By Eric Smith
Every time John Sears looks out from Gregory Mountain Products’ headquarters just south of Salt Lake City, UT, he is reminded of why both he and the brand call the area home.
The office, situated at the base of Mount Olympus, offers an incomparable view of Utah’s famed Wasatch, the mountain range that provides employees not only a playground for their own adventures but also a training ground for field testing the travel gear they design and develop before selling it around the globe.
In other words, the ideal spot for a backpack brand’s basecamp.
“After living in Utah for the last eight years, it’s hard to imagine a better location for outdoor companies to live and thrive,” Sears, the company’s vice president, told SGB Executive.
But the scenery and topography are only part of the allure. As Sears noted, there are myriad reasons for an outdoor gear or apparel brand to plant its flag in Salt Lake City, or a neighboring community along the Wasatch Front, or just about any locale around the state.
“Utah is very business-friendly, actively supports the outdoor community, and maintains and supports some of the most beautiful protected lands on the planet,” he said. “And for anyone that has spent time in our mountains, it’s hard to argue more convenient or higher quality year-round mountain access anywhere in North America.”
The state’s natural assets and pro-business environment have indeed been inviting to outdoor-focused companies, and in 2013 it became the first to create an office of outdoor recreation.
But Utah begins 2020 with even more momentum than usual thanks to some big wins in the last few months—wins that seem especially significant, and perhaps unlikely, given a recent high-profile setback.
Outdoor Businesses Drawn To Utah
Utah’s outdoor industry roster is diverse. It includes apparel and gear brands (Amer Sports’ winter and outdoor segment, Black Diamond, Gregory, Kuhl, Cotopaxi and Petzl, to name a few); outdoor service providers (Liberty Mountain); trade associations (Snowsports Industries America); ski resort operators (Powdr Corp.); and outdoor retailers (Backcountry).
Many of those brands have announced plans to grow their presence in Utah. Gregory, for example, has added to its R&D and marketing departments with plans to hire additional staff, so the brand is expanding its headquarters by taking over adjacent office space at the mixed-use complex it occupies in the Salt Lake suburb of Holladay. Buildout of the expansion is underway with completion set for April.
Amer Sports in October announced plans for the company’s North American headquarters in Ogden that call for 110 jobs and $1.5 million in capital spending over the next five years. Amer’s winter and outdoor brands include Salomon, Atomic, Arc’teryx, Armada, ENVE and Suunto.
And Black Diamond, the flagship “super fan” brand of publicly traded Clarus Corp., has committed to investing $40 million in growing its Salt Lake operation through additional office space, staffing and R&D.
That’s all music to the ears of Val Hale, executive director, Governor’s Office of Economic Development, whose job it is to recruit new businesses across all industries to Utah while also incentivizing existing companies to expand.
“We’re really thrilled with the companies we have here, and we want to see that grow,” Hale told SGB Executive. “We think there’s a tremendous opportunity for additional companies that may be looking for a place to relocate, grow or even start a business.”
Utah’s efforts are paying off in other ways too. In the past few months, a new crop of outdoor brands has inked real estate deals and set up shop in the state. Ventum, a maker of high-performance racing bicycles, in August announced that it was moving its headquarters to Heber City, UT, about 45 minutes southeast of Salt Lake City.
“We needed to find a location where we could be close to our customers, hire great people to join our team and have room to grow,” Diaa Nour, Ventum CEO, said at the time. “Our new home in Utah meets all of those criteria, plus having the mountains and trails right outside is going to come in handy for the bikes we’re working on next.”
And Jack Wolfskin, the German-based outdoor apparel and gear maker recently acquired by Carlsbad, CA-based Callaway Golf Co., chose Park City for its North America headquarters. The company will build a North America headquarters in Utah and create 50 jobs over the next five years.
“As an outdoor brand, we believe we will feel very much at home in Utah, which is a thriving and growing outdoor hub—and with a developing tech scene—and offers a multitude of outdoor activities, year-round,” Diana Seung, Jack Wolfskin’s GM for North America, told SGB Executive. “We are also in great company here with a number of other, well-known outdoor brands that have based their headquarters in the state.”
