When we first announced several weeks ago that Hummer was a sponsor at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market and would be offering test drives of its new H3 at a specially constructed off-road track during the Open Air Demo, the crescendo of protest via emails and calls to our office rose tenfold.
A significant number asked us to spearhead an effort to kick Hummer out of the show (not really possible nor, frankly, is that our role as media). A few yawned and basically stated that the industry needed to get off its high horse and let buyers and show attendees vote with their time – either they drive the Hummer or they don't. Others wondered what our official stance was and when we would publish that along with comments from Outside, Outdoor Retailer and the Outdoor Industry Association.
A bit of background is needed: Hummer, as a long-time advertiser with Outside, approached the magazine sales staff about opportunities for marketing its brand to the outdoor market. We have learned the one idea that intrigued the Hummer team was participating in some manner in the Outdoor Retailer trade shows, so Outside approached Outdoor Retailer. Outdoor Retailer agreed to work with Hummer and Outside and, we've been told, received significant sponsorship dollars for the deal from Hummer, not Outside. We've also learned that Outdoor Retailer worked with Willard Bay State Park in selecting land for the test drive event and coordinating the construction of the course.
For the record, Hummer has also approached other outdoor magazines to tap into the Outdoor Retailer trade show energy, even going so far as to provide Canoe & Kayak with a Hummer H3 to use to tow its boats to the show. We called Canoe & Kayak and were somewhat amused to learn that Hummer had indeed provided the H3 with a Canoe & Kayak logo on the side, but it would stay at the magazine's Seattle, Wash., headquarters since someone had neglected to tell Hummer marketing types that to tow a trailer one does need a trailer hitch. Ahh, but we digress.
Wanting to know where Outside stood on the Hummer deal, we contacted Scott Parmelee, publisher of Outside, who informed us that while Hummer was very aware of the developing controversy, it was pressing forward with its sponsorship deal with Outdoor Retailer and its test driving track event during the Open Air Demo.
"Outdoor Retailer is the premier event for the outdoor industry and SUVs have been a part of the outdoor industry and the OR show for many years. As such, Hummer wanted the opportunity to educate this important market about its new, more fuel-efficient SUV, the H3," Parmelee told SNEWS®. "Through its advertising partnership with Outside, Hummer has made a significant sponsorship agreement with OR for this opportunity to showcase their SUV to the active lifestyle market."
In talking with Parmelee, it seemed as if it was not Outside's call at all to pull or to ask to change the sponsorship of Hummer with Outdoor Retailer. So, we went to Outdoor Retailer for comment.
When contacted about the brewing Hummer controversy, Peter Devin, group trade show director for Outdoor Retailer, told us, "Outdoor Retailer has worked with Outside magazine for years, and views Outside Magazine as a strong advocate of the outdoors, the outdoor industry and the OR Show. OR accordingly trusts Outside magazine's judgment with the sponsors and brands that we each work with."
Which makes it seem that Outdoor Retailer is not willing to make the call on the sponsorship either and that ultimate control lies with Outside. We were beginning to feel a bit like a computer blip in the old Pong video game.
Notably absent from all of the public commentary that was gradually unfolding around the Hummer sponsorship was OIA. By Aug. 4, we had received numerous emails and phone calls wondering why OIA was not taking a strong position with the Hummer issue.
So, we contacted Frank Hugelmeyer, president of OIA, who released the following official statement from the association:
"The future of active outdoor recreation and the health of our public lands and customers are dependent on the outdoor industry's continued adoption of sustainable, green business practices and a 'leave no trace' ethic when using our public lands. In a recent Outdoor Industry Association member survey, 92 percent of respondents stated that green/sustainable best practices were 'somewhat' to 'critically important' to making their business more successful.
OIA strongly urges all participants of the Outdoor Retailer show to adopt green business practices as a core value in their business decisions. To paraphrase January 2006 OIA Industry Breakfast keynote speaker and Interface CEO Ray Anderson, we are all recovering plunderers and positive change or negative impact will happen one action at a time. In an industry that stands for healthy active living and dependent on wild unspoiled places to play outdoors, OIA hopes that every outdoor business will do their best to 'walk their talk' and then begin to urge their suppliers, partners and customers to challenge themselves to make the greenest business decisions now and in the future."
If the OIA position looks to be decidedly like Switzerland, there is a reason, and it points back to VNU. What few people know, yet SNEWS® has been aware of since Outdoor Retailer and VNU renewed their contract in 2002, is that OIA is contractually prohibited from ever speaking out or being critical of VNU or Outdoor Retailer trade shows. In other words, none of the board members, staff, or the OIA president himself can say anything more than what was offered above or they risk being in violation of the contract and risk losing any funding and other support from the trade show that VNU provides.
In our story in August of 2002, titled "OIA and OR agree to strengthen ties with new contract" (click here to read) we stated, "Our ONLY serious concern with this new agreement is that we have learned VNU has mandated a clause which prohibits OIA, including its board members, from being critical of VNU and/or the Outdoor Retailer trade shows. This is a clause that could mean OIA will be unable to properly represent the interests of its membership should VNU and Outdoor Retailer begin to make trade show decisions that have an adverse affect on the industry. So far, Outdoor Retailer has been, for the most part, an exemplary partner with the industry. Only time will tell if this clause though, comes back to haunt OIA and the industry. Our view is there was no need for this clause, unless VNU has something to fear because of future plans." It appears that our fears of this clause haunting OIA and the industry have, indeed, come to fruition.
