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Outdoor Retailer Snow Show blends business with advocacy in Denver

When Denver landed the Outdoor Retailer trade show last year, organizers promised not just a new location but a new vibe. This week, the influential trade show arrives at the Colorado Convention Center, blending with SnowSports Industries America’s Snow Show for a long-awaited rally of both outdoor and winter-industry retailers and manufacturers.

As the retail landscape shifts with brands offering direct-to-consumer sales, internet giants dominating e-commerce and the rising tide of click-and-mortar stores forever changing traditional gear shops, the wheeling and dealing on the three-level show floor will be critical. And amidst the shop owners stocking shelves for coming seasons, a surging army of advocates will be rattling their sabers, hoping to galvanize a united movement that protects public lands, water and climate. The show will blend not just the outdoor and winter crowds. This time around, a cavalcade of sociopolitical activity will permeate the show as the outdoor industry vies to sway public policy.

So yes, there will be a lot going on inside the convention center this week. It’s a historical four-day confab — the first of a planned three annual Outdoor Retailer trade shows in Denver that will deliver an expected $110 million economic impact each year — that not only fills local coffers with more than 28,000 attendees but elevates Colorado as the swelling epicenter of the outdoor industry. If all goes as planned this week, the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show will spark a political movement that establishes the industry as a major economic, cultural and political force.

And as part of that whole new vibe, the public will finally have more access to the consequential conclave, with open-to-everyone panel discussions, a movie night at the Bellco Theater and the Winter on the Rocks concert at Red Rocks. But first and foremost, the blended trade show is about connecting outdoor and ski shop owners with a larger-than-ever array of gear-makers.

In this Aug. 4, 2016, file

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press file

In this Aug. 4, 2016, file photo, people attend the Outdoor Retailer show, in Salt Lake City.

“We are bringing together two markets that haven’t been together for more than 30 years, and the opportunities for brands to meet new retailers and retailers to see new products and new brands is unprecedented,” said Marisa Nicholson, the director of the Outdoor Retailer trade show and vice president for show producer Emerald Expositions. “Our No. 1 focus is creating the most efficient, cost-effective way for business to get done for both manufacturers and retailers. Everything else builds around that.”

There’s a lot of “everything else.”

In addition to a rotating slate of seminars and panels designed to gird retailers for battle with increasingly shifting forces in the outdoor retail world — like brands selling via their own shops and websites — a litany of events will engage the public and stir political winds.

Luis Benitez, head of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, will gather the first-ever outdoor G8, a summit of eight state delegations with outdoor recreation offices like Colorado’s. The so-called Confluence Summit will focus on bipartisan issues like economic development, conservation, workforce training and public health. The idea is to create a sort of outdoor group similar to the Western Governor’s Association, a national political voice to elevate outdoor recreation economics and policy.

“This is pushing the idea that the outdoor industry is beyond a political stripe,” said Benitez, who hopes the annual summit spawns more offices like his as well as additional rallies in other states every summer. “If we can get everyone to agree that more things can happen at the state level than anywhere else, we can become a voice not just for outdoor economies but for the natural resources that drive our economies.”

Benitez will emcee the open-for-everyone Backcountry Film Festival’s “Night of Stoke” on Saturday at the Bellco Theater, with iconic athletes and activists introducing shorts that focus on climate, public lands and water. On Friday night, Icelantic Skis will host its annual Winter on the Rocks concert at Red Rocks, which this year will include the Snow Show’s popular fashion show.

For five days, a series of free and open-to-the-public seminars and discussions will take over the convention center’s intimate Understudy venue. The so-called Trade School — sponsored by Something Independent — will feature brewers, distillers, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, ski patrollers and podcasters discussing “the nature of work.”

“A big question we are going to be asking this week is ‘What is the road ahead?’ Not necessarily what’s been done but what’s coming,” said Chuck Sullivan, the co-founder of Denver’s Something Independent group, which fosters innovation and entrepreneurs in the West. “The outdoor industry has an outsized impact that inspires so much more. It’s a community of folks who are resilient and subscribe to the notion of putting heads down and getting stuff done.”

There’s going to be a large push to inspire those outdoor loving shop owners and vendors toward political action, probably more than any previous Outdoor Retailer or Snow Show. With the Trump Administration calling for the shrinking of Bear Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah — a move that ultimately triggered the Outdoor Retailer show to leave its longtime home in Salt Lake City in protest — as well as reductions in environmental protections, there’s an urgency in the outdoor industry to coalesce and fight for political change.

Amy Roberts, the head of Boulder’s Outdoor Industry Association, hopes to take overwhelming support for public lands, which has galvanized the industry more than anything in recent memory, and channel that toward climate change and protecting clean water and air. The industry is angry with federal policy changes this year, she said.

“People are very motivated to come together and figure out how we can start to create the change we hope to see in 2018, and people are excited to do that in a state like Colorado, which has a commitment to public lands,” she said.

While major manufacturers and brands such as Patagonia and REI lead the battle against what they see as an attack on public lands, shop owners also are keen to flex their united muscle to protect lands, access and water, Roberts said.

“There is a lot of power in these small-town businesses on Main Street,” Roberts said. “Sometimes that influence on public policy gets overlooked, but it’s really important.”

Retailers and brands may be eager for political change, but they are coming to Denver for business.

“I think the political stuff is definitely interesting with Bears Ears and Trump complications with the EPA and all that. I’m curious to see how it impacts the show, but the primary reason we are there is to look at product and talk to vendors and find new vendors,” said Jon Kahn, the 20-year-owner of Denver’s venerable Confluence Kayaks ski and paddle shop. “With more brands opening their own stores, we want to know how much direct competition we are going to have from our vendors versus vendors who don’t do direct-to-consumer. For us, we are trying to find the best representation of smaller, local brands so we have some exclusivity.”

Nicholson, the show director, is on it. Her job is to make sure shop owners like Kahn have everything they need to make the right decisions for their stores, and brands are able to channel their innovation (and order quantities) to meet those retailers’ needs.

The newly blended Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show will be revealed “more in a feeling than a visual take,” she said.

“It’s going to be a renewed sense of energy of excitement with two markets coming together. We want to create more ways for retailers and brands to be able to discover new things simultaneously,” said Nicholson, who has worked with Outdoor Retailer for 15 years. “There is so much passion in this industry. The things that are pushing and pulling us are the same things that bring us all together and create a sense of community unlike any other industry. All these people competing, but working together. It’s something very unique and really special, and that’s what will make this industry even stronger as we continue to endure the different challenges pressed upon us.”

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