If you were one of the few people who attended the 2018 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market when it debuted in the November time slot, you know it was pretty grim. “Ghost town” was how many people described it. What happened? Industry members didn’t find it relevant, so they didn’t show up.

So when, just three months before the November show’s sophomore year, Emerald Expositions (owner and operator of Outdoor Retailer) announced its cancelation due to similarly dismal bookings, nobody was terribly surprised.

What you might not know, however, is that Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which depends on show royalties for a major portion of its revenue, strongly recommended the cancellation. Because above all else, it is OIA’s job to look out for our industry, and nobody wanted to see exhibitors and attendees feeling they had wasted their time and money.

But if OR were to go away completely, it would wipe out a huge portion of OIA’s resources. It would also mean losing the one place we come together as an industry. The scary thing—both for OIA and the industry at large—is that the OR show has been declining in relevance for many years. It seems unlikely to survive long-term without a major reinvention.

Searching for relevance

In the early days, Outdoor Retailer gave NEMO visibility and helped us build key relationships. We never really took orders at the show: Like many brands, we service our major accounts separately and our smaller ones at Grassroots Connect and regional shows. The ROI on OR has nothing to do with the order book. We show up for the less tangible but equally important reasons: education, connections, and inspiration.

In my almost two decades in business, I’ve watched our industry steadily mature. NEMO remains privately held, but elsewhere consolidation runs rampant, and big companies with a lot to lose don’t take risks like startups do. Today, innovation is mostly incremental, at least compared to previous decades. And it’s very difficult for upstart brands to break into the ranks of the show or the distribution channels it supports. The incumbents are entrenched. We’re becoming insular and exclusionary, hallmarks of an industry at risk of becoming stale.

Meanwhile, a quick search of “outdoor” on Kickstarter reveals more than 550 projects, five times the number of companies in the startup-focused Venture Out section of OR. Radical thinking, disruptive ideas, and cutting-edge fashion are increasingly being born outside the walls of OR. These startups are typically crowdsourcing their funding, launching DTC (direct to consumer), and building awareness through online communities. They don’t see much reason to spend tens of thousands of dollars to come to OR, to build wholesale pricing models, or to manage a battalion of independent sales reps and retail shops.

The lean, DTC model is oh-so-seductive for new brands. But it lacks the human connections that have always been the hallmark of outdoor companies.

I should know. When I went to OR in 2004 to launch NEMO, it was only to give exposure to our brand. I had been convinced we would be a DTC business, but before the show was over, I had 180-ed. I just couldn’t cut NEMO out of the ecosystem of reps, buyers, and store staff. I was charmed by the relationships and camaraderie. And I doubted we could scale without these force multipliers. In 2005, we had a gross margin of 16 percent—not enough to survive, but we sorted that out. Today, I call home from every show to tell my wife how much I love this industry and am proud to be part of it.

Reinventing our trade show

The OR show is a powerful tool. It’s an awesome display of creativity, ingenuity, passion, and lifestyle. It holds us together, defines us, and through OIA, funds some of our most important large-scale initiatives.

But it hasn’t kept up with the times. Outside the show’s opaque walls, the world is making radical leaps forward. Here’s how we can and should reinvent our largest industry gathering:

• Focus on the human experience and bring our core values back into the spotlight. Ditch the emphasis on line showings and order-writing.

• Limit booth sizes to create room for new entrants and level the playing field.

• Create meaningful awards for innovation in product, brand, retail practices, participation, and sustainability to declare our priorities and establish a virtuous cycle.

• Install multiple stages around the show floor and assign time slots for every exhibiting brand; encourage demos, deeper storytelling, and exchanging of ideas, like a TED conference.

OIA’s website declares, “Together We Are A Force.” I couldn’t agree more. Our collective influence is helping shape major social, economic, political, and environmental issues.

Today, the OR show is our best forum for tackling these issues. We don’t need it for writing orders. We don’t need it three times a year. But we do need it. It’s time to reinvent the show, to make it less about the booth walls it puts between us and more about bringing everyone under one roof to amplify our collective voice.

If we did that, it’d be a party no one could afford to miss. 

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