The past 14 months have been a dark season of disconnect for many in the business of outdoor. As much as anything else, we’re all likely to remember 2020 as the Year Without Trade Shows—the year we couldn’t hug, shake hands, or do business the way many of us prefer: in person. For an industry that prides itself on connection and compassion, the sting has been vivid.
The good news is, it’s almost over. The Outdoor Retailer (OR) Summer Market is coming back to Denver, Colo., on August 10-12, and registration is currently open. The Big Gear Show (BGS), which delayed its inaugural event last year, is set to stage just a week earlier, August 3-5, in Park City, Utah. After a year of red Xs on the calendar—cancelled events, dashed plans—folks are once again buying plane tickets and dusting off booth hardware, getting ready to see each other. There’s more than a modest buzz of anticipation in the air.
The time away has changed things, however. We’re not fully out of the pandemic yet, and in the months we’ve spent apart, most of us have adapted to new ways of doing business. Budgets have already been set for the year. Some people are eager to meet face-to-face as soon as possible, while others are still wary of crowds, or restricted by company travel bans. This year, a big question on everyone’s mind is who, exactly, will be at the trade shows?
In a typical year, almost no one would question whether the big industry players like Patagonia, The North Face, or Black Diamond would show up to our national shows. Those booths have been the anchors of such events for decades.
We’re living through the shoulder season of the most disruptive global crisis in a century, though, and the August shows are by no means a return to “normal,” as we hoped for so long they might be. At this point, it seems the only way to get a sense of who’s going—and who’s not—is to pick up the phone and start calling brand leaders, asking directly whether they plan to attend, yes or no.
Which is exactly what we did.
A quick disclaimer
First things first: Ten weeks is a long time. Trying to pin down a comprehensive, definitive list of who’s attending the shows, nearly three months before they stage, is impossible. Over the course of the summer, as the situation develops, brands can and will change their minds about attending or skipping one show or the other. It’s just too soon to tell.
But we have to start somewhere. To begin piecing together a picture of the attendee lists, we reached out to dozens of key industry players to ask about their plans. Some dodged our calls and emails (no hard feelings). Others outlined their thoughts in lengthy manifestos. Some wanted to talk, but felt they couldn’t, as in the case of a notable hardgoods brand that refused to go on the record for fear of upsetting its specialty retailers. Response, in other words. was all over the place.
As of today, our list of exhibitors attending or skipping the shows—subject to change at any moment—is more comprehensive than what OR and BGS directors have published, but it’s still miles from complete. Everything we know so far is outlined below.
Which brands are exhibiting at the shows?
Outdoor Retailer’s latest exhibitor list, released today, includes about 150 brands, though show director Marisa Nicholson told us previously that more than 300 brands are registered with “more contracts coming in daily.”
