Outdoor Industry’s Payback

The Outdoor Retailer show has been a fixture in Salt Lake City for 20 years

By Kellyn Brown

Outdoor retailers gave an ultimatum last week to the governor of Utah. Change your stance on public lands, or the state will lose the industry’s largest trade show. Gov. Gary Herbert balked, and now the show is leaving.

The Outdoor Retailer show has been a fixture in Salt Lake City for 20 years, and now draws 50,000 visitors and injects about $45 million annually into the local economy. But as the battle over public lands continues to seep out into the open, the outdoor industry is flexing its collective muscles.

On one side are politicians, such as Herbert, who has asked that control over millions of acres of federal public land be transferred to the state. Recently, he and members of Utah’s delegation in Congress also urged President Donald Trump to overturn former President Barack Obama’s designation of 1.35 million acres in the state as Bear Ears National Monument.

The opposition to the monument was just one point of contention during a conference call Feb. 15 between Herbert and the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which has close ties to Outdoor Retailer. Others included ending efforts to nullify the Antiquities Act and ending support for transferring public lands.

The call, apparently, didn’t go well. Soon after, OIA announced that the twice-yearly shows would be relocated as soon as possible. And Emerald Expositions, which owns Outdoor Retailer, announced that it would not consider Utah for future show locations. The company also said it wouldn’t accept the state’s proposal to host Interbike, the bicycle industry’s premier trade show, which is currently located in Las Vegas but Emerald is considering moving.

None of this went over well with Herbert. Following the decision, the governor’s deputy chief of staff told the Deseret News the move “smacks of gross ingratitude to a community that has embraced the Outdoor Retailer show, subsidizing its success and expansion through direct investment.”

The decision, however, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As Outside Magazine pointed out during the negotiations, moving Outdoor Retailer is as much about money as politics.

Outdoor giant Pantagonia announced on Feb. 7 that it would no longer attend the show if it were held in Utah. Two days later, Arc’teryx announced they would do the same. Large companies can pay tens of thousands of dollars in booth fees when they attend a show. The writing was on the wall.

Business representatives who consider public lands the backbone of their industry piled on the state’s elected officials. “Utah is the birther state of the most anti-stewardship, anti-public-lands policy in the country,” Peter Metcalf, founder of Black Diamond, told the Denver Post, at the same time touting Colorado as a logical site for a new location.

The neighboring state has taken notice. Conservation Colorado took out half-page ads in both of Salt Lake’s daily newspapers last week, making the case to move the event to the Centennial State.

“We have stronger beer. We have taller peaks. We have higher recreation,” the ad reads. “But most of all, we love our public lands … Colorado knows public lands is good for business.”

And so do those in the outdoor industry, which has decided if their stated opposition to land transfers falls on deaf ears, it will talk with its dollars.

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