This was a contract clause that should never have been allowed, as it effectively hamstrings what should be the most important advocate for the outdoor industry's many manufacturers, reps, retailers, distributors and their customers – OIA. We would firmly suggest to VNU that this clause be stricken from the current contract to allow OIA the voice that this industry needs it to have. We would also suggest that by not striking it from the contract, VNU will be perceived to be acting in a manner that is not in the best interests of an industry it has repeatedly stated it seeks to serve in the best manner possible.
And that brings us back to Hummer and the official SNEWS® position: While we will be the first to say that Outdoor Retailer has a long history of doing many wonderful things for this industry and being a strong supporter of the growth of this industry with its excellently run trade shows, this was a deal that never should have been made. Outside is at fault for bringing it to Outdoor Retailer without properly advising its client of the industry's focus, purpose, and passions. And Outdoor Retailer is at fault for losing sight of what is most important to the industry they serve while chasing the almighty sponsorship dollar.
There are those who would simply make this an issue of having Hummer at the trade show. While we would agree that Hummer has been -- and in many ways continues to be -- emblematic of consumptive excess and a trample-all-that-lies-in-my-way mentality, the new H3 is as fuel-efficient as many SUVs currently on the market and certainly more fuel-efficient than some. To bash Hummer and say its vehicles should not be at the show simply because it is Hummer is short-sighted in our view and a passion misdirected. Make the argument to ban Hummer and we should also make that same argument to ban Jeep, Subaru, Ford, Sportsmobile and others who have, at one time or another, displayed vehicles at Outdoor Retailer trade shows.
It is also important to remember that, unless we are all planning on biking or walking to paddling put-ins, climbing areas, and backpacking trailheads in the near future, we would be ill-advised to begin lashing out at those who would drive SUVs, trucks, vans and more, since many of us also drive similar vehicles.
What is then at issue with this particular situation -- and is the most glaring point of contention with the Hummer deal -- to us is not the fact that Hummer is at Outdoor Retailer. It is the fact that Hummer is at Outdoor Retailer with the support of Outdoor Retailer to offer test drives of its H3 vehicles on an off-road test track. This industry is not and has never been about off-road recreation. We are not and have never been about off-roading. In fact, it was not so very long ago we all banded together on a number of issues, including protection of wild lands in Utah and protection of roadless areas around the country. And now Outdoor Retailer is supporting the construction of an off-road driving test track and the use of a sponsor vehicle on that test track during its Open Air Demo?
That's like having Jack Daniels offering up a sponsorship to provide libations at a Mothers Against Drunk Driving conference. While we are sure many of those mothers and fathers in attendance may responsibly tip back an adult beverage or two when appropriate -- just as many of us in the outdoor industry responsibly may use SUVs and off-road vehicles ourselves -- such a sponsorship would fly in the very face of everything that kind of conference stands for. And so it is too with Hummer on a dirt test track at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. It has nothing at all to do with the business or ideals of an industry built around human-powered outdoor recreation. What's next? Arctic Cat snowmobiles at Winter Market simply because they are more fuel-efficient and the company wants to share that with the outdoor industry?
The Hummer sponsorship was clearly not well-thought-out and certainly was not conducted with the best interests of the industry in mind. We would suggest that in order for the Hummer outcry to be quieted appropriately, the following needs to occur:
- Hummer should agree that offering a test drive of its vehicles on a dirt test track at Outdoor Retailer is not a good idea. Instead, we would recommend that Hummer offer a shuttle service to and from the Salt Palace to Willard Bay, for anyone who wants to experience how a Hummer might perform as a suitable vehicle for shuttling gear and people to and from recreational pursuits – ones that are human-powered that is. Load 'em down with boats, fill 'em with packs, and let those who wish enjoy the ride.
- Outdoor Retailer should donate ALL sponsorship fees it has received from Hummer to The Conservation Alliance to be used by the industry for the preservation of wild spaces.
- Outdoor Retailer needs to assure the industry that, moving forward, it will think more carefully about the appropriateness of sponsorships and work with the OIA to ensure that trade show events, sponsorships, exhibitors, and more are appropriate to the outdoor industry and the human-powered values it is built around.
- Hummer should become a full member of OIA so that it may better understand the industry it wishes to work with and benefit from. This is important so that we can better understand and, hopefully, influence Hummer to become a more responsible member of the outdoor community.
- Hummer needs to become a member of The Conservation Alliance so that it can show it really means to protect wild spaces and not just exploit them.
- Hummer needs to support Leave No Trace just as Subaru has to demonstrate support for protection and responsible use of the land we recreate in – a more meaningful statement than belonging to Tread Lightly to be sure.
Finally, we remind this industry that this issue alone underscores the fact that at no time has it been more important to become a member of OIA – retailers, reps, distributors, manufacturers, consultants and media alike. Your dollars go to support the work of the OIA, and only with your dollars can the OIA reach the desired point of being able to speak its mind on behalf of the industry, without fear of losing valuable dollars from any one entity.
Agree or disagree on our stance regarding the Summer Market Hummer sponsorship, we'd like to hear from you. Chime in here to voice your opinion in our SNEWS® Chat set up just for this topic -- it is private and viewable only by SNEWS® subscribers, so feel free to open up the discussion and bare your soul.