Brands exhibiting at Outdoor Retailer (confirmed by OR leadership): 4ocean, Adventure Medical Kits, Aetrex, Airhead Sports Group, Aloe Up Suncare, American, Alpine Club, American Backcountry, Amundsen, Avalanche, Backpacker’s Pantry, Bertucci Watch, Big City Mountaineers, Bison Designs, Body Glide, Bridgford Foods Corporation, Brightz Ltd., BROOKWOOD COMPANIES INC., brrr, Buck Knives, Inc., BULA, CAMP CHEF, Carson Optical, Centric Software, CHAOS / CTR, Chums, Coala, Cougar Shoes, CRKT, CWR Wholesale Distribution, Dakine Equipment, Dakota Grizzly, Dansko, Disc-O-Bed Retail, Inc., Dometic, Downlite, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, drirelease, Duraflex, EARTH SHOES, Ecovessel, U-Konserve, Equip, Everest Textile Co., Falcon Guides, Farm to Feet, FLEXFIT, Flylow Gear, Fox 40 USA, Frost River, GCI Outdoor, Geckobrands, Glacier Glove, Goal Zero, GORE-TEX, Grabber Inc. / Heatmax, Groove Life, G-SHOCK, GSI Outdoors, Hans Global / Pacific Fly, Hurley, Igloo, Ignik, UCO, Morakniv, Esbit, Pedco, ITW Nexus, Jambu & Co., Jetty, JTreeLife, Kavu, Inc., Kijaro, Killtec NA, Klean Kanteen, Klymit, Kokatat, Kokopelli, Komperdell Sportartikel GmbH, Korea Outdoor & Sports Industry Association, Labtex Co., Lamo Footwear, Ledlenser, Liberty Mountain, Lifeline First Aid & Fifty Fifty Bottles, Lorpen North America, LOWA Boots, Masterfit Enterprises Inc., Milliken & Company, Minus33 Merino Wool Clothing, Mountain and Isles, Mountaineers Books, Xtratuf, Mustang Survival, Nanga / Tomoyuki Yokota, Natural Tribute, Nomadix SPC, Ocun NA, Optic Nerve Eyewear, Osprey Packs, OTIS Eyewear, Otte Gear, Outdoor Products, Outdoor Sports Insurance, Outerknown, Peak Refuel, Pendleton, Poler, Princeton Tec, Propet USA, Purnell, Qalo, QuietKat, Rab, Reusch USA/TruSox, Rome Industries, Salty Crew, SANTERO, Sawyer Products, Scully, Shwood Eyewear, Skratch Labs, SMC PMI, Solstice Watersports, Sperry, Sport Hansa, Spyderco, Stansport, Sterling Rope Co., Storm Care Solutions Ltd., Storm Creek, Sun Company, SureFire, Sustainable Down Source, tasc Performance, The Landmark Project, The NPD Group, Thermore, Tilley Endurables, TINCUP MOUNTAIN WHISKEY, Trango / eGrips, TURBO TENT., Tweave, ust gear, Vandoit, Wallaroo Hat Company, Water Sports, Watershed, Western Mountaineering. Westfield Outdoors, Wild Tribute. Wolverine Footwear and Apparel, wow watersports / Big Mouth, Zippo Manufacturing.
The Big Gear Show confirmed that more than 100 brands have registered out of a possible 250 on the show’s invite-only list. We were able to get our hands on an abbreviated roster, which event co-founder Sutton Bacon said is merely a snapshot of the show’s full makeup.
Brands exhibiting at The Big Gear Show (confirmed by BGS leadership): AIRE, Aqua-Bound, AquaGlide, Astral, Barebones Living, Bending Branches, Bike Exchange, Black Diamond, CamelBak, Camp Chef, Diamondback, Eddyline Kayaks, Eldorado Walls, Esquif Canoe, Eureka, Fat Chance Bicycles, Five Ten, Giro, Goal Zero, Grand Trunk, Hydrapak, Jack Wolfskin, Jetboil, Kleen Kanteen, Klymit, La Sportiva, Liberty Mountain, Malone Auto Racks, Miir, Ocean Kayak, Old Town Canoe, Osprey, Outdoor Research, Oru Kayak, Petzl, Pinarello, POC Sports, Primus, Princeton Tec, Rumpl, SCARPA, Seattle Sports, SOG Specialty Knives & Tools, Stan’s NoTubes, Sterling Rope, Suspenz, Swarovski Optik, Tahe Outdoors / SIC, Tern Bicycles, Troy Lee Designs, Wahoo Fitness, Wenonah Canoe, Yakima.
Several of the industry’s largest brands have confirmed they’re skipping both shows, including Big Agnes, Marmot, Merrell, Mystery Ranch, NEMO, Outdoor Research, and Patagonia. And two companies we spoke with—Fjällräven and Lifestraw—are still undecided, though Lifestraw said it would likely attend only one.
Several brands did not respond to repeated requests for comment, including Smartwool, Mountain Hardwear, and KEEN, among others.
