Crowds fell short of registered numbers, but brands and organizers alike see big potential for new trade show model.
A motley sea of flags and brightly colored pop-up tents greeted eager media and retailers on day one of the first-ever Big Gear Show. Park City, Utah’s Wasatch Mountains towered over the Deer Valley parking area that played host to an ersatz trade show floor.
Bacon, burgers, and biscuits wafted tantalizing scents as eager mountain bikers playfully bounced down aisles of shade shelters. Small crowds cheered as media and brand reps tested their hangboard stamina while beside them, public relations directors spidered up a bouldering wall.
Held over three days last week, the Big Gear Show (TBGS) kickoff promised healthy attendance and good cheer, despite a year’s delay and swirling uncertainty over the COVID-19 Delta variant’s impact on the inaugural event.
Lines for the invite-only event’s media, brand, and retailer registration were long, if not altogether impressive. Indeed, according to TBGS organizers, the event welcomed nearly 500 media and retailers, and more than 200 brands.
But that equated to a roughly 70% turnout of all those who initially registered to attend. So that begs the question, was TBGS a success? And will it continue to grow alongside a formidable, but seemingly vulnerable traditional gathering like Outdoor Retailer?
We attended the debut event and spoke with organizers and brands to see and hear what the future could — and should — look like.
The Big (Gear Show) Debut
To be sure, the show we attended was a detour from the show that was initially advertised way back in 2019 (what we now call “the before time”). The pandemic put the planned 2020 debut on ice. And in adjusting to the fallout from COVID, TBGS organizers switched the event from one that would welcome the public to invite-only for industry professionals.
And while that may sound like a direct Outdoor Retailer (OR) competitor, show director Kenji Haroutunian assured us that TBGS is its own animal.
“We aren’t the same platform at all as conventional shows. It’s rare to resist the urge to compare to OR, especially since I’m involved,” Haroutunian told me, referring to his stint as show director for OR. “We’re timed away from June for a reason, and the stories we want to have amplified are ones that fuel participation across categories.”
Haroutunian also pointed to show’s emphasis on demoing product — what he calls an “experiential wonderland.” After all, the show sits minutes — seconds, if you pedal or run fast — from Deer Valley’s trails. And paddlesport brands lined up along a small but workable pond, adjacent to the main drag, to demo SUPs, kayaks, canoes, and more.
Of course, parallels to OR — the longstanding mecca of the outdoor industry — were tough to ignore. A number of marquee brands — like Black Diamond, Mountain Hardwear, and CamelBak, among others — made proud appearances at TBGS in lieu of returning to the Denver Convention Center, the current home of OR.
That, and TBGS edged ahead of OR by just a week — though that may be a fluke. While Haroutunian maintains TBGS will remain an August show, OR organizers pushed the show back this year to manage COVID concerns. Typically, summer OR takes place in July.
But among the brands I spoke with, many viewed TBGS as a safe, affordable litmus test for life outside of the traditional trade show model. Though reps were reluctant to say so on the record, they acknowledged the massive disparity between the cost to set up an airy tent in a Deer Valley parking lot (a couple of thousand dollars) versus setting up a professional booth at OR — well over $10,000-20,000.
Show Me the Money: Retailers Still King
But even big costs are worth the investment, and that’s where retailers come in. Brands said they are happy to spend if it means good traffic and face time with businesses ready to ink orders. Helinox’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, Azul Couzens, summed it up:
“To write orders at any trade show, buyers need to be there and the timing is important, because if our sell-in window has passed, then we’re coming for the community and camaraderie of the show — which is important, but alone make it really hard to justify the cost of setup, travel, and expenses,” he said.
To be sure, the retailer presence was off from overall expectations — about 30% below registered numbers. Haroutunian noted hurdles like a growing scare over the Delta variant and retailer staffing shortages. But still, Couzens said the show “did not disappoint.”
Pinarello’s senior marketing manager, Kim Rogers, echoed the sentiment.
“Pinarello was excited to be a part of the inaugural Big Gear Show. As this was the first year, as well as being one of the first post-covid industry events, it was interesting to see such a diverse range of brands together.,” she said. “We look forward to seeing how the show format will evolve and which brands will participate after this initial launch.”
Bigger Gear Show 2022?
To a T, everyone we spoke to applauded the hands-on approach TBGS offered, and the comparably relaxed tone — most meetings involved a beer in one hand and a new product in the other.
Rogers noted that while OR and other trade shows have “demo days” preceding or following formal meeting days, TBGS stood out for its “curated approach” — read: invite-only.
And that, Haroutunian agreed, would continue to be a driving factor of TGBS’s future. “The affordability, the experiential, the invitational format — and the retail lodging subsidy — are what differentiates TBGS from OR and others.”
Haroutunian confirmed the show would go bigger on retailer invites next year and again host it in Park City. The exact dates and day format, however, are yet to be determined.
As for the media perspective — if bacon, bikes, and bouldering walls abound, TBGS offers a compelling case to add a few extra travel dates to the travel calendar. Consider it the reception after the pomp and circumstance of Outdoor Retailer’s ceremony; a chance to play hard after all the work is done.