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Originally published on Outside Business Journal
Twenty-five of the outdoor industry’s biggest brands—including Patagonia, REI, and The North Face—have a message for Outdoor Retailer in advance of the trade show’s decision about where its next home will be: “We will not support or attend an event in Utah,” the businesses say.
The statement, published today in a press release by The Conservation Alliance, cites Utah’s spotty public-lands record as the main reason for the decision.
“Despite widespread industry objections, Emerald [Outdoor Retailer’s parent company] has demonstrated a continued interest in moving the Outdoor Retailer trade show to Utah, a state that leads the fight against designated national monuments and public lands,” the release reads. “Industry leaders are expressing their support for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and its longstanding efforts to protect the homeland of the Tribes and Pueblos with cultural ties to the Bears Ears landscape [in Utah].”
A long-simmering debate boils over
Anyone following Outdoor Retailer in the news over the past several months might have seen this coming. At the end of 2022, the trade show’s current five-year contract with the City of Denver will expire, and politicians from both Colorado and Utah are publicly appealing to Emerald to win the next one.
In January, Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Colorado Governor Jared Polis sent a letter to Emerald, urging show organizers to keep the event in Denver. “The leaders of the outdoor industry have spoken with an articulate and strong voice that this cornerstone event belongs in a state that shares its values on public land and recreation,” Bennet, Hickenlooper, and Polis wrote at the time.
In Utah, Governor Spencer Cox has been busy with his own appeal. In September 2021, he released a video laying out his case for bringing the show back to the Beehive State. “We’re working with key stakeholders and the Department of the Interior to establish sustainable ways to manage Bears Ears National Monument and other cherished public lands,” Cox says in the video, an indication that he understands how important the issue is to Outdoor Retailer’s customers.
Responding to the news, OR show director Marisa Nicholson told OBJ that Emerald is still weighing its options and hasn’t come to a decision about where the trade show’s next home will be.
“We have been in ongoing conversations with many across our industry and are taking all input and perspectives into consideration,” says Nicholson. “We appreciate the passion and respect everyone’s point of view. No decisions around future dates or location have been decided at this time, and we look forward to sharing our thoughts in the coming days.”
Complicating the situation is the trade show’s already fraught history with the State of Utah. Prior to staging in Denver, the show lived for years in Salt Lake City. In 2018, it moved to Denver to protest then-Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s support of the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Colorado welcomed the show—and the tens of millions of dollars in local economic impact it promised to bring with it—with open arms.
“We are ready to roll out the welcome mat,” Hickenlooper, then Colorado’s governor, said when the show came to The Mile High City. “We can’t wait to greet our new visitors and enjoy the energy and momentum this will bring to the region.”
Continued resistance to a Utah trade show
The announcement about Outdoor Retailer’s next home is expected any day. After OR Summer in 2021, Nicholson said there’s “a really good chance” the show stays in Denver, but that if it doesn’t, it will relocate to Anaheim, Las Vegas, Orlando, or Salt Lake City.
“At the end of the day, this is the industry’s show,” Nicholson said in August of last year. “We’re going to continue to host the show where the industry wants it to be.”
As of this week, that decision might be made simpler for OR. Even if show organizers have softened on Utah, it’s clear many of their customers haven’t—and it’s difficult to imagine Emerald would go forward with plans for a Utah event with so many of its prominent exhibitors in fierce opposition.
“In 2017, REI strongly supported the decision to move the outdoor industry trade show out of Utah when the state’s leadership refused to protect duly designated national monuments and natural treasures,” says Ben Steele, REI’s chief customer officer, in today’s release. “REI will not participate in any OR trade show in [Utah]—nor will we send members of our merchandising or other co-op teams—so long as Utah persists in attacking our public lands and the laws that protect them.”
Ryan Gellert, Patagonia’s CEO, puts forward a similar sentiment in the release. “Our position on the location of the Outdoor Retailer trade show remains clear and unchanged: The show belongs in a state whose top officials value and seek to protect public lands,” he writes.
It’s possible OR could survive in Utah even without the support of these big exhibitors. Even with a move to Salt Lake City, hundreds of brands would likely still attend. The event also wouldn’t be alone on the Utah trade-show circuit. The Big Gear Show—another of the industry’s prominent events—hosted its inaugural show in Park City last summer, and plans to return there for a second iteration this year. Big Gear Show show organizers could not immediately be reached for comment about their position on hosting a trade event in Utah.
Brands joining the protest
The following brands joined The Conservation Alliance in signing the statement released today.
- The North Face
- Public Lands
- KEEN Footwear
- Oboz Footwear
- Sierra Designs
- Peak Design
- NEMO Equipment
- Backpacker’s Pantry
- GU Energy Labs
- La Sportiva
- Alpacka Raft
Concluding the release, leaders from these brands write, “So long as Utah’s elected delegation continues its assault on public lands and the laws designed to protect them, Emerald faces a choice: move the show to Utah and ensure that many of the key players in the outdoor industry will not return to Utah with the trade show, or work with the industry leaders to shape a future trade show that balances the interests and values of industry members and partners.”
Does ‘no’ to Utah mean ‘yes’ to Colorado?
The big question, of course, is whether these signatory brands—many of which have not attended OR since before the pandemic—will come back to the show even if it does stay in Denver. In the last two years, many have found workable alternatives to attending OR. And there’s some indication that, while once a pandemic necessity, these workarounds are starting to become the status quo.
In the coming days, Outside Business Journal will be reaching out to the businesses on the above list for more details regarding their trade show plans in 2023 and beyond.