Lems Shoes, a Boulder-based mountain culture-inspired footwear company, had great turnout at its booth at Outdoor Retailer. (photo Courtesy Lems Shoes)

Move Gives Boulder County Businesses a Boost

By Julie Kailus

One of Colorado’s biggest economic coups—nabbing the country’s Outdoor Retailer show—gave a boost to Boulder County businesses that cater to the adventure crowd.
Outdoor Retailer (OR), the industry’s largest and most respected business event, had been held in Salt Lake City for the past 20 years—until last year, when Utah officials lobbied to reduce public land. The Trump administration announced plans to reduce Bears Ears by 85 percent and cut Grand Staircase Monument in half, opening once-protected lands to oil, gas and mining. The outdoor community was angered and prominent outdoor brands like Black Diamond and Patagonia called for OR to boycott Utah.

Colorado was a natural for the show’s new digs, because it is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts—an outlook that is also good for the economy. Amy Roberts, executive director of the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), references a comment by Gov. Hickenlooper about a bad Broncos season being bad for business, because fan turnout would be low.

“It is not much of a stretch to make a similar comparison,” she says. “If our public lands were significantly reduced in Colorado or access to your favorite recreation area was denied, it would have a devastating impact on not just Colorado’s economy, but our way of life.”

Outdoor recreation is big business. It generates $887 billion in annual consumer spending, of which $28 billion is spent in Colorado. The outdoor recreation industry creates 229,000 direct jobs and $2 billion in state and local tax revenue annually, according to the OIA, which partners with event owner Emerald Expositions to facilitate OR’s three annual shows. OR’s move was expected to bring $110 million to Denver’s economy alone.

The Colorado Conversation

The first order of business was to rename the show Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, because it combined with Denver’s existing SnowSports Industries America’s Snow Show. The huge buildup to the Colorado launch paid off; it was the largest event ever staged at Colorado Convention Center. The show brought in more than 29,000 total attendees and more than 7,500 legit retail buyers from 60 countries.

People crowd into the Colorado Convention Center for the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show; it was the largest event ever held there. (photo courtesy Outdoor Retailer)

A thousand brands exhibited at the show, of which nearly 50 brands were based in Boulder County. Boulder has long been considered a quintessential outdoor destination, attracting elite athletes to its high-altitude training grounds and industry innovators to its incubator-culture to test outdoor products and network with like-minded entrepreneurs and residents.

In previous years, the trek to OR has been costly for local businesses. In addition to the expense of building a booth, the costs included flights, lodging, food and party hosting. Traveling out of state also required a huge time and resource commitment.

After just one show in Denver, local companies are well aware that having OR in their backyard is a boon. “It was a huge advantage for us,” says John Thompson, owner of Mountain Man Outdoor Store in Nederland. He and his wife Sasha attended the show to talk with the vendors and appreciated being able to take the bus from Boulder.

“It’s interesting to see where the trends are going,” he says. “You can kind of see things that are coming, just a glimmer. Though I still don’t know if they will do well, so I only order a handful, but it’s a nice way to meet our market.”

Andrew Rademacher, founder of Lems Shoes, a Boulder-based, mountain culture-inspired minimalist footwear company, was thrilled with the turnout at his booth in the Venture Out section of OR.

Venture Out—dubbed a destination to explore modern outdoor trends and discover how the definition of “outdoor” is growing—was the perfect collective space for a small brand like Lems to get discovered.

“It was not this closed-booth feeling, but rather a friendly, welcoming area, and we were slammed the whole time,” he says. While OR was more about making connections than writing orders, Lems did pick up a few new retail stores interested in stocking its unique line, and the show’s proximity provided a whole new seasonal opportunity.

“It would be really nice if OR started to bring more people here,” says Rademacher, who scouted other outdoor-centric towns like Portland before landing in Boulder to position his company for the future. One of his deciding factors was Boulder’s ability to attract and retain top talent. “People want to stay here,” he says. And that’s an advantage for any company looking for long-term employees.

Eyes, Ears and Handshakes

Skiwear brand Spyder loved being an instate business at the first Colorado OR. “This year we’re celebrating 40 years as a Boulder-born brand, but so many people, even in the industry, don’t know we’re based in Boulder,” says Megan Raphael, who manages the company’s brand. “So when people come in from all over for OR, now we can say this is our home. It’s kind of like having friends over.”

While Spyder, which is the official uniform supplier for the U.S. Ski Team, secures most orders before the January show, the company considers OR its big brand-awareness event. “It’s about eyes, ears and handshakes,” Raphael says.

She also sees potential for more collaboration. “It’s a new chapter in the trade show world. There’s an elevated vibe and it gives brands a way to get creative and draw from one another,” she says. “I could see Colorado brands having more back and forth, and even looking at what we can do collectively to promote the show here.”

For The Tea Spot, a women-owned, Boulder-based online purveyor of premium whole-leaf tea, OR presented a completely new avenue for reaching an emerging audience: Outdoor athletes looking for sustained energy and a healthy hydration alternative to a bevy of sugared supplements.

“Having the show here took away the barrier of entry for us,” says Mary Allard, sales and general manager for The Tea Spot. The company’s booth was placed beside other beverage brands interested in the outdoor industry, but the environment was not competitive.

“We were right next to another tea company, but it let us show the differences in our products. It actually empowered our message,” she says. “At other shows we’re usually talking to active buyers, so this was different. OR was about connection and engagement.”

While she can’t draw a direct parallel to the show’s arrival in Colorado, Allard admits there’s a new buzz in Boulder’s outdoor industry. She adds, with a sly smile: “We can’t name names yet, but there’s a marketing collective starting up with a number of gear makers around here.”