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Trade Shows & Events

What fits at Outdoor Retailer?

As the Outdoor Retailer trade shows continue to grow, SNEWS takes a look at the growing debate of what companies and products define the industry, and how show organizers determine who's in and who's out.

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Throughout the month of February, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 19-22. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Outdoor Retailer trade shows cast a huge shadow.

Consider that Summer Market 2011 was, at 455,000 square feet of exhibit space, ranked among the 40 largest trade shows in the country. And because the show continues to expand exhibitor and attendance numbers, it is outgrowing, for the third time, the available space in Salt Lake City to house it. First there was a 2002 expansion of the convention center on the ballroom side, and then the 2006 expansion of the convention center on the west side.

Finding available hotels and other housing alternatives within reasonable proximity to the convention center is becoming nearly impossible. Already there are rumblings that the show might have to move, even as so many retailers and exhibitors tell us they have gotten quite comfortable in Salt Lake City.

It’s not just the limited size of the convention center and the city’s amenities that are at issue. The greater debate centers on the evolving definition of the outdoor industry, fast expanding in scope and fueling the growth of the trade show.

With so many questions about Outdoor Retailer’s future location arising, it’s time to take a pulse of the show and the industry, said Kenji Haroutunian, vice president at Nielsen Expositions outdoor group. Together with the Outdoor Industry Association, Outdoor Retailer will launch what Haroutunian refers to as “an official feedback mechanism and decision-making process utilizing surveys, social media and direct conversation with industry stakeholders.”

Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of OIA, told us he already has a task force working on what the trade show should be. “Our board will be looking to adopt the 10-year vision that the task force has put forward as a recommendation, and we will be sharing that with the industry at Winter Market,” Hugelmeyer said.

Some of the pressing questions to which the board has been seeking answers include:

  • What is the definition of outdoor?
  • What do we want this show to look like in 10 years?
  • What is the appropriate growth for this show?

Should the show be more selective?

There is little doubt that by the broadest of definition, the outdoor industry is perceived as an attractive place to hang out a business shingle these days. From the outside looking in, things are exceedingly rosy and that leads to an abundant crop of potential exhibitors who view the outdoor retail marketplace as a potential venue to expand distribution, launch a new product line and, ultimately, rake in the profits.

But where could or should Outdoor Retailer and, by extension, the Outdoor Industry Association put up controls to decide who gets approval to exhibit at either Summer Market or Winter Market? If you take a gander at the sidebar, “Would a retailer buy this?” one could argue some of the products listed had no place at an Outdoor Retailer show. On the other hand, by whose definition are we applying access standards?

Hugelmeyer argued: “It is part of the power, attraction and recipe for success that we have to have a broader definition of what is outdoor. Rather than trying to put up borders based on narrow ideas, it is far better to let the consumer and innovation and the community define the market.”

History would indicate that Outdoor Retailer has, for the last decade, been allowing the market to decide what is appropriate at its trade shows.

Considering that the shows enjoy an almost unheard of 80 percent retention rate in terms of exhibitors, that still means Haroutunian and team have to vet and filter at least 200 new exhibitors to the market each show. Contrary to what some exhibitors might believe, Outdoor Retailer’s application process is quite selective.

“In accessing a new brand who wants to exhibit, we give them a ranking based on a broad set of criteria,” said Haroutunian. “Sometimes, there is no doubt we get it wrong, but to me that is far better than trying to play judge and jury at every turn.”

More often than not, Outdoor Retailer seems to get it right, even if it strays from the OIA contract Outdoor Retailer operates under, which contains specific guidelines regarding the product categories that can be in the show. “Stand up paddling is not on the list of allowable product categories currently because it was not on the radar when the contract was agreed to in 2008,” said Haroutunian. “If we had not allowed them in the show, SUP would not have been launched to retailers, at least at Outdoor Retailer.”

Haroutunian pointed out that early in his career as a sales rep for Outdoor Retailer, he got a reputation as “dog boy” because of the pet products coming out of his territory and into the show. He admitted he didn’t really see what dog products had to do with the outdoors, even though he started his outdoor career at Adventure 16, a company that made and sold dog products to outdoor retailers.

Long story short, Haroutunian allowed a pet company into the show, even though he did not see a fit for it. It got such a bad space that “you could not find it if you were Sherlock Holmes,” he said.

“They not only survived the experience, the company saw enough value in the show, even in that position, they returned. Retailers voted with their dollars, which is the way the market should be allowed to occur,” said Haroutunian. “That exhibitor, Canine Hardware, still exhibits and there is no question pet products are an important part of the show now.”

There is a litany of other exhibitors who at first raised eyebrows with their presence, but became very strong, contributing citizens in the broader outdoor community, including the likes of Prana — SNEWS remembers early grumbling from a select number of retailers, reps and other exhibitors about yoga and fitness at the show when Prana debuted.

Mapping out the future show floor

While Mike Massey, owner of Massey’s Outdoors, a specialty outdoor retailer in New Orleans, agreed that he doesn’t want to see what amounts to strict exhibitor access controls set up at an arbitrary border around the outdoor community, he does think the show has become too big and far too difficult to navigate. His solution, one shared by numerous retailers we spoke with, is to get product categories like fabric and buckle manufacturers off the main floor.

“Retailers are not there to see fabric and buckle manufacturers,” Massey said. “Gore having a huge booth is not meaningful to a retailer. I am not saying we do not want to interact with the likes of Gore or eVent. We do, just not at Outdoor Retailer.” Massey went on to say that if a booth is not there to show something specifically to a retailer that a retailer can purchase to sell or use in their store, they don’t belong on the show floor.

Hugelmeyer, though he believes the show is there primarily for the retailers, had a slightly different view that promises a bit of open debate — Outdoor Retailer is not only about retailers.

“We need a show where we can have everyone in one place, in one location so that we can showcase a great retail experience and retail of the future,” said Hugelmeyer. “This is about the entire community, not just the preferences of one or two stakeholders. This show has to be much greater than just the buyer-seller relationship, even though that will always remain a primary focus.”

Bruce Franks, general manager of Asolo USA, leaned more toward the Massey camp while still standing somewhat neutral. “One of the filters certainly worth discussing is the supplier side of Outdoor Retailer,” Franks told us. “I believe firmly that everyone on the show floor must serve a purpose at the show and bring something good to it. The question that must be answered in every case is, ‘Are we bringing the right vendors to the market?’ Gore would have one answer and I would support it. Polartec also brings good things as does Vibram. But does every supplier?”

Growth is inevitable, but …

There is little doubt the shadow Outdoor Retailer casts will continue to grow. The challenge will be managing that growth so the twice-annual event remains a viable industry showcase that attracts retailers, manufacturers, suppliers, reps, media, investors and more from around the globe.

Haroutunian stated, “One of our missions is to provide exposure to new ideas and concepts that are relevant to the market, but not absolutely core. Opportunities for innovation, growth and the health of the market exist mostly on the periphery — that place where companies that are the Pranas and Keens of the future now exist.”

Who should make up that periphery and what the size and shape of the show of the future should be remains open to debate. It is a debate that begins with a new chapter in 2012, one that is sure to get quite lively in the months to come.

–Michael Hodgson