Given the current political climate, I fear that trade show boycotts may become more commonplace.
Earlier this year, in response to actions by Utah politicians, a number of companies vowed to boycott the biannual Outdoor Retailer trade shows in Salt Lake City. Produced by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), the Outdoor Retailer Summer and Winter Marketplaces, which attract 50,000 attendees annually, contribute an estimated $45 million
to the state's economy.
The inciting event was a resolution signed by Utah's governor asking President Donald Trump to nullify an act made by President Barack Obama during his last weeks in office, designating more than a million acres in southwest Utah as Bears Ears National Monument. And the governor's move appears to be just the latest step in an effort by Utah legislators to sell off the state's national parks, forests, and monuments for financial gain.
In a statement from Patagonia Inc., CEO Rose Marcario said the company would be pulling out of the biannual events as a result of those actions, noting that the outdoor recreation industry represents $12 billion in consumer spending and 122,000 jobs in the state of Utah alone. Adventure gear outfitter Peak Design and Canadian clothing brand Arc'teryx followed suit, with the latter declaring it will donate the money the company would have spent on the events to the Public Lands Defense Fund.
The concept of trade show exhibitors and attendees leveraging their collective weight to affect change isn't without precedent. Last March, following the introduction of anti-LGBT legislation in North Carolina, organizers of High Point Market Week were inundated with cancellations. And three years prior, hundreds of exhibitors at the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, PA, boycotted the event (which was eventually cancelled) after Reed Exhibitions USA forbid the sale and display of military-style semi-automatic rifles.
It appears the Outdoor Retailer boycott has been successful, as OIA has decided to seek a new home for the events beginning in 2018, when its contract with Salt Lake City expires. According to executive director Amy Roberts, "It is important to our membership, and to our bottom line, that we partner with states and elected officials who share our views."
In just the past few weeks, we've seen thousands of scientists vow to boycott U.S. academic events due to Trump's travel ban, and several show organizers have announced plans to avoid venues in Texas if the state's pending Privacy Act – one of many recent "bathroom bills" – is enacted. And given the current political climate, I fear that large- and small-scale boycotts like these may become more commonplace, making what is happening with Outdoor Retailer just a taste of what could ultimately impact our entire industry.
Let me be clear. I respect the decision made by companies boycotting Outdoor Retailer, and I support the intentions behind their actions. But the pragmatist in me wonders whether these boycotts – should they become routine – might threaten the viability of events and jeopardize the investments of countless other companies hoping to market their products via face-to-face marketing.
The question that must be raised is whether or not trade shows and events should be used as political pawns. Flexing our financial muscles every now and then reminds the world that trade shows and events are massive economic generators, and advocating as a group is more effective than individual efforts. But as a diehard supporter of the exhibition industry, I worry about the true cost of these boycotts – and who might end up footing the bill. Exhibiting pros have long struggled to prove the value of trade shows. But politically motivated boycotts might force face-to-face marketers to consider the values of those events as well.