By Eugene Buchanan

While Outdoor Retailer was forced to cancel its Summer Market tradeshow due to COVID-19 concerns, it did its best to bring brands and buyers together with its new live online format that ran from July 21-23, 2020, featuring programming, exhibitor booths and more.

While its business tools remain accessible to registered exhibitors and attendees through August 31, 2020, SGB Executive checked in with show organizers, retailers and vendors to gauge the event’s success, its popularity and its status for the future.

“As the platform is open through the end of August, the best data we have is for the three-day live event July 21-23,” said OR Communications Director Lisa Ramsperger. “A lot of stores are taking advantage of the site still being open because it’s hard for them to get out of their stores, especially this summer. People are still registering daily so we’ll know more on total numbers in September.”

The three-day event featured more than 4,500 people from the outdoor industry gathering virtually for education and business while viewing products from more than 100 exhibiting brands. The participants tallied more than 25,000 product, video and content views and nearly 40,000 total booth visits. The event’s educational seminars garnered 4,500 plus unique live session views (excluding in-booth events), with more than 700 people tuning in to its OIA Industry Breakfast and 800 joining its NPD Group’s session. The OIA lunch sessions averaged 300 people watching live, with the OR Inspiration Awards ceremony at more than 1,100 views.

Vendors and retailers were largely supportive of the event.

“We love the platform and so do our reps. I’ve been booking a fair number of presentations on it, probably 30 or so to date,” said Tom Hathaway, GSI Outdoors exhibitor. “I think having a ‘show’ helps all three parties — retailers, reps and manufacturers. They could all schedule appointments efficiently alongside taking part in educational seminars and social happy hours. We especially enjoyed the end-of-day get-togethers/happy hours letting us socialize with industry associates in one zoom room sharing a beer, industry gossip, strategy, and laughs.

“I actually think the show could be four or five days long,” he added. “Because every minute you’re not presenting, you’re carrying on your normal workday tasks.”

Exhibitor YETI also had positive comments about the virtual format.

“We saw the value in participating,” said Bill Neff, vice-president of consumer marketing. “Events and experiential activations have been a core element of our marketing and a key mechanism to drive awareness of our brand and product offerings. Outdoor Retailer is an important exhibition for us and when they shared their vision for this summer’s virtual show, we were eager to be a part of it. The online experience was engaging and informative.”

Suppliers, who provide manufacturers with the raw goods to make their wares, also found the format beneficial.

“While virtual shows will never replace live shows where we can network with people and touch and feel materials, they’ve given us the opportunity to improve our digital presentation capabilities needed to communicate during the pandemic,” said Mike Simko, global marketing director for Hyosung Textiles. “They kept us on track with our product development timeline, including reaching out to mills, brands and media. The fundamental issue, it seems, is that exhibitors and attendees are less focused and often distracted. Many people register with good intentions, but then they either don’t attend or are multi-tasking.”

Retailers, who perhaps gain the most from touching products and meeting suppliers, were also supportive, given the circumstances. “You can’t match a physical, face-to-face, hand-to-fabric show, with the latter assessment of softgoods arguably the largest loss in the virtual format,” said Mitch Mode of Mel’s Trading Post in Rhinelander, WI. “But kudos to OR for making something happen out of the rubble of our normal show cycle.”

Mode added he attends OR for a number of reasons, but leading the list is finding new vendors with unique products that help set his business apart. “In this,” he said, “the virtual show delivered. I came away with a handful of new vendors, none of which I’d have met otherwise, all of which had products that I could use. They’ll give me something to show when I get the never-ending question at retail: ‘Hey, what’s new?’”

A drawback, Mode said, was the show’s short lead-time. “Typically we have easy access to OR show vendors well before opening day. That wasn’t the case this time. We had to spend extra time beforehand trying to narrow down the list of vendors it made sense for us to visit.”

Still, all in all, he touts it as a success: “Did this experience surpass the physical show, and do I love Zoom more than interacting face-to-face? Of course not. But it served a purpose. OR hit the ground running into uncharted territory, and we all benefited. In today’s COVID age, I’ll take any positive step forward to our new reality versus doing nothing.”

As with Mode, while the show’s numbers and feedback were decent, organizers admitted it’s no replacement for the live version.

“There’s tremendous value in being able to come together in-person at our shows,” said show director Marisa Nicholson. “We’ve recognized that this year, while at the same time learning to navigate life in more virtual spaces. We’re glad it’s become the place for the outdoor community to still connect this summer.”

Organizers also knew that it was a lot to ask for people to put aside their busy schedules and only visit the site during the three-day window. That’s why they’ve kept the portal open.

“With so much changing for outdoor businesses, we knew this digital event needed to last beyond the three days of a usual trade show,” added Nicholson. “The ‘show’ is not over—the platform remains open through the end of August. Brands continue to hold meetings, retailers can log on and visit booths or schedule appointments, and all of the education sessions are available on-demand. We hope the industry continues to utilize the platform to stay connected.”

Based on the virtual show’s success, Nicholson added that digital integration will be part of future shows and that they’ll know more in the coming weeks what that may look like for January. The future could well be a hybrid formula where a virtual format complements an in-person show. An advisory board is also soliciting feedback from attendees. “Our goal is to improve and build upon it,” she said. “If nothing else, it’s forced people to adopt some of the latest digital tools available. There are great opportunities for this digital platform to augment live events.”

Exhibitors agree. “Even when the physical show returns, this is an avenue for small specialty stores that can’t experience the one-on-one with manufacturers and reps,” said GSI Outdoors’ Hathaway. “It could also be a great show follow-up tool and site to make additional meetings and download forms and catalogs, reducing your carbon footprint at the same time.”

For more information go here. Graphics courtesy Outdoor Retailer