By Eric Smith

Outdoor Retailer’s decision to cancel Winter Market in November won’t surprise the exhibitors or buyers who walked the relatively quiet trade show floor at last year’s inaugural event.

Nor will it shock those who tuned into Emerald Expositions Events Inc.’s last few earnings calls when the company’s leadership all but said the show wasn’t meeting attendance or revenue expectations.

But what might be eye-opening is the swiftness with which Outdoor Retailer and Outdoor Industry Association finally decided to pull the plug on the November show.

Marisa Nicholson, Outdoor Retailer show director, and Amy Roberts, OIA executive director, told SGB that they spoke last Friday about the OIA board’s concerns over the return on investment of the November show, even as it made sense within the softgoods buying and selling cycle.

Yet something proved to be more important than any business timing, they said. And within a matter of days, Winter Market was done.

“Ultimately, the idea behind the whole industry coming together and being united in one winter show seems to be actually more valuable than two shows serving the unique timing of their product cycles,” Nicholson said Wednesday afternoon. “And so the sentiment behind that was if we want to deliver the most value for our customers and our communities, we had to make the decision and move very swiftly on not having the November show and bringing the industry together for one united show in January.”

As SGB reported earlier Wednesday, Outdoor Retailer said it has scrapped plans to host the upcoming Winter Market in November. Instead, OR will wrap it into January’s Snow Show, ending the three-show cycle and reducing the outdoor industry’s premier event to twice a year.

The combined event will be called Outdoor + Snow Show, scheduled for January 29-31, 2020 (the previously established dates for Snow Show), at Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, planned for November 5-7, will not happen, while Summer Market will continue to be held in June.

Roberts, who is leaving her OIA post at the end of September to join The North Face, noted that the “strong partnership” between Outdoor Retailer and OIA helped the organizations make this decision so quickly once they had gathered enough intelligence from key industry stakeholders.

“We were looking at the market signals and hearing continued questioning around which show people should attend,” Roberts said. “We felt that we had heard enough feedback from our membership, as well as just the industry in general, that they really wanted certainty around one winter show, in one timeframe. We felt like it was important to make that decision as far in advance as possible so that people have time to adjust their plans and move to the January show.”

One factor was the softness—real or perceived—of the November show. Even though Winter Market was well-attended in relation to trade shows in other industries, the outdoor world has a certain idea around bustling aisles and bumping happy hours that eluded the November event, Nicholson said.

“The industry is so used to Outdoor Retailer being a certain size that we were sort of being held to a standard that was more representative of what people’s expectations were based on prior events as opposed to looking at it through a different lens of the show bringing the right buyers and retailers and brands together in a timeframe that meets their business needs,” she said.

Nicholson was unable to immediately provide the financial hit the organization will take from canceling the November dates at Colorado Convention Center—but in an SEC filing, Emerald said it estimates non-recurring costs of $1 million to $3 million for canceling the show—and neither she nor Roberts could quantify how much this move will affect Outdoor Retailer’s and OIA’s “shared revenue” plan now that Winter Market is dissolved.

But, Roberts added, “We do have a revenue share on the booth space and sponsorship of the show, which is a substantial part of our funding. I think we did the right thing in moving forward and consolidating the shows, but there will be some budget impact to OIA that we’ll look to absorb in this calendar year.”

Nicholson and Outdoor Retailer issued a statement on Wednesday which said, in part, that Outdoor Retailer parent Emerald was not involved in the decision, although comments made by Emerald leadership in the past year—and as recently as early August—indicate the company was certainly considering a change in the OR lineup.

Not only did Emerald cancel Interbike (meaning they have no issue killing an underperforming show), but CFO and former interim President Phil Evans for almost a year lamented the lack of buy-in from certain industry stakeholders for the November show.

On earnings calls, he would routinely drop hints about rightsizing the cycle down to two shows from three. In other words, the writing was clearly on the wall that while November might have been the correct placement for the buying cycles, too few dealers and too few exhibitors—especially some of the bigger names—bought into that slot on the calendar to make it viable.

