Outdoor Retainer: Can Utah remain the right spot for its biggest trade show?

Outdoor Retailer (OR), the largest summer and winter outdoor gear, apparel, accessories and technology tradeshow, has a contract with Salt Lake City through summer 2018. Both the winter and summer shows have been held in Salt Lake City since 1996 (save for the 2002 winter show, which was moved to Anaheim due to the Winter Olympics being held in Salt Lake City), but what does the show’s future hold past 2018?

Local economic development leaders and outdoor-centric businesses are all hoping the show will extend its contract to include a more long-term commitment, but some worry it won’t because of a lack of tourism infrastructure in Salt Lake City. Without a large convention hotel and various other amenities—like enough restaurants and taxis to accommodate thousands of people—could the OR show organizers eventually move the show out of Utah completely?

OR is owned by California-based Emerald Expositions, which is the largest trade show producer in North America. The organization owns two of the largest trade shows in the United States and has a dozen different shows in Las Vegas alone.

“That’s important to remember because this trade show is run like a business,” says Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake. “The Outdoor Industry Association is the organization that endorses the OR show, but it doesn’t produce it. The OR show is owned by a for-profit trade show company, not an association.”

Home sweet home

Kate Lowery, director of public relations for OR, says Salt Lake City feels like home to the OR show because the community is welcoming and inviting, and the city exemplifies what the outdoor industry is all about.

Before extending its contract to 2018, OR surveyed more than 6,000 specialty retailer attendees and exhibitors. More than two-thirds of those surveyed indicated their preference for keeping the show in Salt Lake City. The majority of the responses came from specialty retailers, which show organizers consider to be the most critical indicator.

“Year after year we have surveyed attendees and exhibitors and asked their opinion about where we should host the show, and time and time again they have selected Salt Lake City as the place they want to continue to do business,” Lowery says. “We will do [the survey] moving forward to keep a pulse on what our industry is feeling. We’re incredibly happy in Salt Lake City.” Lowery says Emerald Expo has a two-year cycle with all of its shows across its portfolio, including OR. “Renewing the contract has more to do with how our corporate cycle works and less about the specific location,” she says. “From a corporate standpoint, I don’t know that we’d do anything much past that [two-year contract], but again, Salt Lake City has been a wonderful place for us and a terrific home time and time again.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams says it’s very typical for the show’s contract to be extended for just a couple of years at a time, but he’s aware of the value the show would bring to Salt Lake City if it stayed indefinitely. “We’re in negotiations with them to extend the show. It’s not atypical that we’re negotiating the contract beyond 2018,” he says. “We think we have a lot to offer to the show and we have a great destination. We bring a lot to them and they bring a lot to us, but it has to be the right fit for the show and the right fit for our community.”

Outdoor RetailerGrowing pains

What began with approximately 4,000 attendees and roughly 175,000 to 200,000 square feet of event space in 1996 has grown to approximately 25,000 attendees and over 1 million square feet of event space for both the winter and summer OR shows.

“So far we have been able to grow with the show,” Beck says. “We get creative, but we sort of have 25 pounds of gold in a 20 pound bag. We’re a destination that is a very strong second-tier city. No other city of our size has shows like the OR show.”

Beck adds that the OR show’s growing pains aren’t just about the amount of hotel rooms available, but are also about things like number of restaurants and taxis. “Salt Lake City is a fairly small town as far as its metro area, but it has a strong economy. Cities of our similar size like Albuquerque or Boise don’t have shows with 20,000-plus attendees twice a year because there’s not enough infrastructure. We have the [Salt Palace] Convention Center, which has a 54 percent occupancy on an annual basis. It operates on that level because it was built exclusively for Outdoor Retailer. Most of the year we don’t use the facility like we do when OR is in town, but it does enable us to hold other large events.”

After Salt Lake City, Denver is the most competitive city when it comes to the OR show, Beck says, even though he doesn’t expect the show would ever be moved there. Denver has 3.5 million people in its metro, while Salt Lake City has just 1.2 million. And Denver has 42,000 hotel rooms, while Salt Lake City has just 18,000. But both cities boast convention centers that are virtually the exact same size, give or take a few thousand square feet.

Beck says Salt Lake City continues to be extremely relevant to the OR show for a few reasons. First of all, there are many opportunities to get people to Utah because of the Salt Lake International Airport and Delta’s influence there. Second, costs are affordable in Utah for producing the trade show as well as for those who attend the show. Last, the Salt Lake area has a very strong appeal to the average attendee at the trade show because of its nearby outdoor recreation opportunities.

“Those three things make us competitive,” Beck says. “If the show continues to grow like it has over the last five years, it will become one of the top 20 trade shows in the country, and there are only five convention centers big enough to host those. Those centers are in Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago, New Orleans and Atlanta. If OR decides that it’s important to keep everything under one roof and in one location, it’ll be very important for them to find somewhere with more than 1 million square feet, and that’s the ‘big five’ I mentioned.”

