Despite years of tumult, testy dialogue and an ongoing boycott movement, the mammoth conventions of outdoor retailers are returning to Salt Lake City after a five-year hiatus. As the Utah capital prepares to return to its familiar role of hosting the events, it brings with it all the perks it’s had as the home of OR for over two decades, and a whole lot more this time.
The twice-yearly Outdoor Retailer events are an economic juggernaut in their own right, generating tens of millions of dollars in economic activity every time it lands. But the world’s largest gathering of outdoor-focused retailers and service providers is also fostering a broader and more difficult-to-measure reputation for its host cities among outdoor enthusiasts and the multibillion-dollar industries that keep these devotees on their toes.
A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis finds that the national outdoor recreation economy easily outperformed the overall U.S. economy with growth of 18.9% in 2021 compared to the 5.9% national economic growth for the year .
Utah’s share of outdoor recreation accounted for 2.7% of the state’s gross domestic product in 2021, according to the report, and generated over $6 billion in economic activity during the year. The analysis found that as of 2021, nearly 67,000 Utahns were employed in outdoor recreation-related jobs and their income accounted for 4% of the total income of Utah workers last year. And outdoor recreation jobs in Utah are on the rise, growing 14.9% from 2020-2021.
Outdoor Retailer started out in Salt Lake City in 1996 as a relatively modest gathering with approximately 100,000 square feet of exhibit space and attracted 5,000 visitors. But during his Utah tenure, which lasted until 2017, it grew to become the state’s largest convention event, attracting tens of thousands each time it came to town and growing its exhibition space to over 1 million square feet.
During those 22 years, Outdoor Retailer generated over $565 million in direct attendee spending, while generating $52 million in local, county and state taxes, according to Visit Salt Lake. These tax fund contributions provided every Salt Lake County household with an annual tax break of $1,238.
In an interview with Deseret News, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox celebrated the return of outdoor retailer events, beginning with January’s Snow Show, and noted the economic impact of the gathering filters across the state.
“We’re obviously very excited,” said Cox. “Any time we can land a big convention, it makes a difference for everyone in Utah.
“The number of people that come here, the expenses that come with large conventions is a huge benefit for restaurants, retailers, hotels and so many businesses. And not just in downtown Salt Lake City. Participants come to the OR and then spend more time visiting, up in our mountains or in southern Utah and really all over the state.”
Cox also praised the reputation Utah enjoys when hosting large, international gatherings.
“There’s a halo effect of events like the Olympics where it sits in people’s minds,” Cox said. “That’s another notch in our belt when it comes to how our state is perceived.”
Five years ago, when Salt Lake City’s contract with Outdoor Retailer expired and other cities were vying for hosting responsibilities, perception of the state, or at least a group of its elected officials, was dwindling among some outdoor recreation industry heavyweights.
The Utah capital lost its contract to Denver in 2017 when then-President Donald Trump’s announced plans to downsize several areas of the federally protected land, the environmental community, outdoor enthusiasts and companies specializing in outdoor products and services , upset. At the center of the controversy was Trump’s stated intention to downsize the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, which President Barack Obama created in a 2016 proclamation just before he left office.
Utah state legislature and then governor. Gary Herbert backed the Trump plan by passing a resolution in the 2017 legislative session declaring “strong opposition to designation as Bears Ears National Monument” and calling on Trump to reverse his predecessor’s executive order.
Back in February, before outdoor retailer Emerald X announced its decision to move the shows back to Salt Lake City, over two dozen outdoor industry companies, including heavyweights like Patagonia, REI, North Face and Kelty, signed a letter , in which they promised to boycott the shows should they return to Salt Lake City.
“We have jointly stated that we will not support or participate in any trade show event in Utah while its elected officials continue their attacks on national monuments and protection of public lands,” the letter said. “Industry leaders express their support for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and their long-standing efforts to protect the homes of tribes and pueblos with cultural ties to the Bears Ears landscape, as well as the overwhelming majority of the outdoor industry and American public.
