Full house: OR attendees pan new housing system

Few people were happy with Outdoor Retailer's new housing system in Salt Lake City for Summer Market. Shoe officials acknowledged some hiccups.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 - Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Last Wednesday started sunny and bright at the Open Air Demo at Pineview Reservoir. Less sunny were the moods of many attendees who were asked about recent changes to Outdoor Retailer’s housing reservations system.

The changes included opening reservations four months before the show, rather than a year out, and actively working to increase the number of downtown rooms for retailers by asking other attendees — especially suppliers and non-exhibiting manufacturers — to relinquish some rooms or stay at other hotels.

“It’s a pain in the ass,” said Kurt Konacher, national sales manager for insulated bottle maker Avex by Ignite. “We got bumped from our rooms in town to out at the airport. Before, everything was within walking distance. Now I have to get up earlier to take a shuttle. It makes the day a lot longer.” Moreover, he added, “A lot of my sales rep team couldn’t even come. It leaves me to do everything.”

“I haven’t heard anyone say this is a good thing,” said Bill Poupart, western regional sales manager for Costa del Mar. “I even had retailers calling me and saying, ‘Can you help us get a room?’” Traditionally, the brand’s employees and reps, along with those of sister company Native Eyewear, have booked a block of rooms at a downtown hotel far in advance, an arrangement that will have to end after this show because of the new system. Poupart called the ability to stay together and hold meetings at the hotel “our rally point.” Along with some other attendees we talked to, he fears that if companies are split up among different hotels, communication and teamwork will suffer. “We have to make a plan real quick, because it’s going to get brutal.”

Kurt Watkins, an independent rep who runs Sportreps NW, is staying at the former Olympic athlete village at the University of Utah, a new housing option this summer. While deeming the accommodations “fine,” he was frustrated that when he booked early in the four-month window, he was told his only choice was the dorm. “I didn’t like that I had no option of a hotel room. I felt like I had no control over the process,” he said.

And Melissa Minihan, a retail buyer for L.L. Bean, and her colleagues are staying at two different hotels during Summer Market, switching from one to the other halfway through the show. “Completely losing your booking seniority and going into scramble mode is unfortunate,” said Kevin Nadeau, a senior product developer at L.L. Bean.

Over at Wolverine, the mood was more sanguine. “I haven’t noticed a change personally,” said Lauren Mack, a marketing specialist for the brand.

Outdoor Retailer Show Director Kenji Haroutunian admitted that the process has had some hiccups. The goal was to open up a few hundred more hotel rooms for the increasing number of retailers who attend the show and for key retailers asking to be closer to the Salt Palace.

But one challenge in particular thwarted that goal, at least this summer. As a consequence of the show starting and ending a day earlier — and, thus, conflicting with other business travel booking patterns — Outdoor Retailer received smaller blocks of rooms from its hotel partners. “We were able to move some key retailers into downtown, but not as many as we hoped,” said Haroutunian. He and his team currently are negotiating to regain 500 of these rooms.

Haroutunian conceded that Outdoor Retailer’s approach has been “heavy-handed” and identified three main areas of concern: “We underestimated the effect of the date change, we thought there would be more suppliers who could give up rooms and we under-communicated.”

At the same time, added Haroutunian, the reservations issue comes back to the tight squeeze to fit into Salt Lake, while emphasizing that the city has “bent over backward again and again” to accommodate Outdoor Retailer.

He cites the situation at international shows, where attendees often stay farther from venues and use public transportation, as a model that Outdoor Retailer may have to move toward. Last year, for example, Outdoor Retailer published a transportation guide to highlight options around Salt Lake and help inculcate a “European style of comfort with public transit,” Haroutunian said.

In the short term, Outdoor Retailer will continue to tweak the reservations system by requiring deposits for first and last nights of lodging and running more shuttles between hotels and the Salt Palace. Haroutunian also stressed that his team will collaborate more closely with rep associations to make sure that legitimate, active sales reps are not shut out of the housing system.

As long as the show stays in Salt Lake, however, “it means we have to get creative,” Haroutunian said. He noted that Outdoor Retailer is looking at alternative solutions, such as the university facilities now in use, and even recommending options like renting a house through VRBO or a room through Airbnb.

Indeed, some attendees already have sought other accommodations. “We booked a house in Park City,” said Lanette Jorgensen, communications manager for Ocean Minded. “It was the only thing we could find within our budget.” Last summer, employees stayed at a hotel in Salt Lake. Jorgensen noted that the house is “gorgeous,” but it’s a half hour away.

Sarah Schuster, owner of Clear Water Outdoor in Lake Geneva, Wis., which brings six to eight people to Summer Market, said the store is renting a house in Salt Lake for the third year in a row. While touting the benefits — affordability and meeting space — she said it would be “better to be close to the show.”

And though it’s likely not appropriate for many Summer Market–goers, there’s always camping, one of the activities we’re all here trying to promote, after all. Dillon Julius, owner of Base Camp Adventure Sports in South Dakota, has set up his tent at Jordanelle Reservoir for the duration of the show. Admittedly, he’s a resourceful guy: His entire store and operation is a one-man show.

--Cindy Hirschfeld

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