Is Outdoor Retailer Bad for Utah Public Lands?

Is Outdoor Retailer Bad for Utah Public Lands?

By Amanda Ashley


Twice a year the Outdoor Retailer show descends on Salt Lake City and is the largest gathering of the Outdoor Industry in the United States. The opportunity to meet with suppliers, retailers, manufacturers, athletes, demo products and learn about new materials makes OR a truly unique business to business opportunity.


Whether you co-ordinate, host, shop or attend the show for business, your opinion of OR is largely determined by what your role in the show is. No matter your vantage point, everyone has to acknowledge that OR represents an industry that in 2012 provided 6.1 million american jobs, $646 billion in outdoor recreation spending each year, $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue, $39.7 billion in state/local tax revenue.

Each year amidst the oohs and aahs of outdoor heroes and new gear, there are the inevitable questions about the show and it’s future. It’s hard not to question if there is enough event space with vendors tucked into every nook and cranny, streets closed and the loading docks packed with the transportation and setup of manufacturers and exhibitors. But it isn’t just the size of the event, the elephant in the room is Utah’s mixed record on land use, and inevitably the question comes up of how we balance the ethics of bringing the largest gathering of outdoor folks to a state that has many policies that are hostile to outdoor recreation. With attention on Utah this year with the incredibly controversial decisions about Bears Ears, the Moab Master Leasing Plans and the Transfer of Public Lands Act, it’s becoming a dynamic dialogue, separate from the planning and coordinating of the event.

‘The outdoor industry is a huge economic power; some say the industry should wield its influence and demonstrate this power through its absence. I’d prefer we found common ground without threatening to leave the state.’ Brady Robinson, Access Fund

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2003

Anyone who has attended the OR show in the past 5 years would not have recognized the handful of vendors who made the transition from the ORCA show held in Reno in the early 90’s. The boom of the 90’s was a time when the outdoor industry saw multiple innovations in fabrics, materials and design as well as the explosive growth of almost every outdoor sport including climbing, hiking, backpacking, cycling, watersports and snow sports. This growth is easier to understand if you consider that the first show in Utah had approximately 4800 attendees and 300,000 sq ft of exhibition space while this past Summer Market had 28,0000 attendees and over 1.2 million sq feet of exhibition space.

spcc-outdoorretailer_pano3-1OIA, OR & Visit Salt Lake

The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), is the association partner, title sponsor and education provider of Outdoor Retailer which is managed and owned by Emerald Expositions, while Visit Salt Lake manages the logistics of the event in Salt Lake City. Outdoor Retailer is made up of 30+ staff that work on the show, with 5 people dedicated solely to the layout of the trade show floor. ‘Outdoor Retailer has been very creative and deliberate about how we manage growth,’ says Kate Lowry of OR, ‘each show cycle we hand place all the exhibitors to ensure they have the best possible show experience. That said, we are bound by the walls of the convention center. We have learned to be very creative in the way we layout the show floor. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle filled with heritage brands and new exhibitors to the show.’ This is not an easy job as OR typically welcomes over 1000 brands at Winter Market and more than 1600 brands at Summer Market. The growing trend of urban lifestyle brands, also known as venture out, is apparel and gear that has crossover appeal, so people can blend their outdoor lifestyle into their daily lives. OR started started with 17 brands and this year we will feature 70 brands. OR also showcases the larger crossover stories; skiing, hardgoods, accessories, apparel, food and other gear that goes along with backcountry adventures.

‘As a show producer we are always challenged to bring content that is informative and educational, we are always looking at a way to continually innovate and provide a quality service to our attendees.’ Katy Lowry OR

Currently, OR is contracted to be in SLC through 2018, and Visit Salt Lake is in talks to extend the contract to 2021, Scott Beck of Visit Salt Lake states that OR, is their biggest client. ‘As a destination, we have to know what we need to keep us relevant, now and into the future…In Salt Lake we provide great value, good labor (OR hires over 1000 people in Salt Lake to staff the event), downtown is easy to get around in. We have the perfect combination….of people, place and product….our lifestyle and destination is where attendees to OR aspire to live.’ OR continues to grow, not only as the Outdoor Industry grows, but also due to trade show consolidation, ‘Outdoor Industry used to be this human powered niche, but when the fly fishing trade show and the beach trade shows closed, we saw an increase.’ Both Visit Salt Lake and OR, consider their challenges in producing the show from a logistical and content aspect; they strive to create educational sessions and to feature all aspects of the outdoor industry. In addition to products for retail, they feature a glimpse into the full supply chain and trend forecasting, with textile manufacturers who preview color trends, fabrics, and innovations in raw materials.

