Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has big plans to grow the state’s outdoor recreation economy using the trade show as a catalyst. Luis Benitez, of the outdoor rec office, wonders if we should open up part of the show to the public to spur innovation.

It was not an easy process. Emerald Expositions, parent company of Outdoor Retailer, was propositioned by many cities and states bragging about their outdoor cred. And the city of Denver, which lobbied hard to secure the show, had to have tricky conversations with organizations hosting other events, to move them out of the way for Outdoor Retailer to get the dates it needed.

But if you ask the city and state government teams from Denver and Colorado, they’ll tell you it was worth it. They’ve secured a 5-year contract with Emerald Expositions to host Outdoor Retailer’s three annual shows, which could pump an estimated $110 million into the economy here every year. And they’re working on infrastructure to support the trade show long-term, so that Denver will ultimately replace Salt Lake City as the shows’ semi-permanent home.

Denver and Colorado are in this for the long haul, Gov. John Hickenlooper said Thursday morning.

“The entire state of Colorado wins with this announcement,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Thursday morning at a press conference filled with industry stakeholders. “We’re grateful for that.”

Outdoor industry stakeholders

Marisa Nicholson, Outdoor Retailer's show director, makes the official announcement that the trade show will move to Denver. Behind her and to the left, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (in the pink shirt) congratulate each other. Photo: Louisa Albanese

Denver has long appeared to be the industry favorite for relocation. Gear companies and environmental non-profits based in Colorado published a full-page ad in the Denver Post earlier this year stating their support for public lands and not-so-subtly asserting their desire for the show.

It’s not just about the money, Hickenlooper said Thursday, after months of publicly courting the trade show. It’s about growing the outdoor economy here, being a model for other states, and encouraging healthy lifestyles among state residents.

But in many ways, it is very much about the money. For the state of Colorado, which is already widely seen as a world-class destination for skiing, hiking, mountain biking, paddlesports, climbing, camping, hunting, fishing, and scores of other outdoor activities, landing Outdoor Retailer represents a way to get even better at attracting the businesses and consumers that represent $28 billion in recreational spending here each year.

It paves the way for Colorado to be seen as the nation’s leader in outdoor recreation, which, in turn, could spur even more economic growth in a state that’s already expanding rapidly.

As more people spend more time in Colorado thanks to the show, it could encourage more companies to move here. That’s one of Hickenlooper’s long-term hopes for the state, he said after the press conference. He used Osprey Packs as an example of a business that has prospered in a small, rural town. They’re based in Cortez, population 8,600, in the southwestern corner of the state.

“I spend my life trying to think about, the economic development strategy for the Eastern plains and rural parts of the state. This is one of the best strategies you can have, to have more small outdoor recreation companies,” Hickenlooper said. “This industry is only going to grow. It’s like cyber security. It’s only going to keep growing and growing. … The more people enjoying outdoor recreation, the better the world is. How can you not support an industry [like this]?”

Purple mountains majesty

Colorado is a purple state, where its progressive values and agenda sometimes clash with a deep-seated, Wild West mentality. But it has been strictly bipartisan on outdoor recreation issues. Senator Cory Gardner, a conservative Republican, for example, has worked closely with the Outdoor Industry Association on recreation issues. He was the Senate’s lead Republican sponsor of the landmark Outdoor REC Act, which former President Barack Obama signed into law late last year, and was honored with a Friend of the Industry Award at OIA’s Capitol Summit in Washington, D.C. in April.

“I think there’s a recognition that people of all political stripes here love outdoor recreation,” said Amy Roberts, executive director of OIA. “The fact that they put an office of outdoor recreation in the office of economic development shows that they see outdoor recreation as both the types of businesses they want to attract, but also as a recruitment tool. Google is building a campus in Boulder. There’s no doubt that outdoor recreation had a part in that.”

Outdoor Retailer moves to Denver

Outdoor industry stakeholders from Colorado and beyond gathered Thursday in Outdoor Retailer's new home, Denver. Photo: Louisa Albanese

Outdoor Retailer's path to Denver

Outdoor Retailer first started seeking proposals to move the show after several major brands—Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Polartec—vowed to boycott the state of Utah and Salt Lake City. They were hoping to persuade Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and members of Congress from Utah to cease their mission for President Donald Trump to rescind the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. But Herbert told representatives from the Outdoor Industry Association in a conference call that he had no power to revoke that request, and they quickly ended the call and promptly announced that a proposal from Utah to keep the trade show would not be considered (Utah put in a bid anyway).

While the state of Utah has sparred with the outdoor industry over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, Colorado’s politicians have made no such requests for President Donald Trump to rescind federal land designations. In fact, it’s been the opposite. Both Gardner and Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, specifically requested for Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke to protect Colorado’s monuments, Roberts said. And Hickenlooper said after the press conference that he thinks there should be more public lands, not less.

For Outdoor Retailer and the Outdoor Industry Association—which is based here, in Boulder—that staunch support for the public lands was a major consideration in moving the show.

“When we looked at everything, and gathered input, Denver was the undeniable choice,” says Marisa Nicholson, Outdoor Retailer’s show director. “(Colorado) has a commitment to protecting public lands, which is the foundation of our industry to be able to thrive and grow. That was really important.”

Denver proved itself as a good partner for the industry when the SIA Snow Show moved there 7 years ago, said SIA President Nick Sargent. He said he has been working for two years to get Outdoor Retailer and SIA to combine their winter shows for the betterment of the industry, and that he’s looking forward to seeing that vision finally play out here in Denver.

The SIA Snow Show, which had a lengthy contract with the city of Denver including a non-compete clause barring other outdoor trade shows within a certain period of time, seemed to be the last holdup in moving the show to Colorado. Emerald Expositions bought the show in May, and has made plans to merge the two snowsports shows into one behemoth: Outdoor Retailer Winter Market + Snow Show.

What if we open up Outdoor Retailer to the public?

It’s clear from watching growth in Utah that the very presence of Outdoor Retailer there was a large factor in spurring economic development in the outdoor industry, said Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. He was instrumental in moving the show to Colorado, so much so that Hickenlooper literally bowed to him with gratitude during the press conference.

Colorado now has an opportunity to jumpstart its own recreation economy, Benitez said Thursday. As brand leaders spend more time here thanks to the relocated trade show, they’ll start to realize their companies should have a presence here, too.

But Benitez isn’t just focused on snagging existing brands. He wants to foster new companies, too, and sees Outdoor Retailer as a way to encourage new entrepreneurs and innovators to get into the marketplace. He wants Outdoor Retailer to open its doors to the public for a small portion of the show, to drum up excitement from outdoor customers, and to spark ideas for bettering the industry.

“What I’m interested in is the next generation,” Benitez said. “How are you going to drive and spur innovation, entrepreneurship, thought leadership, for all the different portions of the industry? We have an opportunity to do things differently here because the show is moving, and I think we’ve got to seize on that opportunity.”

Cover image: Louisa Albanese

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