One major player—The North Face—presented a curious puzzle in our reporting. A company representative last week said that the brand is “not participating in any major trade shows, including the Summer Outdoor Retailer Show, in the near term.” Yet OR’s partial exhibitor list, released today, named the company as one of the confirmed players.
When asked for clarification, Nicholson said, “We’re in ongoing conversations with a lot of brands around creative ways they can participate in the show and what that looks like this year. The North Face is one of those brands, and we’re excited they are going to take advantage of opportunities provided at Outdoor Retailer to support specialty retailers and to engage with the community on important, relevant initiatives that help the industry move forward.”
At press time, multiple executives at The North Face had not responded to repeated requests for clarification.
Directors for both shows have stressed that comprehensive exhibitor information, including show floor plans, will be released soon. The Outdoor Retailer list is coming in mid-June, according to Nicholson, while The Big Gear Show’s list will be published in the next month or so, said Bacon.
Why some brands are dead-set on showing up
In speaking with more than a dozen of the industry’s largest brands about their reasons for prioritizing the trade shows this year, no explanation came up more frequently than the issue of community support.
“There’s an awful lot of relationship value and passion that can’t necessarily be measured, but that will have long-term benefits,” said LOWA general manager Peter Sachs in reference to Outdoor Retailer, which the footwear brand plans to attend. “From a purely commercial perspective, it’s late in the [buying] cycle. For us, our deadline [for Spring ’22 product] is about a week after the show. But I’m not looking at it from a commercial perspective. It’s not like I’m walking out with purchase orders anyway; I’m walking out with handshakes, pats on the back, that kind of thing. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s in June or August.”
Sachs estimates that he’s going to “overspend compared to the commercial value of the show,” but reiterated that, for his brand, attending Outdoor Retailer is a calculation that goes beyond dollars and cents.
“We want to show respect for the dealers who do attend, re-engage relationships with industry partners, get real products in front of buyers and trade press, present the company’s updated branding and marketing, and start to process the emotional parts of resuming our trade show schedule so we can get ready for the January ’22 show,” Sachs said.
Others like Jeff Polke, co-president of GCI Outdoor, echoed similar sentiments.
“It’s been 22 straight years that we’ve been at Outdoor Retailer,” said Polke. “It’s been such a big part of growing my company that I wouldn’t feel right missing the show.”
He added that, because so many businesses are having problems with their supply chains and budgets, he understands the argument for skipping the trade shows for financial reasons. Still, he said, “it’s a small price if you do it right.”
“Get a smaller booth,” said Polke. “Make it work. Some of these brands need to step it up and show everyone that the trade show industry is still valuable. We can’t forget everything that made the outdoor industry what it is. The shows are part of that. There’s value in face-to-face. We have to go back to who we are as humans, shaking hands and saying thank you for your business.”
Respect for retailers was another topic that came up repeatedly in our conversations with brands. For the better part of a year, after the lockdown period of the early pandemic, specialty retailers across the country kept their doors open to customers, maintaining face-to-face relationships with the industry’s consumer base.
“These retailers have been meeting with consumers out on the front line for a year, while we’ve been hiding behind our Zoom screens,” said Sachs. “We owe it to them.”
Why some brands are sitting out one trade show, or both
On the flip side of those calculations, there are business concerns—mostly financial—that many brands are being forced to take into account. The dollars-and-cents ROI, some say, just doesn’t add up, even though virtually all of the company leaders we interviewed expressed regret that they’re being forced to think along those lines.
Chris Harges, director of brand at Marmot, told Outside Business Journal the decision not to exhibit at either show was due strictly to timing and budget.
“The industry was hanging fire to see what was going to happen with the shows at the end of 2020 and into 2021,” Harges said. “By the time we knew the show was going to happen, and that it would happen in August, it was just too late. We had already done our budgeting. It’s expensive to display, and we had allocated those dollars elsewhere.”
