The Outdoor Retailer Experience ~ Everyone’s Welcome

The Outdoor Retailer Experience ~ Everyone’s Welcome

More than 25 years ago I attended the Outdoor Retailer Show for the first time. It was in January of 1992 and I believe that it was in Reno, Nevada. I was 26 years old, just three years out of college, but I had spent much of that time working at the REI store in Berkeley. At the beginning of my career in the outdoor industry I made the rounds doing a variety of jobs ranging from retail to guiding. I even worked teaching classes in wilderness first-aid and CPR for my college outing club, Cal Adventures. It’s safe to say that I had plenty of experience in the business of outdoor recreation, but when I took a job as a regional sales representative for The North Face I had to take my professional game to a whole new level. 

That first year at OR I had the advantage of working for one of the top brands in the industry. I brought along a lifetime of product knowledge and personal experience to lend value to all the clothing and equipment items I came to sell. With existing customers across eight states in the Midwest territory I had no problem booking appointments for product meetings. In fact, I had to double book a few presentations and there were at least a few non-customers whose requests for a line showing I had to turn down. I was slammed pretty much every hour of the show from early morning until late in the evening. Business was good. No one seemed to care that I’m Black.

That’s not to say that no one noticed. On one occasion in particular during the show a friend of a customer felt compelled to comment while I sat eating a slice of watermelon at a lunch meeting. “Are you trying to fulfill a stereotype?” he asked. Maybe it was three or four slices…But I wasn’t having it. “Fuck you,” I said. “Who doesn’t like watermelon?”

End of discussion

Having spent three years in a mostly white fraternity at UC Berkeley I was accustomed giving as good as I got, sometimes better. I was used to navigating the “bro-culture” of outdoor recreation where I was too often distracted by petty shows of fragile masculinity, misogyny and presumed white superiority. Recently I have heard the Outdoor Retailer Show described as a big frat party. With a long tradition of free-flowing alcohol and the casual disrespect of women and minorities, I’m inclined to agree, that is to a degree. While I never experienced what could be explicitly described as overt racism I have felt compelled more than a few times to demonstrate my outdoors skills, like rolling a kayak, linking telemark turns and flashing 5.12,  just to prove I actually belonged. I really didn’t mind back then because I was eager to show what I could do and maybe even shatter the quiet preconception that a Black dude couldn’t possibly be any good at paddling, skiing or climbing. I was there to do business and I did it well.

I wasn’t world class, but I had skills. With a talent for persuasive communication and customer service I was a good sales representative. Through many years in the business I’ve made hundred of lifelong friends and close personal relationships with many wonderful people who share my love for life outside and adventure. I’ve made a home for myself in the outdoor industry for more than two decades. And now as a journalist with a specialty in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation I have the rare privilege of sharing the story of how our business is becoming more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

No longer am I among the very few people of color attending the Outdoor Retailer Show now held in Denver, Colorado. In the summer of 2018 Black and Brown folks are expected to be there in record numbers. Some work for exhibiting companies with booths on the show floor. Others are owners of shops, climbing gyms or outfitting companies looking for the latest gear, garments and gadgets. A few represent marking firms or web developers. A handful are environmental advocates employed by non-profit organizations or government agencies. Many have a growing audience of followers on social media as the leaders of affinity groups. And there are those who will just show up to experience the culture of outdoor retail.

My friend  Ronald Griswell is heading to Denver for his first Outdoor Retailer experience. This young brother from North Carolina has done some remarkable work in outdoor recreation through a few nonprofit organizations that get kids outside. With ambitions to advance his professional career it only makes sense for him to attend the national trade show.

“It’s my first time, so I’m excited to see what everyone is always talking about,” Ronald wrote on Facebook.

Because there will be many young people of color at OR for the first time this summer I thought it would be helpful to offer a bit of advice. Regardless of your race or ethnicity as a newcomer to this professional community it’s good to have an idea of what to expect. In an effort to make everyone who attends feel welcome and enjoy a successful Outdoor Retailer experience here are a few suggestions:

  1. Have a plan 
    • You can’t just show up and browse the aisles. Know in advance what you want to accomplish. Start by making a list of the companies or individuals you most want to meet and try to schedule an appointment. If you can’t, make sure at the very least you have a business card to leave behind so they know you were there.
  1. Bring something to the table
    • There is reciprocity in every relationship. Know what you have to offer and be prepared to deliver. If you’ve got technical skills, back them up with a solid resume. If you’ve got an expedition or a project in need of funding have detailed description ready to share with a clear understanding of what you hope to accomplish. Have a good story.  
  1. Go To All the Parties
    • Outdoor Retailer is one big networking event. Put yourself out there and be charming. Engage in conversation. Get to know complete strangers and be curious about the things that make them interesting. You’ll be surprised by how even the most casual conversation can result in an opportunity of a lifetime.
  1. Don’t Have Too Much Fun
    • There will be drinking. Free beer starts flowing around 4PM during each full day of the show. Have a beverage or two if you’re so inclined, but remember this is a professional event. Don’t get out of control. You still need to conduct yourself in a businesslike manner. And even though the celebrations often go late into the evening you’ll have to be on your game early the next morning. Breakfast gatherings start at 7AM!
  1. Follow-up
    • Every conversation at OR is an opportunity. Make sure you get a business card or a point of contact. At some point after the show, reconnect with the people you met with a brief email. Let them know that you enjoyed meeting them and try to remind them what you talked about. That could be all it takes to land a job, make a sale or secure a new sponsor. It’s all about building relationships.

