Outdoor Retailer Summer Market '08: full of highs and lows, but exceeds most expectations

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 is a wrap, cliches aside, and the editors from SNEWS® and our extended family at Backpacker can state there was far more energy in and around the show than expected. Manufacturers repeatedly told us traffic in the aisles and in the booths on the main floor was as good as, if not better than, previous shows.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 is a wrap, cliches aside, and the editors from SNEWS® and our extended family at Backpacker can state there was far more energy in and around the show than expected. Manufacturers repeatedly told us traffic in the aisles and in the booths on the main floor was as good as, if not better than, previous shows.

All in all, attendance was very good given all the fears we heard going into the show regarding how the economy, gas prices, travel difficulties and more would affect retail attendance by as much as 25 percent. It turned out to be so much hot air -- hotter in fact than the air outside the Salt Palace Convention Center.

Total attendance was basically flat, with 21,000 estimated total attendees compared with 21,200 reported in 2007 (Keep in mind these are all preliminary numbers that have not been audited). The number of buyers did dip moderately to an estimated 6,000 compared with 6,427 in 2007 (nearly 7 percent off). Store numbers -- the truer bellwether of retail attendance -- dropped to an estimated 2,200 versus 2,500 in 2007 (about 12 percent down). Interestingly, there were fewer exhibitors (1,020 in 2008 compared with 1,052 in 2007) despite the expanded presence into the Energy Solutions Arena (ESA) across the street and the upping of square footage of exhibit space to 438,000 compared with 420,325 in 2007. What that means is, if you factor in 100 or so companies exhibiting at the ESA, then that many exhibitors also received expanded space request approvals for Summer Market 2008 on the main floor -- maybe some folks might want to consider downsizing a bit to allow exhibitors into the show rather than force ESA-like purgatory on new folks in the future? Just a thought there, in the spirit of giving. National media attendance was down (no audited numbers available, but that is no surprise given a small event in Beijing now going on called the Summer Olympics).

More on the ESA

If attendance and energy, as well as a slew of special events and programs (read our story on the Open Air Demo by clicking here), were highs, the most significant low was the Energy Solutions Arena experiment. In all fairness to Outdoor Retailer, this was an experiment worth trying to accommodate the perceived need for expanded floor space. Show management really could not have done anything more to draw attention to the exhibitors there, even upping the ante during the show with additional announcements. We have learned that in addition to a petition that began to circulate on the first day of the show, a number of exhibitors have retained a lawyer who notified Outdoor Retailer that exhibitors are not happy and want their money back…or else. Or else what, we ask? Such legal posturing is completely unwarranted and certainly not the way to win friends and influence your position in the market.


While the location was not ideal -- the elevators did not work consistently, it was farther than many new exhibitors realized, the stairs leading down to the arena floor were long and steep and yes, folks did trip on the ledge around the show floor -- it was still a place where retailers -- key retailers -- made a trek to find new products and ideas as they always do. We had SNEWS reporters there on every day who reported talking to retailers excited about what they had discovered -- while still commenting you had to, as one REI buyer put it, "commit to making the trek."

Our own SNEWS team, like other retailers and media we spoke with, found several gems for best new product ideas at the ESA. We also encountered grumpy exhibitors or exhibitors simply sitting on chairs in their booths, not working the traffic that was on the floor. It did appear to us that those exhibitors who had smiles and good vibes were doing good business. Those that did not were sitting alone. 

"Everybody goes to a show expecting a risk," said Ron Hansen, owner of OR first-timer Loud Truck sports gummis. "That's business." Even though he called the venue "pathetic," he said the show management obviously didn't do it on purpose and likely had to try it. Hansen sent an employee with promo cards and samples onto the main floor to drive interest, while "others were sitting there whining.... You had to do something."

One of our editors has attended Outdoor Retailer trade shows since, well, the beginning of time, and he observed that exhibiting for the first time at Outdoor Retailer is a bit like buying a ticket to the big dance but going without a date. If all you do is stand on the wall and look lonely, no one will come over to you and ask you to dance. If it is getting noticed you want, then you have to get off the wall, mingle, show some moves and start working the crowd -- and no, circulating a petition to complain about your exhibit space or sending a legal threat letter does not count. That advice applies to exhibitors who were in the ESA, in Meeting Room 151, the Gear Loft or even in a 10-by-10 on the main floor. Retailers are racing through a show that is too big to meander anymore, so unless you, as a new exhibitor or even an exhibitor who has been to the dance a few times, do something to get noticed, chances are very slim that many retailers will stop by to dance.

Overarching trends

Beginning today, and over the next few weeks, you'll be able to read detailed trend and product reports from SNEWS that will add to our already detailed coverage of outdoor gear and marketplace trends reported in the most recent edition of the SNEWS Summer Outdoor magazine. To reference those reports, plus archival stories from all the trend and marketplace news gleaned from our wandering at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, go to www.snewsnet.com/tradeshow and then scroll down to the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market reports.

Overall, our team of more than 15 SNEWS and Backpacker editors saw an eclectic mix of strange and wonderful products that either will appear, or perhaps should not appear, on specialty retail shelves in the months to come.

On the weird side, there were two miniature Chihuahuas wearing wallet-sized doggie packs and a pair of willowy models wearing grass skirts and coconut bras sighted by one Backpacker editor -- strangeness comes in pairs it seems. We saw a tent for dogs and, get this, a tent for toddlers which would, we were told, "allow the parents to step away for a bit and not have to worry about your child when in the campground or wilderness." The photo promoting the toddler tent showed junior standing up with his head through a large hole in the roof of the tent looking as if, and we're speculating here, he was seriously thinking about breaking out of that joint for greener pastures. There were liver biscotti treats for dogs -- cappuccino maker for pups was not included -- and a small smoker in a can that you could heat up with your stove to add hickory smoke flavor to food.

We even had one editor report she saw a female pee funnel that stored outside your pack or on your belt in a neoprene holster, giving women a way to now chime in with an "excuse me while I whip this out" line from the "Blazing Saddles" movie and get a chuckle.

Our team has never seen so many portable potty stations or alternatives for comfy sanitation stops marketed under one trade show roof which means crap must indeed be good.

Green remains the "in" thing with new recycled materials being touted in the worlds of synthetic fills, shell fabrics, zippers and more. More outdoor companies are now paying attention to the bike market in terms of clothing for commuting, equipment that works on and off a bike, and more. Traditional road running duds and shoes also are being rolled out by outdoor suppliers, joining the running suppliers now found all over the floor.

Solar is getting more portable, single-axle trailers to tow behind a car that offer self-contained camping and gear-toting options are more prevalent, GPS units are featuring touch-screen technology, technical clothing is actually looking more and more stylish, and tents are, once again, chasing ounces and seeking to be the lightest-weight possible.

Stay tuned: Detailed paddlesports and travel product reports are on their way this week but much more is coming. Oh, and let's not forget the essential party coverage.... Yeah, we've got that, too. Get ready to grin.



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