Luis Benitez, director Colorado's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office poses near the Colorado Convention Center where the three-time-per-year Outdoor Retailer show will be held starting this January. Benitez says the show will draw 85,000 people and the possibility of $120 million in spending to the state.

Convergence of factors brought Outdoor Retailer to Colorado

The end of an agreement, a battle for public lands and the rise of an $800 billion industry resulted in one state’s loss and Colorado’s gain.

In mid-2017, Outdoor Retailer announced that it — and the $100 million annual economic impact the trade shows represent — would move from Salt Lake City to Denver starting in January 2018.  

Now, leaders in Colorado economic development and the outdoor industry are looking to capitalize on the three Outdoor Retailer trade shows by bringing in panels, other industries and the requisite retailers and brands. Officials hope to replicate the atmosphere created at “South by Southwest” — a renowned arts, technology and culture festival in Austin, Texas.

“This is not your average trade show,” Luis Benitez, director of the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, told BizWest. “This thing is a combination of Las Vegas and REI on a sale weekend. It’s incredibly busy and packed. And it’s not just a trade show; all of our conversations around policy, economy, trade, advanced manufacturing will be held there. It’s not just to look at the shiny new gear; it’s a chance for an over $800 billion economy to come together and talk about what’s next.”

Outdoor Retailer came to Denver through the impetus of two unrelated actions. First, Salt Lake City’s contract on the two shows was ending, although the city was welcome to put in a bid to host the event again. The second, bigger issue, was political. The Outdoor Industry Association, the title sponsor of the event and the lobbying group for the outdoor industry, was increasingly dissatisfied with Utah’s stance regarding protecting public lands. It came to a head this summer, when OIA and Utah governance parted ways and Utah was no longer welcome to bid to host the trade shows again.

But the natural fit, and eventual choice, was neighboring Colorado.

Part of that came from the leadership of Gov. John Hickenlooper, who decided to take an opposite tactic from Utah and reaffirm the state’s commitment to protecting public land.

“He was integral to making this happen, with his vision and his understanding of the economy,” Benitez said. “The credit will always go to him for being willing to lean in and go after this. It was not just to go after the trade show. It was to talk about public lands and something self-evident and if that helps with going after the trade show, good. He said it was what we needed to do, period. (Public lands) are not about business, they’re who we are as Coloradans.”

The decision state government made to lean in to protect the outdoors was a positive sign for the outdoor retail companies that make Colorado their home.

“Alongside a lot of other brands in the industry, we were upset with what was happening in Utah with its reduction in public lands,” said Addie Bash, marketing manager for Boulder-based Polar Bottle, a manufacturer of reusable water bottles. “Being in Colorado, there are a huge number of outdoor brands located here and it’s the perfect place to promote the outdoors.”

With the show moving to Denver, there’s an opportunity for Front Range outdoor companies and startups to really shine. Although many attended the showcase in Utah, bringing it so close to home brings a spotlight to area businesses.

“Boulder has a cachet to the outside industry and Colorado in general is considered to be the most desirable place to recreate and enjoy what we have,” said Jake Thamm, CEO of snowshoe company Crescent Shoes, which has been attending the showcase for 20 consecutive years. “You can ski and snowshoe and enjoy the snow here in winter; you can kayak, run and hike and be in the mountains in the summer. It’s a pretty phenomenal place and Colorado is the beneficiary of that reputation. This helps us earn additional attention and some credibility. A snowshoe company based in Florida might have less credibility than one in Colorado.”

Having Outdoor Retailer here also shines a spotlight on the area as an ideal place for companies to launch and grow.

“In general there are so many amazing startups here,” Bash said. “It seems like Colorado in general is a hub for a range of different types of entrepreneurship. The more we can showcase that, the better, and it seems that shows like this are a great way to do that.”

Showcasing not just the outdoor industry, but others that Colorado has to offer, is Benitez’ and others’ big picture idea for future Outdoor Retailer shows. Although the upcoming trade show in January might be too early to gain momentum with other industries, the hope is that it will be a testing ground for future collaboration.

“We’re waiting to see what this looks like once, before we activated to the best of our ability,” said Steve Kurowski, operations director for the Colorado Brewers Guild. “But breweries are aware of it and are ready. There are lots of groups reaching out to breweries for places to have meetings and promotions. But a lot are looking to see what this looks like, as there will be two more (trade shows) this year.”

But Kurowski said he did see a future where the beer industry could be involved in the outdoor industry’s biggest trade show and see it reciprocated with outdoor companies participating in major craft beer events.

“I think they do go hand in hand; there are so many partnerships already between craft beer and outdoor brands,” he said. “It’s a natural fit for (the trade show) to be in Denver and it fits the craft beer culture very nicely. Biking and beer go together, skiing and beer and there is nothing better than a cold craft beer after a long day on a trail or mountain. It’s a natural fit and we’ll be participating and supporting as best we can.”

The participation of multiple Colorado-centric industries — including tech and natural food, among others — at a major event like the Outdoor Retailer show could create the “South by Southwest” feel Benitez and other leadership are looking for.

“Understanding the ancillary events that get created around the show, that’s how you get that South by Southwest momentum around the show that gets built organically,” Benitez said.