A (Minor) Bump In The Road
None of this is surprising, of course. Utah not only boasts iconic national parks and bountiful ski areas but also a major city with an international airport and other commercial amenities, all of which are enticing to any business operating in or serving the outdoor industry.
But some of the shine came off Utah’s red rock in 2017 when Outdoor Retailer—the outdoor industry’s trade show operator that held two massive events in Salt Lake each year—announced it was leaving the state, where it had hosted the shows for years, and heading to neighboring Colorado.
The move happened after some prominent outdoor brands announced they would boycott OR, as long as the shows were held in Utah, as a protest against the state government’s attacks on public lands.
In the eyes of some, but certainly not all, outdoor industry stakeholders, Utah had become persona non grata. The state took an economic and public relations hit as OR, which is owned by the publicly traded Emerald Holding Inc., packed its duffels for Denver.
“It was obviously devastating when Outdoor Retailer left,” Hale said. “We had basically felt married to that show for years. It seemed like a part of Utah. When they chose to leave, for whatever reason—and there were reasons stated and reasons unstated—it was a blow to our economy. We’re used to people coming to Utah, not leaving Utah. It was difficult to deal with that.”
Conversely, when OR showed up in Denver with three (since reduced to two) trade shows, the Mile High City prospered almost immediately. It soon became the beneficiary of one of the most prominent outdoor industry moves in recent memory when VF Corp. said it would relocate its corporate headquarters—plus those of The North Face, Smartwool, Icebreaker and Altra—to the city’s LoDo (lower downtown) area.
Utah was down but certainly not out. For one thing, brands didn’t jump ship following OR’s departure.
“The only black eye on the state of Utah was Outdoor Retailer,” John Walbrecht, president of Clarus and Black Diamond, told SGB Executive. “Other than the show, not much has changed.”
What’s more, Utah never acted desperately. The state didn’t overcompensate by adjusting its incentive program, but instead simply continued pursuing outdoor brands by doing what it always had—offering a solid package of tax breaks for companies to grow their operations while also continuing to beat the drum on Utah’s business advantages.
“There are states with richer incentive packages than Utah, but what companies and what site selection consultants who work with companies like Utah because they know our money is good,” Michael O’Malley, marketing director, Economic Development Corp. of Utah (EDCUtah), told SGB Executive. “If you, the company, can prove it [economic growth], the state will pay it.”
At the same time, Utah kept touting its natural assets as the ideal place for a cycling or apparel or gear brand to put down roots. As O’Malley said, it’s “the best 89,000-square-mile product testing lab in the world.”
A Growing Talent Pool
The arrival of new brands and the expansion of existing ones—coupled with the absence of companies jumping ship amid OR’s departure—helped boost Utah’s outdoor economy, but just as importantly, these moves deepened the state’s outdoor talent pool.
As more brands land or expand in Utah, more outdoor-oriented employees will be drawn to the state, which, in turn, attracts more companies, said EDCUtah’s O’Malley.
“The top three factors in an expansion decision are likely to be workforce, workforce and workforce,” he said. “Incentives are a good closing tool, but if you don’t have the workforce and you don’t have the pipeline of talent, even an incredibly rich incentive may not make sense to a given company.”
The growing coterie of outdoor companies also means qualified employees don’t have to move elsewhere—to California, Colorado or Oregon, for example—if one job falls through, said Hale.
“If they come and things don’t work out with one company, they’re not going to have to leave the state altogether,” he said. “Because there are other companies around that would probably welcome them.”
That’s important for brands like Gregory, according to Sears, who oversees the Salt Lake City operation and also manages the global brand for its parent company, Samsonite International SA.
“Local recruiting is always convenient for any business, so it absolutely helps to have a network of like-minded companies in Utah, as well as a number of universities with fully or partially dedicated outdoor-focused programs,” he said. “As a board member of the Utah Outdoor Association, I can tell you our community is highly committed to supporting and accelerating the growth and economic development of our local outdoor industry. An important part of this effort is continuing to build relationships that help unify local businesses, professionals and our future workforce.”
Black Diamond’s Walbrecht echoed that assessment about the talent pool and the importance of university outdoor programs. He said the state’s universities are graduating students who not only have relevant degrees such as outdoor product design and development but also possess a passion for such pursuits as climbing, cycling, skiing and running. And outdoor zealots are critical for this industry.
