Outdoor Convention Wields Big Stick

Outdoor Convention Wields Big Stick

Byline: David Weldon

Speaking with Frank Hugelmeyer leaves the impression that he’s a pretty nice guy. But the president of the Outdoor Industry Association is ready and willing to wield a big stick. He says association members will not support holding the outdoor industry’s biggest show in Salt Lake City unless the state does a better job of protecting its wilderness areas.

“When the Department of Environmental Protection relaxed the wilderness distinction on six million acres of land in Utah, and some of the most pristine land left was exposed to potential development, we felt enough was enough,” Hugelmeyer says. “We want to spend our money with those who understand the concerns of our industry.”

At stake for Salt Lake County is the Outdoor Retailer show, a twice-a-year trade show that draws a total of about 15,000 outdoor merchandise retailers, distributors, and manufacturers. The biannual event is the largest show held at the Salt Palace Convention Center, and it accounts for 20 percent of all revenue brought into the county by the center. The association does not produce the Outdoor Retailer show, but the majority of exhibitors and attendees are members. The association has a five-year agreement, however, with show producer VNU Sports Group to endorse the show above all others in the industry.

The Salt Lake City show-down could mark a growing trend where national associations can take advantage of the financial clout they bring to a convention city to influence social or political change.

How It Started

This spring the Department of Environmental Protection reversed the federal wilderness distinction placed on six million acres of land by President Bill Clinton as he was leaving office. That reversal prompted a newspaper editorial by Outdoor Industry Association member Peter Metcalf, president of equipment maker Black Diamond Equipment Ltd., who suggested that the association look for a new location for the show. (It is booked for Salt Lake City until 2005.) Response from members was immediate, Hugelmeyer says.

“Ninety-two percent of our members are supportive of protecting wilderness areas,” says Hugelmeyer. “Eighty percent feel it is essential to establish new wilderness areas. We felt that Utah has had a poor track record, and that’s why we took our stand.”

Members want to see a clear vision of how Utah plans to protect current wilderness areas and how it plans to preserve and expand on them in the future, he says. And if they don’t see a serious change in attitude, the association is ready to pull its support for having the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City next year.

Occasional threats of boycotts or cancellations by national groups and associations are not new to the meetings industry. But they may be on the verge of increasing in number and impact. The reason is pure economics. “The trend emerged several years ago in response to growing activism over diverse issues, such as smoking, the environment, and gun control,” explains Steven Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management, Dallas.

While no one likes to relocate any event, Hacker says that with convention attendance declining in many industries, associations aren’t willing to anger potential attendees by staging a show or meeting in a city that doesn’t pass muster with its ideological mission.

Not everyone agrees with the approach of Outdoor Industry Association. One who does not is Mike Olson, president and chief executive officer of the American Society of Association Executives, Washington, D.C. (A new president steps in at ASAE at the end of this month. See story, page 12.)

“The irony is that it is far more effective to proceed with holding a meeting in a city with which the organization has major political or social differences than to cancel or refuse to meet altogether,” he says. “The other consideration in avoiding a boycott policy is that by not meeting in a city, the organization is really punishing the workers in that city’s tourism industry.

“Waiters, maids, taxi drivers, and dozens of local businesses are the ones who suffer the economic consequences of a canceled meeting,” he says. “There are many ways to advocate on behalf of an issue or position that is at odds with the host venue without penalizing the workforce in that community.”

A New Role for CVBs?

One person who shares that view is Dianne Binger, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. Binger has recently found herself thrust into the role of peacemaker, arranging a series of meetings between Hugelmeyer and Utah state officials. Binger says she is very encouraged by the fact that both sides are talking and that wilderness issues are being brought to the forefront of public attention.

“From our community standpoint, [the situation] raises the awareness for policymakers on how important the convention business is to our community – how many people benefit from the direct spending from these conventions,” she says.

“One of the reasons the convention came to Salt Lake was the easy access to recreation around the city. These people are passionate about the outdoors, and always tack on a couple of extra days when they come to the area,” she continues. “Where else would [they] want to have it?”

David Weldon is a freelance writer based in Stoneham, Mass. He is a former editor with Computerworld.

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