With attendance figures rebounding in the double-digits, Outdoor Retailer Summer 2010 proved to be a testament to the health of the outdoor specialty industry. Now, the debate ensues about how much of the show's success was due to the improving economy and how much was due to the underlying strength of the industry.

The industry appears to be benefiting from the enduring appeal of the outdoor lifestyle; improving participation in outdoor activities; a push toward healthy living and fitness; a greater focus on family, and a return to “simpler living.”

There was a palpable belief that the industry as well as the show had recovered from a worrisome 2009. “It's great to see that the passion of outdoor retailers and outdoor vendors hasn't tamed at all during the recession,” Jim Zwiers, president of the Wolverine World Wide Outdoor Group, which includes Merrell, Chaco and Patagonia Footwear, told B.O.S.S.  “It feels like this show is as good as it's ever been. The retailers are back and seem excited to bring the passion of the outdoors to the consumer and restore what's always been great about the outdoors.”

“The show clearly indicates retail is better,” concurred Mark Martin, president of Marmot. “The health of the industry is better so from that comes optimism, a positive feeling, and buoyancy compared to a year ago when people were wondering what the heck was going to happen. So that in itself makes for a much more positive environment.”

While many of the OR Summer Market attendees were clearly much more optimistic about the health of the industry going forward, there was still an air of concern about the economy and the long-term issues related to high unemployment. However, the healthy traffic at the OR show particularly stands out since most other trade shows-such as WSA and ASR that likewise took hits during the recession-have generally remained sluggish despite the improved economy.

Some see the success of OR as a sign of the resiliency of the outdoor lifestyle trend that have put brands such as The North Face, Merrell, Patagonia, Keen, Mountain Hardwear, Arc'teryx, and numerous others on the maps over the last two decades.

According to Kenji Haroutunian, Outdoor Retailer show director, overall attendance was up “definitely solid double-digits,” ranging from 12% to 16% whether measuring buyers, stores or net attendance. Square footage reached 415,000, up 5% from 2009. A total of 980 exhibitors showed, also up around 5% from 2009. “I would say we exceeded expectations for sure,” he added.

This year’s Summer Market didn’t break the attendance record of the 2008 show, when the Energy Solutions Arena became an overflow exhibition space. But it represented a rebound from the credit-crunch that hobbled the 2009 summer show-when attendance fell 8% to 12%-depending on whether attendees, buyers or stores are being counted.

There were several changes to the paddle sports section that drove “hundreds more stores and dozens of more brands” to the show, according to Haroutunian. The consumer electronics category also noticeably increased its penetration as technology continues to work its way into outdoor activities. Traffic around the show's two biggest categories- apparel and footwear-also remained strong as the retail community looked to continue to tap into brands addressing the burgeoning outdoor lifestyle trend. As witnessed by Vibram's busy booth, the barefoot and closely-linked minimalism trend particularly perked interest for many footwear vendors.

The show also continues to extend its reach to a number of running brands such as Brooks, Saucony, New Balance, K-Swiss and Aetrex as well as newcomers such as HOKA, Kigo and Terra Plana. “It's a great show for run specialty and outdoor retail communities,” said Curt Munson, owner of Playmakers in Michigan.

Beyond running, the show is also making room for other endurance sports, as well as the bike community, health & wellness, fly fishing, and a number of surf brands looking to tap that outdoor lifestyle appeal. Moreover, some of the hottest activities, such as stand-up paddle boarding, appear to fit better within the outdoor community rather than the action sports world. The brand 5.10, which has been extending its brand into action sports, used the show to further push into the bike footwear category. “We are seeing more connection than ever before with our action sports athletes,” says Charles Cole, president/founder of 5.10. “Whether it is base jumping, high ball slack lining, climbing or mountain biking, these ‘world’s most adventurous athletes’ are asking for high friction footwear.”

Haroutunian counted a number of reasons the show is doing well, some supporting each other. Having stars such like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar; Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Nancy Sutley; and Utah Governor Gary Herbert partaking in discussion groups exploring outdoor participation clearly “cranked up the profile of the show a notch or two.” But the brisk traffic in large part reflects the fact that outdoor specialty is recovering faster than the broader economy. According to data on the outdoor specialty channel from OIA VantagePoint powered by SportScanInfo, sales in June were up in the low-teens. “I think the market is just in a healthier position for sure so that just makes a big difference,” said Haroutunian. “Higher sales numbers don’thurt.”

At the same time, higher participation numbers in outdoor activities and visits to national parks are helping drive those revenue gains. “People are getting out there,” said Haroutunian. “And all those factors portend to future success for outdoor specialty retailers as well as all the vendors who supply them.”

