Outdoor Retailer Out? 

Why the trade show may leave Utah

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A Badge Gets You In. Without it, you’re stuck on the sidewalk outside the Salt Palace, gazing up at the glass silos plastered with banners of sleek, spandex-clad athletes. All around you, men and women dressed in the latest micro-fibers and fleece stream through the convention center’s mammoth doors. Clutching cups of scalding coffee and shouldering backpacks better suited for navigating trails than city traffic, they cross West Temple’s seven lanes with loose, mile-eating strides. As they move, their shimmery synthetic shirts wick away the last drops of sweat from their five-mile “wake up” jog up City Creek Canyon. If it’s wintertime, the ones with red cheeks and wide grins probably just returned from a pre-dawn ski run down one of the nearby canyons. And unlike most of us, they hold up their ID badges to pass effortlessly through the glass threshold and into the dazzling commercial spectacle that is Salt Lake City’s Outdoor Retailer (OR) Show.

Twice a year, in January and August, tens of thousands of outdoor-industry buyers, manufacturers, retailers and media reps land in Salt Lake City for four days of frenzied show & tell. They transform the Salt Palace into an REI store on steroids, jamming it with new clothing, footwear and high-tech gadgets that mere mortals won’t be able to touch for another year.

With its climbing walls, on-mountain demos, and boisterous happy hours, OR might look like a playground for active adults. But it’s also a serious trade show, where million-dollar product launches and retail deals are finalized over pints from local microbreweries. Booths for a thousand brands fill every corner of the show floor, and crowds gather so thickly you can’t throw a carabineer without hitting someone who’s climbed Mount Everest. For several days each summer and winter, OR essentially takes over downtown Salt Lake City. And while the Salt Palace’s cramped quarters lift the show’s energy level, the lack of space is a major reason why, after 16 years of calling Utah home, Outdoor Retailer might soon leave town for good.

Under Pressure
“I’d love to not argue with the fire marshal every time we have a show in Salt Lake,” jokes Kenji Haroutunian, vice president at Nielsen Expositions, the California firm that produces and owns Outdoor Retailer. Except he’s not joking. As show director for the past five years, the 51-year-old Haroutunian knows the challenges of squeezing a big-time show like OR inside a medium-size venue like the Salt Palace, and placating the fire marshal is one of them. “Right now, we are jamming the hall with as much exhibit space as we can fit into the box,” he says, “and we’re already spilling people onto the sidewalks.”

In summer 2011, Haroutunian had to turn down exhibitors’ requests for 25,000 square feet of additional space, which meant less revenue for the show. “It’s starting to become very difficult for anyone new to come to OR,” he says.

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Attendees also grumble to Haroutunian about too few hotel rooms and overcrowded restaurants, while visitors from the East Coast complain about limited flights. As the economy gains steam and OR continues to grow, Salt Lake City’s space constraints are only going to become more pressing. And since Nielsen’s contract with the Salt Palace expires in 2014, the trade show’s organizers will be deciding by the end of this year whether to remain in Salt Lake City or jump ship to larger cities like Denver, Anaheim, Chicago, Orlando, Chicago or Las Vegas.

Playing a Weak Hand
When 22,000 Outdoor Retailer attendees fill the Salt Palace on Aug. 2, they’ll make this year’s Summer Market the 44th-largest trade show in the country. The slightly smaller Winter Market ranks as the 58th-largest show. “To host a large trade show like OR twice a year is unique for Salt Lake,” says Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, Salt Lake County’s convention and tourism bureau. In contrast, the Salt Palace’s next two biggest shows—the True Value Market and the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo—attract 10,000 to 15,000 attendees, and both rotate through town once every two to three years.

But perhaps the more important number is OR’s $40 million economic boost to the Salt Lake City economy. That figure comes from regular surveys of participants by the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic & Business Research (BEBR). The 2010 survey found that each Summer Market attendee spent almost $750 during the event, including $330 on lodging and $210 on restaurants and food. BEBR also calculated that OR supports approximately 285 jobs in the city.

One of those jobs belongs to Greg Bishop, operations manager at Laser Exhibitor Service, a Salt Lake City-based firm that sets up, tears down and stores trade-show booths for OR brands like Mountain Hardwear, Ibis and Columbia. Bishop estimates that the two shows account for 50 percent of Laser’s business each year, and that his company hires 100 to 130 contract workers to handle the frenzied week of installations. “We hope OR doesn’t leave,” Bishop says, “But if they do, we hope to continue to service our clients in the next city. We plan to have a lot of face-to-face conversations with our clients this August.”

Scott Beck knows that if OR ditches Utah, replacing the show’s $40 million bump—and jobs like Greg Bishop’s—will be tough. As the local point person for retaining the show, his Visit Salt Lake team pitched Nielsen with a new proposal in May 2012 to compete with Denver and four other finalists selected by Nielsen—Anaheim, Orlando, Chicago and Las Vegas. To address the crunch in exhibit space, Beck proposed a multi-venue show utilizing both the Salt Palace and Sandy’s South Towne Exposition Center, which is 16 miles south of downtown but can accommodate an additional 243,000 square feet of exhibit space. The pitch also recommended increasing the scope of the show’s outdoor demo days, a chance for attendees to test-drive new gear like kayaks at Park’s City’s Jordanelle Reservoir in summer, and skis and snowshoes at one of the many local ski resorts in winter.

“The centerpiece of our response is the idea of engaging in a more strategic fashion with our natural environment,” Beck says. “We feel those strengths are unique to Salt Lake City in terms of both our accessibility to outdoor venues and our affordability as a destination.”

No Room at the Inn
Fixing the city’s shortage of downtown hotel rooms, however, isn’t as easy as spending more time in the mountains. Although Salt Lake City has 8,000 hotel rooms within three miles of the convention center, it can’t compete with the 100,000 rooms in downtown Las Vegas or the 22,000 rooms near Orlando’s convention center.

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Nicole Orr, marketing manager for Danner Footwear in Portland, Ore., says that when her team tried to reserve additional rooms in Salt Lake City for August, they ran into trouble. “We’d been fortunate in the past because we got rooms way in advance, but this year might be the first year we have to take advantage of hotels 20 miles outside of the city,” she says.

Beck says Outdoor Retailer does overwhelm the local lodging market, but he doesn’t see it as a deal-breaker. “Do I wish I had the hotel inventory of Las Vegas to offer?” he says. “No, that’s not Salt Lake. One of our strengths is that when OR is here, they are the only convention in town, and the city rallies around that concept.”

Still, an extra thousand hotel rooms located a stone’s throw from the Salt Palace would be helpful, which is why local governments and economic development agencies have been exploring the idea of a convention hotel for the past decade. Along the way, they’ve accumulated a stack of consultant studies that all say the same thing: Salt Lake City needs a headquarter hotel if it wants to remain competitive in the convention business, especially since Denver built a 1,100-room Hyatt next to its convention center in 2005.

Salt Lake County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, who supports the new hotel, believes the region faces a choice. “Do we want to be at the level of a Denver, San Diego or Portland, or do we want to drop down a tier, and compete for the type of events that would go to an Albuquerque or a Boise?”

Leading the charge for a new hotel is the Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit with close ties to the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. “I hope that a convention-center hotel would sweeten the pot and encourage Outdoor Retailer to consider Salt Lake City into the future,” says Jason Mathis, president of the Downtown Alliance. “But with or without OR, a convention hotel is really the right thing to do.”

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