How Colorado Lured the Biggest Trade Show in the Outdoor Industry

The inside story of how the state’s outdoor recreation czar Luis Benitez landed the tradeshow—and how he plans to save it

Frederick Reimers –

After months of speculation and hard negotiating, the Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show is heading to Denver. On Thursday, Visit Denver and OR show owner Emerald Expositions signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing that, starting in January 2018, Denver’s Colorado Convention center will host three shows a year: a winter snow show, Summer Outdoor Retailer, and the new Outdoor Retailer November, aimed at the soft goods market. The deal may also pave the way for a fourth outdoor industry show, the Grassroots Connect, to follow, though terms of the agreement have not yet been finalized.

“Outdoor Retailer chose Denver for its new home because it was the undeniable choice of the industry,” says Marisa Nicholson, OR show director. “Denver and the state of Colorado are passionate about protecting and nurturing outdoor recreation, [which is] critical to the growth of our industry.” Each show is expected to bring 20,000 attendees the city; it’s estimated that, combined, they will pump an estimated $45 million into the local economy each year.

The announcement comes almost six months after OR’s organizers and biggest attendees decided to leave the Salt Lake City location they’d used for 21 years in protest over Utah elected officials’ stance on public lands, especially the newly designated Bears Ears Monument. The break with Utah was seen as a galvanizing moment for an industry overdue to enter the political arena, and some feared that major players would opt out of the industry’s premiere gathering if it went to the highest bidder rather than a state that supported public lands and conservation. And that, in turn, could have been the death knell for the show.

“Orlando’s Super Show was three or four times bigger than Outdoor Retailer, and once Nike and other big companies pulled out, it died pretty swiftly,” says Dan Nordstrom, CEO of Outdoor Research. “The cracks were already in the edifice last year once companies started boycotting OR over Utah politics. Companies might find it more cost effective to wine and dine retailers directly. It would be easy to lose the whole thing.”

Many in the industry lobbied for-profit Emerald Expositions, to steer OR to Colorado not only because of its position as a premiere outdoor adventure destination, but also as a reward for it’s more progressive and balanced approach to public lands and attractive business climate. That they were able to land it, say many of those close to the negotiations, was the result of a lot of sweat and sleepless nights on the part of Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

The former alpine guide has six summits of Everest on his resume as well as teaching gigs with the Wharton School of Business. Those who witnessed his work say that he has been tireless in his diligence to bring OR to Colorado. “He’s the most hardworking guy I’ve ever seen in government service,” says Ken Gart, Colorado bicycle czar and former co-owner of Gart Sports. “He was tireless because he believed that the show belongs in Colorado. Colorado is a purple state politically with a purple governor. [He believes] that in these partisan times, outdoor recreation can be a way forward.”

Benitez says the show is crucial to uniting the industry as a force for conservation. “The outdoor recrecation community is a significant economic driver, but it also can lead the national dialogue regarding climate change, access to public lands, and the promotion of health and wellness,” says Benitez. “Business is that crucial middle ground that has been disappearing from politics.” He is also looking to revitalize the show by making it more inclusive of the general public—while the Outdoor Retailer show has traditionally been open only to those directly involved in the industry, Benitez would like the public to get more involved. “Letting more people in the building is an easy way to make the show more relevant.”

While Denver was the outdoor industry’s top choice of location, it wasn’t necessarily Emerald’s. For one, Denver’s convention center and hotel sector is booming—for many of the dates OR needs, the city runs an 85 percent hotel occupancy, says Richard Scharf, president of Visit Denver. “Some of that business is booked out into 2031 right now, so creating room was a major challenge.”

Emerald requested that Denver clear dates for OR for the next 30 years, so Scharf’s team had a huge puzzle to solve. Boosted by Benitez and the governor’s and mayor’s offices, which both badly wanted to land the OR shows, Scharf started working in March 2017 to move more than 40 clients. Visit Denver convened twice weekly meetings with more than 30 downtown Denver hotels to find the 6,500 hotel rooms they’d need on the peak nights.

