Report from Outdoor Retailer


The Summer Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City is a gearhead's dream. I wandered through its hundreds upon hundreds of booths on Thursday, Aug. 2 in a breathable waterproof daze, along with 27,000 other people ogling the very latest in toys and accoutrements for every kind of outdoor adventure. The goods on display ranged from cutting edge – stand-up paddleboards, hoodies with built-in headphones, waterproof iPhone cases – to the more traditional backpacks, hiking boots and jackets.

In a hotel meeting room the previous night, scenes of mountain climbing, canoeing and fishing played across a huge screen while dozens of outdoor-gear industry leaders and a stray journalist or two polished off double-chocolate cake and raspberries. We were attending the Thought Leaders dinner hosted by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), representing more than 1,000 gear companies, and the video's message was clear. “Outdoor recreation is not just a way of life,” said the association's president, Frank Hugelmeyer, “it's our business.” The video's final lines were tongue-in-cheek but showed the outdoor industry's intent to claim a seat at the public policy table: “We take on nature's ferocity, and we can take on a few people in suits. And if they don't get it, we'll ask them to step outside.”

But there's a divide in the industry's approach to conservation issues, as we reported in our July 23 cover story, "The Hardest Climb," by Greg Hanscom. Some companies, led by Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond, want the industry to focus on protecting the West's wildest places. But Hugelmeyer and the OIA stress a more inclusive approach; his address following the video talked about creating a "recreation infrastructure" that includes everything from local soccer fields to national parks. Hugelmeyer's “backyard to backcountry” approach seeks common ground among motorized and non-motorized users of all stripes, while Metcalf worries that making the tent too big will result in watered-down public-lands protections.

Metcalf had been planning to use the Outdoor Retailer show to ask Utah's Gov. Gary Herbert to "step outside." Herbert and the state's Republican congressional delegation have been pushing policies that Metcalf and other gear makers view as direct attacks on the public lands essential to their livelihood. But right before the show started, Gov. Herbert met for the first time ever with the OIA board of directors. The board's post-meeting statement contained some pretty clear expectations – they ask the governor to start collaborating with the OIA on a "shared vision" for public land policies within 30 days, and to provide specific recommendations by the time the winter version of the Outdoor Retailer show rolls around. There's a lot at stake for Utah: The OR show is rapidly outgrowing Salt Lake and organizers are discussing moving the $43 million convention to another host city; while the decision is mostly driven by logistical needs, OIA says that the state's "political climate" will be one of the factors.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Herbert, who'd certainly like to keep the OR shows at home, expressed some willingness to listen to the trade group's viewpoint: "We may have some philosophical disagreements over public land management, but I am committed to hearing all sides of the issue," Herbert said.

"I think the governor didn't know what he was stepping into," said Metcalf during an interview at his company's booth on Thursday. "Those (anti-conservation) proposals are out of touch with the mainstream. Now the outdoor industry has challenged him: what is his vision for public lands? Is it favorable to our principles and values?"

For Metcalf, the question remains  - how can he and the outdoor industry most effectively advocate for protecting wilderness and wild rivers? "It's a topic of discussion," he said. "What is the role that OIA is going to take? Will it take a more active role in lobbying for strong, sustainable public lands policy?"

"The issue," he added, "is activating the companies who have already joined OIA to get involved, get off their asses and stop rubber-stamping bad policies." And if they don't, Metcalf said, then perhaps the Conservation Alliance (another, much smaller trade group that supports grassroots conservation projects) should shift its focus to that kind of lobbying instead.

Hugelmeyer, whom I also interviewed Thursday, emphasized advocacy as well – but unlike Metcalf, he wants to leave local and state-level policy battles to gear-industry customers. "We're not going to stop being passionate stewards of the land," he said. "But we can't focus on small fights. Our fights at the federal level are much greater."

