empty tradeshow
Photo credit: Felix Lipov

Thin Air Gear Show Postponed, Employees Still Awaiting Pay

When COVID-19 struck, the Thin Air Gear Show promised to fill in the vacuum left by shuttered trade shows. But it now faces an uncertain and tumultuous future.

The Thin Air Gear Show has no money and very few sponsors, and will not take place on September 15 and 16 as planned, sources who worked for the show told GearJunkie. Show staff, who worked to sell booth spaces and attract sponsors, have either been laid off or have resigned. The former employees say the show didn’t pay them. And they now intend to pursue legal action against Gearmunk, the brand behind the show, if it does not compensate them.

Meanwhile, the show’s founder, Erik Boles, promises the first “immersive 3D” outdoor trade show will go on and everyone who worked with the show will be paid in full. This is what we know so far.

Editor’s note: Following this story, GearJunkie confirmed none of the sources interviewed received payment as of the Sept. 15 date cited by Mr. Boles.

Virtual Trade Shows: Thin Air Aims to Fill a Void

This spring, the Thin Air concept emerged as one of the first virtual substitutes for the biannual industry trade show, Outdoor Retailer. At the time, organizers gambled coronavirus would force the cancellation of the show.

What’s more, while brands scrambled to debut new products through Zoom calls, Thin Air promised something different. It planned an entire 3D virtual environment to simulate the best of the traditional trade show model.

thin air virtual trade show
Virtual environment, similar to what would be used for the Thin Air Gear Show

But as summer wore on, details about the show, including which brands were attending and how media and exhibitors would take part, remained vague. In part, that stemmed from a nearly 3-month delay — from late June to mid-September — in the wake of nationwide protesting over racial justice and the killing of George Floyd.

However, employees for Gearmunk, which promised “the most unique experience in the world,” say they were “misled” about potential sponsors, exhibitors, and the popularity and viability of the show from the start.

“I, personally, was misled regarding the number of paying participants,” said Jenna Celmer, who signed on with Gearmunk in February and began helping with show programming in March. “Erik misrepresented the number of interested brands and inappropriately greenlit new hires.”

Boles, though, told GearJunkie the show still has strong interest from brands and sponsors. But he confirmed the show will not go live on September 15, adding Thin Air will still take place, with a slightly new format, in October or November.

“It is not going to go as planned but it is going to go and just won’t be until late October,” Boles told us. “We’re postponing it because we’re really changing the focus of the show.”

But, after being twice postponed, can the show make good on its promises?

Thin Air Gear Show Postponed: ‘Revenue Shortfall’

Putting on a trade show, even virtually, takes a lot of money. Thin Air was based on technology that has also hosted events for major brands like Microsoft, Amazon, and others. Attendees select avatars to move around the virtual convention hall. And developing all this, as well as marketing it to possible customers, takes capital and time.

Boles acknowledged Thin Air “ran into a revenue shortfall” with its pay-to-play model — in which brands pay for virtual exhibit spaces — and that the company still owes money to former employees. But, he said, Gearmunk will pay everyone who worked on it as money for the revamped October show comes in. And this time, it will use a sponsorship model.

“We’re not releasing who those sponsors are yet, but we’ve already got seven or eight sponsors that are extremely interested in what we’re doing,” Boles said. “It’s very expensive technology — you have to sell a whole lot of booths to make that viable versus just a handful of sponsors and then really highlight those sponsors.”

According to Boles, this format makes it easier for brands to take part while also offering the potential to bring in more money overall.

But Jason Sakurai, a former employee of Boles’ who was hired to help sell sponsorships and exhibition space for the show, questioned if any companies have signed on. “That there is anyone of note that was supportive of the show, too, is really difficult for me to say,” he added.

Thin Air Banking on Major Sponsors

GearJunkie initially confirmed two major brands that signed on in some capacity with Thin Air. Polartec — which has since removed its affiliation with the show — was to exhibit, and HOKA ONE ONE, which agreed to sponsor a panel discussion on backcountry self-defense hosted by its athlete, Nicole Snell. GearJunkie has not confirmed whether the panel will still take place.

Outdoor Retailer trade show, 2016
Outdoor Retailer trade show, 2016

Sakurai was one of three individuals working to help market Thin Air to brands and journalists. He came on in July and resigned in August after receiving no payment. Sakurai said Boles kept giving reasons for missed payments, and that he now has no choice but to retain legal counsel to try and recover wages he’s owed.

“It took a tremendous amount of effort to try and get paid,” Sakurai said. “It should be relatively simple: You worked this many hours, this is what you’re owed, and then you’re paid in a reasonable amount of time. And that just didn’t happen.”

But when asked to comment, Boles assured that he will pay everyone who worked for Gearmunk on the Thin Air Gear Show in full, “by September 15th at the very latest.”

“Absolutely, 100%,” Boles said. “They will be paid, zero question about that. You do not build a lasting brand by screwing people out of money. It’s just not what we do — employees are absolutely our No. 1 priority.”

Gearmunk: History

Celmer told GearJunkie she is no longer working on the show and can’t resign without forfeiting unemployment pay. To collect that, Boles would have to lay her off — “which he has not done,” she said. But she admitted that Boles genuinely wants his ideas to shake up the outdoor industry — and bring both personal and financial gain to him and his associates.

“He really wanted to have this very successful show and he wanted to be a great, great, amazing boss. It was palpable,” Celmer said. “He wanted to have employees that he could treat well.”

Despite that vision, Celmer now finds herself facing the reality. “I just definitely need to pursue legal action for this amount of money,” she added. “It would be silly not to.”

Boles, however, told GearJunkie that Celmer remains with Gearmunk as the sole person working on Thin Air besides himself. He also said Gearmunk had investors and was “financially viable.”

Thin Air 2.0

Looking forward, Boles said he believes the next iteration of Thin Air will have more of an impact than it could have before. Boles said the show will now be invite-only instead of a buy-in method. And he claims sponsors will bring in the revenue and help lift his concept above and beyond the tried-and-true trade shows of old.

“We knew that this show was a risk at the outset, and the Outdoor Retailer online show put a big exclamation point at the end of that,” Boles told us. “All of the reviews of that were, for lack of a better term, pretty much a failure.”

Boles outlined his vision of Thin Air as an overlap of culture, style, and innovation — and what he called a “new community of BIPOC, non-binary, and LGBTQ that celebrates the outdoors.”

Sakurai, however, finds it unlikely any such show will happen.

“Erik based Thin Air on the notion that he could attract 1,000 media members and influencers, and that companies and brands would pay for this access,” he said. “This was, and is, the fallacy of Thin Air.”

Adam Ruggiero

Adam Ruggiero is the editor-in-chief of GearJunkie and a fan of virtually all sports and activities. From biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming — if it's outside, it's worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.