Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in Salt Lake City, and that endeavor included spending a week on the road with all my kids…. Yep, big and small I brought them all! If you ever want to have an adventure full of laughs and excitement (and possibly some tears) I suggest piling your entire family into the close quarters of a vehicle for a few days, it is an adventure that never disappoints.
The best part about an adventure of this caliber is the closeness that it fosters. In a day and age where technology reigns, it is hard to really get quality time with those you love. The cure for that… the patch of I-84 between Boise and Snowville where there is NO SERVICE. Ahhh, now that is peace and quiet! No YouTube, no TikTok, and nobody texting/calling to bug us.
Admittedly that first message notification, once we got back into service, was slightly depressing. It made me realize how little peace we have these days and how in demand our attention is always. It is so taxing on our bodies and minds to live in such a constant dissonance between what we need to thrive and what the world demands of us. People of all ages have looked everywhere for an answer to ease the struggle: some turn to medications, others bury themselves in work or social media and then there are the masses that continue to struggle.
So…what helps…what is the answer? I can tell you what fixes me right up, some time in the outdoors! Part of it was the disconnection from technology but the other part was the recharging aspect of nature itself. The physical stimulation of being active while the sun is on your back is a feeling that can’t be replicated. My kids also feel the recharging power of nature; you can see it in their smiles and feel it in their energy, and oh man do they sleep well after a day of activities in the outdoors. It is no wonder that 70% of people interviewed in a recent study said that they feel better physically and mentally when outdoors.
After weeks of planning, days on the road, and a day in the mountains before the show, I was on somewhat of an “outdoor high”. I left my Sandy-based Airbnb a little early, remembering the nightmarish traffic and parking situation that always surrounded the show in previous years, but once I got downtown, I was surprised. Traffic was super light, and I was able to snag a parking spot for only $15 right across from the convention center. I chalked it up to some good luck and continued with my pre-show excitement.
The show had been open for an hour by the time I entered the registration area. I was in and out in under a minute (oh the joys of pre-registration) and I could feel the excitement as reinvigoration for the outdoors flowed through my veins. I eagerly ascended to the second floor to view the displays of up-and-coming gear, passed by show security and bounded forward. I looked left…I looked right – and there was nothing. You heard me, not a darn thing going on up on the 2nd floor.
By this time, I had an idea that the show may not be as big as I remembered, but I refused to be disheartened. About face, I headed down the escalator to check things out and I was immediately greeted by a brightly colored camper titled The BEAN. Now we are talking – how fun is that… I love overlanding! Aside from the fun colors that this display offered, they also had artist Emily Eisenhart there as she was creating a one-of-a-kind adventure-themed design on this particular trailer. And, of course, the kiddos had to add their own touches to it!
The bean was one of the very few exhibits found in the main lobby area, and so we briskly walked that section and then embarked upon the main floor. Now, I will start by saying I was 100% surprised given the expectations set by past shows. I did attend the show in Denver, and it was sparsely attended by exhibitors, so I wasn’t expecting the show to be back to what it was in 2016 but WHOA I also wasn’t expecting this.
Sparse attendance by exhibitors is one thing (which was something I noticed at this show) but the overall show attendance itself was very low, not just on day one but the entire show. As a matter of fact, the last day was a ghost town that offered aisles filled with only people carrying the swag they were able to finagle from the booths as they were closing. The exhibitors covered only a portion of the ground floor and didn’t overflow into the outdoors at all, aside from the post-show activities. The presence of the big players was also completely absent… no North Face, no Patagonia not even local Utah-based Black Diamond or Amer Sports bothered to come. The floors were littered with first-time exhibitors and products from peripheral categories. It was like the entire show turned into a big Venture Out Pavilion.
I walked the floor and was surprised at how many people I saw from other shows like Expo West and SHOT. It demonstrated how this particular show was dissolving a bit into other areas, vs absorbing activity from them. This actually surprised me quite a bit because the outdoors is the one remaining free mental health resource left. How can that be the industry that is dying?
I had some fun conversations on the show floor with the new exhibitors. I met one company, Nose Slap, that touted their product only needs to be “sniffed” to give you focus and energy. They assured me it wasn’t a relative of the other “sniffable energy” that has been popular for decades. I gave it a go, and yeah, I see why they branded it as such – it made me cry a little. The tears would fight off the urge to sleep so I say that product works.
There were some good speakers at the Ranger Station in the Venture Out area. The common theme was sustainability and diversity. Given the low attendance, I was able to snag a seating area for pretty much all of the educational events – a total first for me. The overland area did feature some fun vehicles, it seemed that area took over for the tent display which was a total disappointment. Coming from Portland, I have seen more tent innovation in our urban camping communities than I saw in the handful of tents that were displayed there.
By the middle of day 2, I had hit the entire floor and even doubled back a few times. I decided to utilize my remaining time to have some conversations about what others thought happened to the show and the industry as a whole. As I talked with exhibitors it felt like they were walking into this wide-eyed like it was a brand-new tradeshow. At least 80% of the people I talked to who were exhibiting said it was their first show. Most of the newbies felt like it was a worthwhile endeavor as they didn’t have anything to measure the success against. Many of those that had come in the past was as shocked as I was to see the low attendance, but many quoted the fact that the traffic that was at the show was well-qualified and made their investment worthwhile. I ran into many familiar faces walking the aisles as it seemed like many exhibitors opted to walk the floor vs. exhibit upon it. Those that I talked to felt like this show was a victim of many things ranging from how digitally driven space has become; moving the industry away from the need to have a retailer-centric show, to continued strife over the political climate around the use of public lands. I have to say that the last point has some merit… in 2017 they moved the show to Colorado due to Utah’s stance on the matter. Not much has changed, so it isn’t surprising that the large brands are continuing their boycott through the return to SLC.
On day three of the show, I went for a very limited time; truly only long enough to load up on inflatable goodies for some river adventures. I said my goodbyes to friends and acquaintances in the industry and I walked off the Salt Palace floor for the last time of the show; possibly forever unless something drastic happens to this event.
On the drive home, I reflected on the trip, on the show, and on the experience as a whole. In the past, the show wasn’t necessarily about doing business, making money, or making sales. Sure, all that stuff happened, but it happened in the background while everyone had fun together. The after-hours parties used to feature pinewood derby races where various companies brought their A-game and competed together, this year’s feature was a drone show. The days used to be filled with climbing walls and paddleboard demos. This year I didn’t see even one dog doing yoga on a paddleboard, talk about a letdown! If the show is any indicator of the investment, we are making in promoting outdoor recreation then we are in trouble.