OR report: The line in the sand

Maybe you saw the news.   

The headlines were all about "riots" after a rash of window breaking, fighting, car kicking and portapotty tipping at the Vans US Open of Surfing last week.   

But the inside line was different.   While the mainstream media and everpresent iPhones covered the street carnage in detail, the surfing media turned their wrath on over-promotion and the dilution of the sport's soul. 
The Inertia was relatively calm about it, letting the pictures tell the story (LINK) of a culture that is losing the battle to big business.

Others were less subtle. The Epic TV surf report aired multiple grievances about the event (LINK), like how the incidents were "the result of trying to sell surfing to people who don't actually surf."   And how the "industry" should realize it's all of their own making:  "Dear surf industry.  Quit blaming others for the "riot" in HB.  Own up to it.  You brought "the fans" here. If they surf or not is a non issue."   

To pit surfers vs. non surfers, and industry vs. reality, you've got to draw a big line in the sand. Unfortunately, it's a little late for that.

A thousand miles away from the weak waves and heavy partying of Huntington Beach, the idea of a cultural divide was on more than a few lips at last week's Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. 

On one side of the line were folks who felt like the big tent of "Outdoor" had finally gotten too big, as proven by decidedly non-core products and brands filling many of the gaps in an ever-growing OR show.   With what felt like a sizable upswing in brand diversity, as well as complaints about the host venue and city, the Outdoor faithful talked a lot in the aisles about a move to Las Vegas  -- a possibility that's not nearly as far away as it once felt.   At the same time, people openly wondered if a move would mean that the show and "industry" would finally be jumping the shark.

On the other side, there were folks who saw the idea of constraining Outdoor growth as not just elitist, but also economically suicidal.   What litmus test could honestly decide what's truly Outdoor when core brands are already happily selling barbecue shirts and yoga pants?  Seniority?  Child, please.

Maybe consciously, maybe not, the dividing line was virtually exposed in Backcountry.com's new brand video ... a luscious, spectacular piece of work that pretty much sums it up.  

Riding the tagline "when you're ready to suck the bloody marrow from this bone we call life, we're ready for you," the video aspires to draw a line in the sand. It embraces the idea of being a litmus test -- shooting for consumers who get it, while casting aside those who don't.  At once pulse-pounding and textbook elitist ... I love the thing (other than the tagline), and can't stop watching it.

But while marketing videos can be fantasy and still sell reality, the rest of us have to deal. Regardless of the axe-grinding at OR about hotels and restaurants and booth locations and (fill in the blank with complaint here), the ultimate question is whether or not to move the show after the contract expires in 2016 ... and if so, where.   

It's a hard conversation to have with someone you love ... but maybe it's time to just ask.  Does this convention center makes my trade show look too big?

With a quick look at the numbers, and a couple easy assumptions -- that the show will continue to grow, that Anaheim and Orlando are both too Disneyfied, and that no massive convention center expansions are on the horizon -- the path seems pretty direct to a suite at Mandalay Bay.

679,000 sq. ft 

584,000 sq, ft. (-14%)

815,000 sq. ft. (+20%)

2.1 million sq. ft (+220%)

2.1 million sq. ft (+220%)

With triple the space at the LVCC, there's clearly plenty of room for Outdoor to have it's way in the desert.  

But with triple the space, what does the future of Outdoor look like?  Does it thrive with the growth and addition of more vertical segments like fishing, bike, ski and surf?   Or does it go another way, as one veteran trade media editor predicted last week, with the addition of RVs, ATVs, and power boats?

In either case, it's time to understand exactly where that line in the sand lies.


  1. You're making some fatal assumptions here (Drew?). The first is that surfing has any real control over what happens in HB. This is the second occurrence of violence and rioting at the US Open, and not coincidentally both happened in Huntington Beach. Why? Because it's the easiest place in Orange County for the dirtbag inlanders who live in central county to get to the beach — a freeway funnels them almost right onto the sand. It combines a big event, lots of energy and alcohol, with close and easy proximity to thousands of low-class scumbags who are there to get wild not surf. It could just as easily be a skate or music festival. If the X-Games were there, the same thing could happen.

    Second, the idea that surfing is just now selling its soul to commercialism is ridiculous. That was a one-way door it went through decades ago, and the surf pundits complaining about it now are simply too young to have experienced it personally when it actually happened.

