It was hard not to see this coming. Outdoor Retailer announced today that, in light of ongoing challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, the 2021 Snow Show will adapt to a completely virtual format, just as the 2020 Summer Market did in July.
The original show, scheduled for January 27-29 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, has been cancelled. Organizers have dubbed its replacement "Outdoor Retailer Winter Online." Exact dates haven't been released, but OR leadership says the platform will be accessible from January to March, 2021.
What's new this time around at Outdoor Retailer Online
That extended format is perhaps the biggest change from this summer's digital show, which featured three days of live events including brand presentations, keynote addresses, and roundtable discussions. Rather than try to mimic an in-person show with tightly scheduled offerings over the course of a few days, OR Winter Online will instead focus on the platform itself—making it available to participants for weeks after it launches.
"Virtual shows are just not the same as in-person," said Marisa Nicholson, senior vice president and show director for Outdoor Retailer, in an interview with SNEWS today. "When we come to in-person events, we check into hotels, we leave our personal lives behind, we immerse ourselves in a three-day experience of connecting. In virtual spaces, we’re sitting in front of computers, and the needs are fundamentally different."
Nicholson said that, after this summer's virtual show, OR leadership recognized industry members' need to participate on their own schedules—over weeks or even months.
"We learned there's big value in extending the platform to let people to continue showing products and scheduling meetings on their own time," Nicholson said. "Even after the three-day live event, close to 1,000 registrants signed up over the next five weeks to access the platform. There’s a need for the space to live beyond three days."
Live events will still be part of the show in some capacity, Nicholson confirmed, but they will be scheduled at a much more relaxed pace. Participants can expect a few events per week, rather than a dozen in a day. They will also be hosted inside OR's virtual platform—another big change. There will be no registering for Zoom conferences with a bunch of confusing links, Nicholson said.
Bringing AI into the mix
Another significant addition is the integration of artificial intelligence into user dashboards.
"Outdoor Retailer Winter Online will be powered by AI, inferring likes and dislikes, suggesting matches, using data to drive leads, and creating a uniquely tailored experience for each exhibitor and attendee," Nicholson wrote in a release today. "It will be easier than ever to find the people and products for you."
Show organizers haven't released the name of the partner they used to develop the artificial intelligence capabilities of the platform, but they confirmed that the company has worked with other similarly sized shows to develop AI functionality.
Which features of July's Outdoor Retailer Online will stay the same
The rest of the offerings will be familiar to anyone who attended the summer show. Attendees will have access to video conferencing with exhibitors, data-driven lead generation tools, personalized dashboards, and networking opportunities. Some of the big events that consistently draw crowds at in-person OR shows, like the Outdoor Retailer Innovation Awards, will run the same way they did this summer during the first OR Online.
“While there’s incredible value in gathering in-person, it’s our responsibility to provide a safe environment and serve the best interests of the snow and outdoor communities,” said Nicholson. “We are now focused on expanding upon the digital options we launched this past summer."
“While the impacts from Covid-19 continue to disrupt our individual lives, communities, and businesses, we know that coming together—even virtually—is more important than ever," said Aangeenbrug. "We look forward to partnering with Outdoor Retailer to bring together our industry and collectively mobilize around new challenges and opportunities.”
The broader context
The news comes at a critical moment for the industry's investment in virtual events.
As Covid-19 cases rise around the country and flu season—which promises to bring more complications to the crisis—sets in, many business owners and event organizers are preparing for months of continued disruption to "normal."
Plenty of organizations like the Adventure Travel Trade Association have figured out how to run successful virtual events that suit their members' needs. Big brands like REI are adapting quickly to the demands of a remote workforce. On the other hand, we've also seen large, industry-adjacent gatherings like the Shot Show (happening in Las Vegas in January) pushing to return to in-person gathering. The success of a virtual show like OR Winter Online will likely be an important factor in determining how warmly the industry embraces these events going forward.
The response to OR's first virtual show was definitely mixed. A SNEWS poll circulated in July found that only about 3 percent of OR Online attendees found the event "critically valuable," while almost 30 percent said it was "not valuable at all." On the brand side, some companies, like GSI Outdoors had an extremely positive experience, while others, like LifeStraw, definitely did not.
Industry reaction to that show, as we reported this summer, was far from unified. But show organizers said they learned a lot from the first trial run in July. How well those lessons are incorporated into OR Winter Online is sure to be a big topic of discussion in January.
All we can do now is sign up, show up, and see what happens.
Details for participants
Attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors with existing plans to attend the 2021 Snow Show will be offered loyalty rates for registering with OR Winter Online, Nicholson said. The difference in registration fees will be refunded. Those who want to cancel entirely will be issued full refunds as well.