When the Outdoor Retailer Show begins in July of 2018 there will be a wide variety of different events aimed at diversity, equity and inclusion. Each is meant to demonstrate the changing culture of the outdoor industry. With an emphasis on the interests of people of color, women, the disabled and the LGBTQ community the organizers of these events aim to show that the face of the outdoors is indeed changing and everyone is welcome to participate. 

Day One | July 23, 2018

Breaking a Paradigm: Why Focusing on Women Is Not Enough

Date/time: July 23, 1:30-2:30 p.m.

Location: ORSM Show Floor

Organizer: Camber Outdoors

Registration: No registration needed; event is open to all

Purpose of event: Camber Outdoors will facilitate a conversation on the show floor to explore why industry efforts aimed at inclusion must be intersectional. Research and experience show that companies that focus exclusively on women are often met with limited success in broader inclusion efforts. By understanding where white women and women of color overlap and diverge in experiences, we will begin to broaden our perspective and framework for the next generation of Camber Outdoors’ work.

Day Two | July 24, 2018

Outdoor Afro Kilimanjaro Expedition

Date/Time: July 24 10:00-10:30 am

Location: The North Face Booth on the Show Floor

Organizer: The North Face, Outdoor Afro

Registration: No registration needed; event is open to all

Purpose of event: Fresh off an expedition up Mount Kilimanjaro, hear highlights and stories from Outdoor Afro’s 2018 expedition, the first all-black US group to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world. This panel discussion share their story

Presenters: Chaya Harris, Ray Smith, Brittany Leavitt, Leandra Taylor

Moderator: James Edward Mills (Author of “The Joy Trip Project”)

Next 100 Coalition Happy Hour at The North Face Booth 

Date/time: July 24, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Location: The North Face Booth on the Show Floor

Organizer: The North Face, The Next 100 Coalition 

Registration: No registration needed; event is open to all

Purpose of event: ORSM attendees will have the chance to mingle with Next 100 Coalition members and allies. Cash donations optional. 

Elevate Conservation: Outdoors for All

Date/time: July 24, 6-9 p.m.

Location: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, 200 South Kalamath Street, Denver, CO 80223

Organizers: Conservation Colorado, Conservation Lands Foundation, The Infinite Monkey Theorem, Klean Kanteen, League of Conservation Voters, Montana Wilderness Association, New Belgium Brewing Company, Next 100 Coalition, The Nature Conservancy, NRDC, Outside Magazine, Patagonia, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, Western Resource Advocates, The Wilderness Society

Sponsors/partners: Others listed here:

Registration: Registration is open to all, but RSVPs are required:

Purpose of event: Join conservation, outdoor advocacy, and outdoor industry brands to celebrate and advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equitable access in the outdoors and the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Why are we bringing everyone together? This is a great opportunity to gather with diverse stakeholders, political leaders, and outdoor industry representatives to elevate conservation advocacy, diversity, equal access and inclusion in outdoor recreation, and protecting our public lands. We will be building the power of collaboration and activism through education, communication, and strengthening connections.

Day Three | July 25, 2018

Camber Outdoors Thought Leader Keynote: 

For All: From the Boardroom to the Backcountry

Date/time: July 25, 7-9 a.m. 

Location: Embassy Suites, Silverton Ballroom, 1420 Stout Street, Denver, Colorado

Organizer: Camber Outdoors

Registration: Registration is open to all, but RSVPs are required: 

Purpose of event: Fast-paced and celebrating successes, Camber Outdoors Keynote features five thought leading speakers from a pioneer who has expanded and grown outdoor participation to a CEO who walks the talk by incorporating equity as a strategic business priority. Seating will be limited.

DEI Luncheon at OR (invite only)

Date/time: July 25, Noon-1 p.m. 

Location: Commons at Champa, 1245 Champa St, Denver, CO 80204

Organizer: Kenji Haroutunian 

Sponsors/partners: Camber Outdoors, New Normal Consulting, Outdoor Blogger Summit, The Mountain Lab, REI

Who is attending: Experienced DEI leaders in Outdoor

Purpose of event: To spread best practices and help industry organizations expand their relevance.

Workplace Equity Working Group

Date/time: July 25, 3-6 p.m.

Location: Commons on Champa, 1245 Champa St., Denver, CO 80204

Organizer: Camber Outdoors

Sponsors: The REI Foundation and Perkins Coie

Registration: Registration is open to all interested stakeholders, but RSVPs are required:   

Purpose of event: Camber Outdoors is convening CEO Pledge companies and key stakeholders in the Workplace Equity Working Group (WEWG) to co-create an active-outdoor industries’ Index for what constitutes equitable and inclusive workplaces where a diversity of experiences and people lead.  Modeled after OIA’s sustainability working group that eventually created the HIGG Index, peers and competitors work together in collaboration and confidentiality to create an Index that is larger than any one company or individual.