June 15, 2021

The Big Gear Show with Sutton Bacon and Kenji Haroutunian [EP 280]

Sutton and Kenji tell us how the idea for the show came to life and some of the coolness we’ll see in Park City this summer.       Please give us a rating and review   Show Notes The Outdoor Press Camp Paddlesports…

Show Notes

Rick Saez
The Big Gear Show with Sutton Bacon and Kenji Haroutunian [EP 280]

TOBP 280 | The Big Gear Show

Sutton and Kenji tell us how the idea for the show came to life and some of the coolness we’ll see in Park City this summer.

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The Outdoor Biz Podcast

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Show Notes

The Big Gear Show

Darren Bush

Kenji Consults

Nantahala Outdoor Center

Outdoor Industry Association

Lance Camisasca

Outdoor Retailer

The Outdoor Press Camp

Paddlesports Retailer

Rutabaga Paddlesports


John Mead

Park City

Grassroots Outdoor Alliance

Connect with Kenji and Sutton







The Big Gear Show with Sutton Bacon and Kenji Haroutunian

Everyone, welcome back. I’m pleased to be speaking with two of The Big Gear Show production team, Kenji Haroutunian and Sutton Bacon. Welcome to the show.

Thanks for having us.

I’m honored to have you. We’re going to drop this. It will be early June. We can all get the latest update on what you are up to. It’s a very exciting event. I look forward to being there. Let’s start off by telling our audience a little bit about who you are and your role with The Big Gear Show.

My name is Sutton Bacon and I’ve been in the outdoor industry for a long time. Most folks know me from my role at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where I was chairman and CEO for ten years. I met Kenji when I was serving on the board of the Outdoor Industry Association. I spent a lot of time working on from a retailer’s perspective and how to make more relevant paddle sports.

I met Kenji and obviously my partner in the show, Darren Bush, a big retailer, up in Madison, Wisconsin, Rutabaga Paddlesports. We had the idea for The Big Gear Show as an evolution from a show that Darren and I started a few years ago called Paddlesports Retailer. We’ll discuss the evolution from paddle sports to a multi-category show. We’re really excited. It was great to bring on some awesome talent to the mix to join Darren, Kenji and me.

We’ve known Kenji for years and he’s a very well-known commodity in the outdoor industry. He’s such a great visionary leader of the Outdoor Retailer show for so many years. Kenji’s counterpart on the bike side, Lance Camisasca, ran Interbike for a number of years. Lance spearheads our bike outreach and bike segment and Kenji is squarely focused on our outdoor. I try to stay out of the way as best I can and let these guys do what they’ve done for many years, which is developing exciting, innovative events. That’s a little bit about me.

I have a long history, 35 plus years in the outdoor industry. Starting where Rick and I met at A16. I was working up in West LA, in the Valley stores and became manager there. I ended up going to work for the trade show in 1999. The famous tornado show was my first.

Gear is what gets people outdoors and outside. It’s the gear that gets us to do the activities we all love to do.

Nice way to start.

Welcome to the trade show world. I was working for the show and ended up becoming the show director in 2007 about the retailer. I did that through 2015. When I left, I started my own company. I focused on event strategy and helping organizations, retailers and companies do better with their events if they’re doing their own events or participating in other business-to-business and business-to-consumer events.

I run some small events. I helped create the Outdoor PressCamp. I do Climb Smart on Joshua Tree. The Big Gear Show was the culmination of a new wave of events that are more curated, more focused than conventional trade shows that I’ve learned a lot about, built a big network in and did my best to manage those kinds of events. After leaving, I found that I am doing more focused events.

The Big Gear Show was a great concept that brought together industry segments but also stayed focused on the gear that gets people outdoors, the equipment and the products that fuel participation. As an industry, we’ve been enamored with the lifestyle pieces. As retailers, we know that lifestyle products are a super important category. It’s super important, at the same time, for the industry to dig in and focus on participation and driving it and getting people excited.