“Despite widespread industry objections, Emerald has shown a continued interest in moving the Outdoor Retailer show to Utah, a state that is leading the fight against designated national monuments and public lands.”
Cox also rejected the Bears Ears designation, which was rescinded by Trump and later reinstated by President Joe Biden. He remains adamant on Utah’s position on state land protection, but noted that the split between some voices in the outdoor industry and state leaders is less dramatic than the dialogue might reflect.
“If you want to go somewhere to have an impact on these issues, Utah is where you want a seat at the table,” Cox said. “I’m looking forward to these talks. We’re very different, but we’re not as far apart as people say we are. We want to work together on these issues.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who played a role in bringing Outdoor Retailer back to Salt Lake City, is also excited to serve as a moderator on issues shared between outdoor enthusiasts, the outdoor industry, and the Policymakers are still controversial.
“The issues that prompted Utah’s Outdoor Retailer exit are just as complicated now as they were when they left,” Mendenhall said. “I will do whatever it takes to ensure that relationships remain constructive and productive.”
Mendenhall also pointed out how far Salt Lake City has improved its host city’s bonafides since leaving Congress in 2017.
“There are many things that are the same,” Mendenhall said. “We still have world-class winter and summer recreation opportunities. We still have the biggest snow on earth. And the mountains are still 15 minutes from downtown.
“But the actual experience, the tangible experience of Salt Lake City is vastly different. From landing at our LEED Gold-certified, state-of-the-art airport, to stepping out of the doors and boarding a TRAX train that will whisk you downtown to the brand new Hyatt Regency Hotel in 15 minutes.”
The lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Thursday, October 27, 2022. The Outdoor Retailers Convention returns to Salt Lake City after a five-year absence.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The new Hyatt, located adjacent to the Salt Palace Convention Center, plays a big part in the improved operating environment with 700 new rooms directly connected to the venue.
Mendenhall also noted the added vibrancy that downtown Salt Lake City has taken on since OR’s departure, with a rapidly growing resident population and dozens of new options when it comes to dining, entertainment, and nightlife.
She also highlighted a number of city policy efforts that she says align well with the goals of many in the outdoor industry. These include water conservation measures that have reduced the city’s water use since 2000, a new solar park, 14 miles of new hiking trails, and government buildings that will soon be powered by 100% renewable energy.
“Salt Lake City is a very good place to come home to,” Mendenhall said.
As the Outdoor Retailer winter and summer shows return to a revamped Salt Lake City, the shows themselves have been revamped with a greater focus on connecting with the hosting community.
Kaitlin Eskelson, President and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, said the work to bring the event back to Salt Lake City has been ongoing since the show ended and has included many discussions about how the experience for exhibitors and visitors at the Event could be further developed host community.
“I have to say that this negotiation with Outdoor Retailer was unlike any we’ve ever had,” said Eskelson. “Many program elements, education and connections will be very different. The OP shows are coming back with a much improved community component.”
Even before Emerald X announced OR’s return, Eskelson noted that Salt Lake City’s visitor and convention business is booming, and while the show will still be the largest recurring event, the city’s convention calendar is packed with countless events.
And the new Hyatt Regency is one of the keys to that success.
“The opening of the Hyatt Regency is absolutely monumental,” said Eskelson. “For us as a community, it opens doors to a whole range of businesses that we just didn’t have access to before.”
Pina Purpero, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City, said the hotel will “buzz” when OR returns in January and has closed the majority of its accommodations for the event.
In addition to the 700 guest rooms, which will be occupied primarily by outdoor retailers and attendees at the event, Purpero said the hotel’s 60,000 square feet of meeting space will also be used for the convention. The new downtown hotel also features three restaurants, an on-site market, a fitness center, and a rooftop pool.
The Outdoor Retailer Snow Show takes place from January 10th to 12th at the Salt Palace Convention Center.