While the ride to the Open-air Demo was even longer than last year, we heard more oohs and ahhs on the shuttle than folks asking, "Are we there yet?"
It was hard to complain about the hour and 10-minute trip while gazing at the towering Wasatch range and then diving into the green valley that holds Pineview Reservoir, the site for this year's Open-air Demo, which ran August 8-9.
Several exhibitors and attendees commented to us on how pleased they were with the overall atmosphere, noting that the scenery and quality of the water were improvements over past Open-air sites.
As for attendance, the first day of the Demo (which began at 2 p.m.) was pretty quiet, and yellow retailer badges were few and far between hard. But the second day was another story, with at least as big a crowd as we've seen in the past.
The collection of companies was also notable, with about 100 manufacturers (up from 71 last year) showing the most diverse range of products we've seen at the event. While paddlesport products still dominate, this year you could find everything from camper trailers to tents to a high-pressure hose system to clean dirty gear.
From the parking lot, we only had to walk a few yards to get the sense that this year's Demo was a different animal. At the entrance to the beach, Sylvan Sport displayed its new smart-looking trailer equipped with an eye-catching tent. The brainchild of Tom Dempsey, founder of Liquid Logic, the trailer was not only an unusual addition to the Demo, but also one of the most talked-about products on-hand. Last year's Hummer test track proved an unpopular attempt to bring the motoring world to the Demo, but the Sylvan Sport trailer and a new Earth Roamer truck generated interest and no grumbling.
We strolled down to the water and found another surprise. Among the kayaks bobbing on the lake we spied a handful of people atop Waterman paddleboards, eagerly trying to get the feel for paddling while standing. Based in Hawaii, Waterman is trying to bring paddleboards to a broader consumer base, and it figured the outdoor specialty market was a good target. "This is just booming all over the world," said Brian Keaulana, owner and co-founder of Waterman. Though paddleboarding is primarily a coastal activity, Keaulana said it's becoming more popular as a fitness activity in areas with lakes.
No telling whether outdoor retailers will give paddleboards a serious go, but Waterman products were constantly out on the water during the demo, and the sport definitely piqued the interest of Gray Russell of Alabama Small Boats, a paddle shop in Helena, Ala. "I'm strongly considering paddleboards," he told SNEWS®, adding that it could be a good fitness activity on his local lakes, or for people venturing to the Gulf Coast.
Besides the opportunity to check out fresh ideas like paddleboards, Russell said he attends Demo because it gives him access to more people who work with the larger manufacturers. "The industry is still based on relationships, and this gives me a chance to have face time with some people I normally wouldn't be able to see, and they're here is one place," he said.
We've found that manufacturers view the demo as a true complement to the show in the Salt Palace, and they see it as another effective way to reach dealers and position themselves in the market. Coleman's booth was actually a large, green truck whose interior was a faux rock cave that you could walk through to see product displays. And the sheer size of the truck suggested that Coleman wanted to have a strong presence at the tradeshow.
Phil Carey also returned to Outdoor Retailer this year with a new company, Carey & Company, and Carey told us that the open-air event has become so diverse that it's logical for just about any company to have a presence there.
A key factor in the Demo's success is that it's a hands-on affair. Without the pressure to run from appointment to appointment, retail buyers feel they have time to actually get their hands—or feet—on products. New Balance exhibited at the Demo to introduce its new water shoe, and there's no better way to promote a shoe than by letting people slip it on and walk along the water's edge. We took a turn in the shoes and found them to be pretty comfy.
Ann Lockwood, co-owner of Higher Limits, a new retail store in Canon City, Colo., said that she was investigating inflatable boats from Innova, and a trial run would prove key in helping her decide whether or not to bring in the boats.
As long as this gathering continues to provide such tangible benefits, and as long as it serves up new and interesting surprises, it'll be well worth the long drive.