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Salt Lake’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market a showcase for innovators

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SALT LAKE CITY — It's where a dreamer who invents something in his garage and a huge manufacturing company can have the same hope.

Guys like Dave Ollila and companies like Columbia offer their best new innovations to retailers in hopes they'll see in their products something the outdoor enthusiast needs or wants.

Ollila embodies what makes the Salt Lake's Outdoor Retailer Winter Market show so unique.

"I'm a serial innovator," said the Michigan entrepreneur, who participated in Wednesday's Demo Days at Solitude Mountain Resort. "I solve my own problems, and I commercialize them when it makes sense."

The owner and inventor of Marquette backcountry skis set up shop on the mountainside in Utah Wednesday in hopes of showing retailers why they should stock and sell his new skis. He said he came up with the design, which combines the climbing ability of snowshoeing with the fun of skiing downhill, as he explored the wilderness around his home in Michigan.

"It's a mountain bike mentality," he said, explaining that rolling hills that range from 600 feet to 2,000 feet make taking a climbing skin on and off a backcountry ski unappealing.

To prove his point, he allowed retailers to give the skis a test run on the hillside at Solitude.

From new businesses to decades-old companies, the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market is one of the industry's favorite showcases for new and innovative products. This year's show is the largest ever with more than 21,000 participants.

"There is a lot of excitement around this year's show," said Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake. "One of the reasons is today. The outdoor demo day is unique. There is no other place with such proximity between the demo day and the trade show."

Officials estimate the five-day show will pump around $20 million into the local economy. The trade show opens Thursday and runs through Sunday at the Salt Palace.

"Even if people aren't participating in outdoor activities, it decreases their tax burden by bringing thousands of people to our hotels and restaurants," Beck said. He said many companies reveal or show new products or lines at the Salt Lake show because of the number and type of retailers who attend.

"The buyers know the right exhibitors are going to be here, and there is a really good dynamic between the two groups," Beck said. "The reputation (of the show) is there; the reality is there. When buyers come, they know they're going to see great products."

Beck said part of the show's success is that Utah, especially since hosting the Olympics 10 years ago, has become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts.

"This is real fertile ground for people who develop products," Beck said. "This show has become the outdoor's Silicon Valley. People bring new inventions, new products and they test their viability here at the show."

Demo days is a large part of that because retailers and buyers can actually see, touch, taste and try the products. From new types of snowshoes to food products to a campfire in a bag, manufacturers are able to sell their products in a very hands-on way.

Jason Hobbs was showing a ski binding system called Equipoise, that converts any cable binding (like a telemark binding) to a snap down (Alpine) binding. His friend, Dan Kostantin came up with the idea after being injured in a hunting accident.

"He came up with it out of necessity as it was hard to bend over and deal with cable bindings," Hobbs said. "He said, 'There's got to be a better way.' "

The company's new binding is not yet even available, but should be in the next year.

"We're here for exposure," said Hobbs as he demonstrated the binding to retailers and media.

Beck said that successful product and business launches are common at the Salt Lake show.

"The show continues to grow," he said. "One reason is that it's affordable and easy to get here."

In other words, a guy who created a fire-starting system in his garage, can then get in his car and drive to Salt Lake City in hopes of testing the viability of his product.

"People see a huge benefit to being here, and the show continues to be relevant and gain traction every year," said Beck.

email: adonaldson@desnews.com