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Patagonia, North Face, REI and others say they’ll boycott Outdoor Retailer if it heads back to Salt Lake City

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Brent Long gets in some kayak time at the Outdoor Retailers Demo Day Aug. 4, 2015, on Pineview Reservoir in Huntsville, Weber County.

Brent Long gets in some kayak time at the Outdoor Retailers Demo Day Aug. 4, 2015, on Pineview Reservoir in Huntsville, Weber County.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Over two dozen outdoor industry companies, including heavyweights like Patagonia, REI, North Face and Kelty, signed a letter released Monday promising to boycott the popular Outdoor Retailer shows if the biannual events return to Salt Lake City.

The letter was posted by The Conservation Alliance, a group dedicated to land conservation efforts that counts over 270 companies among its membership. The website posting urges Emerald X, the owner of the Outdoor Retailer events, to stay out of Utah over member objections to the long-running position taken by state leaders in opposing federal land protections.

“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.”

Salt Lake City is competing with other locales, including the current Outdoor Retailer host city of Denver, to secure the new contract for shows beginning in 2023. Salt Lake City hosted the events for 20 years before losing out to Denver in 2017 amid swirling controversy over land use issues. The shows generate tens of millions of dollars in economic activity for the host communities.

In the Conservation Alliance statement, REI executive vice president and chief customer officer Ben Steele noted that Utah leaders continue to attack federal designation efforts.

“In 2017, REI Co-op strongly supported the decision to move the outdoor industry trade show out of Utah when the state’s leadership refused to protect duly designated national monuments and natural treasures,” Steele said. “Although those protections have since been restored by President Biden, Utah’s leaders are again aiming to undermine those monuments and their protections. As a result, REI will not participate in any OR trade show in the state — nor will we send members of our merchandising or other co-op teams — so long as Utah persists in attacking our public lands and the laws that protect them.” 

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 erase 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.

The move by Utah leaders drew immediate and widespread ire, including from Patagonia, one of the world’s largest outdoor-focused companies that was founded by legendary climber, gear innovator and conservationist Yvon Chouinard. The company weighed in again in the Conservation Alliance statement, reiterating its commitment to supporting states whose elected officials support public lands protections.

“For decades, Patagonia has worked in solidarity with Indigenous communities, local activists, outdoor athletes and businesses in Utah,” said Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert. “We love the state and its spectacular cultural and natural landscapes. We were thrilled when President Biden restored the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments this past October, and we will oppose any effort to undermine their protection. Our position on the location of the Outdoor Retailer trade show remains clear and unchanged: The show belongs in a state whose top officials value and seek to protect public lands.”

Following Biden’s decision to undo Trump’s reductions in Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox along with GOP state legislative leaders and all six members of Utah’s congressional delegationstated their opposition to reinstating the protections. And Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has said he intends to file legal action against the Biden land protection changes.

While the land use controversies continue, Denver has faced its own challenges since taking over Outdoor Retailer hosting duties.

Denver’s debut show in January 2018 was a blockbuster and remains the biggest Outdoor Retailer event ever held. Before running into restrictions precipitated by COVID-19 in 2020, the twice-yearly events were regularly drawing more than 20,000 participants and generating in excess of $50 million per show in economic activity for its host city.

But some retailers say the costs associated with exhibiting at the Denver-hosted shows have been significantly higher than they were in Utah and, with the current contract coming to a close in 2022, it may be time to reconsider Salt Lake City.

Tom Adams was director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation when the storm over federal land designations erupted in 2017. Now, he’s chief operating officer for the American operations of French climbing and work-at-heights gear company Petzl.

In a Deseret News story last September, Adams said Petzl has been a longtime exhibitor at the Outdoor Retailer events but didn’t follow the show to Denver. The decision, he said, wasn’t born out of any kind of protest stance but was simply a matter of assessing costs. A new booth, Adams said, can run from $250,000 to $1 million, and the rates for renting the space at the events “are quite high for trade shows.”

He also noted the task of getting to the actual outdoors from the exhibition space in Denver was a much bigger, and time-consuming, challenge than it was in Salt Lake City.

“I don’t know how many times, on a weekday during the Salt Lake City shows, I’d take an account out for an afternoon of ice climbing, rock climbing or making a few backcountry runs,” Adams said. “That’s just not happening in Denver.”

Bill Harmon, general manager of Utah-based portable power specialists Goal Zero, said last September that his company has exhibited once at Outdoor Retailer since the show moved to Denver but has chosen to mostly skip it due to cost and return-on-investment considerations.

“It’s so expensive to go now,” Harmon said. “The hotel rooms are materially more expensive in Denver versus here. The booth storage costs there are much more than in Salt Lake City. And the setup costs, with the union requirements, are so much more.”

Harmon also bemoaned Denver’s location, describing it as a “mountains-adjacent city, unlike Salt Lake that is actually a mountain city.”

“I can’t overstate the access issues,” Harmon said. “We’ve got a half-dozen world-class ski resorts 25 minutes away. And, if you want, you have time to get up and go for a mountain bike ride and be back before the show even starts.

“In Denver, you can plan on spending half the day driving or on shuttles to do the same things.”

Emerald X is expected to announce the new Outdoor Retailer host city soon, and Outdoor Retailer senior vice president and show director Marisa Nicholson said her company has been evaluating all issues and options ahead of striking a new contract.

“Outdoor Retailer and Emerald remain committed to supporting the outdoor and winter sports industries through hosting gatherings that both meet business needs and foster the spirit of our community,” Nicholson said in a statement. “We have been in ongoing conversations with many across our industry and are taking all input and perspectives into consideration, including responses from recent surveys — we appreciate the passion and respect everyone’s point of view.

“As we continue the process of evaluating all possible and realistic options, we remain thoughtful in our deliberations. Our goal is to host a vibrant event that not only reflects today’s new normal, but also presents an engaging event that draws more people into this community in ways that are authentic and affordable. No decisions around future dates or location have been decided at this time, and we look forward to sharing our thoughts in the coming days.”