Get a Room! OR housing hurdles are part of larger show location debate

Can alternative housing options and better transportation keep the show in SLC?
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Jay Getzel felt quite confident about hotel reservations coming into Summer Market this year. After all, the president of Golden, Colo.-based Mountainsmith had his sales manager book rooms through Outdoor Retailer, which has made a concerted effort to make the process easier for exhibitors and, especially, retailers. Then just before leaving for the show, he took a look at the hotel: it was not in Salt Lake City, but San Diego.

After the panic subsided, Getzel and his team found out that luckily the San Diego hotel was just a glitch in the system. Their rooms in Salt Lake City were indeed booked. But the experience and other frustrations do bring up real issues. Namely, the housing shortage in Salt Lake City could be the wedge that sends the show to another city in 2017.

“Luckily, it was not an issue for us,” said Getzel, “but the housing problems have affected our show. Some of our key retailers have lost their rooms and opted not to come to the show this time around. When a retailer like Campmor can’t come because they can’t book hotel rooms, that’s a problem. If you take out retailer participation, that’s a big problem.”

Outdoor Retailer is hyper-aware of the housing crisis issue and has done as much as it can to accommodate everyone who wants to attend the show. The real problem is Salt Lake City itself — 28,000 people descend on downtown for OR and there are only 5,000 rooms in the nine hotels near the Salt Palace. And despite a few new hotel builds, which can be a 3- to 5-year proposition, that room count has been static over the past decade, mostly because beyond OR, the city does not have a need for so many rooms.

“The reality is that this is a city-wide show and it needs to operate like a city-wide event,” said Kenji Haroutunian, Outdoor Retailer show director. “If you go to a trade show in Vegas or other bigger sites, very few people stay close to the convention center. I do feel that a lot of the press surrounding housing at the show has been quite negative, poorly researched and does not offer any solutions.”

To that end, OR has done its best to make staying farther away from the Salt Palace more enticing. The show actually pushed some attendees out of downtown hotels to accommodate 300 more retailers close to the Salt Palace. Haroutunian points out that the show has invested in more shuttle transportation and that Salt Lake City now has a direct light rail line that runs directly from the airport to the Salt Palace and past hotels for just $2.50. There are shuttles from hotels in Park City where attendees can mountain bike and hike. He points to the bike share program at OR as a way to expand the distance attendees can stay away from the Salt Palace. The show also offers dorm rooms at the University of Utah and provides shuttle service to the Salt Palace, though many attendees felt the dorm rooms were a last resort.

“The rooms are pretty basic,” said Dax Kelm, partner at Groundswell PR, who is staying at the dorms. “I would not stay in them again, but I do see how they are a great option if you were on a budget.”

Haroutunian also argues against those who believe the hotels should go to an open-market system, instead of letting the show book blocks of rooms for attendees.

“The whole reason why we have a housing program to begin with is that attendees would be paying hundreds of dollars more if we were on the open market. We negotiate the best rates possible. I mean a room at the Comfort Inn at the airport will cost you at least $200 per night,” he said.

And there are attendees who are quite happy with the show’s housing program.

Adam Howard, owner of Height of Land Publications, didn’t used to book through the show and would have his staff stuck at hotel he describes as “a place where people would buy crack,” where they once woke up with glitter all over their faces and housekeeping banging at the door at 7 a.m.

“This is the first time we used the system and I was quite pleased,” Howard said. “The rates were reasonable and we are much closer to the show.”

Haroutunian tells those who are unhappy with housing to head to collectivevoice.outdoorretailer.com to join the conversation about what location the show should call home. Housing, whether in Salt Lake City or somewhere else, is key to that discussion. Do it soon, because the show wants to make an announcement about its 2017 plans by winter 2015.

--Doug Schnitzspahn

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