The Grassroots Outdoor Alliance’s Connect show is underway in Knoxville, Tennessee with a wide range of brands and specialty retailers in attendance.
The show has outgrown the convention center in Knoxville and will be relocating the summer show to Reno, Nevada going forward, according to Grassroots Outdoor Alliance (GOA) President Gabe Maier.
This week, a total of 1,340 people are attending the event, which started Sunday and lasts through Thursday.
And despite the challenges in the market with inventory overhang and macro-economic concerns, the mood seemed pretty upbeat.
In fact, the 100 outdoor retailers that make up the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance collectively reported a 1.6% increase in sales in the first five months of the year versus the same period of 2022.
GOA hosts the show for its members and invites additional vetted outdoor retailers that are not members. In all, 409 buyers from 134 stores are at the show.
The Show and More
The first day of the gathering was focused on retailer education, followed by the Discovery Marketplace, a newer addition that is designed to showcase up-and-coming brands in a relaxed and informal environment.
By contrast, the Connect show is 100% appointment based with mostly closed booths, a format that isn’t as conducive to finding new products.
A total of 136 brands are part of the Connect Show, while the Discovery Marketplace featured 81 brands.
Moving to Reno
Connect has outgrown its current location, and had been looking for about 200,000 square feet of space like it has for its November show in Kansas City.
The key requirement for a new location is that the space is contiguous. That’s because of the all-appointment nature of the show. If brands are located in different spaces, it’s too hard on retailers to run around to different floors or buildings and still make appointments on time.
“It needs to be convenient,” Maier said.
In addition, the travel costs into Knoxville have risen, and GOA is committed to keeping costs down for participants.
The fact that a lot of brands that exhibit at the show are located near Reno and that it’s close to the outdoor mecca of Tahoe are also plusses, Maier said.
The need for more space is mostly being driven by brands needing additional square footage to host more appointments or show expanded product lines rather than a big increase in brands participating.
“Since 2019, the overall number of brands has grown about 10% to 15%,” he said. “Our brand lineup has been pretty stable. It’s really them needing more space, and we’d like to spread out a little and add in some break areas. We’re pretty cramped right now.”
And while the show is a big part of GOA’s budget, the profits go back to paying the costs of retail members who attend the show. GOA also reimburses invited guest retailers a portion of their costs – typically about $500 to $800 per buyer.
While retailers love the efficiency of booked, focused appointments at Connect – and the fact the GOA handles all the scheduling for both brands and retailers – they were missing the ability to discover new brands, Maier said.
So GOA added the marketplace last November to meet the retailers’ request.
In November, 37 brands participated in the Discovery Marketplace, and based on the positive feedback, GOA more than doubled that number this time around.
The three-hour event was held on the night before the main Connect show, and featured up-and-coming brands in an open booth, non-appointment setting. The gathering included an open bar, appetizers, and lots of mingling.
Many of the brands at Discovery Marketplace are hoping to eventually make it onto the main Connect floor. However, brands have to already be doing business with a decent percentage of GOA members to get invited to Connect. That’s because the show is 100% appointment based and retailers are mostly focused on meeting with existing brands.
Brands who aren’t yet doing enough business with GOA retailers would mostly be sitting in an empty booth during the four days of Connect, which isn’t good for anyone, Maier said. That’s why GOA ensures that brands on the Connect show floor already have an existing business with GOA members.
(See lots of photos of the retailers and brands at the Discovery Marketplace in our slide show below.)
Sasha Dietschi-Cooper, the founder of the Method Outdoor Collective agency, brought three brands to the Discovery Marketplace – eyewear brand Caddis, New Zealand outdoor apparel and gear brand Kathmandu, and German inflatable tent brand Heimplanet.
Dietschi-Cooper has worked for other outdoor brands over the years so is very familiar with GOA. He liked the addition of the marketplace and appreciated its “speed dating” vibe.
“I have been fortunate to work with GOA and its member retailers for several decades now and have always enjoyed and benefited from the main Connect show,” he said. “The addition of the Discovery Marketplace format has proved to be a super effective and efficient way to get new brands and products in front of GOA member retailers in a format that seems to be appreciated by brands and retailers alike.”
