“Your flight has been delayed.”
That’s not what you want to hear after waiting almost 2 years to get back to an in-person trade show. Outdoor Retailer (OR) kicked off on August 10 in Denver, Colorado, and I was in the airport. Waiting. Again.
We’ve been waiting for the pandemic to wind down. We’ve been waiting for the world to open up. We’ve all been doing a lot of waiting.
But most of all, we’ve been waiting to see other humans in person. It’s the relationships we’ve developed over shared passions that drive how we work together. Our industry thrives because of people connecting with people, and the return to OR this summer was the opportunity to make that happen.
When our team finally made it to Denver, we were excited, but that ever present pandemic feeling was still there – along with an unusual amount of smoke in the air from the California fires. While that same smoke delayed our flight, it wasn’t going to delay our OR journey. We were thankful and appreciative of the efforts made by the trade show organizers to make us all feel safe and comfortable to attend.
The first day felt different than past events. After attending OR for more than ten years, this show was smaller than I was accustomed to seeing. And, at opening, the typical energy seemed to be a bit more muted.
As I wandered the trade show floor, reminiscent of my days as a retail buyer, it was clear many of the big brands chose to opt out of the event this year. Attendance also seemed lower, and there was an overall feeling of minimalism when it came to booths, branding, marketing, and messaging.
After spending time talking with a variety of brands, the overall feeling was this may be the new reality of these types of trade shows. And, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially for smaller, newer brands.
I was most intrigued to see so many new brands. There were quite a few that were unique to the outdoor industry that likely wouldn’t have had a presence at prior shows. The big brands can sometimes overshadow these little guys, but this year they had a chance to shine. This was a nice surprise for the buyers I spoke with who found some interesting products and opportunities they might not have found in the past.
And, with many buyers struggling with bigger vendor supply chain issues, they were actively searching out alternatives with new and up and coming brands.
The New Normal
These changes may become the “new normal.” This phrase has become synonymous with the pandemic as we have spent a lot of time adjusting, shifting, and pivoting how we do business.
While on the show floor, I ran into an old friend (and outstanding retailer) who had this to say about the OR experience:
“We have been attending Outdoor Retailer for over 20 years. There is no question that this show always has incredible value and impact on our business. While this season’s show may be much smaller than in the past, it was still worthwhile and valuable for us to attend. It was wonderful to be able to see so many brands that are not typically in our market or that we don’t typically see at regional trade shows. Furthermore, getting in-person time with some of the brand owners is priceless.
“Additionally, we were able to attend a few of the educational opportunities which were very informative and insightful. One of the most important parts of our retail store is always staying on top of the trends and making sure we have exciting new products for our customers. While parts of the show were disappointing – lack of vendors there – the show, as usual, is what you make of it!” - Becky Philipp-Kranig, Owner, Bearcub Outfitters in Petoskey, MI.
The Human Touch
People attend Outdoor Retailer for a variety of reasons, but mostly, it’s to connect with people. Retailers want the opportunity to connect with reps, sales managers, and brands in person. They want to touch and feel the products. They want to see the colorways up close. They want to feel the energy from the brand and bring that excitement home with them.
But, even more, they want that human connection to translate into a lasting relationship that extends beyond the trade show floor. Technology can connect us, but nothing beats the human touch.
As the skies remain smokey over Denver, it feels like trade shows may also be a bit cloudy for a while. Will trade shows go away? That seems doubtful. But, the hybrid approach of smaller, more regional style gatherings, along with robust technological connectivity is likely the future.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the smoke clears. We’ll all be in a different place than before. And, maybe we’ll do a lot less waiting.