Outdoor Retailer working through some complaints of new housing system

Trade show officials give retailers higher priority on prime hotel reservations, but not everyone is happy.
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Changes to Outdoor Retailer’s housing reservations in Salt Lake City are upsetting some long-time showgoers, but officials say the new system ultimately will get the right people closer to the trade show.

Several outdoor industry reps told SNEWS they’ve been kicked out of their long-time hotel reservations in downtown Salt Lake City, and are being told they have to re-apply and likely stay farther out from the city center.

The reps who contacted SNEWS said they represent top brands like Cascade Designs, Chaco and SmartWool. They said their frustration has them considering whether they should skip the show.

Outdoor Retailer Show Director Kenji Haroutunian said he’s not surprised there are some complaints. In March, when officials debuted the new system, Haroutunian told SNEWS about 180 people would be bumped from the core hotels to make room for higher-priority retail attendees — the coveted buyers at the show.

“The old system prioritized by how long you had been attending and if you attended the year before, but we didn’t think that was a fair system, especially with the limited amount housing Salt Lake City provides,” Haroutunian told SNEWS in an interview last week. “Moving forward, we’re prioritizing much in the same way we do with exhibitors on the show floor — based on what makes for a better show. Not everyone can stay across the Salt Palace, just like not everyone can have the Woolrich booth.”

Haroutunian said the new priority system works on multiple levels, but in general, it puts retailers and exhibiting manufacturers — those directly employed by the company — at the top of the list. Second, it requires attendees to be registered to attend Outdoor Retailer four months before show starts, which is when the new housing system begins accepting reservation requests.

Previously, the system opened a year ahead of time, when many people didn’t know their schedule and everyone just jammed onto the list to be safe, Haroutunian said. It then took more time to figure out who actually was registered to attend the show and deserved a prime spot.

Haroutunian acknowledged there will be some mistakes to amend with the new system — particularly with sales reps.

“Some of these guys are tough to prioritize,” Haroutunian said. “They don’t have websites and they use free public-domain emails, and so they show up on our list as random individuals.”

Outdoor Retailer is directing those who feel like they were unjustly prioritized or need new reservations to this FAQ document with contacts.

Sources, including some retailers tell SNEWS they are being told everything is booked downtown — that there’s no room left — but that’s not case, Haroutunian said. “It might be reserved, but there’s still room if you’re a priority. Let us know who you are, so we can assign the right priority to you.”

Outdoor Retailer also has partnered to create additional housing options, including the former U.S. Olympic Athlete Village at the University of Utah, which provides affordable rates and sits along the TRAX commuter-rail line for easy transport to the city.

Some attendees have panned the option as dormitory living, but Haroutunian said that isn’t a fair assessment. The housing will include amenities, such as complimentary laundry facilities, prep kitchen access, free parking, and discounted meals. Some of Outdoor Retailer’s staff will be staying at the location.

Haroutunian said the housing crunch and resulting priority system is just one of the realities of keeping the trade show in a smaller city like Salt Lake. At Winter Market, officials signed a short-term contract to keep the show here through 2016, but they are still considering other cities for the future.

“This [housing shortage] wouldn’t happen in Las Vegas,” Haroutunian said.

Could some of this consternation sway more attendee opinion to move the show?

"That is not the goal,” Haroutunian said. “It’s not like we’re drastically increasing exhibitors and attendees to create problems, in fact we’re turning people away.” The latest stats from Winter Market 2013, show total attendance increased just 1 percent last show, most of that due a more stringent registration policy.

“We know we’re tightening the screws a little, but we’re doing it to improve the show,” Haroutunian said. “After the dust settles, I’m confident people will be more comfortable with the changes.”

 --David Clucas

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