Jan 10, 2023 - News

A smaller Outdoor Retailer show returns to Salt Lake City

Outdoor Retailer trade show attendees try out winter gear at the show's demo day at Brighton Resort near Salt Lake City.

Outdoor Retailer trade show attendees try out winter gear at the show's demo event at Brighton Resort near Salt Lake City on Monday . Erin Alberty/Axios

The Outdoor Retailer trade show is back in Salt Lake City for the first time since the convention moved to Denver in 2017 in protest against Utah's politics around public lands and the environment.

Why it matters: The show's return to Utah upends the outdoor industry's message to Utah leaders that it would no longer bring its largest events to the state that fought national monument protections at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

  • Both monuments were downsized by former President Trump in 2017 and restored by the Biden administration in 2021.

Meanwhile: The move back to Salt Lake City is a boon for Utah's outdoor gear makers — like Black Diamond, DPS and Jack Wolfskin — who made up the majority of exhibitors at Monday's product demo day at Brighton ski resort.

Yes, but: The winter show is much smaller than it was when it last came to Salt Lake City, mostly because COVID-19 changed how and when the larger brands and merchants do business, multiple vendors told Axios.

By the numbers: 425 exhibitors were slated for this year's expo floor, which opens today at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

  • That's up from the 330 exhibitors at last year's show in Denver, which coincided with an explosion in COVID cases from the omicron variant and followed an online-only winter show in 2021.
  • But it's less than half the 1,000-plus exhibitors that set up booths here in 2017. At Denver's last pre-COVID show in January 2020, there were about 1,020 exhibitors.

Catch up fast: The show's operator, Emerald X, announced in March that it was returning to Salt Lake City after its Denver contract expired in 2022.

  • Emerald said leaving "has not brought about the change we had hoped for," and returning would allow the industry to stay "engaged" in policy discussions here.
  • More than 30 rec companies, including heavy hitters like Patagonia, REI and The North Face, threatened to boycott the show if it moved back to Salt Lake City. (The rec industry news site SGB Media noted that several of the companies had already dialed back their participation in the show during its Denver run.)

Of note: Although Monday's demo day was significantly smaller than at Salt Lake City's previous winter shows, multiple vendors told Axios that Salt Lake's proximity to large ski resorts turned out to be an advantage over Denver — something Salt Lake boosters warned attendees would miss.

  • "Logistically, it's easier here," Kanyon Mann, spokesperson for Colorado-based Zeal Optics, told Axios, noting that it sometimes took the ski goggle manufacturer up to three hours to reach demo events outside Denver.
  • Salt Lake City is also less expensive, said Ponch Membreño, a spokesperson for Maine Outdoor Brands, a nonprofit that helps fund small Maine companies' attendance at the show.

What they're saying: The show already was becoming less profitable for bigger name brands, who make most of their sales before January and who developed other sales strategies during the pandemic, Mann said.

  • For smaller companies, the show is still valuable because they can "potentially meet a big account, which always seems to happen," Membreño said. "Even though it's not 100 buyers a day, they meet one great contact and it pays for the whole trip."

What's next: The show is hosting a "homecoming" block party for the public 6-8pm Tuesday at 100 South and West Temple.

  • There will be a drum line, a "pep rally" with Olympic athletes, a drone show, food trucks and music.

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