It’s the End of Outdoor Retailer as We Know It


Since the 90’s Salt Lake has been home to the OR Show and it is the tour de force of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). Well known as a venue for unveiling new products and innovation, pre-season orders, and the biggest gathering of the Outdoor Industry in the US, OR is now gaining political clout by leveraging its economic power to protect public lands and the environment.

After years of griping and grumbling within the industry about hostile Public Lands Policy in Utah, Yvon Chouinard drew a line when he penned the now legendary open letter to Utah Governor Herbert that set off a series of events that left many in the Outdoor Industry and Utah stunned and it’s been game on ever since.

In an early February conference call the Outdoor Industry Association specifically asked the Governor to address 4 measures:

End legal efforts or support for congressional action that would facilitate the sale or transfer of federal lands to the states; end efforts to nullify the Antiquities Act; stop seeking to reverse the designation of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah (Herbert signed a resolution from the Utah Legislature asking President Donald Trump to rescind the monument designation); and lastly to support other public lands “that provide the backbone of the industries sales”.

When the Governor did not agree, the decision was made to not include Utah as a future destination for the OR Show. The decision was met with shock and while most in the industry agreed that the decision had to be made, they weren’t all on board with how the decision was made. Independent retailer and recipient of the Menocal Lifetime Achievement Award for years of climbing advocacy, stewardship, and service, Maura Kistler of Waterstone Outdoors at the New River Gorge in West Virginia was left unimpressed, “We were expecting a more robust dialogue after the initial Patagonia/ArcteryX/Metolius/Polartec walkout. I wish they had facilitated a real dialogue. I followed closely and felt it was a complex decision that needed to be explored much more fully by all the smart people in this industry.”


 The Numbers Don’t Lie

Bureaucracy and legacy extractive industries can banter all day, but the numbers, or more accurately the money, generated by the Outdoor Industry speaks for itself. In April OIA released their economic report and the numbers were astounding. The report stated that the outdoor recreation economy generates $887 Billion in consumer spending annually, 7.6 million American jobs, $65.3 billion in Federal tax revenue and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue.

The economic report didn’t stop there, it showed the full impact of outdoor recreation on federal lands, statistics the likes of which modern day extractive industry can’t touch.

“Outdoor recreation on forest service lands contributes more than $13 billion dollars to the national economy and supports over 205,000 jobs annually. The jobs, predominantly based in rural communities, strengthen local economies. Many small businesses—including more than 5,000 outfitters and guiding companies—benefit from proximity and access to national forests. On average, Western rural counties with the highest shares of federal lands had faster population, employment, peers with the lowest share of federal lands.”

Brady Robinson of the Access Fund notes that a little over 30% of America’s climbing is on national forests – about half of the climbing on public lands. As impressive as those numbers are, they don’t include hiking, camping, backpacking, watersports, biking, snow sports, hunting, fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation. Climber and NRG Sales Group Owner Kurt Smith says, “More than just climbers share and use these public lands and all contribute to those local economies in many different ways. As a whole we need to be focused on the solution and not berating or tearing down the opposition.”

With so much at stake to both revenue and quality of life, Governor Herbert’s statement issued by Paul Edwards, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, sidestepped the issues involved  “It smacks of gross ingratitude to a community that has embraced the Outdoor Retailer show, subsidizing its success and expansion through direct investment — let alone extraordinary hospitality.”  The comment made the decision to exit Utah seem long overdue.  Peter Metcalf was quick to point out, “There’s no question the governor never understood that the gracious hospitality of the people of SLC and the surrounding area was ever in question. They are awesome. The issue was his and the congressional leadership’s failure to understand that the issue was and remains Utah’s inability to support policies that offer meaningful appreciation, protection, stewardship, and funding of our public lands. No state has as bad of a track record as Utah when it comes to that and it is the only state in America that continues to fund at millions of dollars a year, the creation of a lawsuit by which to expropriate our public lands.”

At the June Outdoor Press Camp in Deer Valley Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox was still not specifically addressing the issues regarding land use policy within the state when he blamed the ‘Trump Effect’ for the decision to leave Utah when he stated, “We had been having these (negotiations) for years. Every year, we would get to the ‘same page’ and we moved forward. The only thing that changed this year was that Donald Trump got elected.”

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2003

The Times They Are a Changin…

As one of the largest trade shows in the Outdoor Industry. OR is never going to please or include everyone in the industry. Some may feel the show is at the forefront of innovation and trends, while others may feel that it loses the integrity and roots of the true wilderness outdoor recreation experience and that small business won’t be able to afford to attend, but that isn’t going to slow its momentum for the foreseeable future.

Retail has changed…Not just outdoor retail, but retail in general and the outdoor industry has not been immune to feeling the effects. National retailers are closing their doors as consumer shopping and spending habits change in a constantly connected global marketplace. In early June Credit Suisse predicted that 25% of brick and mortar retail in the United States could close by 2022, although they noted that both off price and online retail have seen record growth. While people may change how and where they shop, they will still recreate and it remains that they will shop for gear, apparel and accessories. As Kistler notes, “It is the ‘specialty’ in outdoor specialty retail that is our insurance. We believe if you keep your shop in the center of your community and spend prodigious energy building your community and looking out for your customers, you will remain relevant.”

Outdoor Retailer is a business to business trade show but don’t let the name fool you, OR covers all aspects of the Industry, not just the relationship from manufacturer to retailer. While the main floor is a blitz of manufacturers, retailers and star athletes this is only a small part of what is happening at the trade show. Outdoor Retailer provides a venue for supply chain, r&d, marketing, consultants, international trade, environmentalism, sustainability and advocacy for public lands. As retail changes, so too will OR. While the big tents may lend a circus feel, OR is a venue for outdoor industry businesses to conduct serious business that is in line with the ethics and power that the industry clearly defined in Utah.

It’s Not All About the Gear

Prior to 2017 the outdoor industry was certainly not remiss in participating in land use policy, local, state or federal government, however Brady Robinson notes, “the threat has certainly galvanized the community and brought people together.” When the OIA Economic report was released it included the mandate “If we are to turn America’s natural resources over to the next generations ‘increased, not impaired in value,’ today’s policymakers must protect America’s lands and waters, the assets that are the foundation of the outdoor recreation economy; invest in local and federal recreation infrastructure and programs to ensure all Americans have access to public lands and waters; and promote outdoor recreation as part of community and public health policy and programming”

The 2017 OIA Policy Agenda includes the expected agendas on State & Local Engagement and Federal recreation and public lands as well as agendas on International trade and climate change. In early May at the 2nd annual Adidas sponsored event, Climb the Hill, the Access Fund, American Alpine Club and a who’s who of climbers met with Congressional representatives and policymakers to advocate for public lands, outdoor recreation, and improved climbing management. In late May Outdoor industry CEOs and executives gathered in Telluride, CO for the Inaugural Outdoor Industry Climate Leadership Summit.


The stage has been set for serious long-term change, and the common thread from voices in the Industry is we

“We can and must make our issues bipartisan issues as they are as American as Motherhood and Apple pie. We must organize and work with the savvy of the NRA, trial lawyers and right to lifers…” Peter Metcalf

“We need to join forces with the mtn. bikers, bird watchers, hunters, fishing folks, skiers etc… to gather on one place and rally for the lands that we all own.” Kurt Smith

“We need to hear a much louder and more cohesive roar coming from the outdoor industry. the dialogue has been truncated and muted.” Maura Kistler

It’s the galvanizing of the community and dialogue that will bring the changes the OIA is leading and the question we all must ask, is what are we willing to do to bring about the change?

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