Marmot plans to return to trade shows once the pandemic is fully past, the calendar is back on track, and industry buying cycles have returned to normal, Harges confirmed.
“We have a brand-new trade show booth and we’ve got a super-sexy line coming out,” he said. “Once we can get the logistical problems out of the way, yes, we want to get in front of people.”
Alex Kutches, vice president of sales and marketing at of Mystery Ranch, said that his company is not attending either show because “they are both simply too late” in the season to make them worthwhile.
“With our trajectory, we really need the shows to happen in June,” Kutches said. “I know this isn’t the model for everyone, but it’s working for us now in this phase of our growth. To have enough of the right product delivered as the Spring ’22 season begins, an August show is too late.”
Other brands cited low potential attendance as a reason for bowing out of one or both shows. Fjällräven, typically a massive presence at Outdoor Retailer, is one such company in that camp.
“While we haven’t yet decided, we are also hearing that a lot of brands will not be attending. We want to support the industry and always like to be in attendance, but trade shows are a very large expense,” Fjällräven CEO Nathan Dopp said. “If we cannot feel confident we will have good participation, we have a difficult time justifying it.”
For brands whose concerns are mainly financial, The Big Gear Show is admittedly in a better position to get people in the “yes” column. On balance, the show is much less expensive, a point that organizers are not shy in promoting.
“We’re under half the cost of other traditional trade shows in terms of booth fees,” said Bacon. “But everyone knows that booth fees are only a small fraction of the overall cost to exhibit at a show. We don’t nickel-and-dime you every time you turn around.”
For some, though, a more attractive price tag may not be enough. The more nebulous question of general “uncertainty,” whether due to logistics, safety, or financial forecasting, came up a lot in our conversations with brands that plan to sit out the shows this summer. Bottom-line cost, for these companies, was only a tiny piece of the overall puzzle.
“At the end of last year, we made the difficult decision to cancel all 2021 consumer and wholesale events due to the uncertainty around the pandemic, and we’re holding to that strategy,” said Len Zanni, co-owner of Big Agnes. “We look forward to connecting with all of our retailers, partners, and friends at the next shows.”
How the two trade shows differ—and why it’s important
In trying to suss out who’s going where, it’s helpful to note the contrasts—in both philosophy and setup—between OR and BGS. They’re very different shows.
Nicholson and Bacon were both quick to assert that comparing OR to BGS is misguided. (“Apples to oranges,” they both said.) Yet it’s clear from our discussions with brands that many are weighing the value propositions of the two shows against each other, and using the comparison to make decisions.
As for the differences themselves, they’re not hard to see.
OR is larger, more expensive, and, as SCARPA CEO Kim Miller puts it, “a known quantity.” The show is entrenched in the industry, a can’t-miss event—usually—for many businesses.
The Big Gear Show, on the other hand, is brand new. It features only hardgoods and has a capped invite list of 250 brands and 500 retailers, though co-founder Bacon said those numbers may increase slightly as interest builds. It’s also being held outside. Unlike OR, which is skipping its popular Demo Experience this year, BGS is all about the demo. It caters to hardgoods manufacturers “whose products function best when wet and muddy,” allowing them to be tested in those conditions.
Of all these differences, size seems to weigh most heavily on brand leaders’ minds. In the past, OR’s scale has kept it at the center of the industry’s calendar. This year, the long attendee list may create disadvantages.
“How do I tell my employees to go to a trade show with thousands of people if I can’t tell them that coming back to headquarters with 270 people isn’t a go?” said Black Diamond president John Walbrecht, who confirmed his company is skipping OR but attending BGS. “That’s a weird mixed message. Still, we’d all love to see OR be successful. It’s an important part of the industry.”
Of all the differences between OR and BGS, size seems to weigh most heavily on brand leaders’ minds. In the past, OR's scale has kept it at the center of the industry’s calendar. This year, the long attendee list may create disadvantages.
