meet our 10-year vision for the shows. There are still a lot of long-term logistical issues.”
The willingness to give smaller cities with big outdoor hearts a chance to compete for Outdoor Retailer comes in large part from those who attend the shows.
OIA worked closely with Nielsen officials to gather industry-wide opinion through its Collective Voice survey. The results, from nearly 3,000 retailers, reps and manufacturers, show respondents just about evenly split on whether to move the show or keep it in Salt Lake City. About 40 percent said they’d support a move, 40 percent would oppose and 20 percent were undecided. However, once specific options are put on the table, there is preference to keep Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City, or at least near a similar culture.
“The Collective Voice survey shaped our decision a lot,” Hugelmeyer said. “There’s a real affinity with Salt Lake and the cultural connect.” That is especially true when it comes to Winter Market, for which there was only 30 percent support to move the show.
Haroutunian and Hugelmeyer announced the show-location decision at the conclusion of the All-Mountain Demo at Solitude Tuesday evening. Standing amidst the snowy Wasatch Mountains, they said the location exemplified one of the top reasons Salt Lake is so popular among attendees.
For Black Diamond Inc. CEO Peter Metcalf, who lives and operates his business here, “there is no venue in North America that can match Salt Lake” when it comes to outdoor opportunities and red carpet treatment. He said he’s thrilled with the decision, even if it’s just a short-term extension.
Metcalf, who has championed his city’s ability to host the show, but at the same time harshly criticized his home state’s recent public land policies, said the extension allows more time to debate the many facets of what might keep the show here, or push it away.
On Wednesday, OIA and Utah Governor Gary Herbert are expected to announce a preliminary state vision for outdoor recreation in Utah. Talks between the two groups began this summer after tempers flared with the governor proposing that the state take control of all of Utah’s federal public lands (minus the national parks), with the intention to sell off significant portions for oil and gas drilling.
Going into Wednesday’s announcement with OIA, the prevailing thought is that Herbert will increase efforts to protect the lands.
With the decision to stay at the Salt Palace convention center through 2016, show organizers and government officials must work together to find both creative short-term and meaningful long-term solutions to make room for the growing Outdoor Retailer, officials said.
While few details can be shared — negotiations are ongoing — there are three main areas of focus: housing, exhibitor space and transportation.
Beyond the obvious matter of exhibitor space, which is growing by an average of seven percent per year, there’s a need to support the increase in attendees, up an average of 11 percent annually, Haroutunian said. Nearly 26,000 buyers and sellers attended the 2012 Summer Market.
Already, attendees are staying more than 30 minutes away in towns like Park City and Sandy. The goal, Haroutunian said, is to find ways to keep more people downtown, but also, if they have to stay further away, create easy, quick and affordable transportation options.
On the latter point, both Haroutunian and Hugelmeyer said good transportation is part of what makes for successful trade shows in smaller cities throughout Europe. Part of the solution lies in creating transportation options; the other lies in effectively educating and promoting the options to attendees so they become comfortable using them. For now, Outdoor Retailer continues to add shuttles later into the night and is working with the city to increase existing public transportation options. For Summer Market 2013, TRAX (the city’s rail service) is expected to open its route from the airport to downtown.
On the housing front, starting with Summer Market 2013, Outdoor Retailer is working with city officials to convert the former Olympic Village at the University of Utah into housing options for attendees.
“It will add about 1,000 beds, four miles away off the TRAX line, but this isn’t a hotel,” Haroutunian said. “We’ll have to figure out maid service and some other amenities. By choosing to stay in Salt Lake City, we’re forced to re-invent the wheel when it comes to housing.” Other ideas in the works include setting up “glamping” (glamorous camping) options with KOA. But these are band-aid solutions, Haroutunian said.
Discussions are underway to create additional permanent space at the 670,000-square-foot Salt Palace. In the meantime, the state of Utah is willing to help fund extra temporary space. Two weeks before Winter Market, the city’s economic development bureau, Visit Salt Lake, announced a $2.66 million grant from the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development to fund a 150,000-square-foot pavilion across the street, north of the convention center, through 2016 for Summer Market.
Haroutunian said Outdoor Retailer regularly denies more than 25,000 square feet of expansion requests and new exhibitors because of its confined space, even with the pavilions. “We’re restricting the full breadth of business that could be done at the show,” he said.
In an unspoken sense, Outdoor Retailer is playing its hand with both government officials and the industry. If attendees want to remain in Salt Lake, there are sacrifices to be made, at least for now, with the realities of a smaller convention center and city. By 2016, if more permanent solutions to expand aren’t found, those sacrifices may become too heavy to bear, and the majority opinion might sway toward moving the show to a larger city.
A wider outdoor industry
Some on the show floor say the problem isn’t that Salt Lake City is too small; rather the industry, or at least what’s represented at Outdoor Retailer, is getting too big. The group of mostly core-outdoor veterans argues that the definition of “outdoor” is being cast too wide for the trade show.
Metcalf said officials are close to being blinded by the show’s “peak of strength,” ignoring “a tenuous moment where it won’t take much for the show to implode upon itself.
“This industry is still defined by those who share a passion for the wild places … the sports … the culture,” Metcalf said. “The show has personified that in Salt Lake and the smaller size has kept that sense of community and controlled unsustainable growth.”
Haroutunian admits that Outdoor Retailer can’t always get it right, but attendees shouldn’t use one or two “unworthy” exhibitors to prove that other new exhibitors don’t fit the culture.
“While we do hear some naysayers with some individual brand presences, the feedback of the larger categories we’ve expanded with — yoga, fly fishing, SUP and adventure travel — has been positive,” he said. “Who wants to come to a show where year after year it’s the same group of exhibitors. In every survey we do, buyers tell us the number-one reason they come to the show is to find new brands.”
Others have suggested moving the suppliers off the show floor to make more room, but officials said they already have done that to an extent, moving most suppliers into tucked-away meeting rooms.
Here we go again
The latest discussion to find the best home for Outdoor Retailer began in earnest two years ago. With a two-year extension in place, it’s not hard to imagine that the debate will pick up again soon.
As one attendee put it: “They pulled a fiscal cliff and kicked the can down the road.”
When relayed the comment, Hugelmeyer chuckled. “Are we buying ourselves some time? Yes. But it’s nowhere near as contentious a process. It’s a healthy one.”
Haroutunian said a lot has been accomplished, including laying the foundation for the debate and gauging where the industry stands. The outreach will continue, he said, because a lot a can change in a few years.
“It’s a win for Salt Lake, but maybe not the big win they’d like to see,” Haroutunian said. “Typically, we like to commit to a five-year contract with a venue, but we chose a shorter time frame because there is still no clear answer. We will continue to look at options. We want Salt Lake and other venues to be aware, we’re still in play for beyond 2016.”