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Salt Lake City Anxious to Fill Space Left by Outdoor Retailer

With Outdoor Retailer’s tenure in Salt Lake City coming to a close, city officials are wringing their hands, looking for a way to fill the gap.

Come January 2018, Outdoor Retailer will leave Utah for Denver, Colorado, a move prompted by political contention over Bears Ears National Monument and, to a larger extent, the state of public lands in Utah.

Meant as a snub to GOP leadership (including Utah Governor Gary Herbert), the move will have profound impact on Salt Lake City’s calendar. Since 1996, the biannual Outdoor Retailer show was a reliable feature of the city calendar, bringing in thousands visitors and millions in revenue.

Indeed, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, officials are already looking to fill the approaching void, a fact that Visit Salt Lake Executive Director Scott Beck acknowledges will be a stiff order:

“That’s the hardest part for us,” Beck acknowledged. “We understand better than most that when someone chooses Denver over Salt Lake City, it’s not over affordability or accessibility, but the perception that all Utah has to offer is red rocks and snow and no place to get a drink.”

Images of red rocks and snow have done well for the state Office of Tourism and Visit Salt Lake. But even before Outdoor Retailer left to protest the state’s approach to public lands and national monuments, those agencies had campaigns promoting the Salt Lake Valley’s urban assets. “That’s been a big part of our strategy the past six months,” said Office of Tourism Managing Director Vicki Varela.

“We’re starting to make progress in people understanding how much interesting nightlife there is in Salt Lake. We’ve had a good reputation for arts and culture, but it’s growing with additions like the Eccles Theater,” she added. “And we’re starting to get a lot of traction as a foodie destination in the high end and travel circuits.”

One irony of losing Outdoor Retailer, Beck noted, is that while trade show products fit with Utah’s reputation for recreation, many delegates themselves appreciated Salt Lake City for its urban qualities.

“OR [Outdoor Retailer] knew about Squatters. They knew where to get good food. Those things weren’t issues for them,” he said.

“While there is melancholy that they’re leaving, there’s also an appreciation for what they contributed to what we are. We’re grounded in this reputation we’ve built around OR,” Beck added. “We didn’t lose them because the service was bad or the hotels sucked or there was no good food.”

According to the Tribune, Beck’s team has already filled one of Outdoor Retailer’s slots for August 2018: a convention for the 5,000-delegate American Trucking Association. Indeed, filling the summer slot should not pose too much difficulty. But Outdoor Retailer’s other show, which takes place in January, will be more difficult. From the Tribune:

“There are not many trade shows that meet in January with 25,000 people,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of trade shows then, period.”

OR has been a boon to Ogden, whose emphasis on becoming an outdoor-sports hub gained traction from Backcountry Demo Days staged at Snowbasin ski area or Pineview Reservoir.

“There is no denying Outdoor Retailer has had a significant impact on our community. … We will feel their departure,” said Sara Toliver, Visit Ogden’s president and CEO.

“With smaller marketing and sales budgets than many of our competitive destinations, bringing in such a targeted group [OR] was a great opportunity to create and/or increase the awareness of all our area has to offer,” she added.

Looking at the bigger picture, most of the counties neighboring SLC (including Tooele County) don’t expect many hotel or recreation losses. However, some, including Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne, are criticizing Outdoor Retailer’s decision on economic grounds, pointing out that, while the show and its corporate partners/organizers extol the virtues of U.S. public land, many are headquartered out of the states.

In an email to the Tribune, Milne called for these companies to relocate to the U.S. and “prove that there’s a symbiotic exchange for locking up (er, preserving) wide open spaces.”

That sentiment, incidentally, is by-and-large why Outdoor Retailer left; preservation was a core part of the pitch made by Colorado leaders once the show announced it was leaving SLC.

About Sean Reichard

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