Who Really Runs Outdoor Retailer? Increasingly, Women

Next week, thousands of people will descend on Denver for the Outdoor Retailer trade show. And at the helm of the major industry expo are four women.

The outdoors industry is a historically male-dominated sector. But women have taken the reigns of one of the largest business-to-business U.S. trade shows in this space. It signals a shift in demographics and leadership that could affect the future of retail and gear in North America.

Marisa Nicholson is seeding this change. A Tahoe kid, she grew up skiing and camping. She entered the trade show world in sales for MAGIC, an international apparel and fashion expo in Las Vegas.

When a spot opened at Outdoor Retailer, Nicholson jumped on the opportunity. “I was excited to learn there was a trade show that’s connected this awesome industry,” she said.

She spent over a decade as group sales director of Emerald Exposition’s Sports Group. The conglomerate operates Outdoor Retailer, along with more than 50 other trade shows.

Nicholson and the Evolution of Outdoor Retailer

Outdoor Retailer
Left to right: Krista Dill, Sales Director; Julie Freedman, Operations Director; Marisa Nicholson, Vice President, Show Director; and Jennifer Holcomb, Marketing Director

When Emerald appointed her director for its Outdoor group, Nicholson started taking the 36-year-old Outdoor Retailer show in a new direction. She replaced veteran Outdoor Retailer director Kenji Haroutunian, who stepped down in 2014.

Her team consists of four women who handle directing, marketing, sales, and operations. Larry Harrison heads retail relations. Together, they run a show that supports nearly 30,000 attendees, mostly retail buyers and brands, twice a year.

Nicholson is motivated by the next show. “I never want our last show to be the ‘last best,'” she said.

“We continue to build on the successes of the show, providing more value each time for the brands, retailers, reps, and media that attend. I push myself and my team to always look for ways to keep improving. How do we make the next one even better/valuable?”

Under Nicholson, the team played a key role in relocating the Outdoor Retailer show from Salt Lake City to Denver last year. It was a colossal undertaking. The politically motivated change gave the show a new beginning.

In many ways, the fresh start represented a tidal change in the outdoors industry in recent years. “There was a lot of khaki,” Nicholson said of the Outdoor Retailer expo floor 15 years ago when she started working it.

“I have seen significant movement in the industry, not only in the number of women in aisles but in the approach brands have taken to make more products for women.”

Women on the Rise Here — and Everywhere

It’s not necessarily surprising that a female-led team runs Outdoor Retailer. These women qualified for the positions on merit. OR Sales Director Krista Dill said it’s like any other job. She said she counts three things as invaluable characteristics for the position: “being authentic, having a hard work ethic, and becoming an expert in what you do.”

Here, as in industries like finance and technology, women are a rising force.

For example, Haley Robison is the CEO of hammock brand Kammok. She’s one of the few female CEOs in the outdoor industry and, at 32, also one of the youngest. The hammock, a hot trend in the outdoor industry, has shown no signs of slowing in the last few years. Last week, Conscious Company magazine named Robison one of its Top Conscious Business Leaders of 2018.

But she’s far from the first female at the top. Sally McCoy built the first women’s sleeping bag at Sierra Designs and went on to lead CamelBak, a hydration pack company. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, former head of REI, was also a trailblazer. CEO of outdoors apparel juggernaut Patagonia, Rose Marcario, is carrying the torch too.

The Next Generation of Women in the Outdoor Industry

Haley Robison, CEO of Kammok

Marcario joined Patagonia in 2008 as CFO after spending 15 years in private equity. When she took the reins as CEO, she shepherded a new generation of young, active women (and men, for that matter). And in doing so, she’s created a dominant force in political and environmental activism.

For example, the brand, along with Black Diamond, led the boycott of Outdoor Retailer that forced it to leave Salt Lake City for Denver. The uprising followed Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s signing of a resolution urging the Trump administration to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument.

The outdoor industry made it clear: It made no sense to continue staging Outdoor Retailer in a state whose public lands vision was misaligned with the outdoor industry’s.

Outdoor Retailer
Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario at Denver’s first winter Outdoor Retailer show in January 2018

Marcario is also famous for opening an on-site child care facility at Patagonia’s distribution center in Reno, Nevada, which she said nearly eliminated turnover of female workers. With big ideas like these Patagonia has paved the way for other outdoor companies to pursue social activism — and turn even more profit by speaking out.

I got the chance to experience Marcario’s power when she addressed a small group of women I was standing with at the first Outdoor Retailer in Denver. After coming down off her literal soapbox, she walked directly up to us, extended her hand, and told us we were the future.

“We need to stop living in the gray,” she said. It was her way of encouraging us to use our voices to protect places people play outside, the lifeblood of the outdoor industry.

We immediately felt the opportunity and weight to represent a new wave of women heading outdoor brands, starting outdoor companies, designing gender-appropriate gear, reporting on the outdoor industry, and speaking out about gender equity, diversity, and conservation.

After all, the outdoor world is open to all of us.

Programming for Women at Outdoor Retailer

It’s no accident that Outdoor Retailer now includes specific women’s programming. There are female speakers and roundtables with women leading companies that make, buy, and promote outdoor products and services.

For example, at the summer show this week, the “For All Women: From Backcountry to Boardroom” panel includes speakers who are accelerating inclusion and equity in the outdoor industry.

We’ll hear from Camber Outdoors’ Deanne Buck, Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro, and Patagonia’s Deanna Lloyd Laura Swapp, director of diversity and inclusion for REI HQ.

Nicholson’s team partners with organizations like Camber Outdoors on women’s programming. The Boulder, Colorado-based organization is driving much of the gender-equity conversation in the industry.

For example, over 75 companies have signed Camber’s unprecedented CEO Pledge to “establish women in leadership as a strategic business imperative for the active-outdoor industries.” That means outdoor industry CEOs, both male and female, are committed to actively encouraging the promotion of women to leadership positions. Having female faces to look up to can only help the charge.

On the retail side, outdoor gear is also getting more functional and flattering for women. “There’s a lot of momentum around continuing to promote more women in the industry, but also trying to have a better focus on making sure products look, fit, and feel good for women,” Nicholson said.

Advice From Outdoor Retailer Female Leaders

While the female-led Outdoor Retailer team is setting the stage for women to be successful in the outdoor industry, it’s every woman’s challenge to take the bait.

Jennifer Holcomb, marketing director for OR, did just that. She found success by blazing her own path.

“It’s not easy, and it means finding that opportunity that not only serves you but whoever is paying you,” she said. “From there, it’s about your network, your team, your perspective about your idea in the bigger picture, and being ready to roll with whatever may come.”

Nicholson added that building confidence is key for women, especially in an industry where they’re still going to stand out.

“Don’t be the one that holds yourself back. If you want the promotion, start doing the job to prove you deserve it,” she said. “If there’s a job you’re interested in, apply for it, even if you can’t check the box on all the requirements.”

The next step is communicating a similar message to other minorities in the outdoor industry. Nicholson said, “Now we need to have a clearer focus in making sure the outdoors is for everyone, not just for women.”

Julie Kailus

Associate editor Julie Kailus has spent a career covering people, places, and products in the outdoor industry. Julie can be found testing the latest and greatest in her favorite activities — trail running, mountain biking, swimming, snowboarding, and the underrated endurance sport of chasing two sons around the mountains.