As important as those lifestyle categories are, they don’t fuel participation. They’re fashionable, comfortable or whatever words you want to use. They’re not really powering participation in the same way that a new boat, a new mountain bike, some climbing gear or hiking boots are going to do. That’s what we decided to focus on. It was Sutton and Darren’s vision, expanding on the paddlesports retailer to be more inclusive.

At the same time, the needs of the industry have changed especially since the pandemic, around capturing a huge number of new people heading outdoors, helping them get outfitted and have the right mindset to going outdoors. Being able to be focused on that is something I’m excited about and just the momentum of The Big Gear Show and bringing this category into focus.

As it turns out, maybe we’re sparked, we’re lucky or some combination of the two. We nailed a great time where we’re not going to get shut down. It’s still June so something could happen. I don’t want to jinx anything. It looks like we’re going to have a great environment for playing outdoors, discovering outdoor products, and re-engaging with the relationships. This industry has always been about the people that are part of it. Seeing each other, meeting the new buyer or meeting the new sales manager in person is invaluable. There’s nothing that’s going to replace that. As much as I love seeing your face here on Zoom, I’d much rather be with you in person at a crag.

There’s going to be a lot of enthusiasm. I think all the shows that are coming up that we’ve been a part of are such a strong community. Another thing that holds us all together is the relationships that we’ve had for 30 or 40 years. That’s going to be a great opportunity for everybody. You’ve come a long way since the Mother’s Day swap to meet Kenji. That was our first event.

They were some classic stuff. John Mead still sends me photos sometimes from those events. I don’t know where he gets them. Does he have an endless supply and print photos that he randomly sends people?

TOBP 280 | The Big Gear Show
The Big Gear Show: Lifestyle products are a super important category for retailers, but it’s also crucial for the industry to dig in and focus on participation, driving it, and getting people excited.


I think it does. What you said about the gear too is important. We see a lot sho visit California. We see a lot of folks coming up here. The apparel and all those things make us look good while we’re outdoors but at the end of the day, it’s the gear that gets us to the activities that we all love to do. There’s a lot of newcomers that we need to not only outfit and get the right mindset and make sure that they know how to be good stewards for our land and whatnot. Hopefully, there’ll be some communication and activities there to talk about because that’s one of the things that we all need to do. I’ve seen that a lot in the public lands. We’ve got to be able to coach these folks up and help them have a good time and protect the lands.

It’s a challenging time but it’s a great time to be having this conversation. At least we know that participation is up. Companies and businesses that are focused on gear are, across the board, doing really well in outdoors. We have this opportunity to, for the first time, not just capture people’s imagination but keep them motivated and excited to appreciate the quality gear. Whether it’s the wrong gear, it’s not well designed or not right for the purpose, those decisions are important. I think all retailers get that. They certainly build their business around that expertise.

Coming to the shows, discovering, hearing what’s new and the plans for innovation, seeing some of the latest products are also important when they go back to the shop. They have employees and customers that they’re going to interact with. They know that owner, that buyer and that management team is investing and discovering the best products and keeping their fingers on the pulse. That’s part of what made a magical place. It’s part of what makes specialty retail such a valuable resource for communities. We, at The Big Gear Show, are invested in positive outcomes for specialty shops.

We all know that trade shows are important. Buyers need to see the product. Sales reps and brands need to interact with the buyers. Media has an opportunity to connect directly with brands and our community gets to get together. That’s huge. What inspired you to deliver this format and produce a show outdoors? This is going to be new forms too, being outside.

The important context behind our show is that everything we do in our entire underpinning is all about serving retailers. Darren and I are retailers. Kenji and Lance are retailers. Everyone on our team has significant experience in specialty retail. I remember when I would go to the Outdoor Retailer show, that’s forever. My wife used to say, “I’m so jealous. You get to go to Utah for the week and take a week off. I’m stuck here with the kids.” I’m like, “You don’t understand. It’s really busy. I’ve got meetings all day and my feet hurt and it’s stressful.”

