I don’t really have the time to write this article about Outdoor Retailer—as a small business owner the little voice in my head is telling me I have a million other tasks to do—but there’s another voice in my head, and that is the one telling me that Outdoor Retailer (OR) changed my life.
I walked into OR for the first time in 2012 with my friend and business mentor Shaun Matusewicz. We had no plan. Zero plan. I had a stapled together black and white copy of The Climbing Zine, Volume 2, and I was at the end of a year of unemployment. Somehow, I talked my way into two passes for me and Shaun.
When I checked in the gatekeeper who worked for the PR firm in charge of handling press passes, told me, “We weren’t’ sure about letting you in”.
But we were in.
That first show wasn’t all that productive. We didn’t know as a publication that you’re supposed to set meetings, and check out all the new gear. But people from the climbing companies talked to us when we approached them. There was free beer! The only deal we made was to review a set of quickdraws. At the time free beer and quickdraws, while surrounded by all the brands in the climbing industry, seemed like the greatest place in the world to be as I started off this thing called The Zine.
Soon we learned “the hustle” of a climbing publication. Have your elevator pitch dialed. Review gear. Secure paid ads for the next year. Talk. To. Anyone. And Everyone. Find an exit though if they just want to sell you on their bullshit backpack that’s like every other backpack on display.
Nearly every sponsorship that The Climbing Zine has started at Outdoor Retailer. These were face to face genuine connections, and as our work improved—and we moved away from a black and white stapled together publication to full color and perfect bind—we were genuine players in this industry. I think it’s safe to say that without Outdoor Retailer we would not have The Climbing Zine.
The reason for this is that an underdog (The Zine) was able to get face time—and I’m not talking about the Apple version, I’m talking the original face time—with the people in the industry who make the decisions about their companies’ budgets. Our “pitch” would have never landed via email, or a phone call.
Passion can be felt in person, and I knew after a while, if we were given the chance we could create the best print climbing publication in the game.
And we did.
I haven’t been to Outdoor Retailer since 2019, largely due to the pandemic. I really miss those face to face interactions, but from talking to people who have gone to these sparsely attended shows, I don’t feel like I’ve missed much.
This year I plan to attend. I also plan to go to The Big Gear Show in Park City, Utah. I want to bring some younger writers and photographers who contribute to The Zine into my meetings so they can see how the game works.
And that is my proposal to the people who run Outdoor Retailer: let the people in!
Not just those in the industry, but those who want to be in the industry. Loosen up the process. Get more young people in there. Let more lives get changed for the better by having close contact with the big players in our industry!
Retailers don’t need the show the way they used to, but you know who does? The person with a dollar and a dream. I was that person once upon a time and my life was changed for the better; in fact I found my life’s work.
I think with a few changes and a spirit of more openness and inclusion OR will continue to change more lives and careers for the better!
Thanks for reading.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Zine, the host of the “Dirtbag State of Mind” podcast, and the author of five books, including The Desert, and American Climber.