Land Policy, Who’s in on the Conversation?

‘OIA and the outdoor industry work with policymakers to increase investment in public lands and waters – nationally and at the state and local level because it has immense return on investment.  Outdoor recreation is a major economic driver in Utah and OIA continues to work with policymakers in Utah to encourage policies that promote the growth of that economy.’ Jennifer Pringle, OIA


There is no question that the city of Salt Lake and the county of Salt Lake and even Summit County all recognize the value of the show and put action with word, and there is no expectation for Visit Salt Lake or OR to take a stance on these issues, as trade show organizations typically stay neutral. So the question of who leads the conversation is not an easy one to answer. The issue of land use affects everyone, and as Brady Robinson points out good land use policy is good not only for business, but for communities and individuals. So while there are big industry voices in the dialog, as individuals in outdoor recreation, everyone has a place in the conversation. It makes sense that you don’t check your ethics that you would use when climbing a route, navigating a river, touring the backcountry or backpacking in the wilderness when dealing with your local politics. Why would you let others define your outdoor experience without your input?

Peter Metcalf of Black Diamond is unapologetically vocal on this topic and calls for accountability from all involved, ‘After moving BD here in 1991, I, like a “born again”, wanted to vindicate and affirm the intelligence of my decision by getting the show here from Reno, because our industry stands for more than just commerce and with the incredibly shrinking retailer base one really doesn’t need to exhibit at OR with the very high cost involved. However, we get industry folks here for a variety of other reasons including the fact that we “champion the issues of great importance to our customers, our employees and ourselves”… and the tradeshow is one of our strongest ways to do that as witnessed by the protest I led back in 2002. It galvanized the industry and it achieved policy results.”

While it’s hard to imagine not having a trade show, the landscape of retail is changing and independent retail is becoming more challenging because of the Internet and direct to consumer sales from manufacturers. And OR like any other business has to adapt to new business models to continue to be successful and relevant to their customers. Debbie Motz the Executive Director of EORA, the largest Eastern based association for sales reps, produces up to 10 regional trade shows a year from New England to Florida, notes that the landscape of trade shows is changing for everyone. ‘Our focus is on the sales rep and the local retailer. We have to be economical for the sales rep and because we are regional we are beneficial and economical for the retailers to participate. We are seeing a shift in the timing and focus of the regional shows this is caused because Vendor order deadlines have changed. I know that our Board is very active in watching growing trends and directing our association to stay pertinent to the retailers that they work with.’

Is it All Doom, Gloom and Extractive Industry in Utah?


The legislature, the governor and the rural county commissioners hold sway in this state and in that regard only the Governor is not openly hostile to the show politics and policy but at best he only goes as far as simple homilies, gratuitous sound bites, and window dressing actions (when he remembers to patronize the show & industry which appears less and less).” Peter Metcalf

Even though the State receives a harsh critique, we have to acknowledge that Governor Herbert did set up the Office of Outdoor Recreation and Utah gets a fair amount of credit for leading on this issue, however, as Brady Robinson notes, to make effective change this it is going to take more than 1 person, it’s going to take a community and it is going to take time. Tom Adams, the Director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation, is building that community and addressing issues, head on. This fall The Office of Outdoor Recreation hosted 3 Outdoor Summits with planned discussions for recreation planners and public lands officials on overcoming conflict to create outstanding recreational opportunities. Adams is passionate about the progress of the Utah Outdoor Recreation Grant, which was able to provide 19 communities in Utah with matching funding to construct outdoor recreation infrastructure in 2015, 2016 and continuing to 2017.


Affecting long-term land use in Utah requires a community of effort and the awareness and commitment of individuals, as can be seen by the Grit Mill Project in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the largest climbing access trail project on US Forest Service (USFS) land in the nation. This incredible project was initiated by the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance and the Access Fund in coordination with the United States Forest Service. The Grit Mill Project is a strong reminder to individuals in the Outdoor Industry to participate in decisions being made in their communities and the communities they recreate in.

Metcalf notes that really critical quality of life and economic issues are at stake in Utah. “I sense that the show and the public policy it requires is 180 degrees apart from Utah’s public policy agenda on our public lands, clean air and water. Though the current lack of open conflict that exists between both sides vs. the early 2000’s might indicate a surrender of the Industry’s core values for commercial expediency, I would argue, that the seeming “armistice” or calm is but an illusion. And this time, when it breaks, there is no going back.” 



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