“Within an hour of BD, we have four universities that we work with,” Walbrecht said, referring to Utah State University, The University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley State. “And if you go a little bit further away, you have Southern Utah, which has a whole outdoor program. These people want to stay in Utah once they graduate. That’s why they went to school here.”
A New Trade Show For Utah
The state’s winning ways haven’t been limited to announcements from companies in the outdoor space.
Last December, Darren Bush and Sutton Bacon said they were bringing a new hardgoods-only trade event—The Big Gear Show—to Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace Convention Center annually beginning in July 2020 and recurring each summer, about five weeks after Outdoor Retailer.
Bush and Bacon ran Paddlesports Retailer for the past three years, including the last two in Oklahoma City, but with the Big Gear Show, they hoped to create a catchall for brands who felt like OR had gotten too big, too expensive and too focused on everything but product innovations in paddling, biking, climbing, camping and accessories.
And they believed Utah was the only place that made sense to host such an ambitious event.
“Our vision is for Salt Lake to be a long-term home for the show and that’s their vision as well,” Bacon told SGB Executive. “The reality is that the outdoor industry never left Utah. Utah is a wonderful place that prioritizes outdoor recreation and outdoor access. Yes, there are serious, broad federal rights versus states’ rights issues, not just in Utah, but in most Western states. Our goal is to continue to have a seat at the table and inspire positive change from within and let our pocketbooks and our dollars speak for us.”
However, according to many stakeholders in outdoor industry—who just spent a few days at Outdoor Retailer’s Outdoor + Snow Show in Denver—the jury is still out on the show. Many brand leaders told SGB Executive they would likely walk the floor at the inaugural event before deciding to exhibit at a later date. They want to first see what kind of buying and media presence the event will attract.
The state, however, is quite optimistic about the Big Gear Show’s prospects and eager to welcome back old friends.
“We hope it will be a signal to others that, ‘Hey, Salt Lake is a great place to have these types of events,’” Hale said. “We want to see those people coming back and feeling like this is their home.”
Bacon agreed with Hale’s assessment. His mission for the Big Gear Show is to reclaim the purpose of a trade show—more order writing and less of an investment to attend—while also returning the outdoor industry to what he considers its rightful place.
“The reality is Salt Lake City does feel like home to this industry,” Bacon said.
One Of Many Homes For The Industry
Why Utah? Each brand, or show, has its own reasons, including proximity to all manner of outdoor activities, tapping into the talented workforce, incentive packages from the state and, of course, being close to other likeminded brands.
For Jack Wolfskin, another reason was choosing a more authentic place for the brand’s North America launch. Choosing Callaway’s California home would have seemed disingenuous, according to Seung.
“We’re an outdoor brand so we should be in an outdoor environment,” she said.
Not surprisingly, brands were reluctant to call Utah the industry’s one and only “home.” After all, California, Colorado, Oregon and New England can all claim their fair share of iconic outdoor brands and pools of talented candidates. They also didn’t want to refer to the current resurgence as a “comeback.”
“I’m not sure I would characterize Utah’s outdoor industry growth as a comeback, but there is no doubt Utah continues to attract more outdoor and non-outdoor companies and the community gets stronger and more vibrant each year,” said Gregory’s Sears.
Still, the additions of Ventum, Jack Wolfskin and the Big Gear Show, not to mention the longtime brands’ recommitment to the state, speak to Utah’s resiliency in light of the OR fallout and public lands backlash.
Hale, a former athletic director at BYU, likens the task of recruiting companies to recruiting top-notch athletes to a college. Utah’s lineup already is already elite. Now it’s attracting more of the same to the state.
“When you’ve got one blue-chip athlete already in the fold who’s committed, it’s easier to go out and find other blue-chip athletes that want to come and play with him or her. It’s the same way in this industry,” he said. “You start getting the right companies to come—the high-profile companies—and others start saying, ‘Wow, they’re there? Maybe I’ll go take a look too. We’ll see if we can set up shop by them.’ It just makes the whole experience easier and gives more credibility to the companies that locate here when they’re joined with a cluster of other really, really cool outdoor businesses.”
Photo courtesy Visit Utah/Jay Dash Photography