Outdoor Retailer’s a coup, but outdoor industry brands need more than a trade show to thrive

By Bart Taylor | Jul 10, 2017

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We often beat the drum about the outdoor industry's promise for manufacturing growth. Last week's news of Denver's successful bid to land Outdoor Retailer (OR), the industry's most important trade show fumbled away by Utah, again highlights prospects for a new industrial play.

Here's the opportunity in a nutshell: Of the thousand or so brands traveling to Denver in January 2018 to exhibit and take orders from retailers across the globe, most manufacture offshore. Yet more and more want to shorten supply chains and make more things in the U.S. Manufacturing economics increasingly favor local production, and importantly, so do millennial buyers.

The measure of how successful any city, or state, or region will be in developing the outdoor industry will depend not only on who reaps the tourism and service-sector windfall from convention business, but on who will develop supply chains for companies poised to create jobs to manufacture the toys of this multibillion dollar industry.

Is Colorado a better location than Utah (or California for that matter) as industry expands? The irony of OR's move is that Utah has been better at recruiting outdoor brands than Colorado. Development of Ogden's outdoor industry (OI) cluster has been deliberate -- and successful.

But the industry's power players bluntly demonstrated that OI's progressive bent is a better fit in Colorado than in more conservative Utah, a reality that lays bare the stark choice forced on OR's constituents. In Utah's misguided zero-sum game, it was either oil and gas development or the outdoor industry. OI lost.

Utah's outdoor industry will rebound and thrive. So will communities that develop innovative new tactics, a new toolbox, to recruit OI companies.

Here's a short list:

Consider industry-tailored business centers and accelerators. OI manufacturers require specialized supply chains. Communities that integrate the disparate components into new centers of innovation, a common practice in technology and other growth industries, will become magnets for companies and talent.

In an editorial celebrating Colorado's OR 'coup,' the Grand Junction Sentinel cites city plans to develop "a business park that will cater to outdoor industry manufacturers" as an important next step. It's a game changer if the initiative also includes: an education partner to provide workforce training, ideally advanced curriculum and degreed programs (Utah State today offers a degree in Outdoor Product Design and Development); advanced manufacturing technology and equipment; mentorship and coaching; and bankers and investors, legal experts, and other business service providers.

Techstars in Boulder finds emerging technology companies, funds them, coaches and trains their leaders, and connects them with national and global opportunities. Who will develop the first OI accelerator in the region? (See Oregon's Bend Outdoor Worx.)

Develop warehousing and fulfillment services. As Bill Gamber, Honey Stinger and Big Agnes CEO, said last week, Colorado lags in important infrastructure for manufacturing companies. Warehousing space for inventory is a challenge, especially for smaller companies in Denver, where costs have skyrocketed the past few years; rail access and other transportation issues like I-70 make other markets like Odgen look very attractive. Communities able to navigate these challenges on behalf of OI companies will have a leg up.

Embrace new marketing tactics. States with exceptional outdoor tourism assets understand how to attract visitors, but efforts to recruit and retain manufacturing companies often lag. It's easy to market a location as a destination for skiers. There's less understanding on how to promote a place as a destination for companies that manufacture skis.

Invite all manufacturers to the party. In the fast-growing food sector, manufacturers are benefitting from advanced manufacturing solutions developed in other industries, like energy and aerospace. NFT Automation is providing technology that helps co-packers and single brands alike automate production. It's a huge development, the expertise for which was developed in other industries.

The reservoir of industrial talent here outside of the outdoor industry is deep. Companies needing to fabricate products in metal and other advanced materials can find resources here, but the resources must be brought to the discussion. Local economic development leaders know the companies that can help. Rally established manufacturers to new opportunity.

Develop regional strategies and partnerships. The outdoor industry is a regional and national opportunity. State's that work to connect companies with regional supply-chains are certain to benefit most. Today it's common to meet OI companies born and headquartered in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, with manufacturing in California.

Locating relevant and qualified supply-chain resources throughout the region will be a valuable service to OI companies.

Luis Benitez, director of Colorado's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, seems the right person to bring the industry together, across state lines. He's been a collegial voice throughout a difficult time for the industry. "I think the most important aspect of this process," he told me, "is to understand that whether it is Utah or Colorado or anyplace else in the country, the outdoor recreation industry has the opportunity to rise above politics, and show that the things we support and cherish know no borders or boundaries."

Two years or so after Colorado copied Utah to establish a state-level office and appointed Benitez as its leader, Utah officials lost their minds and a billion-dollar OR windfall to Colorado. Last week's high fives aside, Benitez' comments are welcome salve. But if Colorado is to copy Utah industry's success, the hard work's just beginning.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Contact him at btaylor@companyweek.com.