7 takeaways from 2017 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market

A run down of what happened at the show and what effects it may have over the coming season.
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With a week to recover, ski, and grapple with a new political reality, we run down what happened at the show and what effects it may have over the coming season.

Amy Roberts, Rich Hill, Marisa Nicholson

Amy Roberts from OIA, Rich Hill from GOA, and Marisa Nicholson from Outdoor Retailer worked together to redefine the trade show landscape. // Photo: Caveman Collective

1) The big change in show dates starting in 2018 dominated every conversation.
The announcement that starting after the January 2018 show the dates of Outdoor Retailer will shift to June and November with three shows in 2019 but no January show in 2019 was the first item of conversation for everyone in the halls of the Salt Palace. Especially since that news also included the 62-member Grassroots Outdoor Alliance shifting the dates and location if its Connect show to take place immediately before OR in Salt Lake City, making for a weeklong mega-show for some specialty retailers. Emerald Expositions, which owns and operates the show, made big efforts to engage in conversation and input from show attendees when considering the date changes in order to remain relevant (the show floor buzz had always been that it took place too late to work with front loaded buying cycles), taking on a deep-dive qualitative survey and wider online, qualitative survey before making any decisions to move show dates. And many retailers applauded the change.

“I’m really excited about the schedule change for future Outdoor Retailer shows,” said Kevin Rosenberg, owner of Gear to Go Outfitter in New York City. “I feel it makes the show even more relevant than it was before and will draw more specialty outdoor retailers to Salt Lake. Obviously, the demands of the manufacturing schedule dictated the earlier date so my only concern is that manufacturers will use the new dates as an excuse to have even earlier deadlines. I was part of the retail advisory council this past summer and moving the show up was my primary concern going in to the meeting. The regional shows just don’t give buyers the opportunity to see the line in full and we’re forced to put in orders based on CAD drawings which rarely seem to resemble the finished product. I feel that this move is especially important to independent shops like mine and I’m glad that the folks at OR heard our often overlooked voices.”

Other retailers had mixed feelings.

"I realize that there are many disparate viewpoints that OR, GOA, and OIA are trying to address," says Mike Donohue, co-owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont, who stresses that it is a very complicated issue with no easy solution, and that his shop has made it a point to attend every OR show since 1995. "I laud them for trying to change and adapt but have reservations about nine days straight of shows as well as a media-involved show before Black Friday. But most of all, I do want to see a strong national trade show for our industry as well as a strong specialty outdoor retailer presence,"

When it comes down to it, most saw the date change as a challenge and a chance to rebuild what the show means. The addition of the Grassroots show to the docket may extend the time some retailers spend away form their shops, but it also boosts the relevance of both shows and the chance to truly get the tribe in one room. Everyone agreed that the old show dates were no longer working. But change can be hard.

“The challenges of our buying cycle have been building for a decade, and in a scattered way. Showrooms, hotel events, HQ invites, regional rep shows, our own Grassroots events, and Outdoor Retailer. Not to mention having the desire to peek into out-of-industry events for inspiration. I feel the majority of independent retail is hopeful that the new calendar is a step forward in taming the monster that our retailers have to battle twice a year,” said Rich Hill, Grassroots Outdoor Alliance president.

2) Women can have a bigger role in the outdoor industry if companies choose to support them.

We got a comment that stung when it came to our list of the 10 most influential people in the outdoor industry in the Day 3 Power issue of the ORD: There were only four women on the list and they ended up in the bottom five. While that was partly a fluke simply due to just who holds what positions in the industry each year (Sally McCoy and Sally Jewell both could have topped the list other years). It did illustrate real a problem that was evident at the show. Women are very prevalent and powerful in the industry. Amy Roberts runs Outdoor Industry Foundation. Marisa Nicholson of Emerald Expositions runs the OR show. But the industry needs to do more.

Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia // Photo: Courtesy

Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia // Photo: Courtesy

Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario gave an inspiring speech at the Camber Outdoors (formerly OIWC) breakfast on the third day of the show. There she got to the heart of what needs to be done to put more women in positions on an equal footing with men. “The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not offer federal paid maternity leave,” she said, adding that she herself does not have children but that Patagonia supports working moms and families. “That is a national embarrassment. It is. And I don’t think we need to scratch our heads and wonder why there are not more women in leadership in the United States. I really don’t. It’s about this issue. About valuing caregiving. We need to value caregiving as an intrinsic part of a healthy society.”


3) The North Face booth was over-the-top… but, hey, it worked.

The North Face has never had a reputation for playing small ball, but its mountainous, multi-tiered booth was one of the most massive things we’ve ever seen built on the show floor. No one at the show missed it. It assaulted attendees who turned a corner to see the mountain of VF 2017 fall merchandise.

10 takeaways from Outdoor Retailer

The North Face's new booth at Outdoor Retailer was a tower of power. // Photo: Courtesy

You know what else? It worked. The booth, a collaboration between RJ Abbot, Director of Retail Brand Experience at The North Face, and Atmosphere Studios, was not just overwhelming: Its tiers were quite effective when it came to showcasing the entire range of TNF’s fall 2017 line.

And that is exactly what retailers want from the national show that they can’t find at earlier regional rep shows—the opportunity to see a brand’s entire line, and how all the pieces fit together.

Plus, a closer look revealed a wall of stunning black-and-white portraits of TNF athletes shot by in-house photographer Clayton Boyd that truly showcased how much the big brand supports those out in the wild.

10 takeaways from Outdoor Retailer

A dramatic wall of TNF athlete portraits are part of the new booth. // Photo: Courtesy

The booth was not all that was big at TNF. Aisle gossip buzzed around the news that Todd Spaletto, who served as the brand’s president since 2011, was leaving just as former TNF President and longtime outdoor industry veteran Steve Rendle (who we deemed the second most powerful person in our industry in the day 3 edition of OR Daily) was taking the reins at massive parent corporation VF.

Rendle has his work cut out for him. VF’s unprecedented growth—racking up $1.5 billion in profits in 2015—seems tough to maintain, and shifts in corporate structure usually worry shareholders. But having a friend of the outdoor industry at the top of VF could be good for all the brands.

"Steve Rendle is a force to be reckoned with," says Marisa Nicholson. "The areas of our industry that we hold most dear—sustainability, technology, and a strong commitment to supporting retail—are all components of his career. His leadership will strengthen the strong brands that VF Corp possesses and ensure a lasting focus on specialty retail."

4) The Utah question is back in play.

Black Diamond founder Peter Metcalf set attendees’ social media feeds on fire during the show with a scathing editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune. Metcalf, who was instrumental in calling for the show to move to Utah in the 1990s, said: “If they don’t want to change their policies, we should respond with our dollars, with our conventioneers, with our money, and take this show to a state that is much more aligned with our values.”

10 takeaways from Outdoor Retailer

Peter Metcalf is calling for Outdoor Retailer to leave Utah if politicians don't protect public land. // Photo: Courtesy of Black Diamond

That sentiment resonated on the show floor, bringing back into play one of the most difficult questions in the outdoor space. How can outdoor business that rely on public lands, conservation, and recreation simply stand by while state (and now federal) government dead set on degrading those resources?

The show brings big business to Salt Lake City and the state of Utah, pumping an estimated $45 million into local business each year. And the outdoor recreation economy pumps $12 billion and 122,400 direct jobs to the state every year according to Outdoor Industry Association.

One would think politicians like those numbers, but the industry has had a long-strained relationship with the conservative politics of many in Utah’s government.

Back in the age of George W. Bush in 2003, the Outdoor Industry Association (which does not own the show) first threatened to move the Outdoor Retailer show from Utah after then Governor Mike Leavitt promised to improve the state’s conservation and recreation policies.

