Outdoor Retailer Summer Market ‘12: Searching for a home

Outdoor Retailer has outgrown Salt Lake City, but can it be as successful elsewhere? Read why none of the show's alternative options are perfect in this feature story from Day 1 of O.R.D.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 2-5. 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.

This SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Summer Market recap is brought to you by Cordura:


Reed McCracken, owner of Vermont’s CC Outdoor Store, is missing his first Outdoor Retailer show since 1999. On a wait list for a hotel room since April, he scrapped plans for Salt Lake earlier this summer.

“It’s going to hurt our business not to be there but we have to weigh what we lose against the cost and time of travel,” said McCracken, noting that travel time from his home in Vermont to Salt Lake City is 12 hours with connections. “OR has grown so much the location can’t handle the traffic. I think there are plenty of people like me on the East Coast who are not getting the full benefit of what OR can bring to retail stores because owners can’t afford to bring their sales people there.”

The reality is, there’s just no perfect place for Outdoor Retailer but by the end of the year, it will be time to choose anyway.

The five finalists in the search for a suitable host city in 2014 — Salt Lake City, Denver, Las Vegas, Anaheim or Orlando — is a list laden with buts.

Salt Lake, the trade show’s home since 1996, is wonderful but too small, requiring a split into separate venues for the trade show that now draws more than 25,000 attendees. Denver, a cultural fit like Salt Lake City, offers a slightly bigger convention center but still is too small, requiring separated venues. Las Vegas — with its three suitable convention halls — is big, affordable and accessible, but maybe not reflective of the Outdoor Retailer ethos. Anaheim and Orlando also have the space, but not that get-outside culture.

So the question comes down to balance between the buts for a trade show that in late June saw its Winter Market deemed the ninth-fastest growing convention in the country and it’s Summer Market the 19th-fastest, with double-digit attendance growth in each of the last three years. The decision will walk a fine line that teeters between three pragmatic and emotional, yet vital considerations.

First, and perhaps most important, is just how Outdoor Retailer should grow.

“What the industry should be, and therefore what the show should be — how does that inform whatever logistics that compel us?” said Kenji Haroutinian, the outdoor industry veteran in charge of Outdoor Retailer for Nielsen Expositions, which puts on 35 other trade shows a year. “How we grow, why we should grow and what does it mean for the show to grow or not grow? Should it be all inclusive with hunting and archery or a narrower version and definition? Either way, it’s got to be a collective vision.”

Second, and most challenging, is finding a cultural match that fits Outdoor Retailer’s outdoor vibe and play-is-pivotal ethos. Salt Lake and Denver suit that role, but — and it’s a big but — neither have facilities that are big enough to keep the trade show under one roof. The two-venue solution is already in play in Salt Lake, where 500 new exhibitors are wedged in a tent adjacent to the swollen Salt Palace and its 4,000-plus booths. Further dividing Outdoor Retailer’s eclectic mix of backpackers, paddlers, soft-good makers, climbers and mountaineers could damage the community-centric intermingling of the trade show more than, say, a strip of garish, smoke-choked casinos a few doors down.

“Is the culture the people, or is the culture in the place or is it both?” said Haroutunian, who likes to ask a lot of questions as he orchestrates the evolution of Outdoor Retailer. “I’m not sure it serves the buyers to really have two venues.”

The third consideration — and really the driver of this whole show-moving proposal — is simple logistics. Outdoor Retailer needs at least 900,000 square feet of space and preferably more than 1 million. It needs within-walking-distance hotels to accommodate 25,000 people. A nearby international airport with easy, direct flights from across the country. Lots of restaurants and gathering spots, all within a stroll. And outdoor venues that not only can host the show’s important exhibitions and demos but allow for that crucial OR-styled networking on the rope, the trail, the water or the lift.

So Denver and Salt Lake fit the bill perfectly on the cultural end. Las Vegas, Anaheim and Orlando work with logistics. And there’s always the possibility that Summer Market will go one place and Winter Market will be held in another.



Salt Lake City

Let’s start with Salt Lake, where keeping Outdoor Retailer is crucial to the local and state economy. The Summer Market is the largest of the year for the city, with each attendee dropping an estimated $923 during the show, leaving $38 million in delegate spending in the Outdoor Retailer wake. The Winter Market’s 18,000 attendees — the 58th-largest tradeshow in the country — is also one of the city’s top conventions. The economic ripple effect of these shows can be three times larger than the delegate spending. Still, the show is not so vital that the city is scheming a third Outdoor Retailer-tailored expansion of its 510,600 square-foot Salt Palace Convention Center or adding massive new hotels. That has become a dangerous game as more cities like Indianapolis, Boston, Baltimore, San Diego and Philadelphia join the big-convention hunt with proposed or underway $100 million convention center expansions that will dilute the impact and importance of the relatively few super-sized trade shows that command that kind of space.

“An expansion of the Salt Palace Convention Center is not sustainable in Salt Lake and sustainability is a very strong ethos in Salt Lake,” said Scott Beck, executive director of Visit Salt Lake, noting that his city’s recent recycling and renewable energy initiatives — like installing one of the country’s largest rooftop solar panel installations atop the convention center — aligns with the minimal impact ethic of Outdoor Retailer.

Beck’s plan to keep Outdoor Retailer involves splitting the show into two venues. “It’s not that Salt Lake cannot accommodate the growth, it’s that the convention center can’t contain the growth under one facility,” Beck said.

Denver

Denver, which mirrors Salt Lake City’s outdoor culture with nearby mountains for gear demos and attendee play, offers a slightly larger space at 584,000 square feet and also is proposing multiple venues. The city in 2008 hosted 50,000 visitors with the Democratic National Convention, offering its Pepsi Center arena and the sprawling National Western Complex as venues for additional space. And as in Salt Lake, there are no plans to expand the convention center or build another hotel, even for Outdoor Retailer.

