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Outdoor Retailer Out?

Why the trade show may leave Utah

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Hanging in the Balance
But, to the greater OR community, all of this political bickering may look like a Utah family feud. Danner Footwear’s Nicole Orr has been attending OR for three years. She says she’s out of the loop on Utah politics, but she also doesn’t think it matters. “When it comes to decisions about the future of OR, I feel it’s better to do the right thing for members of OIA, and do the right thing for the folks who actually attend the show,” she says.

Visit Salt Lake’s Scott Beck doesn’t see Utah’s land politics as a barrier to retaining OR. “We are very focused around the business opportunities and business environment for a trade show, and I don’t think politics will impact the discussion and the decision,” he says.

In fact, Beck thinks Utah’s environmental legacy gives the state a leg up on its competition. “We have a really good track record in Utah and are clearly light-years ahead of other states in our stewardship with the natural environment.” After mentioning the Salt Palace’s 1.65-megawatt rooftop solar array and the new airport TRAX line, scheduled to open in 2013, Beck says, “The average outdoor attendee is much more concerned with solar panels, public transportation and recycling than these other [political] discussions.”

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Beck’s business-focused approach mirrors the thinking of Nielsen’s Haroutunian, who has a key vote in determining if OR stays or goes. “At Nielsen, we don’t really make decisions on venues for events based on politics,” he says. “We make decisions based on what the industry tells us what they want, what they need. At the end of the day, we want OR to be about the business. We want people from all sides of political spectrum to feel free to come into OR and not feel ostracized and not be treated differently because they have a political lean one way or another.”

If politics does enter the debate, Garry Carlson would like everyone to become more educated about the issues. He’s a Salt Lake Valley resident and buyer at Overstock.com who attends a dozen trade shows a year, including OR. Carlson has been following the public-lands debates in Utah and believes that outsiders lack a nuanced understanding of the situation. “If there are particular lands that need to be protected, let’s protect them,” he says. “But if some of the areas where we want the state to have control are vast wastelands of desert, then we could pull more resources from them or make them multi-use.”

In the end, Metcalf admits the boycott threat he used to leverage concessions from Gov. Leavitt in 2003 hasn’t worked in the long run. “There is a new realization that if the show is staying here [in Utah] as an attempt to influence public policy, it’s not working,” he says. “How could it be any worse? If this is the best we can do, we all should go home.”

But Mark Rasmussen, senior vice president at the Clearfield-based climbing-gear company Petzl America, Inc., disagrees. He foresees major challenges for Utah’s outdoor-recreation lobby if Outdoor Retailer stops coming here. “If Salt Lake City solves the logistic issues and the show stays, the political issues in Utah would continue to be worked on,” he says. “But if the show leaves, I think the biggest loss will be Salt Lake’s position as a bully pulpit to protect the outdoor community.” Rasmussen believes the biggest drawback of OR’s departure will be felt by the hikers, climbers, skiers and outdoor companies like Petzl and Black Diamond that call Utah home.

Decision Time
Since all the proposals have been received from cities vying for the convention, the ball is in Nielsen’s court. There’s not much state or local government can do now to convince OR to decide to stay, unless they can wave a magic wand to double the size of the Salt Palace overnight. However, the OIA board of directors will meet with Gov. Herbert and his chief of staff on Aug. 1, the day before OR opens, to discuss the industry’s concerns over the state’s public-land policies.

OIA hasn’t planned any specific events at the show regarding the pending decision, according to Lori Herrera, but they will continue to gather feedback through online forums and surveys. Asked when the final decision will be made, Herrera suggests it will be this year.

“The window for us to be looking at what comes after 2014 is closing,” she says. “To move a trade show of this size takes time, so we’re really hoping that, coming into this fall, we have a clear path on which venue it will be.”

But a firm decision by fall of 2012 seems premature to Haroutunian, who reiterates that his employer, Nielsen, owns the show and gets to make the final call. “We’ll have a good idea by then, but I doubt there will be any real consensus, like ‘70 percent say go to Denver,’ ” he says. “That’s very unlikely.” In addition, Haroutunian says that the entire decision process can be extended. “We don’t have to sign another five-year agreement with a location. Instead, we can sign for one year to give us another window because we still want to continue the conversation.”

There’s also one more factor that Haroutunian’s considering as he approaches a decision—the risk of moving a successful show. “One of my big concerns is that if we move, we move for the right reasons,” he says. If OR splits for Las Vegas or Anaheim, there’s a chance that a rival outdoor show could spring up to reclaim its mantle in Salt Lake City.

The second scenario isn’t far-fetched. When limited space at the Indianapolis convention center forced the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show to jump to Orlando in 2005, the unexpected move angered some longtime exhibitors. By 2009, a rival show calling itself the International Motorsports Industry Show (IMIS) that focused on the industry’s core appeal had returned to Indianapolis and signed a long-term deal with the city’s convention center, causing an ongoing rift in the racing-sports world.

If somehow Salt Lake City comes out on top and Outdoor Retailer stays in Utah, we’ll never know if that scenario would come to pass. But as tens of thousands of outdoor aficionados overwhelm the Salt Palace next week and spill into the surrounding sidewalks and streets, the odds-makers in Vegas will probably increase their bets against Salt Lake City. 

Jason Stevenson is a Salt Lake City freelance writer and a former editor at Backpacker and Outside magazines. He also works as a freelancer for SNEWS, an outdoor-industry news source, reporting for the Outdoor Retailer Daily, the newspaper published each day during the OR show.

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