What we tried to do is take the best parts of trade shows and fix some of the things that are inherently challenging a conventional trade show center. First and foremost, we’re solely focused on gear. Gear is what gets people outdoors and outside. Hard goods are totally different than soft goods. In terms of the way it’s sold, the way it’s purchased on the retail side, the way it’s merchandised, the sales velocity and how users and customers interact with it.

We felt like there was such a huge need of going back from our experience in paddle sports of saying, “How can we create an experience that connects retail buyers with gear in a meaningful way?” One of the hallmarks of our paddlesports retailer event is we had some awesome demos. Darren and I have a lot of experience doing paddle sports demos. The buyers, more than anything, more than the trade experience at paddle retailer, they were like, “This demo is awesome.”

I could look at a line. I could look at a dealer catalog over the Internet. Are there certain categories of products like hard goods that I have to sit in the boat to make an informed purchase decision if I’m open to buy? I have to swing my leg over the bike. I’ve got to try to get it muddy and wet and break it. I think the reason that we decided to move the event outdoors is that feedback from retailers. What problem can we uniquely solve for the specialty retailer?

For us, it’s having a central place where specialty retailers can come. This Main Street USA climbing, paddle sport and bike shop. The central place they can come and interact with the products and brands that drive their business and actually get on a bike, get in a boat, throw on a backpack, hop on the ground in a sleeping pad and experience the gear and the environment it was designed for.

We’ve had such great response from retailers saying, “This is what we’ve been waiting for. It’s a way that we can interact with gear in a meaningful way.” With COVID, it’s been tough. The whole industry is upside down. You have some hard goods brands especially on the paddle and the bike side, setting sales records. They’ve never been more successful. At the same time, it’s been several months since we’ve gathered as an industry and since buyers have seen new products.

We know as retailers, there are some things you just can’t make informed purchase decisions over the Internet. The absence of having that interaction with the gear, with new product development but making retailers buy what they’ve always bought on the gear side and not take a lot of risks. We want to be a place for discovery where retailers can reconnect with their key brands, find some new brands and ultimately have a great time in the mountains.

Most people think of Park City in the context of this wintertime wonderland. In the summertime, it is awesome. The weather is perfect and it’s just an amazing place for us to gather. It’s only 45 minutes from Salt Lake City Airport. Salt Lake City is a one-stop direct flight from pretty much anywhere in the country. Forty-five minutes and an Uber later, you’re up in the mountains. There’s no place like that in the country where you have that access to a huge airport in a very affordable travel destination since we’re in the summertime and not in ski season. We’re really stoked. Our retailers are just super excited to come to get wet, get muddy, try to break things and reconnect after this crazy 2020.

There’s another thing that retailers benefit from seeing all the products together is you don’t have to remember what you saw when the other rep was here. You can go back and have another look at that line of that product and make sure it fits your assortment. That comparison thing is going be big too.

That’s a huge point. We were guilty of this at Paddlesports Retailer. You have the demo on the first day and then you have three days of a show to retailers the same way. The issue is that’s not the logical buy pattern for anything. Where you’re trying it on the first day, you see it in the trade hall and then you’re expected to buy it. Our show fixes that and that the demo is completely integrated in the show.

Someone can see a boat or product in the booth, go try it and then buy it. Not this inverted, weird way of buying things just because the demo is always on the first day of every trade show. That’s a unique thing that the demo is the whole show. You can reconnect with that product and you can say, “I want to paddle that boat again. I want to get back in that boat before I buy.” Some of these large specialty paddlesports retailers have hundreds of the same model of boat for their customers. It’s an impactful, cool format.

That reminded me of the 23 or something demos that I’ve produced without the retailer in all these different venues, both winter and summer. It’s an interesting story by itself the way demos operate in a B2B environment like this. It’s its own thing. For example, the demo was actually more popular at Interbike, which was called the outdoor or on-door demo or something like that. That was so popular. I remember riding back from that one time to the convention center and several buyers who were at the demo for a couple of days were going home. They’re not even going to the show.

People love the demos so much. That’s what they were going for and that’s it. They were leaving. One of the signs that Interbike was struggling was that the demo was compelling that it made the event. This is when I started thinking about, “This demo thing is something different. It’s something experiential and special. It’s rising up during all these conversations about the experience economy and people wanting fewer things and more experiences.” All of that was going through my mind as the show director of Outdoor Retailer while I was attending Interbike and going to the demos.

It just made sense especially with Lance on the team and my experience too, along with Sutton’s doing. These practicals, basically, people love that and people want to be able to do that. Maybe they don’t want to do that with a sweater, boots or something but they will want to do that if it’s going to get their customers moving outdoors.

I think it’s the gear junkie in all of us were. We love to test and play with the gear. It’s going to be interesting. It’s going to create a whole another level of conversation in the aisles at the show. You’re going to be on your way to see an apparel brand and talk about the packs you just tried or, “I just paddled this killer.” Whatever it might be, it’s going to be fun.

That’s the reason we’re doing this. The other thing we glossed over was paddle outdoor and bike together. That’s actually never happened. There hasn’t been any business event that brings those categories together. If you look at the consumer, it’s all the same consumer. You and I have products that we paddle, products that we hike and climb with and products that we roll on the streets and trails. It’s all in our garage if we have a garage.

The consumer is the same. The consumer is tied up in all of this more than ever. They have so much access to information and reviews. They often come into the retail store with more information than the staff has. It’s a different relationship now. Even in our early discussions about the show, the consumer was part of that discussion as far as how to integrate them and how to bring them into that environment. We certainly are good with having a smaller focused event that features retailers, brands and media only.

How will it be different from these other shows that we’ve been through? Not so much Outdoor Retailer but some of these rep shows. I’ve been to rep shows where some of these gears were together at the same time based on the time of the year. This is going to be invite-only. It’s going to be in Park City, which is a great venue. What are the other ways it’s going to be different?

First of all, we have retailers coming from 45 states. We’re focusing on the owners and general merchandise managers. There’s no regionalism to it. Someone can drive there along the Intermountain West, essentially on the left side of the Rockies. That might make it a little bit easier to get to. The reps will certainly be there and some of them are flying in from all over because they’ve got a number of retailers in their territory attending. It is a new kind of event, though. I’ve been saying it’s a unique event.

We’re not encouraging people to bring their trade show booth that they would take to a convention center. It’s not going to be that great out on a parking lot at Deer Valley Resort, which is pretty flat and huge. There’s wind and there’ll be a little bit of rain in the afternoon. There’ll be outdoorsy things happening and trade show booths are not made for that.

We’re focusing on the people and the products. We’re encouraging the brands to bring their people and the products and for the buyers to expect to be having those kinds of conversations. Certainly, they’re going to have all kinds of marketing cooperative conversations and projection conversations about 2022, which is what these shows are about. It was looking forward. That’s part of what makes a difference.

TOBP 280 | The Big Gear Show
The Big Gear Show: Companies and businesses focused on gear are, across the board, doing really well in the outdoor business.


If you were to visualize this, it would be a mixed bag. Part of it looks like a trade show, the other part looks like a regional demo and the other part looks like a festival. They’re all three going on at the same time. Everybody is demoing products on trail, water, camping sites and mountaintops of the Wasatch. In that way, that experiential piece will be very different than the rep shows that I attend.

No doubt. The other thing that’s just cool we touched on earlier is having these three industry segments together. We’re just one industry. We’re all selling to the same consumer. Literally, every kayaker that I know has a mountain bike and most of them have their bikes. Climbers camp and campers bike. It’s all the same consumer. We’ve been disconnected as a global, larger outdoor industry just because of the politics of trade associations and traditional trade shows. That’s how it’s always been.

