With the Delta variant surging and three of the year’s largest outdoor tradeshows signed, sealed and delivered—ICAST, The Big Gear Show and Outdoor Retailer Summer Market—and Surf Expo scheduled for September 9-11, and Grassroots Outdoor Alliance’s Connect Show scheduled for November 8-11, the outdoor tradeshow industry is in the midst of one of its more memorable years as organizers implement pandemic protocols while staging their shows.

Shows like GOA’s Connect in November require proof of vaccination to enter, and the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s Adventure Travel Elevate show in Sedona, AZ requires proof of vaccination and a recent PCR test participate.

After an in-person hiatus last year in favor of a virtual event, Outdoor Retailer’s annual Summer Market tradeshow returned to Denver, CO, on August 10-12 with smaller crowds, both from exhibitors and retailers, but pent-up demand for those in the industry to meet face to face.

“It was incredible to be back together again, and you could feel the energy on the show floor,” said Show Director Marisa Nichols. “Our community hadn’t gathered in-person since January 2020, so many were eager to step away from Zoom and return to the networking that helps our industry and outdoor businesses grow. Exhibitors reported meeting new buyers, writing orders and making more connections, and retailers were glad to find new products and brands.”

“For those able to be in Denver, it was three days of productive and meaningful conversations. We look forward to welcoming more of the community back next year.”

As for pandemic protocols, Nichols said it complicated matters, but it was great to host the show. “We knew this show would be different as we’re all in a recovery phase and still navigating the impacts of the pandemic,” she said. “Our health and safety plan fell in line with current CDC guidelines and local protocols. We also increased aisle width, provided masks, worked with Dr. Bronner’s to include hand sanitizer stations, and incorporated more signage in addition to the enhanced cleaning and other measures the Colorado Convention Center had in place.”

She added that the show’s new outside Basecamp Zone was a great and safe space for attendees to connect outdoors, and the expanded education area allowed more people to attend seminars with distancing measures in place. “Everyone at the show was very respectful of others and took steps to ensure the health and safety of the community,” she said.

As for next year’s show, scheduled to move to June, it’s a work in progress. “As the situation remains dynamic, we will continue to monitor all health and safety guidelines from the CDC, health officials in Denver, and the state of Colorado,” she said. “The safety of everyone involved in the show remains our priority, and plans will incorporate the recommendations from government and health care agencies as well as additional safety measures.”

Just before OR, from August 3-5, The Big Gear Show, an invitation-only, multi-category trade event for the paddlesports, cycling, climbing, and camping markets debuted its new format of an entirely outdoor tradeshow in Deer Valley, UT, complete with an integrated, outside demo component.

The show went well-reported said organizers, with its outdoor format helping people feel comfortable interacting. “The situation was dynamic and changing by the week. Our plan evolved, but it was all outdoors, and invite-only, so I think it felt safer for people,” said Show Director Kenji Haroutunian, former show director for the Outdoor Retailer and Fly Fishing Retailer tradeshows. “We managed the layout by making the aisles larger, had hand sanitizing stations and masks for those that wanted them and controlled the attendance; no one was allowed to just ‘walk’ the show.”

He added they also implemented a new color-coded lanyard program, allowing people to signal how they felt about exposure: red meant not comfortable with exposure, yellow in between and green meant they’re vaccinated without much fear.

Still, he added, everyone is watching everyone else to see how their shows fare. “I don’t blame some of those other upcoming shows for being so strict,” he said of shows like GOA’s Connect and ATTA’s Elevate requiring vaccinations. “It’s definitely been a crazy year.

Organizers of the Surf Expo, held September 9-11 in Orlando, Florida’s Orange County Convention Center, have learned from Outdoor Retailer’s Summer Market, The Big Gear Show and the recent ICAST show held in Orange County earlier this summer. It also learned lessons from staging a successful but smaller in-person Surf Expo show last January.

“We’re not out of this yet, but having held a safe event in January, our attendees know that we can and will make every effort to provide a safe environment by following CDC guidelines and our additional safety protocols,” said Show Director Roy Turner. “We respect the concerns of all.”

