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The much-touted virtual media show called Thin Air, originally scheduled to run in June and subsequently pushed to mid-September, has been postponed again, this time to an unspecified date later in the fall. The show’s parent company, Gearmunk, maintains that the event will run, but former employees aren’t so sure.
Conversations with numerous individuals who worked at Gearmunk over the past several years revealed deep dissatisfaction with the company’s management and serious doubt about the viability of the Thin Air Show from a financial and operational perspective.
A big promise
When the details of the Thin Air Show came out earlier this year, Gearmunk CEO Erik Boles described it as a different kind of virtual event, far superior to what had come before.
At that time, Outside Business Journal reported that the show was built on a technology platform that Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM had used for large-scale projects. According to a press release published in May, Boles claimed that, by the time the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the demand for virtual trade shows, “Thin Air had already been in the works for several years and [had] nearly a half million dollars invested in the platform alone.”
Early proponents like The North Face founder Hap Klopp described the show to OBJ as a “natural step forward for the outdoor industry.”
The new format amounted to “a classic example of inevitable disruption,” Klopp, who agreed to participate in the show as a keynote speaker and serves on the show’s advisory board, told OBJ in June.
Following news of the show’s postponement, Klopp could not be reached for comment.
In comparison to other virtual shows that have debuted this year, Thin Air billed itself as meaningfully different in form and content. Instead of presenting webinar-style line showings and lectures—the basic structure adopted by big players like Outdoor Retailer Online—Thin Air promoted a virtual environment that would allow attendees to build video-game-style avatars to interact with virtual representatives from brands.
The show also emphasized its low price point compared to in-person gatherings like Outdoor Retailer. A standard booth at Thin Air costs around $1,500, Boles told OBJ earlier this year, while booth fees at Outdoor Retailer can easily run to tens of thousands of dollars. Even Outdoor Retailer Online, which ran in July, was more expensive, with exhibitor booths available at three levels: Featured for $2,500, Gold for $3,750, and Platinum for $5,000.
“Thin Air is bringing in an array of targeted and highly valued programming, including education, data, and product category awards,” Gearmunk’s June press release said. The statement promised that the show would give exhibitors “full visibility of impressions, list building, click-throughs, and direct sales,” with “attendee reporting, activity metrics, and interest metrics” included for participating brands at the $5,000 booth level and above.
A shifting model
Initially, Gearmunk intended Thin Air to cater only to brands and media professionals, with exhibitor participation limited to 400 booths. But in mid-May, Boles announced that the show would open to retail buyers as well.
“We know traditionally retailers attend trade shows for product discovery, and many cottage brands and emerging brands aren’t in attendance at those shows,” Boles said at the time of the announcement. “Offering Thin Air to retailers was a logical step for us so they can learn about what’s hot, what brands are doing right now, and discover brands they normally don’t see or have the opportunity to engage with.”
At the time, Boles claimed that more than 200 exhibitors had already registered for the show, mostly “new, young, up-and-coming brands.”
In early June, however, amid national protests over the killing of George Floyd, Boles made another big change, pushing the show to mid-September “to ensure we do not take focus away from long overdue conversations” about racism.
Now Boles has delayed the show again, promising this time that it will run in “late October or early November” with a radically altered funding structure and an appeal to a different group of potential exhibitors.
“The show in its traditional format wasn’t going to be a success,” Boles told Outside Business Journal. “What we want to do is celebrate the new face of the outdoors…the up-and-comers, the people that are breaking the old paradigm of what the outdoors used to be. Those were not the brands that we were getting.”
Boles declined to identify specific brands that had signed up and didn’t fit this new mold, but he did confirm that paying exhibitors no longer attending the show will be refunded.
The new format will incorporate an invite-only exhibitor list, Boles said. Brands won’t pay to attend; funding will come from a group of sponsors that Boles declined to name. The type of brands that will receive invites, Boles said, are those like Byborre and Seven Layer—”people that are just doing things differently, that aren’t following the old model.”
Asked whether a brand like Patagonia would be allowed to participate in the new show, Boles said, “That’s a definite maybe. We would have to have a conversation with them and see what they want to do. Everything is going to be conversation-based.”
Questions about participation
When Gearmunk first announced the Thin Air Show this spring, it earned ample media attention for the event, with outlets like Business Insider, Gear Junkie, and Outside Business Journal covering the development of the show. News reports painted a picture of widespread excitement among outdoor industry players.