Miller told OBJ that his thinking is similar for SCARPA, which will skip OR but attend BGS.
“My first priority is still the safety of my colleagues and everyone in the company,” Miller said. “The big differentiator between The Big Gear Show and Outdoor Retailer is that one’s outside. Simply put, it’s hard for me to imagine being able to ensure safety with so many people indoors at OR in two months’ time.”
No one is taking these decisions lightly. Numerous brand leaders said as much in our conversations. Regret—even guilt—is hanging in the air.
“Trade shows are important to us,” Miller said. “OR’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of the industry are tied together. But this is a tactical season. I really hope OR can pull off a show, and I’m sorry that we can’t contribute.”
The January OR show, he said, “looks very different.”
How do retailers feel about the shows?
Exhibitors are only part of the equation, of course. Speculation about retail attendance is at a fever pitch, too.
Both shows have released partial lists of registered retailers. BGS’s includes just a handful of specialty shops and larger presences like Moosejaw and Backcountry, though Bacon confirmed that the show is “extremely close” to meeting its goal of 500 registrations and has retailers from 45 states already confirmed. The full list, he said, won’t be released publicly due to the invite-only nature of the show.
Outdoor Retailer’s list, on the other hand, includes some 3,000 retail buyers (representing about 1,500 shops from across the country), a number Nicholson said is “growing by hundreds per week.”
Because OR automatically registers some retailers that have opted into the show’s auto-renew process at past events, however, that number might be less impressive than it seems. Just because a retailer is registered doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll show up.
Rich Hill, president of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance (GOA), said as much in an interview this week about GOA’s biannual membership meeting, which took place on May 12. During that event, Hill told OBJ, trade show attendance was “a huge piece of the discussion.”
“Right now, everything is in play,” Hill said. “The pandemic is still not figured out, flights are still chaotic, and commitment to getting back is still all over the map.”
Hill said he’s seen “an absolute desire” from GOA members to attend face-to-face events this summer. But he also stressed that, based on his conversations, he believes retailers are delaying final decisions as long as possible.
“These days, everything is cancellable with flights and hotels,” said Hill. “People are pencilling these events in, but I don’t know if they’re going to fully commit or not until those cancel dates roll around. Most folks I’ve talked to are planning on attending at least one show. But I have also heard that they won’t know for certain until a week before.”
Our chats with retailers turned up similar sentiments. The general feeling in the air seems to be one of enthusiasm—soured, to greater and lesser degrees, by hesitation.
Todd Frank, owner of The Trail Head in Missoula, Mont., said that, while he’ll attend BGS (but not OR), “vendors and retailers alike seem unsure of what to do.”
“Hopefully it works out,” he added.
“There’s still a small chance that I will attend Outdoor Retailer—I’m registered—but even though I’m vaccinated, I’m still playing it really conservatively,” said Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, Calif. “While not a perfect scenario—as I miss the bustle, friends, and meetings at OR—I can buy virtually just fine. Perhaps most importantly, not going is way less expensive and more environmentally conscious.”
“Right now, it’s TBD if we want to spend the money, to be honest. It’s been a doozy of a year and we’re not sure if the expense is necessary,” said Mark Boles, owner of Intrinsic Provisions in Hingham, Mass.
Boles confirmed that, regardless of what happens with OR and BGS, he will attend Adventure 360 Collective’s New England Summer Expo from June 15-17 in Manchester, N.H.
To combat budget concerns, Bacon told OBJ that The Big Gear Show is offering a travel subsidy of up to $400 for all invited retailers.
“We offered the same program at Paddlesports Retailer for years and it was a big hit,” Bacon said. “As retailers ourselves, we know that travel and time away from the shop can be expensive.”
One theme is apparent here, too: Just like vendors, virtually everyone in the retail community wants the events to work. Grassroots, for its part, has explicitly endorsed The Big Gear Show and expressed support for its mission.