If you look closely at our logo, it depicts a mountain-themed circus tent. We want to pitch a big tent and welcome the industry together. The way that’s going to manifest itself at the show is we’re going to be very intentional about connecting bike dealers, paddle dealers and outdoor shops together in educational seminars and settings. It’s not just a consultant talking about, “Here’s how you should do things.”

It’s a bike dealer, a paddle sports dealer and an outdoor dealer talking about, “We all have supply chain issues. Here’s how I’m dealing with my supply chain issues,” and trying to break down those barriers between these categories, which don’t make any sense. They’re all retailers. We’re all retailers. We’re going to be launching and having a very robust peer-based cross-category educational component to the show. That’s going to add even more value to the retailers just beyond the demo. Those networking, insights and data that we’re going to provide and resource our retailers with are going to be totally unique to events like this. We’re excited about that component of our event.

That’s going to be dynamic because you’re going to get best practices from a number of different areas. You’re going to have a bike retailer who’s selling bikes in a unique way. You can take some of those methods and sell backpacks, paddle sports something or a bike deal once you get into paddle sports. He’s going to be able to learn from a guy that has success selling paddle sports. That’s super huge. That’s great.

The stores have so much in common and the shared consumer. All of the stores they’ve invited have high degrees of product knowledge, pride themselves in service, many have experiential components, vents and other things that they do. This is the cream of the crop retailers. We’ve spent a lot of time on our retailer invitation list, curating and working with our partners in different categories. For example, the National Bicycle Dealers Association and the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance on trying to curate the list.

We’re delivering to the brands’ meaningful owner principal senior buyer-level engagement. All trade shows, including our paddle sportsshow where you had random people walking the aisles and like, “Are you a retailer, a borrower or you just live here?” We’re not really sure. Our retailer list is our secret sauce. We love our retailers and others that are coming from that retailer perspective.

That’s a perfect segue. How did you arrive at the invite-only format? That’s pretty unique.

It was a combination of a lot of things. One, wanting to keep the event intentionally small, curated and focused on the peer-to-peer concept and then connecting the right retailers with the right brands. Part of it was a COVID consideration as well. There have been outdoor event restrictions in the state of Utah. We wanted to be sensitive and aware of the continuing impacts of the pandemic. There are still brands that have their corporate offices closed and still on travel restrictions. We wanted to be responsible and do the right thing.

That goes to the old trade show paradigm. Kenji was guilty of this to Outdoor Retailer and Darren and I were guilty of this at Paddlesports Retailer, where it’s all about the quantity, the size and the number of people through the turnstiles. We’re about quality and high engagement. I think the metrics for success for a trade show or any sort of event in the future is going to be less about mass gatherings, huge crowds and quality of engagement. That’s what we’re about.

You’re capturing a trend that was developing before the pandemic but the pandemic just reinforced it. A lot of us are tired of the big group things, the big mass gatherings and mass events. We’re looking for a more curated opportunity to go out to dinner, go to a trade show, buy products or whatever it might be. You’re capturing that trend and reinforcing it. That’s smart.

It’s what I’ve been doing since I left the big trade show world. Lance and I have worked at this exact property multiple times. We did the Outdoor PressCamps there, the Bike PressCamps. Lance, in the mid-2010s, was doing Dealer Camp at this exact venue. We know the trails, lifts and services at the Deer Valley Resort and up in Park City. It’s familiar territory for us. That was also an invite-only event, the Outdoor PressCamp particularly on the media side. That planted the seed in us. We had tried to be pretty deliberate about who’s at the event.

I think there have been other curated events. You’ve heard of these other events like Outpost and others. They were curated but I never quite understood the curation. It was a mish-mash. It was a sampling of twelve different folks, some industries, some not, some consumers, some athletes, some ambassadors. It was a mix. I was intrigued by that whole idea but I didn’t know where it was going.

