Attendance to the first Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Denver was down, and those who went exchanged comments about the quiet aisles and scarcity of events, but also found time and space to connect.

Leading up to the first Outdoor Retailer Winter Market held in November, Jetty Founder Cory Higgins was nervous. Retailers he was hoping to meet with were skipping the fall show to attend the January Snow Show instead, causing him concern that he wouldn’t get to meet with key accounts. But at the same time, it would be the lifestyle brand's first chance exhibiting and he wanted to take full advantage of filing purchase orders before his deadline from manufacturers.

Despite his hesitations, the show turned out to be a success for the small company. Located in Venture Out next to the picnic tables, Higgins said Jetty stood out because some of the bigger players were absent and he had meaningful conversations with a number of retailers who will likely become new partners. While his neighbors packed up on the last day, he had four important meetings.

“I don’t think I’m the norm; I think I’m the exception,” Higgins said. “We were the new kid on the block and so we got a lot of attention and there wasn’t a lot of competition in our space. That played to our advantage.”

But overall, the November show has received mixed reviews, at best. With it being the first held in November—to help retailers and brands sync up during the seasonal buying cycle—some attendees were more forgiving, giving the show time to iron kinks out. Others felt that the investment was not worth their time and could be achieved at regional shows or one-on-one visits.

“Winter Market marked the first show in the new timeframe and offered an early look at so many new products as they were being introduced," Show Director and Vice President Marisa Nicholson said. "The feedback we received from brands and retailers who embraced the new show timing was that it was incredibly helpful for their business - brands heard an early indication of retailer preferences, and retailers got on overview of seasonal launches which allow for more informed decisions when placing orders. And both retailers and brands enjoyed the longer, more in-depth meetings. There was a lot of momentum coming out of the show for Winter Market 2019 with early commitments from The North Face, Baffin, Deuter, Aventura, and others that recognize the value of the show.” 

Outdoor Retailer WInter Market 2018

The Colorado Convention Center saw 29,000 visitors during Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show this past January. Emerald Expositions is still counting the attendance for Winter Market.

In a SNEWS poll, 38 percent of voters said that the show was disappointing and not worth the investment; 23 percent voted that the show wasn’t productive enough; 17 percent voted that intimate gatherings are good for business; 11 percent responded that it was fairly productive; 7 percent voted that they didn’t attend; and 2 percent said it was the best show ever.

Compared to the last two shows in Denver, the Colorado Convention Center was much less packed. Booths, including the Venture Out area, were confined to the upper floor (552 exhibitors—half of January). The street level was quiet and empty, other than a few brands and events set up in meeting rooms. Upstairs, a partition divided the show floor in half and there was even enough room for food trucks along one end. Even then, traffic in the wider-than-normal aisles was navigable and seats at panel discussions were plentiful. When evening rolled around, events and happy hours were few and far between.

“I think the additional November show is an experiment,” said Tom Jennings, founder of Atmosphere Studios, which designs and assembles booths for a number of outdoor brands. “For many years, the show was a juggernaut of momentum, it was always a vibrant, productive, and fun place to be. Although, over the last couple of years it’s lost some of that energy, but I have high hopes … any experiment is going to take a little R&D with some trial and error.”

Venture Out at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2018

At the last two shows in Denver, Venture Out was on the street level. This time around, it was brought up to the main show floor.

The timing of Outdoor Retailer

Historically held in January, the Winter Market was bumped up a month for the first time this year to align dates with the sales cycle, and in particular, apparel and footwear purchase order deadlines. It worked well for Jetty and it also worked for Seattle-based Sherpa Adventure Gear.

“It’s nice to get a better read on the collection and what pieces are going to do well earlier,” COO Tsedo Sherpa-Ednalino said. “We used to just depend on [Grassroots Outdoor Alliance] and some of our larger dealers who we’d see earlier in November. At that point, OR was definitely more of a branding, marketing, PR exercise. January is too late to impact a lot of our purchasing decisions.”

But Peter Sachs, general manager at Lowa and a former retailer, believes stores—particularly ski shops—don’t want to make orders until after Christmas, when they have a better idea of sell-through rates and how the winter season is going.

This was the first time that GOA’s Connect Show co-located with Outdoor Retailer, occurring one day prior to OR. Not surprisingly, Sherpa-Ednalino said that the last days of the GOA show and the first days of OR were busiest, as many brands, retailers, and sales reps chose to attend the end of Grassroots and the beginning of OR.

“The November OR show on the heels of the Connect Show worked very well for us,” said Todd Frank, owner of The Trail Head. “Connect lets us see the key bigger vendors in a more meaningful way but OR provides us with the chance encounters with new vendors and a bit of old school show salesmanship."

Some big brands notably absent from OR

Patagonia, The North Face, and Arc’teryx were a few of the brands that had a booth downstairs at the Grassroots show, but chose not to move upstairs into the main hall for Outdoor Retailer. Sea to Summit—a brand that has exhibited at both—decided to walk the floors this time and co-owner Shelley Dunbar has no regrets.

“I don’t get this show scheduling,” said Dunbar, who offers a unique perspective as a brand and retailer (Neptune Mountaineering). “I’m glad we weren’t exhibiting. It’s such a huge investment to be an exhibitor. Three big shows a year is too much. You’re splitting everything up and how can retailers possibly attend them all? Who is this three-show format for? The brands and retailers or the company making money from all these trade shows?”