“When we talk about losing Outdoor Retailer, the dynamics that cause us to lose are in play,” Beck adds. “We don’t have support infrastructure to service conventions of more than 15,000 to 16,000 people. But I’m an optimist, and I’ve been through three successful negotiations with OR.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski says she understands that the demands of the show and its continuous growth are creating a real need for Salt Lake City, as well as Salt Lake County and the state of Utah, to figure out a way to accommodate that particular show.

“There are also other shows that simply aren’t looking at coming to Utah because we don’t have a big enough venue to accommodate them,” she says. “That is a concern. We all are very aware of the economic driver that the OR show is for our state. This is an outdoor community and one that makes total sense for us to retain this particular show.”

McAdams agrees that the OR show is a big one for the Salt Lake market, but he also believes the county has been able to think creatively to make it work. “The show continues to grow and people have a great experience while here,” he says. “I believe we’re capable of maintaining a quality experience for the attendees and accommodating the growth of the show at the same time.”

Local business impact

Dan Probst, sales director at Utah County-based emergency preparedness company Ready Project, says his organization has been an exhibitor at the summer show for the last three years. The OR show brings a lot of national buyers into Salt Lake City and allows Ready Project to meet with buyers locally as opposed to having to go out individually.

“The show allows us to get in front of buyers we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to,” he says. “It’s been beneficial to us. We’ve found a lot of new clients we didn’t know existed because of attending the OR show. Even when we don’t exhibit, we attend and walk the show.”

Probst hopes the OR show stays in Salt Lake City indefinitely. “There are a lot of advantages to having it here,” he says. “First of all, it’s great for us to be able to drive to and from the show and sleep in our own beds at night. Secondly, we have everything the show could offer here in Salt Lake. The only big hurdle I see is we don’t have enough places to house people close by. A lot of people have been traveling to Park City or even farther just to sleep. That could be an issue for a lot of people.”

Even if the show moves, Probst says Ready Project would participate as much as it could in the summer show regardless of where it’s at, but they’d no longer make a trip to the winter show if it wasn’t held locally.

Terry Peterson, owner of solar-powered flashlight company HybridLight, says the OR show has also been a very positive experience for his organization for the last five years. “I love it because it’s in my backyard; all our customers love coming there; and it’s well organized and put together,” he says. “The location is ideal because Salt Lake City is not too big a city where you can’t get around. In larger cities likes Las Vegas, people get burnt out.”

Even though HyrbridLight is headquartered in St. George, making Las Vegas closer, Peterson says he wouldn’t want to attend and exhibit at the show if it was in Las Vegas because of its size and union involvement. “I hope the OR organizers can push their contract to at least 2025,” he says. “I hope and expect them to stay, but I’d like for them to negotiate it out now and make it work. I’ll continue to go each year for now, but if the show moves elsewhere, I’ll have to examine it and see if it’s the right thing to do for our business.”

Economic impact

Beck says the impact of the show in terms of its economic impact pales in comparison to what delegates spend. According to the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR), the average delegate for any given tradeshow spends $930 during their stay. Outdoor Retailer attendees tend to spend a bit more and stay a little longer, Beck says.

“If you look at the impact of the two OR shows, over those eight days combined, with an average of 23,000 attendees for both, that’s 46,000 people times $930,” he says. “That’s roughly [$43] million of economic impact just over the eight days of the two conventions.”

Another significant impact is the exposure of Utah to outdoor recreation companies. “Businesses who come get to know Utah for the first time as part of the show, but some even decide to relocate their businesses here, like Black Diamond and Petzl,” McAdams says. “The show is growing our industry, because companies come and see Utah and decide that it’s where they want to make home.”

In addition, Beck says that roughly 28 percent of attendees return to Utah and bring 2.3 people with them on a future vacation. “That multiplier is even bigger when they come back and camp, hike, fish or ski,” he adds.

Is a Convention Hotel the Answer?

Lowery says the future convention hotel will benefit Salt Lake City overall, and that Outdoor Retailer is interested in what it can provide the show. “It provides us the opportunity to grow our attendee base, and for the business of the city it’s going to be an amazing addition. We’re definitely looking forward to it.”

McAdams says the county is currently in the middle of negotiations to select a developer for the hotel. He believes a convention hotel is important to not only accommodate growth of OR, but also for other conventions. “Even without Outdoor Retailer, that hotel would be needed,” he says.

Beck agrees, adding that while any new hotel inventory is going to help, another 850 hotel rooms in a convention hotel won’t make Salt Lake City work as the destination for OR for the next 30 years. “I don’t want to overstate the realities of the hotel,” he says. “I’ll be brutally honest—it’s not going to help much with OR, but it is going to help with other shows we lose.”


OR By the Numbers

Summer 2015

  • 27,000 attendees
  • 1,600 exhibitors
  • $25 million in spending

Winter 2016

  • 22,000 attendees
  • 1,500 exhibitors
  • $20 million in spending