View of Denver, where Outdoor Retailer trade show takes place
Outside Business Journal

Summer Trade Shows: Who’s Attending Outdoor Retailer and the Big Gear Show?

As Outdoor Retailer and The Big Gear Show prepare for in-person events this summer, many in the industry are still debating whether to attend

View of Denver, where Outdoor Retailer trade show takes place

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The past 14 months have been a dark season of disconnect for many in the business of outdoor. As much as anything else, we’re all likely to remember 2020 as the Year Without Trade Shows—the year we couldn’t hug, shake hands, or do business the way many of us prefer: in person. For an industry that prides itself on connection and compassion, the sting has been vivid.

The good news is, it’s almost over. The Outdoor Retailer (OR) Summer Market is coming back to Denver, Colorado, on August 10-12, and registration is currently open. The Big Gear Show (BGS), which delayed its inaugural event last year, is set to stage just a week earlier, August 3-5, in Park City, Utah. After a year of red Xs on the calendar—cancelled events, dashed plans—folks are once again buying plane tickets and dusting off booth hardware, getting ready to see each other. There’s more than a modest buzz of anticipation in the air.

The time away has changed things, however. We’re not fully out of the pandemic yet, and in the months we’ve spent apart, most of us have adapted to new ways of doing business. Budgets have already been set for the year. Some people are eager to meet face-to-face as soon as possible, while others are still wary of crowds, or restricted by company travel bans. This year, a big question on everyone’s mind is who, exactly, will be at the trade shows?

In a typical year, almost no one would question whether the big industry players like Patagonia, The North Face, or Black Diamond would show up to our national shows. Those booths have been the anchors of such events for decades. 

We’re living through the shoulder season of the most disruptive global crisis in a century, though, and the August shows are by no means a return to “normal,” as we hoped for so long they might be. At this point, it seems the only way to get a sense of who’s going—and who’s not—is to pick up the phone and start calling brand leaders, asking directly whether they plan to attend, yes or no.

Which is exactly what we did.

A Quick Disclaimer

First things first: ten weeks is a long time. Trying to pin down a comprehensive, definitive list of who’s attending the shows, nearly three months before they stage, is impossible. Over the course of the summer, as the situation develops, brands can and will change their minds about attending or skipping one show or the other. It’s just too soon to tell.

But we have to start somewhere. To begin piecing together a picture of the attendee lists, we reached out to dozens of key industry players to ask about their plans. Some dodged our calls and emails (no hard feelings). Others outlined their thoughts in lengthy manifestos. Some wanted to talk, but felt they couldn’t, as in the case of a notable hardgoods brand that refused to go on the record for fear of upsetting its specialty retailers. Response, in other words. was all over the place.

As of today, our list of exhibitors attending or skipping the shows—subject to change at any moment—is more comprehensive than what OR and BGS directors have published, but it’s still miles from complete. Everything we know so far is outlined below.

Which Brands Are Exhibiting at the Shows?

Outdoor Retailer’s latest exhibitor list, released today, includes about 150 brands, though show director Marisa Nicholson told us previously that more than 300 brands are registered with “more contracts coming in daily.”

Brands exhibiting at Outdoor Retailer (confirmed by OR leadership): 4ocean, Adventure Medical Kits, Aetrex, Airhead Sports Group, Aloe Up Suncare, American, Alpine Club, American Backcountry, Amundsen, Avalanche, Backpacker’s Pantry, Bertucci Watch, Big City Mountaineers, Bison Designs, Body Glide, Bridgford Foods Corporation, Brightz Ltd., Brookwood Companies Inc., brrr, Buck Knives, Inc., Bula, Camp Chef, Carson Optical, Centric Software, Chaos / CTR, Chums, Coala, Cougar Shoes, CRKT, CWR Wholesale Distribution, Dakine Equipment, Dakota Grizzly, Dansko, Disc-O-Bed Retail, Inc., Dometic, Downlite, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, drirelease, Duraflex, Earth Shoes, Ecovessel, U-Konserve, Equip, Everest Textile Co., Falcon Guides, Farm to Feet, Flexfit, Flylow Gear, Fox 40 USA, Frost River, GCI Outdoor, Geckobrands, Glacier Glove, Goal Zero, Gore-Tex, Grabber Inc. / Heatmax, Groove Life, G-Shock, GSI Outdoors, Hans Global / Pacific Fly, Hurley, Igloo, Ignik, UCO, Morakniv, Esbit, Pedco, ITW Nexus, Jambu & Co., Jetty, JTreeLife, Kavu, Inc., Kijaro, Killtec NA, Klean Kanteen, Klymit, Kokatat, Kokopelli, Komperdell Sportartikel GmbH, Korea Outdoor & Sports Industry Association, Labtex Co., Lamo Footwear, Ledlenser, Liberty Mountain, Lifeline First Aid & Fifty Fifty Bottles, Lorpen North America, Lowa Boots, Masterfit Enterprises Inc., Milliken & Company, Minus33 Merino Wool Clothing, Mountain and Isles, Mountaineers Books, Xtratuf, Mustang Survival, Nanga / Tomoyuki Yokota, Natural Tribute, Nomadix SPC, Ocun NA, Optic Nerve Eyewear, Osprey Packs, Otis Eyewear, Otte Gear, Outdoor Products, Outdoor Sports Insurance, Outerknown, Peak Refuel, Pendleton, Poler, Princeton Tec, Propet USA, Purnell, Qalo, QuietKat, Rab, Reusch USA/TruSox, Rome Industries, Salty Crew, Santero, Sawyer Products, Scully, Shwood Eyewear, Skratch Labs, SMC PMI, Solstice Watersports, Sperry, Sport Hansa, Spyderco, Stansport, Sterling Rope Co., Storm Care Solutions Ltd., Storm Creek, Sun Company, SureFire, Sustainable Down Source, tasc Performance, The Landmark Project, The NPD Group, Thermore, Tilley Endurables, Tincup Mountain Whisky, Trango / eGrips, Turbo Tent., Tweave, ust gear, Vandoit, Wallaroo Hat Company, Water Sports, Watershed, Western Mountaineering. Westfield Outdoors, Wild Tribute. Wolverine Footwear and Apparel, wow watersports / Big Mouth, Zippo Manufacturing.