Initially, Emerald also believed that the Colorado Convention Center wasn’t large enough to house the 900,000 square feet that OR requires. (Even Salt Lake City traditionally erected tents to accommodate all vendors.) So Scharf reconfigured the OR floor plan, creating space for the show without resorting to outdoor event tents. They also brought the trade unions to the table to help negotiate—an unprecedented move for the Colorado Convention Center. “Kudos to the unions,” says Benitez, who can’t say which ones participated due to confidentiality agreements. “They were able to understand how important this is to our state.”

But it was Benitez who brought everyone to the table and lit a fire under them. “He was an orchestrator, cheerleader, and bulldog when he needed to be. He was on the phone as many as 10 times a day with Visit Denver to urge them to get this figured out,” Gart says. “It’s a big-time deal.”

Nordstrom points out that Benitez’ official post with the state was also essential. “In the absence of that outdoor czar position, it’s hard to say that Colorado would have had that focal point to have gotten the deal done.” Colorado, Utah, and Washington already have state directors of outdoor recreation, with several others expected to join their ranks soon. Vermont recently formed a task force to bolster outdoor rec opportunities, and North Carolina has established an outdoor czar position within the state’s Commerce Department. Just yesterday, the Oregon legislature passed a bill to create an office of outdoor recreation in that state. With the clout shown by Benitez in Colorado to land OR, more are sure to follow.

Benitez, 44, is the son of an Ecuadorian aerospace engineer and an American primary school art teacher. He grew up in St. Louis, where he spent most days after school stocking shelves in the outdoor shop his grandfather owned for almost 40 years. In high school, he spent his weekends camping and rock climbing in the Ozarks, and in college started working for Outward Bound, where he loved teaching climbing and mountaineering but even more so the school’s emphasis on personal growth and empowerment.

“We like to tease Luis, because he is so earnest” says Erik Weihenmayer, a blind climber whom Benitez guided to the summit of Everest in 2001 and has since partnered with on 10 different expeditions. “He’s got a very nurturing side that most mountaineers seem to lack.” The Weihenmayer expedition helped launch his seven summits guiding career and also ushered him into the orbit of big business—in the go-go 2000s it wasn’t unusual for him to travel to training climbs with his CEO clients on their private jets.

By 2006, Benitez had worked himself into the role of director of operations for New Zealand-based mountaineering company Adventure Consultants, and had notched more than 20 ascents on the seven summits. The events of September 30 at Cho Oyu basecamp in Tibet would alter the course of his guiding career, however. On that day, Chinese border guards opened fire on a group of 75 Tibetans fleeing over Nangpa La pass into Nepal, killing 17-year old nun Kunsang Namgyal and arresting a dozen more, mostly children, who couldn’t make the border.

Though at least 100 western climbers and guides witnessed the event, Benitez was the only one to speak up, penning a blog post via satellite. A few other guides were furious, telling Benitez that he was putting everyone’s permits at risk. One, he says, told him, “If I were you, I’d get out of town.”

Benitez resigned his post as Adventure Consultants GM, realizing he’d now hold the company back. “I was shocked at the ethics of the guiding community,” he says. “That wasn’t the way I came up guiding at Outward Bound.” He later testified about the incident in front of the Spanish Supreme court, which brought crimes against humanity charges against the Chinese President.

“Luis has a proven moral compass, based on his teaching work and on blowing the whistle in Tibet,” says former Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf. “He’s also used to organizing military style assaults on peaks, meaning he has proven leadership experience.” It’s no surprise, he says, that he has landed OR—he has the industry’s best interests in mind, and represents the right state. “I really applaud their efforts,” says Metcalf. “It’s a useful example in contrast to Utah. With all its oil and gas development, Colorado isn’t an immaculately-conceived state on these issues. Hickenlooper has figured out a very difficult middle path between energy development and land protection. Hopefully Utah will get there soon.”

