If you hold it, they will come. That line from Field of Dreams held true November 8-11 for Grassroots Outdoor Alliance (GOA), a network of nearly 100 independent retailers with 195 doors in 42 states, which held its first in-person Connect tradeshow in more than 700 days at its new venue in Kansas City, MO. And, according to attendees and organizers, it was well-needed, appreciated and attended.

“Across the board, retailers, vendors, participants, and staff, agreed that Kansas City and the convention center was a great venue with fantastic hosts,” said GOA president Rich Hill, adding it picked up 29 new retail members since its last in-person meeting more than 700 days ago.”
While Hill said total attendance was down around 30 percent from its Fall 2019 Connect show, he knew that would be the case coming in. At this year’s show, Connect registered 730 attendees and 6,392 appointments.

“Early in the pandemic, when we were postponing and canceled shows, we worked from a mindset that we needed 100 percent of our community in attendance to make Connect work,” he said. “But the decision-making math this fall was very different, as the mood of both retailers and vendors evolved. Ahead of this show, we realized it was ok not to have everyone there because even with a partial crowd, it was important for the Grassroots community to gather. This gave us that opportunity, and we support those people, and their reasons, for not attending.”

It wasn’t just COVID that caused attrition; the ongoing supply-side challenges plaguing the outdoor industry played a part. “Ahead of the show, there were concerns about supply chain disruptions impacting vendors,” Hill said. “But, honestly, we were wildly surprised by how well-sampled everyone was.”

Grassroots Business Analyst O’Ryan Lovins reported that despite COVID and supply-chain issues, its member business had been robust. He reported that sales and margins were up over 2019 and 2020, with year-to-date sales (January through September 2021) showing a 32.1 percent sales growth over 2020 and 27.6 percent over 2019. Over the past 12 months, Grassroots reported overall sales growth of 23.6 percent year-over-year.

“Through all the challenges thrown at us over the last 24 months, our members are navigating the market successfully,” Lovins said, adding that the most recent months, August and September, show the pace dropping to 10.8 percent growth over the same months in 2020. “That’s a noteworthy decrease, attributed to disturbances in shipping and the supply chain,” he said. “But as everyone becomes accustomed to quick adaptations and pivots, it’s led retailers to create ways to stock their floor, even if it means shifting open-to-buy dollars to other brands.”

Retailers in attendance agreed, adding that the show served as a much-needed respite from virtual gatherings.

“It was very worthwhile,” said Tracy Mayer, president and retail attendee Backcountry North. “As a buying show, I was booked for appointments the entire show. Due to production timelines, orders are due earlier this year. It was nice to see so many brands in such a short period of time. I didn’t write my orders there, but we saw the lines, created buying plans, and left ready to create preseasons. That’s the main focus, but the networking and education were also valuable.”

Those reasons aside, it was facetime, she added, that was just as important. “It was great to see everyone and meet face-to-face again,” she added. “That was the overwhelming theme of the show. While everyone continues to practice COVID safety measures, to be able to attend an in-person tradeshow where all the participants were vaccinated made it an environment where we could focus on getting back to business rather than allowing COVID to overshadow our interactions.”

For other attendees, the show was more about writing orders. “For me, it’s 90 percent order based,” said Mike Leffler, president, Peninsula, OH, Appalachian Outfitters. “With staff shortages and chasing inventory, the networking, educational sessions and socializing need to take a back seat.”

But, he admitted, getting together after all this time had its merits, too. “Overall, we stay in touch through various Slack channels, so there have been continuous updates,” he said. “But the face-to-face is always nice. It was great to see and talk to everyone and validate my feelings about the industry’s future. It was also great to get updates from the vendors and hear from upper management about how they’re managing supply chain issues and their outlook on 2022.”

The next Grassroots Connect show will take place in Knoxville, TN, from June 6-9, 2022.

Photo courtesy GOA