Do you remember your high school English class? If you don’t, I’ll give you a quick flashback: Everyone just read “Catcher in the Rye,” and they thought they understood the book … until the teacher walked in. Suddenly, the obvious story transformed into 40 subplots, all with an array of hidden meanings.
And that is what stepping into the halls of an Outdoor Retailer trade show is all about: It doesn’t take long to realize there is much more than one plot with one type of character. Sure, the main story is all about the outdoor industry with its manufacturers and retailers, but during my first time at the show, I found there are a whole lot of hidden meanings and sub-characters all playing a huge part of the bigger story. Get ready for my CliffsNotes to Outdoor Retailer.
Walking up and down the aisles looking for my first product pick of the show (as a member of the SNEWS® Youth Team, I was assigned to be on the scout for cool stuff), I was drawn to the Keen booth. With games, dogs and music, it sure spoke to me. As I honed in on this amazing display of entertainment and fun, I, of course, also found some great product. Guess the two don’t have to be exclusive. But I was so taken by the entertainment, I didn’t even notice a new much-hyped, super-light sleeping pad at the booth next door. I realized I had been sucked into The Battle of Hype. No matter how, brands at the show are determined to attract the most journalists and passers-by to garner the most attention for their lines. No longer is a great product enough to get into all the magazines; you gotta have music, dogs, drinks and even Frisbee games.
Morning must: Waiting in line for my daily fix of waffles at the New Balance booth, I started to collect a small stack of business cards. These were in fact not the type that I planned to hold onto as smart industry contacts -- even though that was really and truly cross-my-heart why I was at the show. Seems the Outdoor Retailer show is practically its own dating database. Young ski/bike/climbing/paddle bums connect over free waffles in the morning, free lattes at noon and free Bud in the afternoon. Maybe if the industry wants to make extra money, it should advertise the dating culture. The tagline could read, “If you are an outdoor enthusiast, freelance writer or booth concierge, and are looking for a special person that doesn’t mind eating free PowerBars and testing bike gear as a date, look no further!” Man, sucked me in.
Happiest hour: While scribbling information for my last SNEWS product pick of the day, a stream of people were flowing through the front door to the halls. That sparked my somewhat dwindling attention. As many of them passed the check-in area where I stood, I noticed what appeared to be more eagerness than I thought most folks would have as they headed to size up yet another line of merino wool tees at this hour of the afternoon. My interest was piqued, so I decided to follow along. Turns out most were headed to the same thing: beer. Each day, as it turns out, as the bustle started to settle down on the show floor, a familiar group of cargo shorts-clad hippies, obviously not supplier employees, make a bolt for all the free beer. Seems more than a few companies think distributing extra show passes with local granolas is just one way us out-of-towners give back.
Happiest hour, continued: After collecting my limited edition logo’d beer pint glass (one of many that were quite collectible), it was time to head off the show floor -- to the bars. All the cargo short-clad bums were there again. How did they manage?
Ahem, ahem: I couldn’t help but chuckle as I picked up today’s breakfast fix of oatmeal in the hotel lobby. What I realized was a perfect microcosm of the outdoor industry unfolded before my eyes. A few bleary-eyed guys entered the sunlight as they exited the elevator and groaned as they began their trek toward the show floor, obviously reaping the consequences of the bars (see Day 2, Happiest hour, continued). At the same moment, another group nearly pranced into the elevator headed back up. This bright-eyed group, sweaty and clad in the latest running gear, chatting merrily about their next events, from triathlons to adventure races. Wow, two different worlds, for sure, both merging but likely oblivious to the other.
Seeking food: Walking by the Mountain Hardwear booth, on my way to Alpineaire to pick up my fifth plate of rehydrated curry (you’d think I’d be sick of it by now), I spotted a tightly clustered bunch of attendees inspecting the new base layer displayed on the perimeter. They chatted away, taking pictures like any magazine writer might, with a few suspicious differences: Instead of point-and-shoot digital cameras, they were wielding impressive SLRs and were zooming in on the fabric’s weave and snapping close-ups of design features. They looked intense, even nervous, and I realized another sub-culture of show attendee: Those looking to steal others’ ideas.
Password please? Quite a number of the booths are too large for only showing the company’s product line, it seemed. Soon, I began to notice sealed rooms at the center or rear of many, with groups being ushered in and out, many of those exiting carrying boxes and bags. I realized quickly these were not private chambers for beating curious counterfeiters, but the inner bastion for those in-the-know -- which apparently excluded me. Ah, but youth’s wiles win out: I still managed to snag my share of deals and plenty of schwag. Many booths actually sold items cheaper than cheap, with proceeds or a percent thereof, donated to dozens of non-profits.
But, wait, there’s more: As a show newbie, I missed out on the super sales back at Summer Market 2010. I knew Chaco had deals but found the purple-and-green striped sandals more than I could handle. Yet there I was, staring open-mouthed at hundreds of sharply dressed business people buying those very Barney-esque items. Yikes! I was relieved to find out that the gear acquisition was far from over. On the last day, companies were practically selling the product directly off the shelves. Like at a bazaar, you’d better claim your goods early and negotiate the deals you could to get what you wanted. Sweet dealio!
Waning hours: By this time on the last day, most retailers had long vacated the once buzzing warehouse of a show floor. Most CEOs and execs had also headed home the day before, leaving the booth jockeys to adjust to an energy level lower than Times Square. This awkward period between the buzz of good deals and the end of the show is full of shell-shocked booth workers and journalists, reminding me of a village after the tremors of an earthquake have ceased. Hallway bowling erupts in sporadic corners -- using Frisbees, balls and other toys found in booths. Then the closing gong sounds. Too late! Many are by that time too busy tearing down the city of schwag, beer and secret backrooms to even hear it.
Wait, did I mention that companies take orders from retailers, too?
--Lorin Paley, SNEWS Youth Advisory & Reporting Team
The SNEWS® Youth Team has been made possible in part by the generous support of: