The middle of a pandemic is an odd time to launch a new trade show, but there’s nothing conventional about the vision Darren Bush and Sutton Bacon have for their hardgoods-focused exhibition, The Big Gear Show, which debuts August 3-5, 2021, in Park City, Utah.

The industry veterans behind Paddlesports Retailer, which was discontinued after a three-year run in Oklahoma City, have reworked the formula yet again. Co-founders Sutton Bacon and Darren Bush have ditched the convention hall, moving their new show outside and expanding it to combine paddlesports with cycling, climbing and select camping brands. The idea is to double-down on gear, without compromising the show’s schedule to accommodate soft-goods manufacturers.

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The Big Gear Show co-founders: Sutton Bacon and Darren Bush. | Photo: Paddling Magazine Archives

Timing has been the persistent bugaboo of outdoor industry tradeshows. In recent years, the behemoth Outdoor Retailer Summer Market has moved steadily left on the calendar, drawn by the gravitational pull of apparel and footwear giants who do most of their manufacturing in Asia. A decade ago, Summer OR took place in the second week of August; next year it’s scheduled for June 15-17.

“The entire outdoor industry has been wrapped around the axle of the apparel side of the industry. There’s just no boat company on Earth that’s going to have prototypes ready in June,” Bacon said.

By the same token, an August show is far too late for soft-goods companies. “For a soft-goods manufacturer that makes stuff in Asia, there’s no point in going to a show in September. Not only has the stuff been made—it’s probably in our warehouse already,” said Immersion Research president John Weld.

Bacon and Bush believe the answer to these irreconcilable differences is an amicable separation. Their Big Gear Show will jettison most of the soft-goods brands and turn its focus and schedule strictly to gear. The show was due to launch in August 2020 at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, but was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as were other tradeshows. For the re-launch, they’re moving the whole shebang outside.

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Park City is 32 miles (51 km) southeast of downtown Salt Lake City in Utah. | Photo: Courtesy Visit Park City

Park City’s Deer Valley Resort will host the event, with paddling brands exhibiting along the shoreline of seven acres of ponds. The bike companies will set up near the chairlifts, providing easy access to mountain bike trails, as well as smooth asphalt for the roadies.

“Unlike a lot of outdoor goods that can be probably sold over Zoom, paddlesports buyers have to sit in the boat and use the paddle and gear to make buying decisions,” said Bacon, who stresses the show’s overriding philosophy is “for retailers, by retailers.” Besides the opportunities for hands-on testing, the planning comes down to two driving factors: Covid and cost.

While it would be folly to predict how the virus will impact an event nine months from now, a smaller show at an outdoor venue in August seems to present less risk than large indoor shows such as ICAST or Outdoor Retailer, whose venue, the Colorado Convention Center, is currently on standby as an emergency Covid hospital. Outdoor Retailer is on the schedule for June 2021, but with the pandemic spiking and vaccine distribution in question, it’s anyone’s guess whether it will go off as planned. That means The Big Gear Show could be the only game in town next summer.

The outdoor venue is also key to the show’s relatively low exhibitor fees, which are roughly half that of Outdoor Retailer. With lakeside pop-ups replacing an indoor convention center, and without the union and vendor markups that go hand-in-hand with such venues, manufacturers will save on everything from booth costs to setup fees. Retailers will also benefit from off-season room rates and a lodging subsidy of up to $400.

Bacon and Bush have assembled an all-star cast to organize the Big Gear Show, including former Interbike showrunner Lance Camisasca and Outdoor Retailer director Kenji Haroutunian. The Grassroots Outdoor Alliance and the National Bicycle Dealers Association have endorsed the show.

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Park City’s Deer Valley Resort will host The Big Gear Show in 2021. | Photo: Courtesy Visit Park City

The prospect of a smaller, gear-focused show in August is appealing, says Sean Creary, owner of River and Trail Outdoor Company in Rothesay, New Brunswick. He’s skipped Outdoor Retailer the last few years—ironically, even in June that show comes after most of his soft-goods orders are in—but had found the Paddlesports Retailer schedule much more to his liking.

“Paddlesports Retailer was fantastic because we went to the show in August and got to see all the gear, paddles, boats and boards and then do our buy at the end of September,” he said. “So it aligned perfectly.”

The big question mark for Creary is the pandemic. “The final decision will come down to the Covid situation next summer,” he said. “That would be the reason why we don’t go.” Creary will make his own assessment about whether it’s safe, but the decision could be out of his hands. As a Canadian retailer, he will only be able to attend if the ban on nonessential cross-border travel is lifted.

Dave Lindo, owner of OKC Kayak and Tulsa Kayak in Oklahoma, says his decision will likely depend on vendor participation. Many brands have not yet committed or even received formal invitations. The event was only announced at the end of October, and invitations to retailers went out in November.

As of December 4, 2020, companies that have accepted invitations include: Appomattox River Company, ACK/Summit Sports, Alder Creek, Bill Jackson’s, Canoe Kentucky, Crawdaddy Outdoors, Dolphin/Economy, Earth’s Edge, Get Outdoors, Idaho River Sports, LL Bean, Massey’s Outfitters, Moosejaw, Mountainman Outdoor Supply, Nantahala Outdoor Center, Outdoor Gear Exchange, Outdoorplay, Pack & Paddle, Pack Rat Outdoor Center, REI, River Sports Outfitters, Rutabaga, Scheels, The Trail Head, Travel Country and Wilderness Supply.

While informal talks with key brands have been ongoing, official bids to manufacturers are still in the works as organizers poll retailers about which companies they want to see at the show.

That’s a key component of the Big Gear Show’s curated approach, Bacon said. “Our motto has been for retailers by retailers, and we’ve stuck to that mantra through the Paddlesports Retailer shows and this show,” Bacon said. “We wanted to get the input and feedback and buy-in from the retailers prior to going back out to the trade.”

The show has space for 250 exhibitors and 500 retailers, roughly split between the paddlesports, bike and outdoors sectors, said Bacon, who characterized the response thus far as “extremely strong.” That translates to about 150 paddlesports retailers—and if they come there’s little doubt the major manufacturers will follow.

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