Many vendors believe the economy somewhat supported those increased participation rates. Cash-strapped consumers rediscovered the outdoors last year while looking for less-expensive alternatives for vacations. With the economy not out of the woods yet and unemployment high, some are still seeking outdoors as a budget-friendly vacation alternative. “Maybe a family can't fly to Europe or they can't go to Hawaii but they can do many outdoor activities nearby as a family,” said Greg Houser, VP, design and product development at Marmot. “And everybody gets involved in the experience.”

“I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it doesn’t cost a lot of money to participate in an outdoor activity,” concurred Brian Mangione, EVP at Woolrich. “You can go out your backdoor and even close to where you live to experience most of them.”

Mangione also thinks the outdoor industry is benefiting from a push toward living healthier lifestyles and becoming fitter. “There's this whole idea of getting back to nature in a way,” said Mangione. “I just feel people are looking for some simpler things in their life. There's a whole movement toward family and spending more time as a family.  And you can spend time with your family indoors or you can do it outdoors. And there are a lot of things to do outdoors that are enjoyable.”

Some say the shift back to nature has been helped as people re-assessed values amid the downturn. But others said any downturn-related shift is just building on an ongoing movement toward outdoor activities. “There's definitely more awareness about people getting more active and kids getting more active and the economy is preventing people from going on extravagant trips,” said Beaver Theodosakis, Prana founder & CEO. “They're staying close-to-home and doing the ‘staycation.’ But we've been hearing it for years and people like REI who have been doing it for 80 to 90 years. People are going back to doing simple things. They're going camping. They're riding bicycles.

They're climbing and paddling. They're going back to nature,  (and) doing simple things…”

Marmot's Martin wasn't sure if people are “looking to get back to nature,” but he does believe a rethinking “core values” is bringing people to the outdoors and the industry is benefiting. Said Martin, “I think people are embracing the outdoors more and I think that's going to continue.” Martin believes people are enjoying the outdoors because it offers versatility. “If we look at all the leisure activities that people can participate in, outdoor offers so many different ways that people can find enjoyment,” said Marin. “And the companies here, like us, are providing the apparel and equipment, to enjoy the outdoors-whether it's hot and sticky outside like here now in Utah or cold and wet during the winter. So we can give people a better experience in the outdoors and I think that's what's resonating.”

At the same time, he said it's hard to deny that fashion trends are also supporting the outdoor lifestyle. “People are more comfortable dressing in the outdoor look and that applies to an urban environment as well as to the more rural setting,” said Martin.

“And so that has certainly benefited a lot of brands here and on the apparel side-it certainly has benefited us. And that's been a 10 to 15 year ramp-up. There's a number of good examples of brands [at the show] that have really benefited from that.”

Indeed, outdoor footwear makers are said to be benefiting as consumers look to wear sandals, multi-sport shoes and even light hikers as their everyday shoes rather than just for the weekend or for an expedition. Consumers are likewise looking to wear outdoor-inspired designs, fabric and quality throughout the week. “People are finding they have a great experience with our product on the weekends and they say, 'Hey, I'd like to have that same type of value, dependability, durability, and quality for my everyday wear,’ ” said Marmot's Houser.

Brian Moore, VP for global men’s footwear at Timberland, agrees that the downturn led consumers to focus more on “real” or “authentic” brands, many of those found in the outdoor industry. But Moore, who spent some time with Burton Snowboards in the earlier part of the last decade, believes the outdoor industry is capturing the “younger, more savvy, edgier consumer” that had only recently been heading toward the action sports world. After 9/11 and the 2001 recession, he believes, disaffected and hipper youth-losing faith in government and corporations-flooded to the laid-back skate and surf culture. That led to booming crowds at the ASR show in the early part of that decade.

But he believes the action sports culture changed with the arrival of the X-Games, art's influence on those sports, as well as increasing competition between-and the aggressive marketing of-ASR’s superstars. “Action sports people stopped being down with each other and started to be movie stars and went glam,” said Moore. “And the small brands all got gobbled up by the big brands so you no longer had these layers upon layers of start-ups. So it became not as much as a countercultural play and stopped being real authentic.”

As a result, he now feels the hip kids are looking to the outdoors. “Outdoors turns out to be where the real thing is… It's where people are communal and young people can come with their friends and experience reality in a very true way. So I feel that the people who are healthy, fit, happy, and attractive that used to head to ASR; they're coming to Outdoor Retailer,” said Moore. “People are making passionate personal statements around outdoors and bold fashion statements unlike what they have ever done before…” Moore continued, “And as more people come to it as a culture, that changes it. They bring creativity and art. And these new subcultures will be out there making it cool and edgy, and fun too. So I think the OR show is where ASR was ten years ago and you're feeling the buzz a little bit more. So I think it's going to be at least a good five years.”