In spite of widespread boycott threats by retailers and Utah state leaders’ collective resistance to changing views on federal land use issues, Visit Salt Lake announced Wednesday that the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer trade events are headed back to Salt Lake City when the current contract with Denver expires at the end of the year.
Visit Salt Lake reports the new contract will begin in 2023 and run through 2025.
Marisa Nicholson, Outdoor Retailer senior vice president and show director, said the decision to bring the events back to Utah, where it was hosted for some 20 years before moving to Denver, followed 18 months of discussions with retailers and exhibitors and came down to issues of cost and convenience.
“We thoroughly evaluated our location in Denver, which has been a great host for the shows these past five years,” Nicholson said. “The feedback we received was that there was a desire to get back to having those on water, on trail and on snow demo experiences that we weren’t able to execute since we’ve been in Denver.
“And the costs were much lower in Salt Lake City for our brands to participate.”
‘We’re never going to please everyone’
Nicholson said the consensus on moving the shows back to Salt Lake City was not unanimous, and recognized some retailers and attendees will continue to have qualms about the decision. But, she noted the overall goal was to make the best choice for the majority of participants.
“We’re never going to please everyone, we know that,” Nicholson said. “But our continuing goal is to be a uniting force as the largest convening event for the industry.”
To that end, Nicholson said a number of new initiatives will be launching as the shows return to Salt Lake City in 2023.
In a letter to Outdoor Retailer participants, event organizers wrote that “Salt Lake City and County is our hometown, and we’re going back with a commitment to effecting meaningful change. It would be wrong for us to leave the way we did and simply go back as if nothing happened.
“In reality, leaving after 2017 has not brought the change we had hoped for, so we will push back, not pull back. We firmly believe that staying engaged and collectively contributing to the ongoing discussion, no matter how difficult, is far more constructive.”
According to the letter, that programming will include:
- Committing revenue over the next three years from Outdoor Retailer events in Utah to fund programs to support outdoor recreation and protect public lands.
- Forming the Business with Purpose initiative in partnership with Visit Salt Lake to bring city, county, state and federal officials, public lands and outdoor recreation leaders, and industry stakeholders together for biannual meetings focused on addressing challenges, influencing policy, assisting advocacy efforts, and directing resources into protecting natural and cultural spaces and improving access.
- Providing increased opportunities for the industry, local communities and media to participate in panel discussions, educational activities and volunteer projects.
Local leaders celebrate announcement
At a press event about the announcement Wednesday afternoon, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the Outdoor Retailer events will be returning to a city that retains its core bonafides while also having stepped up its game significantly in critical areas.
“Some key things have changed in phenomenal ways,” Mendenhall said. “But what hasn’t changed is Salt Lake City is still the best destination for world-class summer and winter recreation.”
Mendenhall noted the opening of the first phase of the multibillion dollar Salt Lake City International Airport rebuild and door-to-door TRAX light rail service that whisks visitors from the airport to the Salt Palace Convention Center in a mere 12 minutes. She also highlighted the new, 700-room Hyatt Regency hotel under construction next door to the convention facility (and set to open before Outdoor Retailer returns in January 2023.)
Mendenhall also spoke about her behind-the-scenes work with show organizers and participants over the past months to help get the show back to Utah’s capital city.
“They really didn’t need any convincing about who Salt Lake City is and how much fun we are,” Mendenhall said. “And, Emerald and their leaders have been fairly consistent about Salt Lake City being the better path for Outdoor Retailer going forward after doing exhaustive research with their own clientele.
“My seat at the table was to represent the transformation Salt Lake City has been through, including deepening our investments in climate positive actions, local environmental quality and diversity, equity and inclusion issues.”
Mendenhall also noted Salt Lake City did not offer incentives, financial or otherwise, to lure the shows back to their longtime home.
Pitt Grewe, director of the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation, called the announcement “great news” and said it will only serve to bolster the state’s already vibrant outdoor recreation economy.
“Our office and our efforts have always been to support the outdoor industry here in Utah,” Grewe said. “The industry supports some 70,000 jobs across the state in products, services and all the businesses focused on getting people outside.
“And it’s an industry that plays a key role in every growth sector in the state. It’s an essential part of Utah’s quality of life.”
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also celebrated news of the return of the Outdoor Retailer shows.
“This is great news for Utah’s expanding outdoor industry and all those who love getting outside and experiencing the state’s natural beauty,” Cox said in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming Outdoor Retailers back to Salt Lake City.”
And, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, dropped a shoutout on Twitter following news of the the shows’ return to Utah.
“Glad to welcome Outdoor Retailer back to a state that takes great care of its public lands,” Lee tweeted. “Utah is the best place in the nation to spend time outdoors and to run a business.”
Last month, Cox shared some mixed sentiments about Outdoor Retailer’s potential return to Salt Lake City at his monthly PBS Utah press conference. Cox said the show owners and exhibitors got the worst end of the exit decision because they lost their “seat at the table” to engage in fruitful land use and policy discussions with the governor and state lawmakers while the end result for the state was “we did not miss them at all.” But, he also noted that he “would love them to come back.”
According to data provided by Visit Salt Lake, Outdoor Retailer summer and winter events generated $565 million in direct delegate spending over their tenure in Salt Lake City, accounting for more than $52 million in city, county and state taxes and providing $1,238 in tax relief to each Salt Lake County household on an annual basis.
Utah’s complicated past with Outdoor Retailer
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.
The contract announcement comes just weeks after dozens of outdoor recreation retailers promised to boycott the events should they return to Utah.
Last month, over two dozen outdoor industry companies, including heavyweights like Patagonia, REI, North Face and Kelty, signed a letter 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 urged 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.”
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 said the costs associated with exhibiting at the Denver-hosted shows have been significantly higher than they were in Utah and, ahead of Denver’s contract coming to a close in 2022, had said it may be time to reconsider Salt Lake City.