The Outdoor Retailer show is headed back to Salt Lake. Here’s what to expect and why it matters
While some tensions remain over prickly land use issues, Utah leaders are lauding the chance to reconnect with an industry so critical to the state’s vibrance
In spite of years of tumult, testy dialogue and an ongoing boycott movement, the mammoth Outdoor Retailer conventions are headed back to Salt Lake City after a five-year hiatus. As Utah’s capital city gets ready to step back into its familiar role as host for the events, it brings all the advantages it had for over two decades as the home of OR and, this time around, a whole lot more.
The twice yearly Outdoor Retailer events are an economic juggernaut all by themselves, generating tens of millions of dollars in economic activity every time one lands. But the world’s biggest gathering of outdoor-focused retailers and service providers also drives broader, and harder to measure, reputational cachet for its host cities among outdoor enthusiasts and the multibillion-dollar industries that keep those devotees geared up.
A new U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report finds the national outdoor recreation economy easily outperformed the overall U.S. economy in 2021, growing 18.9% compared to national economic growth that came in at 5.9% for the year.
Utah’s slice of the outdoor recreation action accounted for 2.7% of the state’s gross domestic product in 2021, according to the report, and generated over $6 billion in economic activity for the year. The analysis found nearly 67,000 Utahns were employed in outdoor recreation-related jobs in 2021 and their earnings accounted for 4% of the total for Utah workers last year. And, Utah’s outdoor recreation jobs are on the rise, growing by 14.9% from 2020 to 2021.
Outdoor Retailer launched in Salt Lake City in 1996 as a relatively modest gathering, occupying around 100,000 square feet of exhibit space and drawing 5,000 attendees. But during its tenure in Utah, which ran through 2017, it grew into the state’s biggest convention event, drawing tens of thousands every time it came to town and growing its exhibition footprint to over 1 million square feet.
Over that 22-year span, Outdoor Retailer generated over $565 million in direct delegate spending, according to Visit Salt Lake, while accounting for $52 million in local, county and state taxes. Those contributions to tax coffers provided annual tax relief of $1,238 for every Salt Lake County household.
In a Deseret News interview, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox celebrated the return of the Outdoor Retailer events, starting with the Snow Show in January, noting the economic impact of the gatherings filters to the entire state.
“We’re obviously very excited,” Cox said. “Anytime we’re able to land a big convention, it makes a difference for everyone in Utah.
“The amount of people that will be visiting here, the spending that happens when big conventions take place is an enormous benefit to restaurants, retailers, hotels and so many businesses. And it’s not just in downtown Salt Lake City. People who attend will come for OR and then will spend more time visiting, heading up into our mountains or to southern Utah and, really, all over the state.”
Cox also lauded the reputation bump Utah realizes whenever it plays host to big, international gatherings.
“There is a halo effect from events, like the Olympics, where it sits in people’s minds,” Cox said. “It’s another notch in our belt when it comes to perception of our state.”
Perceptions of the state, or at least a group of its elected officials, were running low among some outdoor recreation industry heavy-hitters five years ago when Salt Lake City’s contract with Outdoor Retailer was concluding and other cities were vying to take over hosting duties.
Utah’s capital city lost its contract to Denver in 2017 as then-President Donald Trump’s announced plans to reduce several areas of federally protected land riled the environmental community, outdoor enthusiasts and companies that specialize in outdoor products and services. At the center of the controversy was Trump’s declared intention to reduce the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama in a 2016 proclamation issued just before he left office.
Utah state legislators and then-Gov. Gary Herbert threw their weight behind the Trump plan by passing a resolution in the 2017 legislative session, declaring “strong opposition to the Bears Ears National Monument designation” and urging Trump to undo his predecessor’s executive order.
Back in February, before the Outdoor Retailer operator Emerald X announced its decision to move the shows back to Salt Lake City, over two dozen outdoor industry companies, including heavyweights like Patagonia, REI, North Face and Kelty, signed a letter promising to boycott the shows, should they return to Salt Lake City.
