Outdoor Recreation Show And Salt Lake City: The Split's Not Final Until Summer

Mar 7, 2017

Utah Governor Gary Herbert and outdoor-industry leaders met to work out their differences last month during a conference call. If they pulled it off, a big trade show would stay in Salt Lake City. Instead, a 20-year relationship seems headed towards divorce, but is there any chance to save this rocky marriage?

Governor Herbert and some aides huddled around a speaker phone in a Capitol office. The governor was talking with outdoor-recreation business executives in the conference call for almost an hour when he realized what was at stake.

“I didn’t know if I understood right,” he said. “Are we being excluded from being a part of the RFP?”

The executives weren’t just saying they wanted out of Utah’s capital city. They were saying said they won’t even look at Salt Lake City again for their Outdoor Retailer trade show because of the Utah GOP’s land policies.

“It is now time for you to show leadership on this issue,” said Amy Roberts, director of the Outdoor Industry Association.

“And, like I said, you are head of the party. And, so, it’s your choice. But we – we’re out of time. And we’re also concerned about the continuing actions that we see coming out of the state.”

For industry executives, it was a last-ditch plea for Herbert to speak up for public lands, especially the new Bears Ears National Monument.

“If you’re giving me an ultimatum here on the phone,” said Herbert, “then the answer is I, I guess we’re going to have to part ways."

Herbert and outdoor-industry leaders had been trying to work out their differences in the conference call. If they had succeeded, the big Outdoor Retailer trade show would stay in Salt Lake City. But they didn’t, and now a 20-year relationship seems headed towards divorce.

“Thank you for your time, governor,” said an outdoor-industry executive.

“Thank you, sir,” said another.

“Alright,” said Herbert. “Thank you.”

The call may have ended, but not the efforts of people pushing to patch up this rocky marriage.

In the days since the call, Roberts says she’s focused on internal unity. Some OIA members want Outdoor Retailer to move out of Utah even before its current contract runs out. The outdoor gear company, Patagonia, is leading a boycott.

Meanwhile, Roberts sees no interest from Utah leaders in reconciling.

“It seems like, instead of kind of tapping the brakes and thinking about their decisions,” she said in her Colorado office, “they're sort of just hitting the gas pedal.”

Roberts insists that outdoor companies tried to meet Utah Republicans partway. She pointed out that industry leaders stuck with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, on his public lands compromise through December, when President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears monument.

“The monument is now in place,” Roberts said, “because Congressman Bishop did not do his job to get the legislation done.”

But Utah leaders have doubled down ever since, she added. One example is the State Legislature’s resolution to shrink the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument -- that Herbert signed. Another is how Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz launched a congressional probe of a tweet about Bears Ears.

She said it’s unlikely Utah leaders can patch things up before bidding starts about two months from now.

“The state that we go to next will also have the additional halo impact of having this crown jewel trade show,” Roberts said. “But it's also saying this is the right policy and this is kind of the outdoor economy of the future.”

Oregon and Montana say they’re interested in Outdoor Retailer. Colorado even asked for an invitation last week in a bipartisan letter from its U.S. Senators and governor.

And this comes after the Outdoor Industry Association was able to prove its value in a bigger arena, Washington. OIA’s own study five years ago shows Americans spend around $646 billion on outdoor recreation – more than pharmaceuticals and cars, combined. Then, last year, the association persuaded Congress to request a study of outdoor recreation as a part of the Gross Domestic Product. It’s a sign the industry’s being taken seriously on the national stage.

Back in Salt Lake City, local businesses are having a hard time accepting the idea Outdoor Retailer is leaving.

“I was shocked,” said Adam Swillinger, owner of Laser Exhibitions. “I was shattered.”

Companies like Swillinger’s will be hit hard by Outdoor Retailer’s exit. It employs 100 workers who set up booths here for the show each summer and winter. He says there’s a lot on the line because the convention pumps nearly $50 million dollars each year into the local economy.

“You’ve got 50,000 people to visit Salt Lake twice a year,” Swillinger said. “They fly in on our airplanes. They take taxis and eat our food. They visit our doctors. They buy the soda pop here. So, it impacts everybody in the city. In addition, it affects our tax base.”

He wants to see counseling, not bickering.

“Nobody's clearly explained to me, and I think the citizens of Salt Lake City, what the outdoor industry wants. And I've not heard exactly what's unacceptable for our government.”

Scott Beck is CEO of Visit Salt Lake, the convention bureau also based at the Salt Palace. He was listening in on that conference call when the two sides agreed to part ways, but he’s still smiling.

“Well there's things that Utah can do, clearly -- whether or not Utah will do that is a different question,” he said.

“We are not an organization that deals with public policy. We have a really good sense of what needs to be in the RFP. We know what they need from room commitments. We know what they need for commitments of exhibit space. So that's what we've always done and that's what we will do.”

The effort to keep the trade show in Salt Lake City continues. There’s talk about sweetening Utah’s bid with more state funding. And local outdoor businesses are pressing OIA to reconsider.

Beck’s not giving up either. He’s submitting a bid this spring -- even if Outdoor Retailer snubs it.

“We are not taking ourselves out of the running, because there's a long time between now and when the RFP closes,” said Beck. “There may be changes of heart and maybe -- who knows what could happen?”

The request for proposals is expected in April or May, and the split won’t be final until the industry decides, probably this summer. It’s possible that supporters can convince the state and the industry to make up before then. But, for now, they’re giving each other the silent treatment.