Behind the scenes at Gearmunk, however, employees had concerns about the show’s viability for months. Outside Business Journal spoke with multiple current or former employees at Gearmunk who expressed deep frustration with the company and its handling of the show.
Jenna Celmer, who joined Gearmunk as a VP of digital strategy in February, said that as early as April she had become “insecure” about the number of brands committed to exhibiting in June.
“I was never given what I considered an actual list that I trusted,” she told OBJ. “I was never told, ‘These are the people that are coming.’ I was given random updates on brands that were interested and brands that were in. Sometimes, later, those brands were out again randomly.”
One former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity fielded phone calls with brands interested in exhibiting at the show. When potential exhibitors asked for a list of companies that had committed to attending, Boles refused to supply one.
That information, Boles said, was never made available to Gearmunk employees because it was “not within their role” to have it. “Their role was to sell.”
To date, Outside Business Journal has confirmed just two companies that committed to participate—in any fashion—in the original June show: HOKA ONE ONE and Polartec.
A representative for HOKA confirmed that the brand had agreed to sponsor a panel discussion on women’s wilderness self-defense hosted by one of its athlete ambassadors, Nicole Snell. The company declined to specify whether this sponsorship involved payment to Thin Air. HOKA said that it is not involved in any capacity with the new show.
A representative for Polartec said the company “agreed to participate with Thin Air as a vendor based on…the presence of other brands and media that were represented as also participating. However, Polartec is not, nor has been, a sponsor of Thin Air, and we have not authorized use of the Polartec brand to represent the show.”
Wage concerns and possible legal action
In addition to these concerns about show participation, multiple individuals who worked at Gearmunk on a full-time basis also said the company owes them thousands of dollars in unpaid wages.
Celmer, hired in February, said she didn’t receive regular paychecks for months after joining the company, but was instead “paid lump sums randomly.”
In July, Celmer approached Boles about the irregular payments. She refused to continue working for the company until she received the compensation stipulated by her employment agreement. She did not resign, she said, because it would have affected her ability to collect unemployment.
As of today, Celmer said she is still technically employed by Gearmunk, but has not received her full wages. She wouldn’t disclose how much Gearmunk owes her, but claimed that, in addition to her missed pay, the company also owes 12 members of a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee a total of $3,000.
Another former employee, Jason Sakurai, said Gearmunk owes him about $7,500 in unpaid wages. Sakurai joined Gearmunk in early July as a sales and new business development executive, but resigned in August after receiving no pay. He expressed doubt about the company’s financial situation and Gearmunks’ internal sales reports.
“He [Boles] would tell us that he had sold booth space or features to companies,” Sakurai said. “He would name these companies—they were all fairly obscure. Of those that he named, it never showed on our CRM that those had been paid or any money had been received.”
A third employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they’re owed at least $5,000.
All three of these individuals said Boles gave various reasons for delaying salary payments, including a personal medical emergency and problems with the company’s payroll system. Boles, however, said the delays stemmed primarily from the structure of Gearmunk’s funding model.
“When you hire salespeople that literally cannot sell anything, then that becomes a problem and you run into what they call a revenue shortfall,” Boles said. “Whenever you go through an investment cycle on any kind of a startup, let’s say you raise a million dollars…they don’t just write you a check for a million dollars. That money is tranched, meaning that we give you X amount at certain benchmarks within the business. You have to meet certain goals to get those tranches filled. And one of those tranches was sales activity for Thin Air specifically. And we failed to meet that, plain and simple, as a startup initiative.”
Boles confirmed that everyone who worked on the Thin Air Show will receive pay “early next week.” He has commented publicly that this will happen by September 15.
Regardless, at least three former employees are considering legal action against Boles and Gearmunk to collect the unpaid wages, including Sakurai, who has filed a wage complaint with the State of Colorado and the Colorado Springs City Attorney against Gearmunk, the Thin Air Show, and Boles.
Boles, however, said further action will be unnecessary.
“That’s already been remedied,” he said.
Will the show go on?
Boles stated unequivocally that the show will happen this fall. He said that two full-time employees are currently working for him at Gearmunk, though he declined to identify those individuals.
Multiple former Gearmunk employees, including Sakurai, were less certain.
“From all indications, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Thin Air will take place at any time,” Sakurai said. “The structure as it exists, and its execution thus far, leads me to that conclusion.”
Boles, for his part, responded with assurances.
“People can say what they want to say. I’m not deciding the future of Gearmunk or the Thin Air Show in the court of public opinion,” he said.” Let them say what they want to say. History will be the decider as to who’s right and who’s wrong.”