Kelley Smith, co-founder of Denver’s Kokopelli Packraft, is leading a coalition to boycott the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. Jonathan Castner for BizWest

Utah Fallout: Outdoor Retailer show will be leaving Utah and is courting suitors

The Bears Ears National Monument sits in the far southeast of Utah amid what the historian David Lavender called “a million and a quarter acres of staggering desolation between the San Juan and Colorado rivers.”

It looks exactly like its name. Two massive buttes — the “ears” — rise more than 2,000 feet above the surrounding land, separated by a ridge and dotted with ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings more than 3,500 years old.

The Pueblo, and the four other Native American tribes that hold the land as sacred, are largely why then-President Barack Obama declared Bears Ears a national monument in December 2016.

Less than two months later, Utah governor Gary Herbert asked the federal government in February to rescind Bears Ears’ status as a national monument, returning the land to the state and opening it up for sale.

This controversy over the status of Bears Ears has led numerous outdoor retailers to boycott one of their industry’s largest expositions, the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City.

The market’s organizers responded to Herbert by announcing that they’d pull the show from Utah. The more than $45 million in business the expo drives annually will go elsewhere after its contract with Utah ends in 2018, and Denver is one of the cities lining up to snatch it.

The outdoor gear giant Patagonia was the first domino to fall. Its announcement that it would boycott the show emboldened other, smaller retailers. Kelley Smith, a co-founder of Denver-based rafting company Kokopelli Packraft, was at another outdoor retailer show in Munich when he heard that Patagonia was boycotting.

Kokopelli is a longtime attender of the OR show, but it was already considering a boycott because of Bears Ears. It’s a small, local company, though, and Smith wondered what, if any, impact its action would have.

Kokopelli had what Smith called a “back-and-forth” with 11 other small companies about whether to boycott the OR show. The Outdoor Industry Association encouraged them to attend, but Patagonia’s decision and the lack of progress from Utah’s government made up their mind.

“It’s our right to be involved,” Smith said.

The dozen businesses banded together in a coalition and released a joint statement that said in part, “Defend public lands. Defend Bears Ears … as individual companies, we are small compared to Patagonia, but together we’re a force.”

Said Smith: “We have a fair amount of economic impact as a whole.”

Meanwhile, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office is leading the state’s charge to bring in the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market.

Luis Benitez, the office’s director, said that from talking to participating companies, the office has found an opportunity to — should Colorado get the show — transform it into something more.

For Benitez and his office, the Bears Ears controversy is only one part of the equation. The way he put it, the outdoor industry relies on federal lands to drive its economy.

“It makes good business sense to understand that,” he said.

Utah, in failing to do so, lost out on $45 million annually.

Benitez couldn’t talk about the financial specifics of Denver’s bid to host the market, but he did expound on its plans. He said that his office has heard from some retailers that the current Outdoor Retailer Winter Market didn’t met their needs; he offered as an example the paddle-sports industry, which has started its own show.

There are a few hurdles Colorado would have to clear before it can get the show. Chief among them is securing a venue. The Colorado Convention Center and the National Western Center are the two contenders. The latter was recently approved for a $1.1 billion expansion through a sales-tax continuation.

The convention center is more than 300,000 square feet short of what the Outdoor Retailer show typically needs.

“Will it fit?” Benitez asked. “It’s heavy lifting for any town.”

The convention center is also home to the Snowsports Industries of America’s Snow Show, under contract until 2030. That show takes place around the same time as the Outdoor Retailer show every year, so the two shows would have to compromise should Colorado win the bid and choose the convention center as the venue.

“We’re in conversations now about a potentially blended show,” Benitez said.

While Benitez and his office are trying to bring the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market to Colorado, the small businesses boycotting it are preparing to deal with the economic impact of doing so.

Kokopelli Packraft and the 11 other small companies in its coalition, truthfully, don’t know how their boycott will impact them. The larger retailers that are boycotting — including Patagonia, Arc’teryx and Polartec — can do so comfortably knowing that it won’t affect their bottom line. Kelley Smith, Kokopelli Packraft’s co-founder, isn’t so sure.

“Only time will tell,” he said when asked how he expects the boycott to affect his business. “It’ll probably be negative if anything, but we hear from lots of people who agree (with us).”

On the other hand, Smith said that he heard from a woman who bought something from each of the 12 small retailers out of solidarity. Kokopelli has also gotten what Smith called a “fair amount” of publicity from taking a stand as the boycott has made regional and national headlines.

“It doesn’t hurt, but it’s hard to quantify,” Smith said “But having our name associated with this stance is overwhelmingly positive.”

To make up for any lost business because of the boycott, Smith said that Kokopelli is brainstorming other ideas to connect with their retailers. The company has other expos that it shows its products at, and Smith said that Kokopelli could go on a sort of barnstorming tour to bring its products to retailers in person.

Ideally, Kokopelli and the 11 companies in its coalition won’t have to boycott after 2018, when the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market will have a new home. Benitez and his team at the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office are working hard to bring it to Denver. He hopes that, wherever the show ends up, its new hosts will use it to its potential.

“Anybody lucky enough to bid on this show has to realize that it’s more than just a trade show,” Benitez said. “It’s about policy, conservation. I hope that any city or state to bid on this realizes that.”