“We’ve joined together in stating that we will not support or attend a trade show event in Utah so long as its elected officials continue attacks on national monuments and public lands protections,” the letter reads. “Industry leaders are expressing their support for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and its longstanding efforts to protect the homeland of the Tribes and Pueblos with cultural ties to the Bears Ears landscape, as well as the overwhelming majority of the outdoor industry and the American public.
“Despite widespread industry objections, Emerald has demonstrated a continued interest in moving the Outdoor Retailer trade show to Utah, a state that leads the fight against designated national monuments and public lands.”
Cox also opposed the Bears Ears designation, which was rescinded by Trump and later reinstated by President Joe Biden. He remains adamant on Utah’s position on federal land protections, but pointed out that the division between some voices in the outdoor industry and state leaders is less dramatic than the dialogue may reflect.
“If you want to come somewhere to have an impact on these issues, Utah is where you want to be to have a seat at the table,” Cox said. “I’m looking forward to having those conversations. We do have major differences, but we’re not as far apart as people say we are. We do want to work on these issues together.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who played a role in the work to bring Outdoor Retailer back to Salt Lake City, is also looking forward to being a convener on issues that remain contentious between, and among, outdoor enthusiasts, the outdoor industry and policy makers.
“The issues that triggered Outdoor Retailer’s exit from Utah are just as complicated now as when they left,” Mendenhall said. “I’ll do whatever I can to ensure the relationships remain constructive and productive.”
Mendenhall also touted how widely Salt Lake City has enhanced its host city bonafides since the convention left in 2017.
“There are a lot of things that are the same,” Mendenhall said. “We still have world-class winter and summer recreation options. We still have the greatest snow on Earth. And the mountains are still 15 minutes from downtown.
“But the actual experience, the tangible experience of Salt Lake City is tremendously different. From landing at our LEED gold certified, state-of-the-art airport, walking out the doors and getting on a TRAX train that whisks you downtown in 15 minutes to the brand new Hyatt Regency Hotel.”
The new Hyatt, located adjacent to the Salt Palace Convention Center, figures largely in the enhanced environment for OR, with 700 new rooms that connect directly to the event’s venue.
Mendenhall also noted the extra vibrancy downtown Salt Lake City has taken on since OR left, with a fast-growing residential population and dozens of new options when it comes to dining, entertainment and nightlife.
She also highlighted a slew of the city’s policy efforts that she says align nicely with the goals of many in the outdoor industry. Those include a water conservation effort that has led to citywide water use declining since 2000, a new solar farm, 14 new miles of trails and government buildings that will soon be running on 100% renewable energy.
“Salt Lake City is a very good place for OR to come home to,” Mendenhall said.
While the Outdoor Retailer winter and summer shows return to a revamped Salt Lake City, the shows themselves have been retooled, with a bigger focus on connecting to its host community.
Kaitlin Eskelson, Visit Salt Lake president and CEO, said the work to bring the event back to Salt Lake City had been ongoing since the show left and included a lot of discussion about how to evolve the experience for event exhibitors and attendees as well for the host community.
“I will say that this negotiation with Outdoor Retailer was unlike any that we’ve ever done,” Eskelson said. “A lot of programming elements, education and connections are going to be very different. The OR shows are coming back with a very enhanced community component.”
Eskelson noted even before Emerald X announced OR’s return, Salt Lake City’s visitor and convention business has been booming and, while the show will still be the biggest recurring event, the city’s convention calendar is filling with myriad events.
And the new Hyatt Regency is one of the keys to that success.
“The opening of the Hyatt Regency is absolutely monumental,” Eskelson said. “What it does for us as a community is open doors for quite a bit of business that we just couldn’t access before.”
Pina Purpero, general manager of Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City, said the hotel will be “buzzing” when OR returns in January and has blocked out the majority of its accommodations for the event.
Beside the 700 guest rooms that will mostly be occupied by Outdoor Retailer exhibitors and attendees for the event, Purpero said the hotel’s 60,000 square feet of meeting space will also be utilized for the convention. The new downtown hotel also features three restaurants, an in-house market, fitness center and a rooftop pool.
The Outdoor Retailer Snow Show runs Jan. 10-12 at the Salt Palace Convention Center.