Metcalf has been spending a lot of time talking to businesspeople and political people about what really transpired in the fight over OR in Utah. “My heart goes out to those in Salt Lake who bent over backwards to accommodate and support OR over the years. The majority of the state doesn’t understand what they’ve lost,” he says. “The trade show is the tip of an iceberg for the outdoor industry in Utah. We have a massive ski industry, and a huge number of outdoor equipment manufacturers who will continue to fight for public lands.”

Metcalf was the primary driver behind Outdoor Retailer’s exodus from Utah. In the fall of 2016, Metcalf had retired from Black Diamond and taken a position as director of the Salt Lake City Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. The Obama administration had just created Bears Ears National Monument. The backlash from the Utah delegation was fierce. Metcalf attended a December press conference in Salt Lake City where the governor and entire Utah delegation to Washington declared their intention to do everything in their power to block the new monument. “It was an all out war on the monument and the public lands, and I thought ‘enough is enough,’” says Metcalf.

Over the holidays, Metcalf began formulating his plan to use the Outdoor retailer show for leverage in the fight for public lands. “The goal was never to take the show from Utah,” he says. “It was to put some backbone into the outdoor industry.”

On January 10, on the opening day of the Winter Outdoor Retailer Trade show, Metcalf published an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune calling for the show to leave Utah if the state’s leaders didn’t change their stance. “We should respond with our dollars, with our conventioneers, with our money, and take this show to a state that is much more aligned with our values,” he wrote. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard followed with his own salvo, but Utah Governor Gary Herbert seemed unmoved. On February 3, he signed a bill asking President Trump to rescind Bears Ears, and Patagonia announced its boycott. Arc’teryx followed suit, as did a half dozen others.

On February 16—after a contentious phone call with Governor Herbert— the Outdoor Industry Association and Emerald both announced that OR would leave Salt Lake City after the summer 2017 show. Colorado, led by Benitez, had begun to strategize about landing the show as early as mid-January. “My initial instinct was that OR should stay and fight, but when it became obvious that Utah’s leadership won’t budge, it made sense to get the ball rolling,” say Benitez. He encouraged governor Hickenlooper to publicly lobby for the show. “We need more public lands, not less,” he said at the time.

Denver wasn’t the only city that wanted OR. Portland, Reno, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Indianapolis submitted bids to hold the show. What really worried industry leaders, though, were the bids of cities like Orlando, Las Vegas, and Anaheim, California—all of which have huge convention centers but very little interest or regard for the outdoor industry culture or its budding political aspirations.

That’s when Benitez began pulling strings with industry players like Gart and Nordstrom. When they realized that Emerald was about to launch a public offering that would eventually net them $264 million, it seemed the danger was real that Emerald would go to the highest bidder. He convinced Nordstrom and a few other CEOs to write an open letter that might help sway the show to Denver. “Denver is unique on the current list of possible venues in having both a central travel hub as well as the outdoor recreation assets vital to the formula that has made the show so successful during its tenure in Utah,” they wrote in a press release. The subtext, says Nordstrom, was that it was a message to Wall Street analysts that if Emerald went with short term profits over long term viability, a chunk of their business might soon whither.

Five months and countless hours later, the work paid off and Benitez has big plans for the show. One possibility is open the trade show up to the public on the last day. Another is to increase public participation in the political and cultural events that go on behind closed doors at the event. “I’d like to see a sort of OR University that addresses issues like how to run a business, sustainable manufacturing, trade issues,” he says. “We need to incubate the next generation of Chouinards and Metcalfs.” The show should also invigorate conversations about inclusivity, climate change, and public lands he says. “These issues are so important we need all the participation we can get.”

That sort of big-tent thinking has inevitably spawned musings about a future political career for Benitez amongst some of his allies, including a possible turn as Colorado’s next Lieutenant Governor. Gart, for one, likes his principles. “Luis represents standing for something. He is open to working with motorsports community and the fly fishing community alike because he is so passionate. Willing to drive halfway across the state to give a speech and then drive back.”

“He’s a mountaineer,” Says Mark Udall, the former Colorado Senator and Benitez’ boss when he was executive director of Colorado Outward Bound. “You don’t climb a mountain by being a pessimist. One of the most important things in politics is a sense of optimism, and he has that.”