A Pirate Looks at 40
Scrappy, Joy, gratitude, community and passion.
Looking back at Outdoor Retailer as it celebrates 40 years, these are the first words that come to mind.
Seventy-five shows, millions of square feet of exhibition space, millions of attendees, exhibitors who have gone global or faded, countless members of the media, and who knows how many marriage proposals.
I have been privileged to be in this community for nearly three decades, working in the trenches with a selection of iconic brands that are the cornerstone of who are today.
I have had ringside seats to the industry’s evolution over time from mom-and-pop, sold out of their garage brands to a sophisticated publicly traded arena that leads the way for global industries, but where specialty retail is still our DNA.
The outdoor community’s storied roots have captured the world’s attention for a very long time, changed along with all of us, inspired us through hard times, and sometimes broke our hearts. We see the world’s ongoing love- affair with the outdoors in countless commercials (oftentimes where equipment is used incorrectly), reflected in names of cars, on advertising billboards and as the backdrop for movies – which is why creative directors walk the show for ideas.
Everyone knows the origins of this industry are scrappy – outdoor passionistas doing whatever was necessary to sell their products from wherever they could while climbing and getting first tracks. Afterall, they did have their priorities. And we love them for that.
Outdoor Retailer has captured the joy of longtime friendships, the debut of remarkable technology that brings people into the outdoor experience and provides a place for a neighborhood to gather that does not exist anywhere else. (Thank you, Las Vegas, Reno, Salt Lake City, and Denver.)
Gratitude describes how most of the citizens of the outdoor community feels about coming to work every day because in today’s new normal, it provides a refuge and a safe haven.
The extraordinary sense of community is unmatched and relentless. Community makes us special. It keeps us going. It is the foundation of our past and the keys to our future. We must do everything we can to nurture and preserve this because it is our heart and soul.
We saw this amazing sense of community when in 1999, Outdoor Retailer was hit with a surprise tornado one day prior to the show when a life was tragically lost. The bright spot of this tragedy was when the larger brands with big booths welcomed smaller brands and start- ups that lost their booths in the storm. What other industry does that?
We saw this amazing sense of community come together for the infamous JanSport parties and on the KEEN Ferris wheel and at the demos at Solitude and at Jordanelle State Park lake.
We felt this community in the opening night industry street party when you ran into everyone you knew. (Cue, “Everybody knows your Name” from Cheers.)
We indulged in these passions on the show floor with “right on cue” 4PM booth happy hours, a paddling pool for canoe ballet and who can forget Mountain Khaki’s mechanical bull and Royal Robbins infamous coffee bar?
We saw and continue to see athletes, iconic businessmen and women, Senators, Congressmen, Congresswomen, Secretaries of Interior, Governors and Mayors walk the show because they love what we do and what we represent and want to be part of it. We know they are jealous.
Outdoor Retailer has served as a place for brands to share their passions and ignite challenging discussions and, in some cases, share their disappointment about issues that matter to them – in 2017, getting noticed by the fashion editor at The New York Times, Vanessa Friedman, who wrote a feature story on when the show moved from SLC to Denver. Remember the March to the Utah State Capitol?
As the industry grew up, it designed the building blacks for sustainability serving as the poster child for the world of fashion, setting stellar examples of how to truly be sustainable, PFA and PFC free, minimizing the use of plastic, renting and reselling outdoor gear and apparel, and engineering state of the art sustainable fabrics. We were way ahead of fashion and, today, continue to demonstrate our technology prowess.
That is why global fashion brands and their designers walk our show – to see these assets first hand.
And how about those collaborations? The North Face and Gucci? Who knew? And Ye releasing an oversized puffer coat with no way to close? It sold out immediately. Fashion wants to be “outdoorable.” They can’t help themselves.
Outdoor Retailer and adidas Terrex established The Inspiration Awards honoring individuals, brands, retailers, and non-profits that specifically encourage outdoor participation. Climbing icon Reinhold Messner christened the first event and 10 years later Greg Thomsen gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to Outside’s Larry Burke and, then as a total surprise, Larry Burke said, “right back atcha” promptly giving Greg a second Lifetime Achievement Award.
Outdoor Retailer has embraced thorny issues such as diversity and inclusion providing a platform for Patti Gonia and The Oath, recognizing that for this industry to grow, we need to make it far more accessible to a wider audience and remove the intimidation factors of consumers experiencing the outdoors for the first time.
We still have a way to go relating to female CEOS, but progress is being made. While way back when, some might have characterized the industry as “pale, male and stale,” we are seeing a steady increase of women in senior management.
Outdoor Retailer battled the demons of the pandemic, but the industry saw a surge in outdoor participation because it was the ideal social distancing. An entirely new genre of consumers discovered the outdoors for the first time and much to our delight, will continue to indulge. We still need better price points and more inclusive sizing and make sure we go to where this customer shops (not likely an outdoor specialty store, but more like Target) but you will see examples of this evolution at the show.
Is there truth to the saying, the more things change the more they stay the same? Outdoor Retailer will evolve, with no shortage of opinions on what it should be.
We will aways have the solace that the outdoor experience provides, and no one can take away the sense of community that is our soul. And for that we are incredibly lucky.
The Jimmy Buffet lyrics are poignant:
“Mother Mother ocean, I have heard you call.
Want to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall.
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all. “