At final show, Outdoor Retailer says goodbye to Salt Lake City
Attendees’ opinions about trade show’s high-profile exit vary
July 27, 2017
Hundreds of booths lined the inside of the Salt Palace Convention Center, which bustled with action as the crowd swarmed through the packed walkways, looking to strike deals or scope out the next big product that will take over the shelves of outdoor gear shops.
To an observer, it was business as usual, indistinguishable from every other Outdoor Retailer trade show Salt Lake City has hosted over the last two decades. But in the only way that mattered, it was nothing like the others at all: It was the last one.
For one final time, the Outdoor Retailer unpacked in Salt Lake City, months after declaring its exit from Utah following a dispute with lawmakers about the state's role in protecting public lands and weeks after announcing Denver as its new home beginning in January.
Peter Metcalf, founder of Black Diamond and an influential figure in the outdoor industry, admitted to feeling mixed emotions during the final Salt Lake City show. After spearheading the effort to bring the event to Utah in the 1990s, he was one of the first voices calling on it to leave if state officials failed to reverse course on public lands.
Lawmakers did not bend to pressure from the outdoor industry, and the trade show bolted. And Metcalf was left embittered at the fact that Utah, in the eyes of the industry, no longer met the standards to serve as the home of the event he championed for so long.
"It's melancholy, mixed with frustration, bewilderment and a degree of anger over our political leadership," said Metcalf, a Park City resident, on the first day of the show Wednesday. "… Conversely, I'm really proud that the industry stood up to this. To stay here would be condoning this behavior and would be gutless and show we have no backbone."
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Chatter about the show's future — and its unceremonious exit from Utah — was a prime topic of discussion throughout the Salt Palace on Wednesday, with opinions about the impending move ranging from indifference to dismay.
The effect the show's departure will have on local outdoor companies has been well documented. They'll no longer benefit from the event's close proximity, which has saved them thousands of dollars over the years in travel costs, and the recognition the show brought Utah's outdoor industry — and the businesses in it — will be gone.
For at least one Park City organization, the Outdoor Retailer's move may signal the end of its participation in the show altogether. The National Ability Center, a nonprofit that provides recreation opportunities for people of all abilities, has used the show to develop critical partnerships with businesses and organizations, but traveling to Denver could be cost-prohibitive for the organization.
Katie Hodgman, the NAC's media and outreach coordinator, said the nonprofit is not ready to divulge whether it will go to Denver for future shows. But if it doesn't, it will lose out on harnessing the show's reach to further its mission. The NAC has used the Outdoor Retailer for exposure, as well as to secure funding and equipment from attendees.
"Being able to have those relationships and have this event to touch base with those relationships is an awesome opportunity," she said. "It's too bad, but we hope to keep those relationships."
But it wasn't just local organizations lamenting the event's exit from Salt Lake City. Chris Burston, vice president of design for the Los Angeles-based Outdoor Products, estimated he has been coming to the Outdoor Retailer for more than 15 years. He said that, while he supports the show taking a strong stance in support of public lands, he's disappointed at the departure.
And according to Burston, he's far from the only one who sees it that way. He lauded the state's hospitality and recreational opportunities and said nearly everybody he'd spoken with at the event wanted it to remain in Salt Lake City.
"Utah itself is very friendly in terms of access to outdoor activities, whether you're skiing, snowboarding, hiking, fishing, whatever," he said. "There are all kinds of things to do in the outdoors. Attendees can not only come out to the show, but they can recreate, which is great."
For other companies, however, the show's location doesn't matter as much. Dustin Elbing, national sales manager at Minnesota-based water recreation company RAVE Sports, said the Outdoor Retailer is a critical opportunity to show off its range of products to a massive audience. But whether that audience is congregating in Salt Lake City or Denver is irrelevant.
He added that he wasn't familiar enough with the dispute between the Outdoor Retailer and Utah's lawmakers to say whether the move to Denver is the right call.
"We're from Minnesota, so either place is fine," he said. "For us, it doesn't matter other than personal preference. And I enjoy both places."