    Third, to the issue of OR and the outdoor industry, you are mistaking what's enclosed within a building with what's actually the outdoor culture. Who gives a hoot if there are cheesy or off-topic products at OR? Every trade show has those, every subculture does, too, and if you look at it objectively how is a button-up plaid shortsleeve shirt from one of the Big Brands any more on topic than, I don't know, a Utilikilt? The fact is that when you walk the show something Less Than Core stands out to you and you think OR's jumped the shark. But what does that actually have to do with how real people access and think about the outdoors and outdoor gear? Absolutely nothing. Most of them don't know about OR and if they do, they don't care or think that it represents or contains the outdoor experience.

    Does knowledge of CES have any bearing on how you think about or use your phone, computer, or Angry Birds? Of course not. You know that it's just a tent where people come to sell their stuff. Ditto OR and regular folks.

    I think you also make the mistake of assuming, or at least this is implied, that the entire outdoor industry is contained within the walls of the Salt Palace. That, too, is absolutely untrue. There are many, many brands not represented there, large and small, who make up the outdoor industry in the eyes of the consumer. Cabela's. Campmor. LL Bean. Poler Stuff. Aether. Outlier.

    Finally, what does the location where an industry does its business have to do with reputation and perception? If I had my way, OR would held at Snow King. But a trade show exists for purely commercial reasons, put on by a commercial entity. It should be pragmatic, smart, and designed to meet the needs of its customers, the retail buyers. The bike industry's reputation with consumers is not affected in any way by being held in Vegas, and the ski show hasn't gotten a bump in credibility by moving to Denver. WE might feel gross having to stay at the Mandalay Bay — I guarantee it — but in terms of business it really isn't all the different from the Monaco.

    The analogy of a line in the sand is old, tired, and flawed. It's binary, and that's not the way the world works. You could argue you that the industry jumped the shark the first time Chouinard or TNF added t-shirts to their lines of pitons and tents. In fact, "the industry" is a big, blobbish thing that consumers probably don't think about at all — they think about companies, or their own selfish desires and goals. And if they do, what do they really see? From 10 feet away, a line in the sand just looks like...more sand.

    1. Well said, Steve. I agree completely. We all get absorbed by "the industry" but real consumers don't give it a second thought. They want products they trust and know will do the job for whatever activity they are pursuing.

  2. Jamey5:11 PM

    You had me at "Utilikilt," Steve. Concur.

  3. Gordon Wright5:55 PM

    I hate it when Dad and Mom fight.

    In general, I agree with Steve in that the line in the sand is just...sand. The only criteria of who should be in the Salt Center is who WANTS to be in the Salt Center.

    That being said, I disagree about location. We show with our feet and our hotel reservations what we stand for. It isn't just all pragmatism -- it's symbology too. Retail buyers are "us" too, and while they want to do business, where they elect to do business is an important element.

    Not that I want to stay in a dorm room next summer, mind you...

  4. I think I buried the lede. The outdoor industry, anchored by the Outdoor Retailer trade shows, is worth upwards of $646 billion per year. If this anchor of the industry somehow loses its grip ... many, many people's livelihoods will be at significant risk. Mine included.

    The choice is whether to keep the show at a standing-room only SLC venue (and to essentially stop any future growth of the exhibitor base), or to move the show to a venue that is triple the size (and to essentially open the door to unlimited growth). In either instance, the show and the industry board that advises it will have to make some very challenging and important decisions about what is "outdoor" and what is "not outdoor."

    Don't get me wrong ... I enjoy Salt Lake City, and don't know diddly about surfing. I'm just listening to what people
    are saying.

  5. One more thing to consider: at its most basic, the show is for the retailers, especially independent specialty retailers. (Or, I guess, the show is a monster feeding itself with more cash from more booths. And the show is learning to adapt and grow to connect suppliers to vendors, media to causes, athletes to sponsors, etc. to remain relevant.) While Backcountry can position itself as the arbiter of authenticity, I'm not sure the independent retailers it competes against have the same luxury. If they need to expand their offerings to compete, than the show will continue to expand. "The Show" is a business made to further business connections. If it sells it will grow. If there's money to be made, people will go. And yet, yes, there is something about the culture surrounding the show and the people in the industry that would never be the same if it became simply a business. It's a paradox, we need healthy business to lead our healthy lives and more so protect the lands and open spaces we love and hope will still be here when we are gone. At the same time, we don't want that business to consume us so that we forget where we came from.