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Oh where, oh where is our trade show going?

In early May, Outdoor Retailer, working closely with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), sent out an electronic invitation to take an online survey designed to garner input for future show direction and planning. The invitation went to more than 6,000 exhibitors and retailers who had attended the 2002 and 2003 Summer Market trade shows.

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In early May, Outdoor Retailer, working closely with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), sent out an electronic invitation to take an online survey designed to garner input for future show direction and planning. The invitation went to more than 6,000 exhibitors and retailers who had attended the 2002 and 2003 Summer Market trade shows.

It’s no secret that Outdoor Retailer is keenly interested in finding more space for its Summer Market trade show because the Salt Lake City-based show sold out in 2003 and, again, just over a week ago for 2004. In 2003, Outdoor Retailer spent nearly $500,000 to erect a pavilion tent in the parking lot just west of what has become an undersized Salt Palace. Outdoor Retailer will spend a similar amount again this year, and still the trade show organizer finds itself turning away potential customers.

In our Dec. 12 story, “Is Outdoor Retailer considering a trade show move?” we began the first in-depth look at an issue becoming more and more public. At that time, Reno, Denver, and even Las Vegas were being considered possible alternatives to a Salt Lake venue, but things change quickly in this market.

By February, it became clear to insiders who were communicating regularly with SNEWS® that Reno was out of the running simply because that city’s convention center wasn’t large enough at 381,000 square feet — only 20,000 square feet bigger than SLC.

The hub cities that Peter Devin, group trade show director for Outdoor Retailer, identified as being seriously considered for hosting Summer Market included Las Vegas, Denver, New Orleans, Orlando and Salt Lake City.

Though Devin insists that all cities were being considered equally, and said that “we will continue to work together with the industry until we find the right solution for the show,” feedback we have received from numerous insiders indicates there is little doubt that Outdoor Retailer prefers Las Vegas as a destination, simply because it is, as trade show destinations go, a perfect convention town — on paper.

Devin does acknowledge, however, that there is more at play in this decision than simply being a perfect convention town.

“We need to go where we can be and feel like we are a community. If it was just hall space, it would be easy to say we were going to go to Las Vegas, or anywhere else for that matter,” he said. “But we cannot and will not overlook the fact that this is an outdoor show, and the outdoors and environment and culture of our shows are strong indicators of whether the show is successful and productive or not.”

Even so, it appeared, until late March, that there was no way Salt Lake City was going to be seriously considered simply because the show lacked sufficient space. The Salt Palace currently includes 365,000 feet of contiguous exhibit space with an additional 54,000 square feet of meeting room space and 45,000 square feet of ballroom space — all of which is fully utilized for Summer Market, with no room to spare.

However, during the March OIA board meeting in Washington, D.C., the OIA board unanimously agreed to issue the following motion on the trade show location search: “The OIA Board of Directors recommends that Outdoor Retailer Summer Market remains in Salt Lake City through 2005, and requests that VNU provides the Board with what is required of the Salt Lake City Convention Bureau in order for the show to remain in that city beyond 2005.”

The OIA board also sent a May letter to Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and Utah Gov. Olene Walker indicating to the government leaders that VNU Expositions had notified OIA that an expansion of the Salt Palace must occur and that if Salt Lake County could not present a permanent solution to the expansion problem, OIA would “have no choice but to support a move to another city that is capable of hosting the show.”

OIA also stated very firmly that the association did not want to leave Utah and that the board would be very disappointed if all the progress that had been made to date was undermined by an inability to meet the logistical needs of Outdoor Retailer.

“I think the thing is, we really owe Salt Lake City the first shot to keep the show,” said Lee Fromson, president of Cascade Designs and the OIA chairman of the board. “We have been urging VNU to get really specific with the city and state telling them what they need to do, and we have heard they’ve done that. All things being equal, the board would very much like to stay in SLC, but we also understand issues pertaining to space and other logistical specifics have to be solved.”

We talked to Jason Mathis, director of communications for the Salt Lake Convention Bureau, who told us the city, county and state are very aware that if the trade show leaves town, it could amount to a $32 million hit in the pocket for local businesses.

He confirmed that meetings with city, county and state officials have resulted in a decision to find sufficient money to immediately fund architectural plans to facilitate the expansion of the Salt Palace in stages.
Stage one of a proposed expansion would be the construction of an underground parking facility where the pavilion has stood in recent years. This $10 million venture would provide additional and much-needed parking, serve as a foundation for a larger exhibit space above, and, in the short term, provide a flat and stable surface on which to erect pavilions.

“We are very confident that we would be able to have this phase of construction completed by 2005,” Mathis said.

The next phase would involve a $30 million to $40 million expansion of the current space, building additional exhibit space on top of the parking foundation and joining that with the back wall of the existing Salt Palace.

“With the planned expansion, we would be able to provide approximately 575,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space that would be ready by 2006,” Mathis added. “There are intangible assets as part of considering a trade show move that we all hope the Outdoor Retailer buyers and exhibitors recognize, and that is that our community really appreciates the outdoor industry and its trade shows and we understand and value the importance of the shows to our community.”

Insiders have told SNEWS® that all the key legislators are in agreement that the city, county and state need to make this happen and that a required vote by the state legislature in January to approve the funds and a likely requisite increase in taxes will be a mere formality.

And, just like that, SLC is back in the running and, it appears, nosing ahead in the back stretch.

SNEWS® View: Let’s start with Las Vegas. No doubt it is a great trade show venue for those businesses that spend their entire day and night inside. But we can speak from personal experience that to get anywhere remotely recreational, you have to drive 30 minutes or more. And just thinking about trying to go for a run from our hotel room sends shudders down our spine. Could it work? Yes. Transportation, restaurants, hotels and convention services are top-notch. Compared to Denver, it is a toss up, with Denver getting the nod simply because there are more immediately accessible and enjoyable recreational opportunities. Of course, Denver loses points because the airport is very expensive to fly in and out of, since United nearly has a lock, and it’s miles from downtown. Orlando? In the summer? Please, its’ Mickey Mouse even to consider it. Plus, mountains? Where? And, while we love New Orleans and the city’s music, food and energy, in the summer there ain’t nothin’ good about drenching your clothes in sweat the minute you step outside.

So we are back to Salt Lake City. Frankly, while a very vocal contingent of our readership decries SLC as a backwater, and we have to admit we too have been frustrated by the, er, conservative nature of the town, the fact is, the city has stepped up more often than not to serve our convention needs. Cabs are better, food is better, service is better, lodging is better, and now, it appears, the convention center will be made better. Heck, we can even have two drinks on a table at the same time now — that’s progress. We agree with OIA that SLC deserves a shot to deliver, and if it delivers, it deserves to keep the show. In what other convention location would you find city, county and state officials all working so hard to keep our favor? No other, that is for sure.

Of course, the big question still remains, and one that will not be answered by any current trade show survey. The question is, how does the industry and, more specifically, Outdoor Retailer build and increase retail attendance at the show for the long term? We hear that Outdoor Retailer has suggested that Vegas is the best place to do just that. From our surveys, we’re not so sure, and we frankly feel that making the show more attractive to retailers has less to do with location as it has to do with the show.

>> Speak up and sound off on our industry’s tradeshow location by going to the SNEWS® Community Forum. Click here to post your views and to read what others have said.