Outdoor Retailer Winter Market '09: Backcountry Base Camp buries trade show director, generates good vibes

The thought of being buried in an avalanche is frightening, but Kenji Haroutunian, Outdoor Retailer trade show director, was actually looking forward to spending an hour encased in snow. "Hey, it's the day before the show, and I'm finally going to get an hour of peace and quiet!" Haroutunian joked, just before getting prepped for a simulated avalanche burial at the Outdoor Retailer Backcountry Base Camp held Jan. 21 at Snowbasin Resort.
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The thought of being buried in an avalanche is frightening, but Kenji Haroutunian, Outdoor Retailer trade show director, was actually looking forward to spending an hour encased in snow.

"Hey, it's the day before the show, and I'm finally going to get an hour of peace and quiet!" Haroutunian joked, just before getting prepped for a simulated avalanche burial at the Outdoor Retailer Backcountry Base Camp held Jan. 21 at Snowbasin Resort.

The purpose of the burial, which drew a TV news crew as well as a gaggle of other media, was to raise awareness of avalanche danger and promote Black Diamond's Avalung, as avalanche deaths have been rising in recent years. In just December 2008, three people died in avalanches while skiing in-bounds.

When SNEWS® asked Haroutunian what he'd be thinking about during the 60-minute burial, he struck a more somber tone and said he would be remembering two close friends who died in avalanches within the past three years.

When Haroutunian was finally extracted from his snowy tomb, he gave a friendly wave as 40 or so onlookers applauded. That was definitely one of the liveliest moments of this year's Base Camp, which saw light traffic and was more subdued than previous on-snow events. There were few other organized promotions to generate buzz, fewer organized snowshoe tours and, from what we could tell, no avalanche beacon demos. But there was a steady stream of people heading out to demo skis, and constant activity around the booths of ski brands such as Black Diamond.

"Traffic may be a little lighter, but it's hard to tell," said Tor Brown, ski product manager for Black Diamond. "The new models have pretty much been out constantly."

As for the weather, attendees were blessed with blue sky, and temperatures grew mild as the day wore on, improving snow conditions for testing.

Rick Wroblewski of Eco Lounge, a freeride shop in Boise, Idaho, voiced the main ski trend of the day. "We're pretty much looking at rockered skis," he said.

Marc Sherman of Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vt., said he was set on testing Garmont's new NTN binding. "We had abandoned NTN due to issues with it," said Sherman. "And, with the sales we had, there wasn't much benefit of being an early adopter. But I want to try it again, and it's a perfect day for NTN."

Of course, the most notable aspect of this year's Backcountry Base Camp was its new location at the main Snowbasin Resort. The village of booths sat near the resort's ornate Earl's Lodge, which is adorned with massive gold chandeliers, large fireplaces, plenty of comfy chairs and couches, plus decent food and much dining space. And, oh yeah, big bathrooms. This was definitely a step up from previous digs.

The new location was also dramatically better for Nordic testing compared to last year, said Peter Ashley, vice president of Fischer's Nordic division. Testing terrain was much easier to access, and Ashley was pleased that Outdoor Retailer responded to demands to make improvements over the previous year.

Haroutunian told SNEWS the number of exhibitors dipped a bit from the previous year, but many exhibitors were happy with the traffic and the quality of attending buyers. That was a sentiment certainly echoed by many Base Camp exhibitors we spoke with.

"We've had a good amount of interest from new dealers," said Bruce Seeley, director of sales for Native Eyewear, which was showing goggles with a new interchangeable lens system. He said that the good retailers were at the event, and these stores were not shying away due to the economic climate. "They want to see what's new and are excited about innovation," said Seeley.

Jake Thamm, owner of Crescent Moon snowshoes, said his sales were much better than expected this fall and winter. And the fourth quarter went extremely well for 180s, according to Keith Scully, director of marketing. This year, 180s was a sponsor of the Base Camp and provided attendees with eco-friendly ear warmers. Scully said that the event offered an efficient way to convey the company's green message to lots of dealers.

There were also fewer new companies among the tent village than in previous winters, though one new exhibitor we spoke with, Snowpulse, felt the Backcountry Base Camp was a perfect place to begin educating U.S. dealers about its avalanche airbag system. "It's a real education process," said Chuck Gorton, director of operations for Snowpulse. But he predicts that in a few short years there will be several more manufacturers producing similar systems, and he noted that the concept is pretty much mainstream in Canada. "We had 30 dealers in Canada this year, and they all sold out, with about 25 to 50 packs each."

--Marcus Woolf

SNEWS® View: Bravo to Outdoor Retailer Winter Market for upgrading to a location that not only answered the howls coming from the Nordic market this past year, but also provided superior terrain for the AT and tele crowd. Plus, the lodge was a welcome bit of luxury. Sure, we don't mind hanging out in warming huts, as in past years, but we loved that it's now easy to find a bite to eat and enjoy some elbow room and a cushy place to relax while taking a break. OK, so the attendee registration line got a bit cramped, and it's also true attendance was down (anyone expecting a different attendance report in this economy is asleep at the business wheel) but otherwise we found little to quibble about. Considering the state of the economy, and the fact that this event offered our first chance during the show to gauge the market, we were surprised at the optimism coming from all corners. There was a general consensus that, even in rocky times, the event still drew companies who value investing in their businesses. As Ashley of Fischer said, "They have to go out and earn the business now." We give two thumbs up to manufacturers and retailers who are investing in events that ultimately play an important role in serving consumers. Also kudos to Haroutunian for subjecting himself to what must be a cold and creepy experience all in a selfless effort to shed much-needed light on the dangers of avalanches. And no, Kenji, napping under your desk after Winter Market does not constitute being buried alive.

--SNEWS® Editors

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