Outdoor Relocation: OR ditches Denver to return to Salt Lake City

By Bart Taylor | Mar 28, 2022

Consumer & Lifestyle Colorado Utah

Four years ago, I wrote this about Utah's devastating loss of its prized, homegrown trade show, Outdoor Retailer (OR), to its neighboring über-competitor:

"Last week's news of Denver's successful bid to land Outdoor Retailer (OR), the industry's most important trade show fumbled away by Utah, again highlights prospects for a new industrial play.

Here's the opportunity in a nutshell: Of the thousand or so brands traveling to Denver in January 2018 . . . most manufacture offshore. Yet more and more want to shorten supply chains and make more things in the U.S.

The measure of how successful any city, or state, or region will be in developing the outdoor industry will depend not only on who reaps tourism and trade show business, but on who will develop supply chains for companies poised to create jobs to manufacture the toys of this multibillion dollar industry."

Four years later, OR has failed in Denver. The only thing we know for sure is that little has been done to reimagine the outdoor industry manufacturing ecosystem – in Colorado or in the West. Nor did OR or its partner, the Outdoor Industry Association, rally to the opportunity. Instead, as companies struggle with supply-chain disruptions and production issues, the lingua franca of outdoor industry leaders continues to be themes that led OR out of Utah to begin with, as articulated by Conor Hall, the new leader of Colorado's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, or OREC.

Hall said this last week, in an interview with the Colorado Sun, that the departure of Outdoor Retailer should be seen as "a really exciting opportunity" for the state: "We are hearing from our industry partners that they'd like something that is more of an event or festival that convenes around all these issues, like public lands and diversity and inclusion. What can we create here in Colorado that not only fills the void left by Outdoor Retailer, but matches the evolution and transformation this industry is going through."

We talk to "industry partners" all the time, the product companies and brands outfitting outdoor enthusiasts. Public lands, diversity, and inclusion are important topics, but today they're back-burner issues for most companies. Why else would OR set them aside in a stunning move back to Utah?

Instead, the "transformation these companies are going through" is framed by acute supply chain issues. By the struggle to keep employees healthy, happy, and well-trained. By an insatiable thirst for innovation and technology – and more, an ecosystem driven to provide more local production assets, to enable companies that must manufacture offshore, a pathway to shorten supply chains, closer to where products are inspired and used.

[Related: New Balance bulks up manufacturing presence in U.S. amid global supply chain backlogs]

These imperatives seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Colorado doesn't need another outdoor industry event focused on public lands and diversity. The industry would benefit from a more expansive agenda; a focus on helping companies manufacture more in U.S. fits the bill. It's well-aligned with the industry's progressive agenda: shorter supply chains are inherently more sustainable -- and greener. More OI production may best be located in rural communities, where housing is more affordable and economic prospects are lacking -- call it rural renewal.

More local production would also enable brands to fulfill brand promises made to customers. Utah-based Kuhl is deservedly proud that its products are Born in the Mountains -- even as they're manufactured in Asia. It's a tough circle to square.

Yet today, to the winner go the spoils. And Utah's always been an outdoor industry leader, as I noted in 2018. "The irony of OR's move is that Utah has been better at recruiting outdoor brands than Colorado. Development of Ogden's outdoor industry (OI) cluster has been deliberate -- and successful." It’s now left to outdoor industry leadership including the Outdoor Industry Association, OR, and the economic development team in Utah state government, to steer the industry ecosystem in a different direction.

Outdoor Retailer's embrace of education and training that helps companies reimagine the global production ecosystem holds so much promise. Let's hope OI leaders expand their gaze.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.