The Mecca

Idaho outdoor companies mingle with Kempthorne, men in skirts


The man was slightly out of breath as he tapped me on the shoulder. "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" he said. "How many times have you washed your shoes?"

I looked down at my admittedly rather ratty pair of Keen sandals. "Never," I said. "You mean, why are they so faded? I have no idea."

"Neither do I," he said. "But I don't like it. They're not supposed to do that."

My questioner, it turns out, was one of the actual designers of the sandal.

It was a conversation one could only have at the Outdoor Retailer Market in Salt Lake City, Utah, known colloquially as "OR." The semi-annual expo, now in its 25th year, attracted nearly 22,000 attendees to the Salt Palace in mid-August.

He wasn't the only person at the show obsessing on feet, or most any other body part, for that matter. Nearly 1,000 booths, many of which mimicked complete stores, showcase product lines from some of the most famous companies in the world.

From the iconic North Face and Patagonia brands, to the old-line but updated Sperry Top-Sider and Woolrich companies, to new-age startups like footwear company Mion, started by Keen founder Martin Keen, OR is where companies come to make a splash, or to maintain relationships with some of the 6,000 retailers trolling the floor. Buyers from Boise-based retailers like Idaho Mountain Touring and Greenwood's were there to order products, which you'll be able to buy in their stores next spring.

They passed booths from Idaho-based companies, including Meridian-based AIRE, which makes rafts, Buck Knives of Post Falls, and Smith Sport Optics of Ketchum.

"It's a huge part of our business," said Tag Kleiner, marketing manager for Smith, which makes sunglasses and goggles. The company brought 20 employees and 10 additional reps to work the floor, and its sleek booth, which looked like a bar, did a brisk business selling orders to retailers, who sat in high-tech stools.

Many of the outdoor products you wear or use debuted at OR. Smith brought six new sunglasses; AIRE introduced two new catarafts, and Buck Knives introduced nine new products.

While OR mainly attracts the non-motorized set, their buying largesse is not to be underestimated. The show, which takes over the Salt Palace for a week in the summer and winter, brings in an estimated $30 million to the local economy.

So powerful is the expo that when the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which represents many of the companies, threatened to boycott Salt Lake in 2003 over the Bush administration and then-Governor Mike Leavitt's position on axing millions of acres of wilderness study areas in Southern Utah, Leavitt formed a task force to study the issue.  

But those contentious days seemed to have passed, in part because the Salt Palace just completed a $58 million, 175,000-foot expansion just for the group.

Now attendees have enough space to frolic in a kayak pool or scramble up a climbing wall, and the OIA announced that the OR show will stay in Salt Lake through 2010.

Former Idaho Governor, now Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne stopped by, to pay homage to the "dynamic corporations" of the OIA. He joined the group for a release of a study that showed that active (read "non-motorized") recreation activities contribute $730 billion to the American economy.

"You have partners in the federal government," he assured them."

But Kempthorne refused to answer a BW question about whether his possible successor as governor, U.S. Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, should support CIEDRA, the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness legislation, which Otter does not favor.

Kempthorne's silence aside, non-profit advocacy groups often use the trade show as a way to get their message out about other issues, such as wilderness protection.

Mark Menlove of Idaho-based Winter Wildlands Alliance was there to thank the companies who participate in the Conservation Alliance, which recently gave his group $25,000.

"This is the mecca," said Menlove.

Suki Molina and Rachel Winer of the Idaho Conservation League were also walking the floor, lobbying companies to write letters in support of CIEDRA. The ICL also received $25,000 from companies in the Conservation Alliance.

Wilderness advocates may have their work cut out for them with the so-called "Millennial Generation," though. According to Neil Howe, the author of "Millennials Rising," and the keynote speaker of the convention, American children's lives are so programmed they don't have time to go far to recreate, squeezing even summer camp into three days. When they do travel, it's with their whole family, on a planned vacation.

"They don't want to be hard-core, you know, the 'reject civilization' thing," said Howe. "They want to get in and out easily." That means back to their cell phones, Internet and soccer games.

It's not all serious business at OR. One of the hotter party tickets was to "Ramp It Up," a benefit drag show for the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition (OIWC), whose executive director, Sally Grimes, lives in Boise. The group helps promote women in leadership positions in the outdoor industry (something that still seems sorely needed--at the Kempthorne press conference, there was only one female executive, Sally Jewell of REI).

The show featured male executives from outdoor clothing companies wearing women's wear. It was designed to make the men feel as uncomfortable in women's clothes as women did for years wearing smaller versions of men's clothing.

But even at the rehearsal, as the men learn how to twirl and vamp for the crowd, they seem to be enjoying their own skirt action.

"Let's just say there's a draft I'm not familiar with, and it's quite a nice draft," said Joel Anderson of Fox River, a sock company that sponsored the event, as he walked around the rehearsal room in his skirt.

"It's a great way to get OIWC exposed to more people," he said. "If you're going to do something, why not do something on the edge?"

In all, some 60 men flaunted not only their company's outerwear, but revealed something of their inner selves as they strutted their stuff down a catwalk at a bar in downtown Salt Lake, complete with wigs, fake boobs and butt-slapping. While some of the men in the crowd looked decidedly uncomfortable, the women hooted it up, reaching out to stuff money in the men's already tight Lycra outfits.

It's a good thing I wasn't wearing heels. After just one day of walking around OR in my sandals, I had to ice my ankle. Judging by how many companies were there, the outdoor industry is definitely doing well. Hey, perhaps so well I'll send those faded sandals back and see if the customer is still the 'queen,' so to speak.