Having a certain density of like-mindedness across a retail landscape or brands are building gear that gets people outdoors is the unifying concept. That keeps your overall universe relatively small. If you were to go down the list of a trade show right now, most of it would be not in the gear category. You could do some math on that and see 60% or something is more lifestyle-oriented, fabric supplier or some other aspect.

Everything we do in our entire underpinning is all about serving retailers.

In the face of an ongoing pandemic that we’re hoping is backing out, this is definitely the right approach. I’m glad we’re doing it this way. Not everyone is happy about it because if you didn’t get an invite or if you got told no, that’s not a good feeling. That’s also what’s necessary to make a great event. Even the big trade shows need to be doing that better.

Is there anything else that you want people to know about the show or that you haven’t talked about publicly or reinforce something that has been heard but maybe not enough?

I want people to not assume that they’re not invited. It’s been hard to get around. There’s so much incoming interest that I personally have struggled to get out to everybody that I want to know. It’s not just hard goods. There’s plenty of wearable gear that really helps get people outdoors. Whether that’s wetsuits, hiking boots, climbing shoes, Gore-Tex or down-insulated jackets, there’s gear that you wear and it’ll save your life.

There’s the lifestyle apparel and the outdoor uniform that you wear during your activity.

That’s certainly gear. We encourage people to reach out to us. Visit TheBigGearShow.com and reach out. If you’re interested then find out what it takes. We’re building this to be a sustainable and affordable platform for the industry so that small makers and entrepreneurs can come in and be part of it and not have to sell their home to be able to do it. That’s also what we’re doing. There’ll be a discovery aspect to this with many new, smaller brands as well as some well-established ones, which you can see on the website. Don’t assume you’re not invited. We’d love people to reach out if they even think there’s a good bit.

That’s a great point. We’re just excited to see each other face-to-face since 2020 total disruption. Retailers can’t wait to get out of their shops because they’ve been on the sales floor. There were others not accustomed to being on the sales floor. It’s hard to think strategically on the sales floor. It’s going to be an awesome environment up in the mountains. The weather’s going to be great. People at the right time and at the right place. We’re really excited and look forward to seeing you there.

It’s going to be fun. How can people follow-up with you? If they want to reach out directly to you, do you want to give an email address? How do you want that to happen?

I’m down with whatever questions people have. You can email me at Kenji@TheBigGearShow.com. You can do Info@TheBigGearShow.com or just go to the website and inquire there. We’ll circle back. I would just add one thing. Since we last all got together, which was some early time in 2020 January, so many things have happened.

Black Lives Matter happened, this global pandemic disrupted every industry in every possible way and there’s a lot that’s changed. The quick evolution of digital formats for showcasing whether that’s existing platforms like YouTube or Zoom is taking on 10 or 100 times the volume in a day or two. It’s been a pretty disruptive time. Supply chains is hugely disrupted all around the world.

What your audience should know is that we’re not forgetting about what’s happened. We might work in diversity and inclusion, even if we’re going to be in a place like Park City, which isn’t necessarily that close to a diverse population that much, we intend to elevate this conversation to a level that it hasn’t been at other shows before.

TOBP 280 | The Big Gear Show
The Big Gear Show: There’s plenty of wearable gear that helps get people outdoors, whether that’s wetsuits, hiking boots, climbing shoes, Gore-Tex jackets, or down-insulated jackets. There’s gear that you wear for sure.


Even though it’s an invitational and relatively focused event, we are absolutely taking this on with an approach that’s really next leveling. We’re trying to get beyond the panel discussion into action planning and getting small businesses, medium and the big guys all involved. We have some great plans that are rolling out and the people will see that in play and will be able to participate in it at The Big Gear Show.

That’d be exciting. Sutton. Any final thoughts?

No, that’s it.

Thanks for being on the show. I’m excited to drop this before the show happens so everybody can get the low down and follow-up. I look forward to seeing you there.

Thanks. It was awesome to talk to you and thanks for the opportunity.

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