Participants of BizWest’s CEO Roundtable on the outdoors industry are from left, Rodney Smith, Seth Haber, Lena Phoenix, Jon Dorn, Mark Changaris, David Kerr, Jim Cowgill, Ingrid Malmberg, Gary Gomulinski, Jon Fox, Jeremy Wilson, Kimo Seymour, Ricardo Bottome.

Outdoors industry ponders public-land access, online sales, finding help

BOULDER — The state’s outdoor industry likely would regain bragging rights as the epicenter of all things outdoors if Denver wins its bid to host the international summer and winter Outdoor Retailer shows, after a long run of calling Salt Lake City home.

Denver is one of three finalist cities to host the events that draw about 4,000 vendors and 45,000 attendees. Should Denver win the bid, it would provide local outdoor companies more exposure to national vendors, shining a brighter light on Colorado brands.

“It will allow small, lean and bootstrapped companies here to attend because travel and lodging expenses will be way less,” said Seth Haber, owner of Boulder-based Trek Light Gear, during BizWest’s CEO Roundtable on the outdoor industry held Tuesday. “A 30-minute drive will mean a lot less stress,” Jon Fox, president of Eco Vessel in Boulder, agreed.

“It’s good for company morale when you can bring your whole team. It’s a positive for the company,” he said.

But past that bit of potentially good news, executives are struggling with how to compete with Amazon prices and connecting with the growing segment of online customers; pondering how a Trump Administration’s changes to public-land policies might affect their industry; and how to keep an effective workforce in place amid the region’s soaring cost of living and low unemployment rate.

Public lands

Whether the Trump Administration does anything to affect access to public lands or programs for land preservation remains to be seen.

Jon Dorn, chief innovation officer at Boulder-based Active Interest Media, said history shows that a threat to alter policies can increase the use of public lands.

“This is more of a threat, and as history has shown us, this type of threat — does anyone remember James Watt? — can grow the parks and recreation economy. Data shows that perceived threats to public-lands policies inspire people to do more camping and backpacking.”

Rodney Smith, president of BackPacker’s Pantry, said one of his top concerns is privatizing camp sites. Smith, whose main customers are hunters and fishermen, said, “they expect us to take a stance on public-lands policies.”

Ricardo Bottome, president of  Canaima Outdoors Inc. in Boulder, said people will defend their backyards and play areas.

“Customers expect us to promote land-conservation policies,” Bottome said. “We can’t afford to lose face.”

Haber pointed out that outdoor companies may pride themselves in taking a stance, but not all customers may agree.

“Taking a stance can come with a risk for companies, ” Haber said.

Gary Gomulinski, chairman of Active Boulder, said land preservation is important and that Colorado should stay on top of these issues for many reasons, including to help combat an obesity epidemic in this country.

“We need to get people outside,” he said.

Amazon pricing

Smith said fewer people are going to stores to see products and relying on a photo online to make purchasing decisions, and that is exceedingly difficult to compete with rock-bottom prices on Amazon.

Bottome said it’s easy to “game the system” with “fake reviews” to get a top listing on Amazon. “A company can buy back items and post reviews to get that top  spot,” he said.

Gomulinski said Amazon is hurting not only small companies, but also larger ones such as REI, when they buy product and sell for super low prices.

Lena Phoenix, co-founder and chief financial officer of Broomfield-based Xero Shoes, said companies can sell on Amazon and control prices by entering an agreement to have Amazon simply fulfill delivery of their products, rather than set the prices.

Gomulinski said companies need to use social media to connect with potential customers.

Phoenix said Xero Shoes was founded as an online company, and went out of its way to provide free information about their running sandals and similar products sold elsewhere. They made videos on how to run in their sandals, and where to find resources for treating running injuries.

“We gave away a lot of free educational information, and that builds trust,” she said.

Attracting help

As outdoor companies need a strong online presence, they also need a cadre of top software engineers to execute their particular plans.

Kimo Seymour, president of Life Time Fitness, said it has become exceedingly difficult to recruit and keep top talent in the Boulder Valley because of the increasing cost of living, exacerbated by soaring home prices and apartment rents, and a nationally low unemployment rate of 1.8 percent in Boulder.

“We are having to sell potential hires on qualify of life over pay,” Seymour said. “We have openings for eight software engineers, and we haven’t had eight responses to job notices.”

Dorn said the shallow labor pool is a problem, but that turnover might be worse.

“We recently hired a young software engineer for $85,000 a year, and he was quickly recruited away from us for $135,000. … We are constantly recruiting and training, and that impacts customer service.”

Sharing insights

Several participants in the roundtable would like to see the industry become more collaborative in addressing common challenges. Ingrid Malmberg, director of membership for the Outdoor Industry Association, a national group based in Boulder, is working closely with the Grassroots Outdoors Alliance to share information and best-business practices with specialty outdoors stores. It is made up of more than 100 independent special outdoors stores throughout North America.

Participants 

Ricardo Bottome, president, Canaima Outdoors Inc.; Jon Dorn, chief innovation officer, Active Interest Media; Jon Fox, president, Eco Vessel; Gary Gomulinski, senior vice president, Citywide Banks; chairman, Active Boulder; Seth Haber, owner, Trek Light Gear; Ingrid Malmberg, director of membership, Outdoor Industry Association; Lena Phoenix, co-founder, Xero Shoes; Kimo Seymour, president, Athlinks/Life Time Fitness; Rodney Smith, president, Backpackers Pantry. Moderator: Christopher Wood, editor/co-publisher, BizWest Media. Sponsors: Jim Cowgill and Jeremy Wilson, EKS&H; David Kerr and Mark Changaris, Berg, Hill, Greenleaf & Ruscitti.