One On One

Denver’s Luis Benitez on Supporting a Newly Acquired, 20,000-Plus Attendee Show

The director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office talks about luring a portfolio of giant outdoor shows to Denver — and how the destination’s economy and culture stand to benefit.

Luis Benitez

When Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill requesting that the Trump administration remove Bear Ears National Monument’s national-monument designation early this year, allowing the protected land to be pared back, Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) leaders rallied against what they viewed as an attack on the protection of public lands. In protest, Outdoor Retailer — a b2b, outdoor-sports trade show sponsored by OIA that draws more than 20,000 attendees per event — opted to leave Salt Lake City for the first time in more than 20 years.

After a long five months of speculation, Outdoor Retailer owner Emerald Expositions announced in July that it would be taking its business to Denver — in large part due to the lobbying efforts of Luis Benitez, director of the recently established Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. The twice-yearly show — which in 2018 will move to three times a year, with the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in January, Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in July, and the new Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in November — represents more than $100 million for Denver’s economy.

But Benitez is modest about the major win, careful to credit the team that made it possible, including Rachel Benedick, vice president of sales and services for Visit Denver, who describes the acquisition as a “herculean effort.”

“These are big shows, and so we really will convert the entire [Colorado Convention Center] into an exhibit marketplace,” Benedick said. “We’ve got 10,000 hotel rooms within walking distance to support this. The great news is that our convention center can handle it. We have a great team, and a very supportive mayor and governor.”

While accommodating a show with so many attendees is no easy feat, “it is evident that these shows are about so much more than brands and products,” Benedick said. “From climate awareness to the public-lands dialogue, our robust outdoor-industry economy nationally relies on the dialogue at these shows to formulate and strategize a vision for our future.”

Ahead of Outdoor Retailer’s debut in Denver next month, Benitez gave Convene the scoop on how the Mile-High City came to host the large-scale show.

What do you think Denver’s top selling points were for Outdoor Retailer?

For starters, it had a lot to do with the fact that the outdoor industry has a certain number of industry clusters across the country. So, Salt Lake City — and, I would argue, Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington — the list of places where culturally the show would t was pretty small.

So then when you layered on to that the cities where this would actually fit [physically], the list got even smaller. Because the reality of this show is, it is of a size and shape that while Portland would t culturally, it just wouldn’t fit logistically. And the same could be said for Bozeman, Montana, and other towns like that. I think that’s the way we got on the list.

One of the things that led to the success of actually acquiring the shows is really just the partnerships within the industry. There are a lot of people saying — when it came to thought leadership, when it came to innovation and forward thinking within the industry — that Colorado is really the place that holds that title right now. And you know, given the shifting landscape both for retail and for the outdoor industry, I think the general premise was that it was important to be connected to a place that had that ethic.

What logistical or infrastructure changes needed to take place for the Denver area to accommodate a show as large as Outdoor Retailer?

A friend of mine used the metaphor that trying to move this [show to a new location] was like trying to park the Titanic in a two-car garage going 40 miles an hour. It’s big, it’s unwieldy, and something, somewhere is going to have to move out of the way. I think the thing that Colorado wanted to be cognizant of was being really respectful of existing [Denver meetings] business and then also being really strategic about making sure that the region and the partners understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. A lot of that credit goes to Rachel Benedick and Richard Scharf [president and CEO] at Visit Denver for doing that in a thoughtful way.

You championed for Outdoor Retailer to move to Denver. Why did you believe so strongly that it would make a good fit?

I think it’s the culture of Colorado. There’s a significant portion of our economy that comes from the outdoor-recreation industry. We have almost 230,000 jobs within the outdoor industry in Colorado. It drives over $2 billion in state and local tax revenue and over $9 billion in wages and salaries. Because it’s such a significant portion of our economy and our ecosystem, it makes sense for the show to be here.

Of course, this show will affect the local economy. But what will the cultural impact be?

I think you can point to the show’s history in Utah for the past 20 years to see that it creates a cultural impact. Look at places like Ogden, Utah. Ogden, before the show really started gaining full force in Salt Lake City, was a pretty small mountain town — pretty close to Salt Lake, but it didn’t really have much of an industry focus. And over the years of tactical and strategic recruiting, you started to see a lot more outdoor companies moving to Ogden based on the relationships that were built at the Outdoor Retailer show. So I would think that there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for movement within the industry, where jobs can be created and companies can choose to move. I really do believe that the state will see ample benefits.

Given that Outdoor Retailer departed from Salt Lake City over political issues, how do Colorado politics fit with the show’s ideals?

One of the biggest issues that the show had in Utah was the state’s stance on public land. And Gov. [John] Hicken-looper here in Colorado has been very clear that the defense of our public lands and waterways is of utmost importance to the economic health of the outdoor industry, as well as the overall health of the average citizen here in Colorado. And I think that politically that stance was a factor in the decision for the show to come here. There was no question of how we felt about public land and waters, or our political stance all the way up to having a state-level holiday in May called Colorado Public Land Day [established in 2016].

What’s the relationship between the meetings industry and the outdoor industry in Colorado?

This isn’t just another trade show. For the outdoor industry, this show is the place where we convene to talk about policy, to talk politics, to talk innovation, and to talk entrepreneurship. And so it’s incredibly critical that we have those effective primers when it comes to meeting spaces and event planning and organization.

Casey Gale