I finally stumbled out of the gear show around 7 pm Thursday, too tired to join the gigantic block party in progress near the "New Exhibitors" overflow pavilion. I'd probably walked three or four miles in meandering passes up and down endless aisles of booths. I'd looked longingly at sleek Royalex canoes and handcrafted leather bags, and scored a modest amount of schwag – some stickers, a tube of lip balm, a keychain or two.  My feet were sore, and my shoulders ached from toting my laptop around the show floor all day. I knew exactly how this guy felt, who at 6 pm was napping on a bench in the hallway outside the main hall.

As planning for the winter OR show begins, HCN will keep an eye out to see what approaches Gov. Herbert comes up with and what proposals OIA makes. Some sort of "collaborative policy environment" will eventually emerge; the question is, where will it fall on the Metcalf-Hugelmeyer spectrum? My bet is on the more pragmatic "big tent" approach. That's at least a way to get greater collaboration and buy-in on policies -- but we also need the idealism of people like Metcalf to keep pushing for stronger protections and a higher degree of conservation, lest we turn the West's most cherished public lands into merely playgrounds.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Images of OR show and Frank Hugelmeyer courtesy the author

Vaughn Collins
Vaughn Collins
Aug 06, 2012 03:31 PM
I couldn’t agree more that it will take an army – with a range of approaches – to advocate for favorable public lands policies and funding in this country, particularly in the West.

However, I am surprised at the suggestion that OIA is not active on strong, sustainable public lands policy. As a national partnership that represents a wide cross-section of hunting and fishing organizations, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership works closely with OIA on many public lands policy issues, including defending Backcountry Areas and the National Roadless Conservation Area Rule, advocating for full funding for LWCF, supporting the America’s Great Outdoors initiative and collaborating on the industry’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, just to name a few.

More importantly, the economic data released by OIA (The Outdoor Recreation Economy, June 2012) has become an invaluable resource for the conservation community and makes a strong economic case for investing in and protecting our nation’s public lands and waters.

Are we there yet? Certainly not, but I applaud OIA and the industry’s leadership and persistence in bringing the community together to start the conversation that will lead to solutions.

Vaughn T. Collins
Director of Government Affairs
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
Washington, D.C.
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Aug 06, 2012 05:53 PM
Thanks for the comment Vaughan, I wasn't trying to say that OIA is not active in public lands conservation; it is a strong voice indeed, as the quote from the video also indicated. I was just trying to point out what seems to be a spectrum of possible policy choices ... Sincerely, Jodi Peterson
Tim Rosenhan
Tim Rosenhan
Aug 13, 2012 11:46 PM
The OR show and land-use politics have many moving parts.  What was missing from Jodi's article was a discussion on the business motives for the OR show owner, Nielsen, to want to move to a larger convention venue with more space and more hotels.  Salt Lake City is pretty much at its limit in both. Utah's retrograde land use policies piss off Peter Metcalf and many others in the industry, but the real reason Nielsen will move the show will be the hope of securing space to grow their bottom line.  Because the OIA has a financial tie to Nielsen through a revenue sharing contract at OR, I don't believe OIA will deviate too far from Nielsen's views--or stick their neck out on Utah politics if it's counter to Nielsen's apolitical interests. 
Perhaps it's my cynicism, but I see Metcalf's no doubt sincere beef with the Utah governor as providing a show-moving rationale for the environmentally concerned OR attendees. The decision to move the show to Vegas may already be in the Nielsen works for bottom-line business reasons.  It takes a fairly convoluted lo gic to convince outdoor industry show attendees to move from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas purely on environmental grounds.

Tim Rosenhan
Innova Kayak
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Aug 14, 2012 06:12 AM
While the Outdoor Industry Association worries about the political climate in Utah, I just worry about the climate.

Twenty seven thousand attendees and a $43 million dollar convention? Really? If Black Diamond spent just a tiny fraction of the time thinking about the carbon footprint of all those company reps and sales people jetting in over the Wasatch as they do the access of yuppies to go play in those self same mountains I’d feel a heck of a lot more reassured.

The Summer Outdoor Retailer show is a dinosaur from a time in the past when we trashed our environment with abandon, purchasing piles of unneeded, high tech gear to enjoy a no tech nature. Just how many backpacks would John Muir own?