Outdoors Lovers Vote With Their Wallets, Move $45 Million Trade Show Out of Utah

The outdoor-recreation industry delivered a big blow to Utah’s economy because of the state’s attempts to remove protections for public lands.
Stephen Miller Utah

Outdoor recreation enthusiasts march to the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on July 20, 2017 to protest legislators attempts to remove protections of national public lands.

YES! photo by Stephen Miller.

The outdoor recreation industry did a curtsy on its way out of Salt Lake City last week.

After hosting their massive biannual trade show, Outdoor Retailer, in the city for 22 years, industry organizers announced they were moving the show to Denver because of Utah legislators’ attempts to remove protections for public lands, such as the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument. To make their point public, about 3,000 sign-carrying outdoor equipment retailers, producers, and enthusiasts marched politely to the doors of the Utah state Capitol and bid their farewells.

“Thank you, Salt Lake City, where the people are nice and lands are pretty!” they chanted, somewhat clumsily.

It was the kindest public display of dissent I’ve seen since Donald Trump ascended the presidency.

But this group didn’t need to heave bricks through windows to be heard. By picking up its trade show and going to Colorado, the Outdoor Industry Association is taking with it an estimated $45 million in annual direct and indirect economic benefits. That’s money that hotels, restaurants, bars, cab drivers, and myriad other Salt Lake businesses will sorely miss. Talk about voting with your wallet.

During the final trade show, the city already carried the air of loss. The lobby at the Sheraton, which typically holds a gaggle of anxious adventure gearheads, was library quiet on the show’s first day. A bellhop there lamented the empty rooms and told an arriving regular that he was sad to see the show go.

En route to the Salt Palace Convention Center—which organized its 2006 expansion to accommodate Outdoor Retailer—a Lyft driver explained it was unfortunate the show was leaving. “It happens, though, I get it,” he said. “I just wish it didn’t have to be so political.”

In recent years, as outdoor recreation spending has increased, the industry has added political muscle. Politics is what this move is all about. What started as a grungy group of climbers bumming around the Yosemite Valley has grown into an $887 billion industry that employs 7.6 million Americans, funnels millions into environmental philanthropy, and even influences elections.

OIA announced in early July that it would leave Salt Lake City for the greener sentiments of Denver.

In addition to hosting Outdoor Retailer, Utah is home to more than 35 million acres of federally owned land and a conservative government eager to undo Obama-era environmental protections, making it the perfect field for a public lands standoff. In January, the Utah Legislature introduced a bill calling for the U.S. Department of the Interior to sell off 3.37 million acres of federal land in that state. In February, Gov. Gary Herbert asked Trump to revoke President Obama’s designation of the beautiful and tribally significant Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah.

In response, industry luminary Patagonia announced it would not attend Outdoor Retailer if the convention was held in Utah. Other brands followed. Then in April, President Trump issued an executive order calling for the review of 27 national monument areas protected since 1996.

With pressure building within its ranks, OIA announced in early July that it would leave Salt Lake City for the greener sentiments of Denver.

Of course, the politics of this decision are closely intertwined with business acumen. The products the industry provides—hiking boots, kayaks, knives, headlamps, sleeping bags—are most fun when used outside, often on public lands, and consumers are vocal about their support of environmental protection (they submitted 2.4 million comments regarding the public lands review, overwhelmingly in favor of protection).

Millennials now buy more outdoor gear and apparel than baby boomers.

Outdoor brands like Patagonia, The North Face, and Keen have won not just their customers’ loyalty, but also their respect by being leaders in supply-chain justice and sustainability and Earth-friendly business practices.

Millennials now buy more outdoor gear and apparel than baby boomers, and they prefer to give their money to companies that align with their own values. Sporting a Patagonia trucker hat says perhaps as much about what a person does with their weekends as about their beliefs.

Last week, as a wave of outdoor industry enthusiasts clad in high-end gear spread across the Utah state Capitol lawns, a young woman named Ally turned to her friends and shouted, “Get a shot of me holding the sign with the UD pack!” (Ultimate Direction is a Boulder, Colorado-based company that, on its website, purports to have “invented the entire category of hydration packs.”) She turned her back to the camera, the Capitol dome before her, hoisted a “This Land Is (Y)Our Land” sign above her head, and posed for an Instagram-ready portrait. Adventure, activism, and marketing all in one.

The cynical view is that OIA’s move to Denver is a political stunt by companies aiming to turn their customer’s political views into profits. Well, why not? This is America, after all. The outdoor industry’s decision to leave Salt Lake City is just the latest and perhaps most obvious example of an industry responding to its customers’ collective buying power.

Americans vote with their dollars. When elected representatives wouldn’t uphold their values, these brands did.