Retailers we talked to appreciate being able to informally browse for new brands during the marketplace.
“It’s really great because I want to bring small and lesser-known brands to the store to add variety and you can see a lot of those there,” said April Pitman of Peace Outfitters in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her favorite brand from the marketplace: Outdoor lifestyle brand Deso because of its sustainability story and fashionable aesthetic.
While Erin Ahmed, the owner of Peace Outfitters, also enjoyed the marketplace, her favorite part of the entire event is the education day.
“To me, it’s the most valuable part of GOA,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed and her team also like having the time to talk to other retailers during the show.
“It’s great to have dialogue and open discussions with retailers that have similar businesses,” said Cooper Smith.
“When you are at your store, it’s like you are on a little island,” Ahmed added. “It’s great to talk to others and say, ‘Oh you are experiencing that, too?’“
The Main Connect Floor
For many brands at the Discovery Marketplace, the ultimate goal is to get invited to show at Connect. Apparel brand Jetty has been hungry to do that for several years. Co-founder Cory Higgins said he regularly followed up with GOA to show interest.
“We were persistent without being petulant and eventually we got in,” Higgins said. It helped that Jetty, which is also exhibiting at Outdoor Retailer next week, had started doing business with several GOA members, and last November got the nod to participate in Discovery Marketplace. Jetty then got approved for the main Connect floor for this show, and Higgins was thrilled.
“It’s our 20th anniversary this year, and I feel like it’s a gift to finally get invited to GOA,” he told The Daily on Monday outside of the Jetty booth. “We have meetings set with 35 retailers, and GOA did all the booking for us.”
As Higgins talked to The Daily, Travis Zarins, a co-owner of well-regarded outdoor account Great Outdoor Provision Co. in North Carolina, stopped by to congratulate Higgins. While the retailer is not yet carrying Jetty, Higgins has visited Zarins in the past on sales calls.
“Look at you on the show floor!” said Zarins, shaking his hand. “I’m excited to see you here.”
In general, however, there’s not a lot of socializing and catching up with old industry friends on the main floor of Connect like there is at a typical trade show. That’s because nearly all the booths are closed off, and everyone is booked into appointments all day long.
The closed-booth, appointment-based set up is all at the request of GOA retail members, who want to have focused meetings with brands without distractions. It’s also quiet on the main show floor – there is no music playing or beer flowing.
The socializing tends to happen at happy hours and receptions GOA puts on at the end of the day.
Matt Hershey, who operates the Northeast Outdoor Group sales agency, sometimes misses standard trade show features such as socializing on the show floor and open booths, both of which give him the ability to search for potential new brands to represent.
But the benefits of the show format make it very worthwhile to attend, he said.
“The beauty of it is in the middle of last month, GOA sent out my schedule of appointments and I can see if the trip justifies the costs,” said Hershey, who was showing sustainable clothing brand TenTree at Connect. “And GOA retailers are the best of the best, so you know you are seeing good accounts. It’s just a very efficient use of everyone’s time.”
Pre-Show, 120-Mile Bike Ride
Ahead of the Connect show, a group of 49 sales reps, retailers, and brand managers rode 120 miles from a woolen mill outside Chattanooga to downtown Knoxville.
Hosted by Outdoor Sports Marketing (OSM), a rep group based in South Carolina, the ride was partially inspired by the legendary Smartwool rides which began pedaling from that company’s base in Steamboat Springs to the Salt Lake City location of the Outdoor Retailer trade show beginning in 2006. At its peak in 2017, the ride attracted 80 participants.
The other part of the ride’s inspiration was a deliberate effort by Rion Smith of OSM, and Ed McAlister of local retailer River Sports Outfitters, to re-energize the spirit of the outdoor industry while also showcasing a bit of the Southeast’s beauty and charm.
“We’re coming out of a time when everybody has been too isolated and inwardly focused, and in our industry that’s kind of foolish,” Smith said. “We need to practice what we preach by getting outside, doing outdoor things, and remembering why we got into the outdoor industry in the first place,” Smith said.
“I feel honored to go to work every day, and feel lucky to work in this community. This is about the power of shared experiences, and about sharing that idea with the next generation,” McAlister said.