The Changing Face of Trade Shows for the Endurance Industry

By: Brian Metzler


This coming week marks the return of the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver, but after 18 months without in-person trade shows, it remains to be seen how effective it might be. After the fear of a resurgence of the Covid-19 virus via the Delta variant, the future of massive indoor, in-person trade shows is up in the air.


“After more than a year apart, we’re looking forward to reconnecting with the outdoor community in Denver,” Marisa Nicholson, Outdoor Retailer senior vice president and show director, said in an announcement to registered attendees this week. “The show remains the biggest opportunity for our industry to come together to build relationships, find new brands and products for stores, and share ideas. These three days together will offer valuable ways for the community to grow and build a stronger foundation for the future.”


That’s the best case scenario, for sure, but Outdoor Retailer parent company Emerald Expositions has been scrambling to adapt to the changing needs of exhibiting brands and retailers, especially after the entire industry adjusted to not attending trade shows for the past year and a half.


For years, the OR trade show in Salt Lake City was the gathering place twice per year for the outdoor industry and increasingly that included trail running brands. It was a great place to meet-and-greet, attend seminars, see and try new gear, and even write new orders for the coming season.


But after Emerald Expositions bought the show and moved it to Denver after the final summer show in 2017, it merged Outdoor Retailer Winter Market show with the SIA Snow Show because of a decline in exhibitors and attendees of each of those shows. It continued its Summer Market show in August 2018 and then added a third show that November hoping to absorb the bike industry after the demise of the Interbike trade show.


But the bike industry didn’t buy in and the ill-fated third OR show in Denver didn’t return in the fall of 2019, and even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in March of 2020, the Outdoor Retailer winter show was showing signs of weakness. In the meantime, a competing demo-based show called The Big Gear Show was already touting itself as a summer alternative that would be held outdoors with a smaller, back-to-our-roots mentality.


At the most recent OR trade show in Denver in February 2020, there was already talk about factory shutdowns and shipping delays because of the barely known pandemic, but attendance and energy at the show was down. Online Outdoor Retailer shows were held last July and again in January, but it wasn’t the same thing or as valuable — especially given that most brands and reps had already adapted to doing its business, sales calls and sales meetings via Zoom or other online media.


Now that it’s back to in-person business, brands are trying to become more nimble in the new world order, so it appears big trade shows have to be considered more carefully.


“We’re done with the online meetings, it’s back to meeting in person,” says Scott Schilter, owner of The Endorphin Group, which reps Saucony and several other endurance brands in Colorado and adjoining states. “Most independent running retailers want to meet in person. Most have told us that if they can see customers, they can see reps. And for the running industry, I think The Running Event is such an important place, that’s where brands have to be.”


Still the show will go on. Outdoor Retailer has about 410 exhibitors listed for next week’s show and is touting 130 new exhibitors and more than 5,000 registered retailers as it returns to the in-person show. A new Fresh zone will highlight a curated group of first-time exhibitors, while various conferences, training sessions, leadership seminars and educational opportunities


Slowly, more and more companies have backed away from the huge time and financial commitments to trade shows as marketing dollars have increasingly been spent on digital media. As for running brands, The Running Event years ago emerged as the place to be during the first week in December in Austin, Texas. Then the Running Industry Association launched its springtime Kick Show in Denver (held in 2018 and 2019 in May), which it is returning as its RunChella event on Sept. 27-29 in Denver.


Plus, there’s the relatively new Endurance Exchange, a conference for endurance sports hosted by USA Triathlon. It was held as a virtual event in January after debuting as an in-person event in Tempe, Arizona, in 2020. That event had 132 speakers and 79 educational and networking sessions for the 629 coaches, 165 race directors, 187 club leaders and 53 medical professionals, as well as hundreds of athletes, in attendance.


With all of these endurance-focused conferences, running brands have backed away from the Outdoor Retailer show, despite the continued growth of trail running through outdoor specialty stores. Big trail running brands like Brooks, New Balance, ASICS and Inov-8 stopped exhibiting at the OR show years ago, but HOKA One One, Adidas Terrex, Nike Trail, La Sportiva, Merrell, Salomon, Scarpa, Saucony, The North Face, Under Armour and even Skechers had been mainstays since the move to Denver.


But as of this week, the only running brands that will be exhibiting at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver next week are Altra and Xero Shoes. The loss of those other big brands — either because of Covid concerns or declining interest in attending a big trade show — is massive and can’t be overlooked. The lack of brands like Adidas Terrex/Five Ten Salomon, The North Face, Columbia, Merrell and La Sportiva, all manufacturers that are more invested in outdoors more than trail running, could be the nail in the coffin for OR as we have known it.


Making matters worse for the OR show, Keen footwear brand had decided to return to the show this year with a smaller presence but last week announced it was pulling out because of the increased concern of the Covid Delta variant.


In the meantime, The Big Gear Show debuted Aug. 3-5 in Park City, Utah, with modest attendance. The show, which was originally slated to debut last year, is headed up by Kenji Haroutunian, who was formerly the guy in charge at Outdoor Retailer. When he joined last year, he became part of a team that included joins long-time Interbike show director Lance Camisasca and Paddlesports Retailer show director Charles Conner.

According to the post-show report, 138 companies brought 206 individual brands to The Big Gear Show, with 421 retailers (individuals, not shops) and 71 media rounding out the experience. Reviews posted online and on social media have been mixed, some of the bigger brands included Brooks, Adidas Terrex, La Sportiva and CamelBak.

“These numbers represent the people that made The Big Gear Show a reality,” wrote Matthew Pacocha, senior account manager at Verde Brand Communications (which represented the show), after the event ended. “[Show organizers] are proud to have pulled this thing off, and they’re already looking for ways to make it better. They’ll be on the same search for ideas, back pats, constructive criticism, and feedback from both exhibitors and retailers — starting right now.”