“A lot of people are realizing you don’t build the church for Easter Sunday,” said Richard Scharf, chief of Visit Denver, noting that his convention center can host 95 percent of all the country’s trade shows and conventions.

But that doesn’t mean Denver isn’t pushing hard for Outdoor Retailer. It’s got experience landing the big fish. In 2010 it lured the 17,000-attendee SnowSports Industries America Snow Show from a 37-year home in Las Vegas with an 11-year deal that marked the biggest convention booking in Denver history. An Outdoor Retailer deal could eclipse that, although the city is only discussing hosting the Summer Market right now.

“If this is all about facilities, we are going to lose early,” Scharf said. “But we think we are a cultural fit like Salt Lake. We offer some incremental growth over Salt Lake and flexibility. We are working with the mayor’s office and the governor’s office to make sure that as we look and plan for the future, we are keeping this show in mind. It’s both an emotional and business decision and we recognize those are the toughest decisions. With SIA, I think what happens is that people had to come and experience it and once they experienced Denver, they said, ‘Wow. Why didn’t we do this earlier?’”

Still, Outdoor Retailer is asking both Denver and Salt Lake to consider expansions.

“Maybe against all hope, we are still pursuing that,” said Haroutunian, who is supporting his push for more space with Outdoor Retailer’s tremendous growth and popularity. “There are still a lot of very sizable shows that are going on and if Denver and Salt Lake were to see their city as a tier-one venue for those big conventions, they could certainly compete. It isn’t going to hurt to ask right?”

Las Vegas

Then there’s Vegas, baby. While the community of naturally tanned and toned Outdoor Retailer attendees likely wince at the thought — probably based on several years of dizzyingly sweltering concreted conventioneering in Sin City — Las Vegas is a perfect fit from a logistics standpoint.

The desert city has three venues under consideration for Outdoor Retailer, with both the Sands Exposition Center and Mandalay Bay Convention Center offering more than 900,000 square feet of space and the Las Vegas Convention Center delivering nearly 2 million square feet of space to expand and roam.

And, said Hetty Chang with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, don’t overlook the outdoor — albeit broiling in August — play in Southern Nevada. Chang points to mountain biking in Boulder City’s Bootleg Canyon, climbing and hiking the sandstone crags of Red Rock Canyon, and Lake Mead water sports. A bit farther, it’s a few hours’ drive to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Zion national parks.

“Outdoor sports and amenities are actually very popular in Las Vegas,” she said.

There’s a reason why Las Vegas has been the top trade show destination in the country for 18 years running, hosting more than 19,000 events a year. “We take pride in providing every group with the most productive atmosphere and best possible experience, no matter the industry – and that includes outdoor sporting,” said Chang, noting the annual 20,000-attendee Interbike trade show that fits both the outdoor experience demands and nightlife interests of those rowdy pedalers. “We are honored the Outdoor Retailer Show is considering Las Vegas for its annual convention.”

Magi Raible, president of California-based luggage designer and manufacturer Kiva Designs, said the drive to invest in Outdoor Retailer is diminished when she hears from buyers who simply can’t get rooms in Salt Lake City. While understanding a disdain for Las Vegas, the space, ease of access and affordability makes it easy to focus on what she called the “the business of the business.”

“Corporate buyers are so busy, they need convenience with a tight budget. And for outdoors, there is tons of water around Vegas and if people get creative there is plenty to be done outdoors. Even in Salt Lake we drive 45 minutes for outdoor venues,” she said. “We need to be mindful of the business of the business or it’s going, I think, to default back into this hippy deal kind of niche business versus the dominant industry that has a lot of pull nationally and in Washington.”

Anaheim

Anaheim has a history with Outdoor Retailer, hosting the Winter Market in 2002 during Salt Lake’s Winter Olympics. That early January show saw precipitous drops in attendance and even though Winter Market returned to Salt Lake the next year, it took three more years to get back to 2001 attendance levels. Still, the Anaheim Convention Center offers the largest exhibition space on the West Coast, with 1.6 million square feet of space and plans for another 250,000 square feet. Elaine Cali, vice president of communications with the Anaheim Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau, said her team continues to have active discussions with Haroutunian’s team and is “well aware of their needs.”

Orlando

Orlando also has the space, but — anyone counting these buts? — lacks the outdoor demo space and would challenge travelers from the West Coast just as Anaheim would trouble East Coast travelers. A spokeswoman for the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau declined to comment.

While literally everything is on the table — even the unlikely chance of some dark horse location emerging — one thing is certain: Anyone who counts themselves among the Outdoor Retailer tribe will have a voice in the search for a home. The Outdoor Retailer’s Collective Voice website (http://www.outdoorretailer.com/collective-voice) is humming with opinions, perspectives and insight from hundreds of show stakeholders who are contributing to the dialogue that will determine the future of Outdoor Retailer.

Brad Werntz is one of those stakeholders. The president of Wisconsin’s Pemba Serves — a rep and consultant for seven brands available in 600 stores — has only one truly strong opinion on the potential move.

“I hate Vegas. I hate working there,” he said. While acknowledging that the show he has attended for years has outgrown Salt Lake, he hopes this is about more than convention square footage or airline flights.

“We are a very powerful industry and we should use that to bring the state more into alignment with our values in terms of how Utah is addressing public land access and public land issues,” said Werntz, who advocates using Outdoor Retailer’s $38 million impact to sway Utah land policy. “I think where the show ends up says a lot about who we are as an organization and as an industry.”

--Jason Blevins

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