The Big Gear Show confirmed that more than 100 brands have registered out of a possible 250 on the show’s invite-only list. We were able to get our hands on an abbreviated roster, which event co-founder Sutton Bacon said is merely a snapshot of the show’s full makeup.

Brands exhibiting at The Big Gear Show (confirmed by BGS leadership): Aire, Aqua-Bound, AquaGlide, Astral, Barebones Living, Bending Branches, Bike Exchange, Black Diamond, CamelBak, Camp Chef, Diamondback, Eddyline Kayaks, Eldorado Walls, Esquif Canoe, Eureka, Fat Chance Bicycles, Five Ten, Giro, Goal Zero, Grand Trunk, Hydrapak, Jack Wolfskin, Jetboil, Kleen Kanteen, Klymit, La Sportiva, Liberty Mountain, Malone Auto Racks, Miir, Ocean Kayak, Old Town Canoe, Osprey, Outdoor Research, Oru Kayak, Petzl, Pinarello, POC Sports, Primus, Princeton Tec, Rumpl, Scarpa, Seattle Sports, SOG Specialty Knives & Tools, Stan’s NoTubes, Sterling Rope, Suspenz, Swarovski Optik, Tahe Outdoors / SIC, Tern Bicycles, Troy Lee Designs, Wahoo Fitness, Wenonah Canoe, Yakima.

Several of the industry’s largest brands have confirmed they’re skipping both shows, including Big Agnes, Marmot, Merrell, Mystery Ranch, Nemo, Outdoor Research, and Patagonia. And two companies we spoke with—Fjällräven and Lifestraw—are still undecided, though Lifestraw says it would likely attend only one.

Several brands did not respond to repeated requests for comment, including Smartwool, Mountain Hardwear, and Keen, among others.

One major player—The North Face—presented a curious puzzle in our reporting. A company representative last week said that the brand is “not participating in any major trade shows, including the Summer Outdoor Retailer Show, in the near term.” Yet OR’s partial exhibitor list, released today, named the company as one of the confirmed players.

When asked for clarification, Nicholson said, “We’re in ongoing conversations with a lot of brands around creative ways they can participate in the show and what that looks like this year. The North Face is one of those brands, and we’re excited they are going to take advantage of opportunities provided at Outdoor Retailer to support specialty retailers and to engage with the community on important, relevant initiatives that help the industry move forward.”

At press time, multiple executives at The North Face had not responded to repeated requests for clarification.

Directors for both shows have stressed that comprehensive exhibitor information, including show floor plans, will be released soon. The Outdoor Retailer list is coming in mid-June, according to Nicholson, while The Big Gear Show’s list will be published in the next month or so, said Bacon.

The North Face presented a curious puzzle in the course of our reporting. A company representative said the brand is “not participating in any major trade shows in the near term,” yet the company showed up on Outdoor Retailer’s list of exhibiting brands. Repeated requests for clarification were met with silence from the company. (Photo: Courtesy)

Why Some Brands Are Dead-Set on Showing Up

In speaking with more than a dozen of the industry’s largest brands about their reasons for prioritizing the trade shows this year, no explanation came up more frequently than the issue of community support.

“There’s an awful lot of relationship value and passion that can’t necessarily be measured, but that will have long-term benefits,” said Lowa general manager Peter Sachs in reference to Outdoor Retailer, which the footwear brand plans to attend. “From a purely commercial perspective, it’s late in the [buying] cycle. For us, our deadline [for Spring ’22 product] is about a week after the show. But I’m not looking at it from a commercial perspective. It’s not like I’m walking out with purchase orders anyway; I’m walking out with handshakes, pats on the back, that kind of thing. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s in June or August.”

Sachs estimated that he’s going to “overspend compared to the commercial value of the show,” but reiterated that, for his brand, attending Outdoor Retailer is a calculation that goes beyond dollars and cents. 

“We want to show respect for the dealers who do attend, re-engage relationships with industry partners, get real products in front of buyers and trade press, present the company’s updated branding and marketing, and start to process the emotional parts of resuming our trade show schedule so we can get ready for the January ’22 show,” Sachs said. 

Others like Jeff Polke, co-president of GCI Outdoor, echoed similar sentiments.

“It’s been 22 straight years that we’ve been at Outdoor Retailer,” said Polke. “It’s been such a big part of growing my company that I wouldn’t feel right missing the show.”

He added that, because so many businesses are having problems with their supply chains and budgets, he understood the argument for skipping the trade shows for financial reasons. Still, he said, “it’s a small price if you do it right.”

“Get a smaller booth,” said Polke. “Make it work. Some of these brands need to step it up and show everyone that the trade show industry is still valuable. We can’t forget everything that made the outdoor industry what it is. The shows are part of that. There’s value in face-to-face. We have to go back to who we are as humans, shaking hands and saying thank you for your business.”

Respect for retailers was another topic that came up repeatedly in our conversations with brands. For the better part of a year, after the lockdown period of the early pandemic, specialty retailers across the country kept their doors open to customers, maintaining face-to-face relationships with the industry’s consumer base.

“These retailers have been meeting with consumers out on the front line for a year, while we’ve been hiding behind our Zoom screens,” said Sachs. “We owe it to them.”