Written by Forrest Merithew
Outdoor gear builders in Western North Carolina are making their presence known far beyond the immediate region.
The actual first day of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2015 (August 3-6 in Salt Lake City) is always the demo day, which involves demoing and testing of gear by all who are at the conference and wish to attend the offsite event. In other words, this is recess before folks get down to the nitty, gritty business side of things.
For Summer Market, they are holding this year’s demo day on Aug. 2 at Pineview Reservoir, located about an hour north of Salt Lake City, just past Snowbasin ski resort. While many of the manufacturing companies present have their own transportation necessary to move their gear from the conference headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City the day before and set up for the demo, for the rest of us guests—buyers, writers, speakers, non-profit fundraisers, retail store owners, reps, and athletes—it’s a comfortable one-hour coach bus shuttle ride. One every hour, or at least as soon as there’s a good number of folks ready to fill an available bus and go.
Our bus is no exception, as it is loaded with folks buzzing with energy, typical of the first day of an outdoor recreation conference. Five minutes into the ride, when we’re leaving downtown and heading north on Interstate 15 with Grandview Peak, Bountiful Peak, and Francis Peak visible to our right, two rows in front of me I hear, “In Asheville we have the WNC Outdoor Gear Builders Association.” (OGB). Lo and behold, it’s Alan Davis of Blue Ridge Chair Works, talking with a member of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance from Atlanta. We discuss the success of the “Get In Gear Fest” OGB put on earlier that spring at Riverlink Park and the continuing evolution of the Association and its growing membership and members. The Association is working to be a vital resource for the local independent companies in outdoor recreation gear; their product development and manufacturing may be on a smaller scale than their West Coast competitors, but the combined resources and knowledge can create notoriety and protect their general shared interests and selling power.
I’m not the only one within earshot that hears the location mentioned. Quickly others, from around the country, are involved in the conversation, primarily asking about or heralding the outdoors and the many activities that the region surrounding Asheville has to offer (plus the occasional food or beer reference). It appears OGB has had success in getting the word out.
This same thing happens to all of those traveling from Asheville for their work with their respective gear companies. Holly Colson, vice president of marketing for Cane Creek Cycling Components, says that when she travels and tells people within the cycling community that she is from Asheville, they usually have a story about a previous visit or plans for one in the near future. She believes that it’s not only important for the businesses to keep up with the purchasers and enthusiasts using gear with regularity, but also to tie in the location of these local companies producing the gear with the use of those products to advance local economic opportunities.
We’ve already seen this via the beer industry, as large scale companies are relocating here for the water and central geographic location on the East coast, as well as the quality of life. Just as the breweries have seen this area as a business hub for east coast distribution and operations, we will continue to see other commercial outdoor gear and recreation endeavors—particularly those in manufacturing—establish operations here, recreating the strong textile and manufacturing history of the region, but in a sustainable, community-oriented, and environmentally friendly way. What’s impressive is the number of companies that have already done this and started their businesses and operations here with successful results.
Just in Western North Carolina alone there are 26 recreation gear manufacturers as identified in Advantage West’s 2014 (and first) census on the issue. Those companies provide approximately 470 jobs and over $6 million of local sourcing to this community, and those numbers don’t include the many outfitters, recreational locations, and retail companies that rely upon this equipment and its users—Kolo Bike Park, Bailey Mountain Bike Park, Asheville Outdoor Center, Southern Raft Supply, Diamond Brand, Black Dome, and the handful of regional ski resorts, just to name a few. The census determined that the outdoor recreation manufacturing industry was one of the faster growing industry sectors in the region, primarily due to the “natural, cultural, and economic assets, tradition of innovation, and supportive community of outdoor enthusiasts.” The great thing, which will take our local businesses past the tipping point and into the future, is that recognition for the region and businesses currently based here is now coming from around the country, continent, and world (100% of the Asheville Outdoor Recreation Manufacturers distribute nationally and 76% of them distribute internationally). For example, my hotel roommate this trip, Norm, was a sponsored Boardworks Athlete and SUP Expedition leader out of British Columbia, Canada.
Stand Up And Be Counted
Demo day at Outdoor Retailer’s Summer Market consists primarily of paddle equipment and water opportunities on the Pineview Reservoir, with the occasional sunglasses, electric skateboard, pop up equipment vendor, and nutrition company sprinkled in. The Reservoir’s beach is the focus, strung with a long line of sponsored pop up canopy tents dotting the whole coast of the relatively large cove. My first thought after stepping off the bus is, “Whoa, way too many stand up paddle board (SUP) companies exist.” But you can already see why—because of the interest and ease of access as evidenced by the large number of folks in the water and along the shore, which has caused the explosive growth of SUP to be the most popular current paddle sport.