As with The Big Gear Show, Turner added that limiting attendance to just those in the industry helped.

“Something to remember is that we are not a public event,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of those in attendance are exhibitors and qualified retailers. Retailers have found a way to navigate through COVID safely, whether with masks, vaccinations, social distancing, or a combination of all, and reps have done the same.

“We’re not asking everyone to spend the day at Disney,” he added. “We’re bringing together a select audience with mask mandates per CDC guidelines in a space that has been adjusted for social distancing, has a GBAC Star accreditation, with elevated cleaning protocols. We followed a similar procedure in January with much success and feel that our September show will follow suit. We’re looking forward to bringing everyone together safely to conduct business.”

Grassroots Connect, an invitation-only tradeshow for exhibitors and members of the Grassroots Outdoors Alliance, will be held in the Kansas City Convention Center, November 8-11, marking the organization’s first in-person show in nearly two years.

As such, organizers have enacted pandemic-specific protocols, including early registration, vaccine requirement and an expanded refund policy. The vaccine requirement tops an extensive list of health and safety protocols at the show, from rearranged floor layouts to hygiene and safety plans. The protocols will continue to be refined based on the latest CDC guidelines iup and through the event.

“While health and safety considerations are essential, we also need to get a clear read on who’s planning on attending,” said GOA president Rich Hill when the new protocols were announced. “This level of direct input is our biggest asset, as Grassroots vendors and retailers have always been eager to collaborate on ways to move our industry forward.”

Marking a first for the show, the new refund policy will include a full return of deposit funds for any exhibitor cancellations on or before October 1. In the week prior, Grassroots will provide registered attendees an overview of the show’s latest health and safety plans and will host a Zoom forum to answer questions. If Grassroots cancels the show after October 1, full refunds will be available.

“We’re fully aware that there are still some legitimate reasons for travel anxiety out there, and we’re doing our best to address those realities head-on,” Hill added. “We’ve built an extensive list of health and safety considerations, and I think many of those are going to become best practices for gatherings in 2022 and beyond.”

Scheduled as early as possible in the buying cycle, the event marks the first gathering for the group in more than 600 days and builds on strong retail sales throughout the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance retailer member network, which has seen 28 percent growth year-to-date compared to 2019. The show attracts a mix of independent specialty retailers, reps, vendor brands, and members of the outdoor industry to each show to present, discuss, plan, and collect pre-season orders. But Hill admitted this year will be different.

“There’s clearly a strong drive in a sizable portion of the outdoor sector to gather this fall, but there’s also a certain percentage of the population that’s not going to travel, regardless of the precautions,” he said. “To work with both of those groups, our biggest thing is just being very cautious, transparent and direct and telling people what you know, and what you don’t, as early and as often as you can.”

A research partnership between event company Freeman and Epistemix found that events like tradeshows are safer than other activities for attendees.

“Based on the data we’ve seen, attending an in-person event is no riskier—in fact, less risky than essential daily activities,” said Freeman CEO Bob Priest-Heck of the study released this summer. “Businesses and organizations want to get back to events for critical commerce, networking, and exchanging ideas. This helps provide the framework for doing so safely.”

The study found that attending large in-person business events is safer than many daily activities and that hosting the events does not increase local COVID-19 case rates. For recent August events, the infection rates were as much as 95 percent lower than the U.S. at large, it reported.

 Modeling found risks of infection at events to be as much as eight times less than in the metro areas where the events were held.

Attendee vaccination rates, the controllable nature of events and a correlation between the eagerness of participants to return to events with their willingness to adopt safety protocols are key factors, the study reported. Other findings include:

  • In-person business event participants are more likely to be vaccinated than the U.S. population, reflecting a vaccination rate above 80 percent and creating coverage that cuts transmission of COVID-19 at those events, regardless of the gathering size.
  • Despite concerns over the Delta variant, most attendees and exhibitors want to return to in-person events, and over 90 percent are not opposed to additional health and safety protocols to enable them to gather safely. Further, those who do not support other protocols said they choose to stay home, mitigating added risks of potential infections.

Photo courtesy ICAST 2021