For years, the Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show has been the hottest ticket in the industry. Twice a year, it’s a whirl of parties, passionate panel discussions, and brands showcasing their shiniest gear for the next season in booths as elaborate as Burning Man installations. It’s where athletes come to scrounge sponsorship gear for expeditions—and to brag about them afterwards. The problem is that it’s not open to the public, which means that if you want to partake in the hype, you have to cozy up to someone who works in the outdoor industry.
Starting in 2020, Snowsports Industries America (SIA) aims to bring that kind of buzz to the public. The trade group announced November 15 that it plans to buy the Boston and Denver Ski and Snowboard Expos from founding organization BEWI Productions. The pair of 40-year-old consumer-facing events currently sport the vibe of a ski industry flea market, but SIA plans to upgrade them. The primary component of SIA’s plan involves beefing up the presence of manufacturers like Rossignol and Atomic in a bid to create the sort of stoke-inducing experience that the tech industry cultivates at its annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show in Las Vegas, which attracts some 180,000 attendees each January. This is part of a trend away from industry-only shows like Interbike, which was recently cancelled after almost four decades, due in part to competition from public events. SIA also announced plans to expand the expos to a third location in the future. Dates and ticket prices for next year have yet to be announced.
“We want people to be able to come to these shows, listen to the brand’s technology stories, sit in on panels, watch films, and share the excitement every year as winter is starting,” says SIA president Nick Sargent.
Each November, the Ski and Snowboard Expos attract around 40,000 people to Boston and 20,000 to Denver. The events have been places for the public to score discount vouchers from ski resorts and deals on unsold previous-year gear, but manufacturer presence has been muted compared to the elaborate presentations staged at OR, where booths can reach three stories and contain elaborate interactive exhibits like “rain rooms” to demonstrate the waterproofing of jackets.
That brand marketing flash, the presence of celebrities, and extensive swag giveaways have lent OR a Comic-Con-like feel and enticed some consumers to finagle their way into the show with counterfeit badges or strategic bartering. In recent years, OR has also become a cultural hub, with packed presentations and panels on issues ranging from climate change to the defense of public lands to social justice. Some have said that in order for the outdoor industry to continue raising its cultural profile, the public should be invited in.
That hasn’t happened, largely because outdoor brands don’t want to undercut sales of current-year products with glimpses of what’s to come—seeing something better on the horizon, consumers might simply opt to make do until the better option arrives. SIA is banking that it can bridge that gap. The group held its own trade show from 1956 to 2017, when the event was bought and folded into OR by Emerald Expositions. SIA still counts 600 ski and snowboard industry stalwarts as members. While the upgraded Expos won’t include future products, says Sargent, they will allow brands to show off their available offerings with the same marketing muscle they put into OR. “It’s something brands have been asking for,” he says.
Pushback may come from local retail shops, who fear further erosion in a relationship with consumers that is already strained by giant e-tailers like REI and Backcountry.com, and from OR, which may view SIA’s move as competition for brands already cooling on the effort and expense of OR. In recent years, brands like Arc'teryx, Columbia, and CamelBak have all pulled out of the trade show in favor of participating in public-facing events like the Sea Otter Classic, Outerbike, and Canoecopia. In addition to cancelling Interbike, Emerald scrapped the November edition of OR in August, an experiment that lasted a single year.
Sargent insists the upgraded Expos can serve manufacturers, retailers, and the public alike. “We need to bring our industry into the 21st century,” he says. “Consumers now expect direct interaction with their favorite brands. Our intention is to create a platform that not only provides that, but just as important, steers consumers towards local and attending specialty retailers who are best suited to provide the necessary customer service.”
While it’s unlikely that the Expos will capture crowds like CES, Sargent hopes it will stoke excitement. “We want people there interacting with friends and filmmakers, wearing the latest swag, and posting on social media about the coolest gear.”
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