The absence of bigger brands did not go unnoticed. “To me the disappointment in this show is the companies that have pushed for early dates and pushed us to move to Denver and asked for a bigger convention center, are the companies that are not here,” Sachs said. “So Patagonia, The North Face, Arc'teryx, Columbia, Marmot, etc.: With all due respect, F.U. very much.”

Despite The North Face’s absence, the brand has committed to attending next years’ Winter Market. By that time, VF Corporation is expected to be relocated to Denver. “I’m excited for what the November Winter Market can become,” said Travis Campbell, VP, GM Americas, The North Face, and board chair of Outdoor Industry Association. “The first one was quieter than we would have hoped but I suspect it will grow quickly. The early winter timing works really well for our business— it lets us showcase innovations and kick off the market cycle. The overlap with GOA is powerful and creates a great opportunity to further build our community.”

With the Snow Show about 60 days away (80 days at the time of our interview), it was hard for Amanda Goad, co-founder of PR agency Bold Brew, to feel fully invested in the current show and excited about the next one. In the past, two of her brands would attend Winter Market. This time, one attended Winter Market and the other is registered for Snow Show, causing her to split up her team between both shows. “The next show is less than three months away with the holidays in between,” Goad said. “That definitely dilutes the shows."

Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2018 quiet aisles

Show attendees are normally bustling by in the aisles. At the last shows, aisles were a little quieter—and wider.

Quiet aisles at Outdoor Retailer: Both a blessing and a curse

Fewer attendees meant less foot traffic, less momentum, and wasted time for some, like Goad, who feels that the show is supposed to have a special type of energy. But for others, the mellow atmosphere led to more intimate, one-on-one conversations.

“The appointments we’ve had have all been super positive and maybe because it’s a little less hustle and bustle you can, sort of like Grassroots downstairs, you can sort of be focused with your customer a little bit more, you’re not getting interrupted quite as much,” Sachs said.

Samantha Farrell, a buyer from Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, said she isn’t much of an event-goer and appreciated the quiet. “I did like the feel of this OR better. It wasn’t quite so busy, quite so loud. It felt like I was able to have a little bit more meaningful conversations and not just see a line and move on. It was, ‘What’s going on in the industry? In the world?’ There was more conversation. OR felt more like GOA, to be honest.”

For Ellen Karten Brown, a Denver-based sales rep for BUFF, OR is her favorite show. However, when she first heard about the November dates, her first questions was: Who’s going to show up? Booking appointments took extra effort, but she was able to make the most out of the first two days and skipped out for the second half. Many other sales reps we reached out to after the show said they didn't attend because either their brands weren't there or they determined it wasn't worth the expense.

“All in all, I felt that my company BUFF had way too much space,” she said. “They committed big because they didn’t know what was going to happen. The energy wasn’t there like the summer show.”

Penn Newhard, founder and partner at Backbone Media, brought roughly half the staff he typically brings and met with roughly half the brands he normally meets with—indicative of the fact that many clients are hardgoods manufacturers showing products in January.

“While it may be easiest to be critical of the show timing in early November due to lackluster turnout, it is important to realize that the show has to serve many masters and rarely does a major schedule change work out perfectly,” Newhard said, adding that media, brands, and colleagues showed everything from strong support to doubt about the new show dates.

“From a PR/media perspective not as many brands and less than half of the usual media attended,” he said. “That said, there was a united voice as to the importance of bringing the industry together as we need to continue to collaborate on larger issues (public lands and climate) and assert our economic voice. The tradeshow landscape, like media and retail, is going to evolve and we need to come together to find the best long-term solutions.”

Merrell's booth at Outdoor Retailer WInter Market 2018

Of the big brands, Merrell was in attendance at the front of the showroom floor.

The big question: Do we need 3 major shows?

Dunbar was one of many people we spoke with who feel that smaller, intimate connections are better for business. “At the end of the day we are about connecting with and supporting retailers and I don’t believe that multiple big shows a year are the answer.”

Sea to Summit plans to exhibit at the summer show only, which makes sense for the timing of its product launches and has proven to be a successful show for the brand. But one OR show is enough for the brand. “We love regional shows and Grassroots is very productive for us. But instead of spending well into six figures per show to have big booths three times a year, we’ll take the money we save spend more on marketing or offer better discounts for our retailers.”

At STS, a question they’ve been asking themselves is: How can we better spend that money to support our retailers and get business done in a personal way that’s still efficient and productive?

Frank said most of his business was built around the Connect Show. By having them back to back, his buyers knocked out two shows in one trip. When he first started, he attended two shows. Now, there are three OR shows, two GOA shows, two regional shows, one paddlesports show, and a couple vendor show room trips. His struggle, he says, is justifying the expense of the Snow Show in January. “We’ve been in the same Missoula location for 17 years if you’re a ski vendor who wants to make a pitch, come see us. We’ll get out and do business on the lift, if it makes sense.”

Jim Melcher, president of Fifty/Fifty Bottles, said he’s not returning next November. He said the show was the slowest he’s ever been to. “I think two shows would be sufficient,” he said. “I think most people would be thrilled with that … I think getting the best bang out of the buck for all the cost involved in traveling, booth, people, you know, entertainment, all the things that you do – we would probably be better served just to have two shows.”

As a sales rep, Karten Brown already spends a lot of time on the road attending trade shows, and for them to be worthwhile, they have to be busy. “If the November show went away, I wouldn’t miss it.”

Writer Shawnté Salabert contributed to this report.

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