*Article courtesy of The Denver Post - Originally posted March 3, 2017
The stakes are high for Colorado as Outdoor Retailer searches for a new home for its twice-a-year trade shows after a scrap with Utah over its public lands policies.
Focusing on unification instead of pitting Colorado against other states, the swelling Colorado recreation community says a 10-year deal to host the influential trade shows marks a once-in-a-lifetime chance to intensify the state’s recreation economy just as other conventions have bolstered the state’s ski, beer, tech, medical and energy sectors.
“We are not talking about a trade show. We are talking about Colorado becoming the backbone of an industry and a national economy,” said Luis Benitez, the boss of the first Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, who is bent on galvanizing the state’s diverse outdoor interests. “The capacity of this moment can’t be overstated.”
This chance to land Outdoor Retailer — the industry’s twice-a-year meet-up, featuring the latest innovations, ideas and, more recently, fiery advocacy — is a crucial crossroads for Colorado with impacts that will linger for decades. It’s an opportunity to prove the state’s loosely tied, and often conflicted, tribe of outdoor-loving business owners and advocates can coalesce to forge a national model for recreation.
Benitez spent the past month encouraging Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner to join Gov. John Hickenlooper in urging Outdoor Retailer to move to Colorado. Now he’s on a 30-day mission to not just convince the convention bookers at Visit Denver to look beyond the immediate — and significant — return on investment for trade shows that host more than 40,000 annual visitors who spend more than $45 million, but lure everyone who plays outside in Colorado that it’s time to rally under the outdoor recreation banner.
“What we are talking about goes beyond membership to any one group. What we are talking about is membership to our industry at large. It’s the soccer mom and the dad in the park, it’s the backcountry skier, the climber, biker, boater, fisherperson, hunter, motorcycle rider and snowmobiler,” Benitez said. “It’s the big tent. The biggest tent.”
While Benitez is spotlighting the inspirational unification of an industry that is emerging as a national economic pillar, Richard Scharf at Visit Denver is laboring over the nuanced and complex logistics of landing the trade shows in 2019. His proposal is due to Outdoor Retailer owner Emerald Expositions — the nation’s largest trade show organizer — by the end of March. He just submitted Denver’s 10-year bid to host Emerald’s Interbike trade show, the largest bike gathering in the country.
Scharf’s challenges are plentiful. June and July, when Outdoor Retailer would want to rally at the Colorado Convention Center for its summer market, are the center’s busiest months.
Scharf’s team books $700 million in convention business a year, sometimes scheduling gatherings as far as 10 years out. If he wants to wedge 25,000-plus conventioneers into four or five days in June or July 2019, he may need to reschedule an already booked conference, which Visit Denver has done before but not often. Scharf’s proposal will likely be competing against cities such as Las Vegas, Seattle, Chicago, Portland, Ore., Orlando, Fla., Reno, Nev., and Anaheim, Calif. Politicians from Oregon, Montana and New Mexico have expressed support for hosting Outdoor Retailer.
Scharf is well aware of the rallying cry to land this booking. But he has to focus on the dates, rates and space.
New expansions of the convention center’s meeting spaces and 10,000 hotel rooms within a short stroll fit the Outdoor Retailer’s “pretty hefty criteria,” Scharf said, as does 22 acres of outdoor riverfront at the soon-to-be revamped National Western Complex.
Conventions in Denver have bolstered many segments of the state’s economy for years, often luring executives and companies to set up shop in Colorado, said Scharf, who remembers 20 years ago, before the airport, light rail and new hotels, when Denver “couldn’t buy a piece of business.”
“It does come down to nuts and bolts. But we appreciate and get excited when we have such a groundswell of locals who are eager to make it happen,” said Scharf, comparing the passion of the outdoor community to that of Colorado’s craft beer lovers, who pushed convention center to host the Great American Beer Festival in 2000, spurring the state’s ever-booming brewery scene.
The exclusivity agreement Visit Denver has with the late-January SnowSports Industries America Snow Show, which will be staying in Denver through 2030, is a challenge beyond Scharf’s desk. That noncompete clause says the city can’t host another outdoor show in the months surrounding the venerable Snow Show. If Denver is going to host a winter Outdoor Retailer show, Emerald Expositions and the nonprofit SIA must reach an agreement on a blended winter show. Both sides say they are willing to talk.
And there will have to be a serious overhaul of all these trade shows, which see gear makers paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for space and elaborate booths showcasing their latest work to thousands of shop owners and the media. The return on that investment is dwindling. Retailers and manufacturers place orders at far-flung factories long before the trade shows, forcing a rethinking of the reasons to rally.
Issues about public lands and access will remain a focus for Boulder’s Outdoor Industry Association, which partners with Emerald Expositions in hosting the Outdoor Retailer shows. The association will make the final decision on a new home — as well as any potential merger with SIA — “in partnership” with Emerald Expositions, said the association’s director, Amy Roberts.
Just like SIA, the association needs its trade shows, which will be expanding to two November winter events and two June summer events in 2018. Keeping those shows viable means showcasing not just the gear but the ideas and policies that bubble up from the gathering of like-minded people — such as the recent conflagration over Utah’s public lands policy, that saw major brands including REI, Patagonia, Arc’teryx and Black Diamond blasting the state’s leaders over their attempt to undo the Obama administration’s designation of the Bear Ears National Monument.
“The trade show still needs to have the business return on investment, but there is this opportunity for more,” Roberts said. “Any city bidding on this show sees that opportunity, because basically two to three times a year your state will be highlighted around these issues and there are opportunities for elected officials to put a stamp on outdoor recreation.”
Colorado’s push for the show can’t pit Western states against each other at a time when the Intermountain West needs to stand together to protect resources and access, said Kim Miller, the industry veteran who heads Boulder’s Scarpa North America.
“Do not start a range war here,” said Miller, who serves on the SIA board of directors and Benitez’s 22-member advisory board. “From the outside, that just looks like infighting and it becomes destructive for the industry, especially right now when we want to get a good foothold and be known as a powerful economic and political force.”
Still, Colorado would be the best home for Outdoor Retailer, said Miller, echoing the message in the bipartisan letter sent by Colorado’s top political leaders.
But first, everyone who appreciates the outdoors needs to come together. Imagine dirt bikers and wilderness hikers, cross country skiers and snowmobilers, RVers and campers, power boaters and kayakers, hunters and birdwatchers, skiers and snowboarders looking beyond their polarities to trumpet a shared vision based on their appreciation of good times outside. It’s a symbiosis that would elevate Colorado as the bespoke home for the rapidly evolving recreation industry.
“Let’s define what kind of state would be best as the epicenter for the outdoor recreation industry,” Miller said after a day of backcountry skiing in Rocky Mountain National Park. “Pretty soon, you start building a case where Colorado makes the most sense.”
Next year, the economic impact of the recreation industry will be revealed in the nation’s GDP, a result of last fall’s unanimously approved Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act. That impact will likely reach well past half a trillion dollars, making outdoor recreation one of the strongest engines in the U.S. economy.
With that economic clout comes power. Think a national office of recreation. A recreation super PAC. Politicians courting outdoor leaders. Colorado could be the headquarters for that swelling powerhouse.
That’s the big picture Benitez is championing.
“It’s the alignment of our culture, our community and our voice, and it’s almost this moment of self- actualization and self-awareness of what we are capable of,” he said, “and things that, if we miss, will make everything fall down.”
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