Denver one of three finalists for massive Outdoor Retailer trade shows

Lucrative show’s owner is now publicly traded, so it remains to be seen if profit will win out over politics

By Jason Blevins   The Denver Post

Denver is a finalist to land the Outdoor Retailer trade show.

Colorado’s outdoor leaders and politicians are galvanized in their effort to lure the twice-a-year outdoor industry trade shows to Denver. Their publicly trumpeted enticement has elevated Denver as one of three potential hosts for the shows that lure 20,000 attendees per go, multiple sources confirmed.

Outdoor Retailer owner Emerald Expositions, the largest business-to-business trade show operator in North America, is not discussing the finalists. But news reports show Portland, Ore., made a bid, along with expected bids from major trade show hosts like Las Vegas, Chicago and Indianapolis.

The heavyweight trade show destinations — like Las Vegas, where Emerald Expositions hosts several of its largest events — are easy picks for Outdoor Retailer, which needs about 1 million square feet of meeting space, a size that eliminates a majority of meeting spaces from contention.

Emerald Expositions, which is owned by Toronto private equity firm Onex Corp., last month harvested more than $264 million in an initial public offering and its stock is trading above $21 a share, up 8 percent from its offering price. That’s sparking some concern among Colorado’s outdoor industry leaders that a focus on the highest financial returns for shareholders might eclipse a more culturally relevant, outdoor-oriented home — like Denver — for the Outdoor Retailer shows.

Denver’s bid included a financial package — detailing things like hotel room rates and convention costs — but leaned heavily on Colorado’s outdoor industry-friendly climate, where public lands are treasured and outdoor businesses are fostered, said Luis Benitez, the head of the state’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

“It’s not just dollars and cents we are talking about,” Benitez told his advisory committee last week. “We are trying to align our values. It’s been a massive process of looking at a chess board. I like to say it’s a chessboard that has legs. I can say with confidence that we are leaving everything on the field.”

Earlier this year Emerald announced it was pulling Outdoor Retailer out of its 20-year home in Salt Lake City after the 2018 show, citing the outdoor industry’s anger with Utah’s policies advocating for the transfer of certain federal lands to the state and the dismantling of recent national monument designations. The cultural argument — moving the show to a state where both politicians and residents celebrate federal public lands — is a key component of Denver’s bid, which also includes a request to host Emerald’s annual Interbike cycling industry trade show.

“We have evolved into a gravitational hub for some of the most iconic companies and nonprofits within the outdoor recreation industry,” reads a full-page ad a consortium of more than 120 of the state’s outdoor companies ran in The Denver Post last month, urging Emerald to consider Colorado. “Innovating organizations are drawn to our entrepreneurial spirit and a deep commitment to our lands and waters.”

Denver would host the winter and summer Outdoor Retailer trade shows at the Colorado Convention Center and the National Western Complex. A final decision from Emerald should come within a month.

One lynchpin is Denver’s annual Snowsports Industries America trade show in January, which is booked through 2030 at the convention center. SIA has an agreement with the city of Denver to not have any competing outdoor trade shows in the weeks before and after the late-January SIA Snow Show.

For Denver to land Outdoor Retailer, Emerald and SIA will need to reach an agreement, possibly a merger. SIA and Outdoor Retailer offer similar business-to-business trade shows that can be a financial drain for retailers and manufacturers who attend both. In recent years, as the trade shows evolved from strictly buying-and-selling events to more marketing-oriented gatherings, the calls for some sort of blending of SIA and Outdoor Retailer have increased.

“Nothing is set in stone, but we are working through issues,” said SIA president Nick Sargent, noting that his group has been conversing with Emerald Expositions for almost a year. “Hopefully we can find some resolution in the short-term for everyone’s sake but most importantly for our industry’s sake. We are trying to do what is right for the industry and be as responsible as we can with our conversations. We are hoping for a tangible outcome but hope is not a solid course of action.”

Denver’s bid includes participation by higher-education institutions like Colorado State University, which hopes to offer academic lectures and events during the Outdoor Retailer trade shows. The trade shows’ myriad discussions on current topics and trends impacting the outdoor industry are popular and well attended at Outdoor Retailer’s longtime home in the Salt Palace convention center in Salt Lake. CSU wants to add an academic perspective to those discussions.

“It’s a great opportunity for an exchange between professors and professionals in the outdoor industry,” said Ethan Billingsley, the director of undergraduate programs with CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources. “I envision having professors there to present research and hearing from industry leaders about trends.”

Richard Scharf, the head of Visit Denver, which books conventions in the city, said his team is working on Emerald’s need for hotels and potential venues and “cranking away on rates, dates and space issues.”

Scharf said he hopes that SIA and Emerald’s discussions will yield “a bigger, expanded show in Denver.”

“I don’t know of any attendee in the outdoor or cycling industry who wouldn’t be excited to come here to Denver,” Scharf said.

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