Threats to pull the show surfaced again in 2015 when the Utah state legislature passed a law claiming it controlled the state’s federal lands. While that law was show at the time (it could not be enforced), the rise of Trump and a Republican Congress may make public land transfers a reality. The show and the entire industry will have to deal with the political winds. The big question is whether its voice is better heard in the middle of that fight or in a safe space.

The real crucible will be the newly created Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. The Trump administration, which has already removed the White House climate change page, and Utah legislators have threatened to scrap it. In response, Patagonia has threatened to take Metcalf's threat to heart and leave the show, Tweeting “Politicians in Utah don’t seem to get that the outdoor industry—and their own state economy—depends on access to public lands for recreation.” Patagonia’s Ron Hudson told us, “We are a huge industry. We should have some say. We should have a legitimate voice in how public lands are managed We should have a seat at the table.” This is going to get real.

5) Avalanche safety continues to evolve and retailers are the most important evangelists.

The backcountry trend is not going away any time soon. Dynafit launched a new fitness series of skis meant for people looking to make laps on the slopes of resorts which are now allowing uphill skiing.

According to Scott Yorko, Backpacker gear editor, “Airbag packs from brands including Scott, Ortovox, Mammut, and Backcountry Access are slowly getting lighter with more compact systems.” Helly Hansen even hit the show floor with its IPA Vest, a James-Bond piece of apparel designed for ski patrollers that allows for insane access to rescue tools packed inside with the pull of cord—no pack, and no futzing with zipper required.

That means that getting into the backcountry is getting easier and easy. While that widens the customer base, it also worried a lot of retailers at the show since more people in the backcountry means more chances for avalanche fatalities.

At the time of the show, the American Avalanche Association had already recorded six avalanche deaths in the U.S. At The Camp zone on the show floor seminars focused on just how retailers have a greater responsibility to educate their customers on the dangers of backcountry travel and how they can do so. Many retailers are partnering with organizations such as the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) to hold events at their shops to ensure customers understand just what they’re getting themselves into. The big thing to remember: You need to sell more than the equipment. This applies to more than retailers who operate in mountain towns near avalanche terrain: To remain relevant, all specialty retailers must be engaged members of their communities.

6) Fabrics keep getting more complicated.

Forget those days of one fabric selling a shell; Combinations of different fabrics are now the norm. “Everyone has gotten pretty hot on Polartec Alpha and Alpha Direct, but the smart designs use a less catchy/grabby fabric in the sleeves so your base layers don't pull them inside out when removing,” says Scott Yorko, Backpacker gear editor. Alpha Direct is a breathable insulation that can be used without a face or liner fabric, feeling like an old fleece liner on the inside of a jacket but providing far more technical performance. It shone in Outdoor Research’s Ascendent Hoody, making the multi-purpose shell lighter and yet able to deal with a bigger range of temperature fluctuations. And as we reported in the Pre-Show issue of the ORD, synthetic insulation continues to evolve in the form of PrimaLoft's Black Insulation ThermoPlume, which has the lofting properties of down and showed up in Montane's Icarus jacket.

7) The show continues to offer relevance beyond sales.

Outdoor Retailer will celebrate 35 years this coming summer. Over that time it has evolved from a break away from sports equipment and ski shows to a tribe. While there might be lots of discussion over selling cycles and show dates, no one is arguing against the value of the show as a gathering of the tribe, with events ranging from the Conservation Alliance breakfast to the simple chance to raise funds and drink beers in the aisle proving to be the most valuable reasons to attend.

This is not just a touchy feely thing either. OR and OIA continue to build in more events and seminars that add value to attendance. At this show, OIA’s Outdoor University continued to draw crowds looking to learn and connect and OR’s two-hour Retail Skills courses offered leadership training in everything from recruiting and hiring to developing leaders to measuring employee success.

While established retailers can always learn from these gatherings, they really prove important for those who are just entering the game from other careers and need to learn from mentors. "I think it is essential that retail speciality stores are run efficiently to ensure the survival of our industry," said Rod Johnson, owner and founder of Midwest Mountaineering, who took part in the course.

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