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Culture

The Outpost :: a New Kind of Trade Show

by , April 8, 2017

I just returned from a weekend in the high desert overlooking Joshua Tree National Park. There, I hung out with over 200 guests, ranging from brand reps, buyers, media, and photographers, to musicians and creatives, and built what I hope are lasting relationships. In July, I’ll be attending Outdoor Retailer where I’ll be one of 30,000 attendees. How do these events differ and is it time we ushered in a new age of trade shows?

Author’s note: excuse the narrow format. Click the images for larger versions.

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The Outpost, founded by Eric Bach, Evan Dudley, Jeff Wolfe and Caleb Morairty, describes itself as an experiential event. The team held a trial run on the Central Coast of California last year, and this year are doing a full schedule, with the season opener in Yucca Valley, overlooking Joshua Tree. I was among a diverse freshman group, who came from all walks of life and all facets of industry. We all arrived Friday afternoon where we settled into our four-person tents complete with bunk beds; a large solar panel was perched on the roof and a cable snaked its way into the tent, feeding juice to the Goal Zero power station.

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Outside, the Trading Post was in full swing with brands displaying their wares in tiny booths. Anyone who has been to a traditional trade show would have seen the immediate contrast here. The “booths” were often nothing more than a few stacks of hay bales or perhaps a folding table for the more ambitious of the bunch. The entire area was tiny but the vibe was much better than anything I had seen at Outdoor Retailer, where a single brand often has a booth that exceeded the space I was in.

“Anyone who has been to a traditional trade show would have seen the immediate contrast here. The “booths” were often nothing more than a few stacks of hay bales or perhaps a folding table for the more ambitious of the bunch.”

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I immediately struck up conversations with representatives of brands I was familiar with and a few that were new to me. The casual nature of the event, paired with being outside during a beautiful day, made the conversations seem a lot more genuine and the words seemed to flow with greater ease, compared to a stuffy convention center. Before dinner, I made sure I grabbed a rental Rumpl throw blanket to test out. It would prove to be a good choice, when I later learned the winds don’t quiet for anyone in the high desert.

“The casual nature of the event, paired with being outside during a beautiful day, made the conversations seem a lot more genuine and the words seemed to flow with greater ease, compared to a stuffy convention center.”

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The real fun was on Saturday when most of the events took place. Brands sponsored each event and really tailored it to their strengths. We signed up the night before and early that morning. I went on a hike hosted by Teva. They handed out boots the day before.

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Halfway up the trail, we found two refrigerators – one filled with Revive Kombucha and the other with Perfect Bars from a new company out of San Diego, using recipes honed over decades by a father who wanted to leave a legacy for his children. The hike was led by two volunteers and I struck up a conversation with one of them, learning that she had recently moved to run the nursery and seed bank for the Mojave Desert Land Trust. Needless to say, she was an expert on local plants and even the history of the area.

“The real fun was on Saturday when most of the events took place. Brands sponsored each event and really tailored it to their strengths.”

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The trail ended with Rachel Furman serving up some inventive Bloody Mary’s. She featured infused vodka, gin, and tequila variations and this was all staged outside of her new white camper. She runs a business in Ojai called Smoke & Honey, with a focus on mixology and events. I met graphic designers, a rep from a large photography retailer, and a few former TOMS employees who left to start their own non-profit benefiting the national parks.

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Later, I did some intense scrambling over large rocks, fallen trees, and through thick brush, scratching both arms up in the process. We were being led by the founder of Juniper RidgeHall Newbegin who insisted that our sense of smell was the most important and encouraged us to stick our noses to the top soil and take it all in. Throughout the weekend he foraged for local plants and with their mobile distilling rig, they bottled up some spray bottles. Talk about terroir.

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The rest of the day was spent barreling down the highway and desolate roads in a Ural sidecar, chatting it up with guys from Bulleit about their upcoming Barrel Strength release, live music, and a night photography class by Chris Burkard. NBD.

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The next morning we packed up, said our goodbyes and made our way to our respective homes. I had a long drive back and much time to reflect on the weekend. I realized that I got a chance to demo all the goods without even realizing I was evaluating them. I just used the products because they made sense at that time. And I used them in the way they were meant to be used (i.e. a blanket covering me while I was sleeping, as opposed to touching it in a convention center).

“The rest of the day was spent barreling down the highway and desolate roads in a Ural sidecar, chatting it up with guys from Bulleit about their upcoming Barrel Strength release, live music, and a night photography class by Chris Burkard.”

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So was it fun? Definitely. Was it effective? Good question. That topic came up a few times over meals and the immediate answer isn’t clear. My dining companions and I agreed that the face of marketing has changed. What was once simply measured in ROI (money spent on marketing, dollars in sales acquired) has become a more complicated equation. It’s almost impossible to place a dollar value on loyalty, a person’s sphere of influence, word of mouth, and business ideas that spawn by a campfire, rather than in a board room. I’ve been hearing that large shows like OR are not actually getting much business done nowadays with order deadlines coming in well before the event. If that’s true, it seems like a smaller getaway like The Outpost might be more effective.

“I realized that I got a chance to demo all the goods without even realizing I was evaluating them. I just used the products because they made sense at that time. And I used them in the way they were meant to be used.”

Last year, at Outdoor Retailer, my fondest memories were chatting with companies after the cameras and notepads were put away. One example is the Carryology crew went to dinner at this terrible Italian restaurant in Salt Lake, with the two reps from Topo Designs. We talked about the coolest bars and tastiest places to eat in Denver and sure, there was business and talk about new products coming out but it was really about friendship that evening. I followed up in the coming months whenever a memory of that conversation sparked a question or reminded me to inquire about the new pack they mentioned.

The Outpost’s stated goal is to “create memorable experiences with products and services in their natural environment, while fostering real relationships with the people behind the brands.” In that regard, I think they succeeded. It’s been a few days since I returned and I am still telling coworkers and friends about my weekend and the amazing people I met and rad experiences I shared with them. Similar stories can occur in more traditional trade shows (see above), but in my experience they are usually reserved for private parties thrown by brands, outside of the main convention hall. And that’s the beauty of The Outpost. It eliminates the booths and crowds and fear of competitors catching a glimpse of your new season offerings, and extracts out and distills a trade show into the human aspect. That’s the part of a show I like the most anyway – the people; and I think the relationships I built at this event will be stronger than those on a crowded convention center floor.

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