Q&A: Conor Hall discusses what to do when trade shows leave Denver
Conor Hall at Silverton Mountain Ski Resort on February 9th. (Ian Fohrman, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Conor Hall took over as helm of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office in Colorado just over three weeks ago, just as the office was beginning to cope with a spate of government grants and the exit of Denver’s outdoor retail trade shows.
“It feels like it was dog years,” said the 32-year-old, who replaced Nathan Fey, who now works for the Mighty Arrow Family Foundation.
Hall, who grew up in Crestone in the San Luis Valley, was an advisor to John Hickenlooper when he was governor and to Michael Bloomberg when he was running for president in 2020. More recently, Hall led conservation strategies at the Trust for Public Land, assisting the national nonprofit advocate on 26 conservation elections in 11 states in 2020, all voter-approved.
Here’s a quick Q&A with Hall planning “a new chapter” for the outdoor recreation office. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: They were advisors to Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2015 when he founded the outdoor recreation office with just one employee, director Luis Benitez. What was the overarching goal back then? How has the role of the office changed?
Room: Luis is like three people. The honey badger. Quite a lot has developed in a relatively short period of time. Obviously the workforce has grown. We are up to four people and will likely add one more person to help manage reporting and compliance around these grants. It’s all pretty mature. When we started this office, it was the second of its kind in the country. There wasn’t much precedent. We sort of built the plane while we were flying it. And we’ve had a lot of success. Bring this big show here. Bring big companies here. We had a lot of momentum. We still do.
As we’ve grown and settled a bit, we’ve been working with many more agencies and groups on things like conservation and managing our outdoor leisure resources in tourist destinations. You see that maturation in these scholarship programs that we are preparing for this spring and summer. I think one thing to watch out for is getting too skinny. We must ensure that where we spend resources and where we bring people together, that is the highest and best use of our office and those resources.
Q: Talk a little more about these grants that are coming. They’re from the Federal Economic Development Agency, right?
Room: I think these grants represent a new chapter that we are in. The largest is EDA and we share that with the tourist office. It’s like a $9.7 million grant. EDA has traditionally never awarded grants for outdoor recreation, so this is a first, which is pretty exciting. It will all go to nonprofits, local governments, colleges and tribes. The other major grant, which will be closer to $2 million, is from ARPA (the $350 billion Pandemic Recovery American Rescue Plan Act) for which all of these groups are eligible, but we’re adding for-profit corporations. The focus there is really on whether you have been negatively impacted by COVID…we want to help. We want to make sure we give these grants in an effective way, where we really focus on finding those areas that have been hit really hard by COVID and may not have fully recovered like other sectors of our industry have.
We think we’ll call this second grant something like the Colorado Outdoor Impact Fund. Unfortunately we still struggle with the acronyms because in government you always need an acronym and at the moment that is COIF. I’m still working on it. (He laughs.)
The focus of the EDA is on COVID recovery, but it’s also really about jobs. This has always been the main focus of the EDA. It’s doing what we can to help this economic engine, especially in our rural economies around Colorado.
It’s an exciting time to be doing this work. There is real funding flowing through the state, and I think we have a tremendous opportunity to really make a big impact, especially when we put our dollars with (the Colorado Tourism Office), with local governments, and with any public or private partner , who would like to participate. There’s so much potential there. It’s amazing that OREC is finally sitting at this table. Historically, when these things happened, recovery wasn’t really at that table. It feels like we’ve made a lot of progress. This is the development of this office. We are at the table. We even set the table. It’s pretty amazing to see.
Conor Hall is the new director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. (Courtesy of Conor Hall)
Q: Last week we learned that the Outdoor Retailer trade shows were leaving Denver for Salt Lake City. That’s a small blow. But you called the departure an opportunity. Maybe a chance to build something new and different. And you have outdoor industry partners who object to moving to Utah who are willing to help. So in your perfect world it is the year 2032 and this event is several years old. How does it look like?
Room: Alright. The year is 2032. It’s a show that’s actually considered a festival. It’s a super dynamic event that is the ultimate meeting place and melting pot for our industry. The best comparison, in my opinion, is South by Southwest. All these different facets and it brings people from all over the world to this week of celebration and rich thought and business. I imagine that here.
I’d like to see a really sturdy, consumer-oriented piece. I wish companies were represented, but with a lot more consumer engagement. I would like to see a really robust thought leadership platform and programs around the issues facing the industry.
Hopefully by 2032 we will have made some progress on climate issues and we will have more diversity in the industry, more inclusion and fairer access to nature. In reality we will still be struggling with this but hopefully have made some progress. And I personally would like to see some creative aspects. This could be film, like an adventure film festival. It could be music, it could be design related to the outdoor recreation space, maybe a media piece, maybe technology.
Another dynamic, diverse venue for people to come together, network, share ideas and strengthen the fabric of our industry and solidify Colorado as the true heart of the outdoor recreation economy.
Q: We wrote a while ago about your cancer journey a decade ago and your work with First Descents. What are some lessons you’ve learned in your battle with cancer that can help your leadership and leadership of Colorado’s outdoor recreation businesses?
Jesseca Collins, left, Conor Hall and Michelle Friedmann hike Silverton Mountain February 9. The three are cancer survivors and graduates of the First Descents. (Ian Fohrman/Special for The Colorado Sun)
Room: I would say, and this is related to your First Descents story, it’s this out living it mentality. Go hard and get things done and take risks. I think that applies to the outdoor trade fair situation. In a way, this is a pretty daunting thing to stare at. This huge show with this huge economic benefit is going and we have to fill the space and create what’s next. But for me it’s such an exciting thing.
It’s that idea of going out there, taking risks and creating something better. That was fueled by my diagnosis. If I’ve been sitting there for weeks thinking, I can’t make it and then going to treatment and getting through everything, clichéd as it may sound, that changes the mentality. It changes the way you look at things and the way you evaluate things and also the way you look at risk.
That’s helped me take big risks in my career and tackle challenges where in a way I’m unrelated to being the tackler in terms of experience or whatever. But then it’s also this gratitude to be alive and just really grateful for everything I have. I feel incredibly fortunate to be sitting in this seat in an office that means a lot to me. I feel this office is tremendously important to the state and I have an excellent team working with me. There is so much to be grateful for and I try to bring that into work and every meeting and everything I do on a daily basis.
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