DENVER – At the back of a large exhibit hall in downtown Denver, one Outdoor Retailer exhibitor whose constituents had flown in from Japan and driven in from northern Utah beckoned toward the nearby back wall.

“Last time, this was about a quarter-way to the end of the (modular) exhibit hall,” said Jonathan Young, a brand ambassador for Nanga, a high-end sleeping bag maker.

Indeed, Outdoor Retailer’s usually burgeoning Summer Market had 1,400 booths in 2019, but dwindled to about 400 booths in 2021. The show was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.

Many thought the smaller show would be beneficial to networking, with fewer leads to chase down in the same amount of time. But it didn’t always work out that way. Nanga was among vendors who had a mixed response to the much-smaller show.

“We do have a lot of potential collaborations that are going to be coming out of this show, but our foot traffic was a lot less,” Young said.

Equally, the showing from Wyoming was light at Outdoor Retailer’s Summer Market in Denver – traditionally the largest trade show in the industry.

Many long-time, big-time exhibitors from Wyoming were no-shows at the 2021 event. In fact, only three outdoor companies – all based in Jackson Hole – had booth space at the trade show, despite it occurring so close to home.

Of those three companies, only two seemed to show up: fabric patch-maker Noso Patches and clothier Art 4 All. The third participant, tent-maker Big Sky International, had an empty booth on the day Wyoming Business Report attended the show. Representatives of Big Sky never responded to phoned and emailed requests for comment either before or after the show.

But for the Wyoming participants who were there, the show proved valuable.

Noso fast

Noso Patches is a growing brand in Jackson, which manufactures easy-stick fabric patches. The patches use aggressive adhesives that allow people to repair gear (or just make it look better) with a simple, permanent process that doesn’t require sewing skills.

The company came about when founder Kelli Jones snagged a new coat on barbed wire and wanted something beyond duct tape to fix the tear.

For anyone who thought the trade show would be a bust with fewer people attending, Jones has a message.

“It was amazing for us,” she said. “We have a touch-and-feel product because it’s a next-gen (patching solution). People have their ‘aha moment’ in person.”

With fewer brands in attendance at the show, bootstrapped brands like Noso could soak up more spotlight, Jones said. Typically, larger brands flood the show floor, many with elaborate booths that can cost six figures to set up for the duration of the show. Then, larger players are able to sponsor floor events and parties that also command attention.

That was all different this year, with booths trending smaller and less elaborate, and the most-organized players simply not showing up.

“It was more intimate,” she said. “You don’t get overwhelmed by all the bigger brands doing bigger things with big, corporate budgets.”

Tipping the hat

Abby Paffrath is founder of Art 4 All. She started her business after striking out at art festivals for selling her original artwork featuring colorful depictions of outdoorsy scenes. But she had made a single hat featuring her art to wear during art shows, and people came out of the woodwork asking her where to get the hat.

She could see that her original art might not be for everybody, but realized she could make her art fit more people by applying it to clothing.

Now, her art adorns trucker hats – her big seller – outdoor clothing, accessories, stickers, greeting cards and more. And it makes it into the hands of a lot more people as a result.

Paffrath said she’s been coming to Outdoor Retailer for several years, and keeps coming back for the relationships that have developed from the show.

Specifically, buyers from small gear shops to even REI have found Art 4 All at the show, and other collaborations have also developed.

During the show, Paffrath said it had been treating her brand well, despite the smaller attendance.

Why so subdued?

Many have heard reports about how the outdoor industry has been thriving since the pandemic hit as people seek wide-open spaces in response to social distancing protocol.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, camping participation grew 28% in 2020, hiking participation grew 16.3%, and freshwater fishing participation grew 8.6%, bringing a flood of new buyers into the markets.

“(It’s) the largest annual increase we’ve seen since we began tracking the numbers, and it translates to many millions of additional participants who discovered the outdoors in 2020,” said Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, in a news release. “Given the unique and unprecedented events of 2020, members of OIA are already asking what they can do to ensure the above numbers aren’t merely a short-term blip and to sustain the increase over time.”

Jones of Noso said many players in her industry are up 20% or more recently, begging the question of why its flagship trade show was a comparative ghost town in 2021.

From Jones’ perspective, the shrinkage is a result of a combination of factors.

First, the pandemic’s resurgence under the delta variant may have prevented a lot of conscientious brands from attending. Jones said she was personally comfortable at the show, since she recovered from a natural COVID infection and is also vaccinated.

Second, the show switched from its typical June timeframe to August, and “they announced it too late.” The well-organized big brands simply couldn’t pivot quickly enough to coordinate the massive effort on such short notice.

Third, she said a lot of brands have partially moved on from trade shows, in general, since the pandemic hit. Even her own company transitioned budget normally positioned for in-person events and pushed it into other marketing channels to keep growth alive during an industry disruption.

“Hosting sales meetings and new product showcases over Zoom is old hat now that the industry has adapted to conducting business online,” the Colorado Sun wrote in a piece calling this year’s trade show “subdued.”

Event planners have also gone on record saying many corporate travel bans are still in effect, and big players like Keen pulled out of Outdoor Retailer last minute, according to the paper.

Making matters worse for the trade show, some see a location tug-of-war developing as The Big Gear Show and other trade shows pop up in Outdoor Retailer’s former gathering spot of the Salt Lake City area.

In 2017, Outdoor Retailer made its move from Salt Lake City to Denver while citing political reasons like state leaders’ opposition to then-President Obama’s creation of the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. Critics panned the new monument as an unconstitutional overreach, limiting businesses like cattle production and oil and gas drilling in an area too large to make sense for the monument.

The outdoor industry disagreed, saying national monument designations help both the environment and the people who live in an area economically as outdoor usage thrives. Then, Outdoor Retailer voted with its wallet by leaving Utah, even cutting its contract short to do so while saying Colorado’s progressive culture better fits the outdoor industry.

“We chose Denver because of Colorado’s long-term commitment to protecting and nurturing public lands,” said Marisa Nicholson, director of the Outdoor Retailer trade show at the time.

However, none of the issues faced by Outdoor Retailer means much to the outdoor industry as a whole, which is clearly on the upswing in today’s climate. And for those who thrive at trade shows like Jones of Noso Patches, returning to Outdoor Retailer felt great after 18 months without an industry gathering.

“It felt like a big, warm hug,” she said.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus