"Do you have a boat?” Eric “Hende” Henderson asks me. He’s the owner and founder of Meteorite PR, and the mastermind behind what seems at first blush like a hare-brained idea: packraft to OR.
I shake my head. He reaches inside the doorway of evo, a Denver retail shop providing us with both rental bikes (for our commute down to the water) and a staging area for sorting out our Kokopelli rafts. Hende hands me a terrifyingly small backpack with a half-collapsed oar sticking out of it. This is my boat? I buckle the pack over my life jacket, immediately cutting off all circulation to my armpits.
“Time to ride!” someone shouts. I pop up the kickstand to my purple cruiser, start rolling downhill, and swerve madly into the road as I try to figure out the gears. The adventure’s begun, and it’s only 8 a.m.
The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market kicks off with demo day for a reason: When it comes to gear, touching and feeling in the booth isn’t always enough of an introduction. But some brands want to take things one step further, providing a group experience that goes beyond the demo. And in this industry, we know that adventure is all about the journey—so it’s only fitting that outdoor brands are increasingly putting just as much energy into the commute as the show floor. They’re also putting more thought into showing their retailers some love.
“I’m all about connecting the dots between media, brands, and retailers. To me, that’s the secret sauce,” Hende told me earlier this morning. “I’m trying to get people into these stores to see how the gear’s being sold. Because if it’s not selling, we’re all ultimately out of a job.” We talked over a bagel inside evo’s ski-and-skateboard-focused space. It was the perfect launching pad for our journey to this year’s Urban Adventure-themed Demo Experience.
And urban adventure is what we’re in for. “I think this is the earliest I’ve ever reached critical mass,” says M.T. Elliott, a freelance writer who’s along for the ride. About a dozen deep, we dodge spandex-clad road cyclists and rollerbladers in jorts as we trace the riverbank upstream to our put-in.
There on the beach, I struggle to assemble my packraft. I struggle to disassemble my bike. I struggle to lash the two together in a manner that looks seaworthy, all the while covering myself in bicycle grease. But others jump to give me inflation beta and show me how to disconnect my brakes. Kokopelli Co-founder Kelley Smith hands me a can of tea, and everything is better. As promised, there is camaraderie in the air. As we laugh and joke and help each other with setup, Hende cracks a beer (it’s 9 a.m. after all) and steps back to watch his creation unfold.
Meteorite and Kokopelli aren’t the only ones leveraging the OR commute to tell brand story and make connections. Smartwool just finished its 12th installment of the iconic Ride to OR—this year on a new course: a bike-powered haul over mountain passes from their Steamboat Springs headquarters to Denver. And Mystery Ranch owner Dana Gleason is riding his motorcycle to the show from Seattle as I’m writing this, a journey he’s made for the past five years with a peloton of athletes, smoke jumpers, Special Ops members, and retailers—all friends and ambassadors of Mystery Ranch.
“Dana’s someone who enjoys the process in whatever he’s doing, whether that’s building packs or going to OR,” says Erin Brosterhous, partner and owner of Inside|Out Communications, which represents Mystery Ranch. “The idea is, why just get to the trade show when you can have fun getting to the trade show?”
The show’s move to Colorado this past winter also brought with it an increased focus on sense of place and why location matters. And for both Smartwool and Kokopelli, the shift has brought an opportunity to weave Colorado roots into the narrative.
For Smartwool, the journey began as a sustainability initiative to reduce the number of cars headed to the show. This year, that mission continues, but with the added perk of traveling through the brand’s home state. “We were able to bring employees, retail partners, and industry friends and family with us to explore state we live and work in,” says Scott Bowers, VP of sales and marketing at Smartwool, about 15 minutes after dismounting his bike post-300-mile ride. “Having OR in Denver has allowed us to look at the ride differently than we have in the past.”
I notice this as I float the South Platte. At the beginning, I spend a lot of my energy trying not to ram my bike cargo into anyone else’s, fearing an entanglement scenario reminiscent of middle school horror stories about making out with braces. But when I’m not dodging other members of the armada, I’m enjoying myself, immersed in a new side of Denver. Thus far, my experience actually traversing the city had been limited to the walk between Union Station and the Sheraton.
On the river, I saw a larger sampling, including the quieter, greener, more active side of the city. People ran and walked their dogs on either side of us. We floated by parks and under footbridges. It seemed only fitting that the show moved here, and seeing the views firsthand made me want to tip my hat to those brands that call Colorado home.
I ask Hende if he intentionally picked a water sport so we’d all be too afraid to take out our cell phones and distract ourselves from his marketing spiel. He gives a knowing smile. And the audience is not only captive, but more relaxed than most. I suppose that’s also one of the benefits of journeying to the show: Marketers can take full advantage of the calm before the storm.
After a low snow year, the South Platte is about six inches deep in some places, but the rafts do well—at least, when guided by a practiced hand. I run aground on a number of occasions and bump into other boats (though, contrary to my fears, without entangling derailleurs), but traffic jams don’t seem to be nearly as frustrating under blue skies and overhanging greenery. And it turns out high spirits carry an adventure far more effectively than high water.
When I beach myself sideways between rapids in full view of three coworkers and six photographers at the Demo Experience, I’m too relaxed and carefree to be embarrassed. One of my coworkers tells me he’s jealous. Probably of my partial submersion in the 90°F heat rather than my exceptional form, but I’ll take it. And now, what kind of stress can the show throw at me? Come at me—I packrafted here.
This article was originally published in Day 1 of The Daily (summer 2018).