Next week, the outdoor retailer industry – gear manufacturers, retail stores, athletes and ambassadors, and the attendant media – will converge on Salt Lake City for the twice-a-year Outdoor Retailer trade show. Some 30,000 folks, give or take a rep, will wander through the Salt Palace to check out the latest goods, and for regular attendees it won’t appear all that different from the last five or ten shows, with one exception: At the southeast end of the convention center, there will be a new area, called Venture Out, that looks more like a lovefest between Instagram, Tumblr, and Etsy than an REI.
Venture Out is a show within the show, a collection of mostly small, mostly indie upstart brands that in some way articulate the New Outdoor trend, which has a look and style that most will call “hipster” for lack of a more accurate or descriptive term. This is where you’ll find Poler, and Topo Designs, and other icons of the neo-naturalists, who’ve discovered success well outside the traditional retail channels but are now, um, venturing in to the old school arena.
Although a trade show within a trade show might seem to be boring beyond words, the existence of Venture Out brings into sharp relief the divisions between old and new, core and not core, fashion and function, purpose-built and lifestyle, all of which color and flavor how we perceive the outdoor industry and culture, through their effect on the media, social venues, and manufacturers. These little companies are upending the idea of what it means to be an outdoor brand, or at least upending the idea that a traditional Outdoor Retailer vendor has any sort of birthright to the people who play outside, and if they haven’t yet affected what you wear or use, they probably will.
Venture Out, which made its debut in an auxiliary tent at the farthest reaches of the summer show, where few saw it, but now moves front and center, is the brainchild of Scott McGuire, a former Mammoth ski patroller who spent many years working for traditional outdoor companies (TNF, Keen, others) before launching a branding and consulting business called the Mountain Lab. Scott also wrote the AJ story, The Outdoor Industry Is Old and Tired: Will It Change, which lamented the industry’s lack of foresight. Venture Out is Scott’s attempt to turn things around, and I caught up with him to learn more.
1. What is Venture Out? Why do it?
The short version is that I had a hard time finding inspiring brands in the modern outdoor lifestyle space. There were brands scattered about the Outdoor Retailer show, but in a singular presence, which failed to bring to life the trend they represented. The longer version is that I’ve had conversations with brands that I felt were integral to the evolution of outdoor who said they might not want to come to OR in the future because they were pigeonholed into trying to justify a technology story while being next to a behemoth brand selling only tech while they wanted to have meaningful conversations with retailers on brand, outreach, and trend. Venture Out was a place for those ideas to gather and percolate between brands, retailers, and industry leaders.
2. Why should consumers care about a trade show within a trade show?
Consumers will probably never known the nucleus, this show within a show, but they will see the effects in their retail shops via assortment updates, merchandising changes, and brand presentations. For retailers, the brands in Venture Out have to show the best of their brand in a small and highly curated space. This is the same challenge every retailer faces. How do you showcase brand stories and unique assortments when space is constrained and every square foot has to generate revenue? In Venture Out, you can see how a brand can come to life in a space less than 100 square feet.
3. Venture Out is selective, and not every brand can get in. What connects the brands that you choose to include – style? philosophy? facial hair?
It is not an easy selection process. There are lots of interesting and compelling brands at OR or looking to come into the show, and far more brands that feel they are a fit for Venture Out than we have space or think is appropriate right now. While one might think it is as simple as picking hipster brands with beards and retro colors, it’s more about what the brands stand for in their space. Ideally, every brand in the space hits a trifecta of getting retailers to think about trend, new consumers, and an ever-changing understanding of what constitutes “outdoor.” Not every brand will work for every retailer, but the goal is that a retailer spends time in the Venture Out space, bounces between several brands, and leaves with more than just a bunch of workbooks -ideas regarding what this space and the next five years look like for their shop.
4. Most of the products shown in Venture Out aren’t very technical or designed for intensive use. How do you respond to critics who dismiss lifestyle products as less than core or irrelevant to the true outdoor experience?
I’m not going to be popular for this, but I think most of “Outdoor” is a fallacy made up in marketing departments. Fractions of the folks that tout the technical actually use it, need it, or understand it. I can’t give you a statistic, but my guess if you surveyed 100 percent of the show attendees if they would rather go ice climbing or go beach camping and play cornhole, most have far more experience or interest in the latter. As an industry, our desire to “out core” the next guy means we have created a language that alienates the neophyte. Truth is, we are collectively far more aspirational than core and I don’t see why we can’t be honest about this.
5. How important is style? And why?
Style is key. It always has been. It’s why my generation prided themselves on duct tape on their shell pants. That was a style that communicated what mattered to us. Today, that style may be more fashion than function driven, but a large part of the consumer segment sees that you are not relegated to one without the other. Yes, there are numerous examples where one might point to a fashion trend co-opting an outdoor function and write it off as novelty. But there is much more to learn by understanding the back stories and inspiration. People like to look good and if they feel that they can do that, have performance function that meets their needs, and allows them to feel like part of a tribe, you have success.
6. The ethos of so many of these new indie brands is very much retro. How long can they continue mining the past? Do you see a break from that developing? Do you think there will be a new, modern, indie look?
In the fashion world, this is already starting to pass. Traditionally, outdoor is many years behind fashion trends. So what seems like a new movement within our industry is already blasÃ© in the trend-setting world. That said, there are reasons why the retro trend appeals. This reflects a time of simpler pleasures, of people forging their own way, an era of discovery. That in and of itself is part of the universal appeal of the outdoors. I think we will continue to see elements of this in all future design, but not likely quite as directly tied to historical pieces.
7. We’re already seeing Establishment brands embracing plaid, hunting patterns, and other keystones of the indie outdoor movement. Do you think traditional will try to co-opt the upstarts? Will it succeed?
Yes, traditional will try and co-opt the upstarts, and they will do it on the back end of the curve, as outdoor has almost always done. We need the upstarts to bring fresh ideas to the space. By the time the traditional brands find success, it will be limited to their core customers’ interpretation. I am not talking about when The North Face does a co-lab with Supreme, but when the inline product from TNF is on the shelf at Dicks. But by that time, the next thing will have emerged. It won’t all go away. There has been product styling that has come from outside, be it surf trunks or skate shoes, that has become part of the language of traditional outdoor. I suspect we will see some of this happen this time, likely affecting day packs and soft-shells, which are universal pieces of appeal that are traditional outdoor found in broad markets.