“The outdoor industry is taking some time to adapt to the three-show cadence despite the original request from key industry influencers and strong industry support for the show to be held at the start of the winter buying season,” Evans said on Emerald’s August 2 earnings call with analysts. “We continue to consult with the industry; however, we’ve moderated our expectations for this year’s show based on current pacing trends.”

On that same call, he noted that the company had been trying to build momentum for the November show, but the perception among some in the industry has been that a third OR isn’t necessary. That belied the market research Outdoor Retailer and Emerald conducted before adding it, but as it turns out, the company moved forward with dropping it anyway.

Also, as Evans and Nicholson routinely brought up whenever someone raised concerns over three shows, the industry has long had a three-show cycle. The number of shows didn’t change when Outdoor Retailer bought Snow Show in 2017, only who owns what and when and where they’re held.

Just two years ago, Snowsports Industries America (SIA) owned and operated January’s Snow Show, which was (and continues to be) held in Denver, while Outdoor Retailer owned and operated Winter Market and Summer Market, which were held in Salt Lake City, UT, in January and June, respectively.

When Emerald decided to host all three shows in Denver, it also moved Winter Market to November to spread the events out. The shift caused some confusion in the industry.

“OR historically had two very strong kinds of almost tribal shows in January and summer—well-supported, vibrant shows,” Evans said August 2. “And the industry strongly indicated a desire for an earlier winter season show. And we listened to the industry, and that led to the introduction of our first winter show in November last year.

“It wasn’t as well-supported as we wanted, and that doesn’t help when you have a launch and you’d like to see some momentum. That said, some of the industry leaders showed support for the second event, which is this November. But … it seems to be taking time for the industry to adopt this new show into the cycle. So we will continue to listen to the industry, work with the industry associations and come up with the best solution.”

Fast forward to Wednesday and it appears Emerald’s solution was canceling the November show and turning the attention to hosting one show that combines winter outdoors and snow sports under one roof, as it did in January 2018.

“Since staging last year’s November show and trying to build support for Winter Market 2019, the sentiment has shifted, and the outdoor and snow communities would prefer to gather at a single show in the same timeframe,” OR and OIA said in a joint statement. “As a result, the decision was made to bring these two shows back together in January.”

Nick Sargent, president of SIA, told SGB he only heard the news an hour before it was released publicly when Emerald called him. He wasn’t surprised by the announcement and is looking forward to that large January show once again uniting the entire outdoor and snow sports “tribes.” After all, he said, that was the reasoning behind SIA selling the show to Outdoor Retailer in the first place.

“January 2018 was amazing,” he said. “The buzz was real. It was cool.”

But the buzz soon wore off. A slow November show was followed less than three months later with a retooled Snow Show in January, and those two events caused some confusion despite Outdoor Retailer’s extensive PR push.

“Even with [OR’s] best efforts of communicating what the show was supposed to be, my membership said, “I don’t know what it is. We’re not going,’” Sargent said. “The other members that we speak with at other companies, even in the outdoor space, said the same thing. It was ambiguous, and there is so much communication going out about the shows. What my members had bought into when we sold the Snow Show was consolidating Outdoor Retailer Winter Market and Snow Show. If you went to that November show last year, you thought, ‘This doesn’t have a lot of legs to it.’”

Will the new “two-show” cycle—one snow/winter and one summer—have legs? Time will tell, but Sargent thinks this is the right cadence for an industry that should be focused on community more than anything.

“I’m thankful that they saw the light. I’m thankful that they’re doing the right thing for the industry,” he said. “I know we can make this thing very successful again. Fortunately, that momentum we created hasn’t died down yet. We just needed to tweak it and get it back in alignment. I am very convinced that this one-show format—bringing outdoor and winter together—is the right thing to do.”

Photo courtesy Outdoor Retailer