The Big Gear Show, held August 3-5 in Deer Valley, UT, debuted this year as the industry’s first invitation-only, all-outside, multi-category trade event for the paddlesports, cycling, climbing, and camping markets, unveiling a new format of an entirely outdoor tradeshow, with a demo component a mainstay. Buyers could paddle, bike and test other gear all day long adjacent to brands’ booths, with lodging in easy walking distance or a quick shuttle.

At the show’s helm was tradeshow veteran Kenji Haroutunian, who brought 30 years of outdoor recreation industry experience to the position, including eight years as group show director for the Nielsen Sports Outdoor Group (now Emerald Expositions), leading Outdoor Retailer, Fly Fishing Retailer and other events. 

SGB Executive caught up with Haroutunian to see how the show went, how it managed COVID protocols, what’s up for the future, and more.

“The main question is, ‘Did people feel the model worked?” The answer is yes. No matter what show you produce, there are always going to people saying, ‘Hey, you could’ve had more people,’ or ‘You could have done this.” But everything fell into place incredibly well. We knew the demo component was super important for people, and that turned out great. Even the weather cooperated, which was perhaps the biggest unknown. The event fell between a period of smokey days and a storm, so we got lucky.

“I work with a lot of other events, and we’ve been watching what’s happening with COVID around the world, including recommendations from the IAEE (International Association of Exhibitions and Events) and UFI (Global Association of the Exhibition Industry). The situation has been, and continues to be, dynamic and changing by the week.

“It was all outdoors and invite-only, so I think from the beginning it felt safer for people. We knew distancing, masking and hygiene were the three buckets we needed to address, despite being an all-outdoors event. But we had a great platform for making it safe. Our plan evolved, and being outside helped with distancing and decreasing the potential viral load. And being outdoors in the sun helped a lot also, as the virus withers in the sunlight. So we didn’t feel we needed to require masks or proof of vaccination.

“We also managed the layout. We made the aisles larger, 15-to-20 feet, put additional spacing between booths and worked on our exhibitor groupings. We had the whole tarmac, which is about 600,000 square feet, so we had a lot of space to work with and were able to spread out, which made it work out well. We also had Brand Keep supply hand sanitizing stations for everyone, and Outdoor Research provided masks.

“A big key was that we controlled the attendance. We said, ‘Let’s get the right people in the room.’ We did that by curating a mix of retailers and media we wanted to attend. We kept it tight. As is the case at many other shows, we’re not trying to get everybody’s cousin to attend or measuring the show’s success by overall attendance numbers. It was quality over quantity. No one was allowed to ‘walk’ the show. It was tough because I had friends and colleagues who wanted to go but couldn’t. But that was our plan from the get-go, and the pandemic gave us the perfect excuse to handle it that way. Our permit had a 1,000-person cap so that we couldn’t go much bigger. In all, we had 421 retailers, 71 working media and the rest exhibitors. We didn’t have media buyers or PR agencies unless they were with their exhibiting brands. We minimized attendees selling to our exhibitors.

“We also implemented a new lanyard program, based on a conversation I had with Devaki (Murch) from the Grassroots Outdoors Alliance. We let people signal how they felt about exposure to COVID based on the chosen color of their lanyard. We had a three-color scheme, with signs outlining it at check-in: red meant they’re not comfortable with exposure; yellow meant they’re in between, maybe in the fist-bump realm; and green meant they’re fully vaccinated and fine with hugging. It was a creative touch, and people loved it. And other shows are now adopting this approach, including the Outdoor Writers conference and Outdoor Media Summit.

“We did have our issues. Some retailers could not make it due to canceled flights, but every show I’ve ever worked has had a certain number of people who register and a certain amount who attend. It’s like signing up for a Zoom webinar. It’s a lot easier to sign up than go. Those things happen for every show.

“Still, this was a different kind of animal, with other issues. Some people canceled at the last minute because of COVID concerns, Canada extended its border closure when it was supposed to open up the week before, and retailers had staffing challenges. They’re doing 100 percent more business with 30 percent less staff, making it harder to leave the shop. People’s children not being able to be in school also had an effect. Then came people’s fear of COVID and travel. The bigger the company, it seemed, the more likely they were to have a travel ban. VF, for instance, has been in a ‘no travel’ mode all year. All of these things made it harder for some people to attend.

“Brands had their problems also, especially with supply chain issues. Many manufacturers didn’t have product to show. While we had strong representation in the outdoor sector, the bike and paddle categories were missing some obvious players who didn’t have product to display. But new companies, and those who had product, did well.

“It was the first time bike, outdoor and paddle were able to get together in an outdoor venue, and the format worked great. As for next year, we are working with Park City on dates and venues and are currently conducting surveys to see what our attendees and brands want. But we know that the venue is highly regarded, especially with its close-by lodging and demo opportunities, and we feel we earned the right to do it again. The question is, does everyone get a mulligan this time around and do things go back to how they were pre-pandemic, or will they let this year’s shows affect their decisions moving forward? Because it definitely was a crazy year.

Photo courtesy Kenji Haroutunian