“Grassroots is endorsing BGS as its official paddlesports buying show this year,” Hill told OBJ. “Paddle is a critically important category for many of our retailers. We will continue to push the paddlesports industry to invest in supporting an annual gathering where buyers and sellers can gather, paddle, and facilitate top-to-top meetings to build a stronger and more resilient paddlesports marketplace.”
Perspectives from show organizers
In speaking with organizers of both shows, we heard one point reiterated again and again: Nothing is set in stone. The situation could change, dramatically, at any time.
“These are uncertain times,” said Nicholson. “Just because a brand said they’re not willing to do it at one point, that may change later.”
It’s worth noting that, if some of the big players who typically occupy cornerstone booths at Outdoor Retailer decide to pass, it could present an opportunity for small to mid-size brands to capture more of the spotlight and buzz. Lower attendance numbers might also open the door for more and better connections between retailers and the brand leaders.
It’s hard to know at this point, but the possibilities are intriguing. Several of our industry sources are at least entertaining these notions.
“We know that many of the big brands aren’t going to OR,” said Wes Allen, owner of Sunlight Sports in Cody, Wyo. “That’s okay. What we’re actually expecting is for small brands to have much more of a presence, because there will be less competition for floor space. We’re going to use it as a discovery trip to look for new brands, rather than as an opportunity for top-to-top meetings. We’ll be done with our normal preseason process [when the show stages.]”
Outdoor Industry Association, which until recently had much of its annual revenue stream tied up in Outdoor Retailer, is hopeful about the show, but stressed that brands need to make their own decisions based on the complex, evolving situation.
“We’ve taken the tack that if you feel comfortable and the CDC allows it, you should come. That said, we’re not going to tell brands how to set their budgets, prioritize their travel, or manage their employee safety,” said OIA executive director Lise Aangeenbrug.
“Last spring, we started planning for life without any kind of income from a trade show. We hoped they would come back, but we really didn’t know. So this year we have a business model that isn’t truly dependent on the show,” Aangeenbrug added.
Aangeenbrug said that the exhibitor numbers she’s seen so far for Outdoor Retailer are tracking at “a quarter of what we would normally get, but certainly more than we thought we would get earlier this year.”
Despite what others may say, however, organizers of both shows are confident their events will hit critical mass and avoid the most dire predictions of the industry’s doubters.
Aangeenbrug said that the exhibitor numbers she’s seen so far for Outdoor Retailer are tracking at “a quarter of what we would normally get, but certainly more than we thought we would get earlier this year.”
“We’re both overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of support we’ve gotten so far,” Bacon said. “Let’s face it: We’re a startup in the live events industry. For some of the most recognizable brands to choose us for their show mix for 2021 really validates our value proposition.”
“Things continue to change,” said Nicholson. “As things change, brands are realizing that it’s important for our industry to come together. Overwhelmingly, we’re getting one response from everyone we’ve been in contact with. That response is support.”
What it all means
At the end of the day, only one thing is certain about the summer shows right now: They won’t look like anything we’ve seen before.
Organizers are doing their best to approximate the events we’ve come to know and love, and their tireless work deserves all the praise we can give them. The desire among everyone in the industry—brands, retailers, reps, and media alike—to get back to in-person events is powerfully, almost painfully apparent. But the fact remains that we’re not out of this thing yet. The aftershock of last year is still rippling across the industry, and the August trade shows are obviously feeling the ground tremble beneath them, even now.
In a month, two months, this may all feel quaintly outdated. The thoughts and opinions we’ve captured here may ring hollow by the time the show dates arrive—who knows.
For now, though, they’re all we have.
Are you going to the shows?
Back in March, we conducted a poll about the two shows and found that, among our readers, 31 percent planned to skip both this summer, 19 percent planned to attend BGS only, 19 percent planned to attend OR only, 11 percent planned to attend both, and 20 percent were still unsure.
Have your plans changed? Weigh in below to let us know where you stand.