3 big conversations at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market

Here’s what people were talking about on the show floor
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This show marks the first time that Outdoor Retailer Winter Market has been held in November, a change that was made to help retailers and brands sync up during the seasonal buying cycle. We talked to people on the show floor to see how that translated in real time. Naturally, that came up in the conversations we spotted happening across the show floor, but here’s what else people were talking about.

quiet aisles at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2018

The aisles have appeared relatively empty throughout the show, reflecting the lower attendance when compared to the recent Summer Show—for some, an opportunity to engage in more meaningful conversations with those who are here.

1. Where is everybody?

While Winter Market is typically a more subdued affair than its summertime companion, the consensus was that this show felt even smaller and quieter than any before. Instead of the sprawling floorplan that existed during Summer Market and January’s Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, hallways were empty, happy hours were fewer, and most vendors were confined to the upper level and foyer. So what does this mean for the future of a November show?

“Initially, it felt very empty. I was like—this feels like noon on day 4, so it was kind of unnerving at first,” says Tanya Twerdowsky of Wilderness Press. “But I’ve had so many pointed conversations. I’ve been able to engage more.”

For many, the quiet aisles offered the chance to connect more deeply—buyers to retailers, non-profits to brands, movers to shakers—and the opportunity for the type of access that doesn’t normally happen at the big shows.

“I think there’s just a little bit less pressure,” says Agnes Vianzon, founder of the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps. “You can walk up to booths, you can give them your card, you can ask for an appointment on the spot.”

But what does an emptier show mean for brands who invest their time and money with booths and staffing? Over and over, attendees raised the question about whether or not three shows is too many.

“It’s a little bit more subdued than we were expecting,” says Ethan Peck, PR associate for United By Blue. “That being said, the people that we’re meeting with seem to be really engaged and a higher quality of people. Anyone that’s swinging by the booth seems to be more genuinely interested in the brand and the product than sometimes in previous seasons, where there’s just a lot of people trying to walk through and get free stuff.”

"We had half the appointments we normally have,"said Bill Gamber of Big Agnes and Honey Stinger. Next November, if he decides to commit at all, it will be for far less space. Gamber, like many other exhibitors we spoke to, question the logic of having two big national shows 80 days apart. "I’d still rather see Winter Market and OR+Snow Show be one show in mid January."

For Peter Sachs, general manager of Lowa, even though most of the brand’s top dealers visited the booth, it’s too early to tell whether he’d return at this time next year. “To me, the jury’s still out,” he says. “Will this show go down as a complete success? Probably not. Will it go down as a dismal failure? Probably not. So the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Does it need to be tweaked? Probably—but we’ll see.”

Merrell's diversity map at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2018

Merrell's new One Trail project, which is displayed outside of its booth at the show, celebrates the true diversity of people who spend time outdoors across the U.S.

2. The conversation around DEI continues—but more needs to be done

As the trade show has morphed from a purely transactional retail environment to one that digs more deeply into the topics of conservation and advocacy, one of the recurring conversations has centered around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“I’ve had some really substantial and important conversations with key leaders, and I’m noticing that there is this collective energy toward equity, inclusion, and diversity from a lot of the leading brands, and that’s super inspiring,” says Camber Outdoors executive director Deanne Buck. “It is about product innovation, but it’s about, you know, how are we connecting with our consumers? How are we thinking about our future consumers? How are we thinking about our brands’ influence in the outdoors?”

While DEI-focused panels continue to occur with more regularity at the show, there’s also hope that these conversations become less marginalized and more centered at the event.

“I always believe that the people who show up at those type of events or those type of conversations are the right people, because usually they’re the ones who are dedicated to change and moving it forward,” says CJ Goulding, Lead Organizer for the Natural Leaders Network. “For me, the idea of that change happening on an industry level doesn’t just happen from people being able to have that conversation in a small corner of the show, but to have it in an open way where folks who may not be as aware or as passionate or as involved in some of these issues feel like they are a part of the conversation.”

Native Womens Wilderness ambassador Cali Wolf also hopes to see a broader array of voices elevated in these discussions going forward. “I think there is a lack of representation of native women, girls, and non-binary relatives in this industry, which is kind of discouraging, because looking around, you can see our culture appropriated in many different realms, whether it’s gear or even a teepee here,” she says. “I like to be able to be here, all of us using our voice to stand up for our issues and make sure that we’re heard in this industry.”

Toad&Co booth at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market

The Toad&Co. booth not only places sustainability front and center, but also makes a bold statement about the industry's responsibility to address those issues.

3. Sustainability is becoming the new norm

If you want to know about the state of sustainability in the outdoor industry, all you need to do is scan the list of the inaugural Innovation Award winners. The top honor went to PrimaLoft Bio, a synthetic insulation that is the first to be fully recycled and biodegradable. Then there’s United By Blue’s Bison Puffer Jacket, stuffed with super-warm bison fur that would otherwise be discarded by ranchers, GoLite’s ReGreen Windshell, created from recycled plastic bottles, and Allbirds’ SweetFoam flops, whose soles are formed using sugarcane.

Walking around the show, other eco-friendly tech sat front and center: panels discussed supply chain tactics and explored the impact of microfibers, and brands showcased their use of REPREVE fibers, bluesign-approved fabrics, sustainably-sourced down, and eco-friendly DWR coatings. In fact, Toad & Co. didn’t pull any stops at their booth; among placards and displays touting their sustainability initiatives, they placed a bold sign front and center that read: “THE APPAREL INDUSTRY POLLUTES.”

This broad message of centering sustainability resounded loud and clear. “It’s cool to see it not just being [used as] a marketing tool or greenwashed,” says Jeanine Pesce, founder of RANGE. “Brands are really committing to sustainability.”

United By Blue’s Peck is glad to see the tide shift. “I feel like people are taking it more seriously. Maybe it’s because of the political climate, maybe it’s just trying to appeal to a wider range of people who actually care about the products that they’re purchasing,” he says. “There’s a general interest from all parties to have a stake in the game when it comes to furthering sustainability and conservation efforts.”

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