One particularly successful company in the SUP industry is Boardworks out of Carlsbad, California (just up the road from where I attended law school and practiced in San Diego before returning to Asheville). Boardworks had been recently purchased by Confluence Outdoor out of Greenville, South Carolina, the well-known company that distributes Dagger, Perception, Wavesport, Adventure Technology, and Mad River Canoe boats, kayaks, paddles, and paddle gear. At Demo Day, Confluence takes up its fair share of beach property in order to exhibit and demo the many different watercrafts the subsidiaries produce for a wide range of uses and interests.
While we here in Western North Carolina have local SUP startups, like West Asheville Standup Paddle Boarding that shapes fiberglass SUP boards, one of the established companies known for dependable whitewater rafts and now immersing itself in the blowup SUP industry is NRS, out of Moscow, Idaho. It’s on the bus ride back towards town later in the afternoon I overhear the guy behind me talking with his neighbor. “I’m a rep for NRS, and we just moved from Idaho to Brevard, North Carolina, so I can work the Southeast region,” he notes, sharing details about why he is happy about the move, including, but not limited to: fly fishing, water amount and access, views and wilderness, and the people and companies in the region he works with as a sales rep for the well-known boat manufacturer. We chat briefly near the end of our return trip, and he shares with me that NRS will be a sponsor and involved in the activities of Asheville’s inaugural 5Point Film Festival occurring the following weekend, which includes the river cleanup and subsequent river demo segment. It becomes quickly apparent that in the short amount of time he’s moved cross country and started the new position, he has had plenty to do, both for work and personal enjoyment.
Miles Of Aisles
On Wednesday morning, 24 hours after stepping onto the Demo Day shuttle bus, the real conference starts—the business side of things, as it were—with an opening breakfast sponsored by the Outdoor Industry Association and North Face discussing the current situation in Nepal following the earthquakes of the previous year. This is then followed by hours and miles of tradeshow floor walking sprinkled with mid-day speakers and lectures. Me, I’m here as a speaker to provide the legal insight on a panel on “Co-labs,” cool industry speak known more formally as joint ventures. I’m quickly starting to see folks I know from Asheville. Walking to the breakfast I get a hug from one of our local Keen reps and, after the presentation on the way back across the street, I catch up with the owner of Southern Raft Supply. While it is noticeable that some of the sponsorship and large scale productions at the conference are done by large clothing and gear companies based out of West Coast locations such as California, Oregon, and Washington, there are plenty of companies scattered around the United States whose gear is considered near the top of their respective activities in quality and leading technologies or applications. For those companies that aren’t necessarily leading the industry in sales numbers, it appears that in most cases their business’s development naturally evolved out of the activities that they and their communities were pursuing, thereby causing the need that became the seed for ingenuity and product creation.
It’s this energy and balance that puts Asheville on the map, not just as a place to play, but a place from which the elements needed to play best are designed and created.
One has to figure out his or her goals and plans of attack when it comes to covering the tradeshow floor of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. It not only commands the whole Salt Palace (Salt Lake City’s downtown Convention Center), it also consists of three very large rectangular tent structures and a demo staging area that takes up a city block across the street. The scene is primarily divided up by activities, although there is a little mixing and matching, particularly in the tents. I start with the climbing gear and am pleasantly surprised to encounter some Boone locals at the Misty Mountain Threadworks booth, a North Carolina company that started in 1985 making climbing harnesses with the idea to have a sustainable process for a high quality product that would involve and employ the people who used it. With the original owners growing up in Charlotte and climbing west from there, it’s not hard to see how they consolidated their interests with the need for development of gear and the strong textile operations and industries already existing in the region and from which they could gather insight and materials.
The real crème de la crème when it comes to tradeshow booths is local company ENO Hammocks, which won the REI Company’s Vendor of the Year award in 2014. They designed and built a two story wood and metal structure that allows them to show and exhibit their products and can also be seen from across the tradeshow floor, thereby increasing their own visibility. Their location itself is prominent, on the main floor near such companies as GoPro, prAna, and Columbia Sportswear. ENO believes that their success is very much predicated on linking arms with the strong outdoor recreation businesses and manufacturers already in the area. Even though they are now one of the leaders of this movement from a commercial standpoint, they still believe that each company and individual in the local industry brings something special to the table, and that the surface has only been scratched when it comes to exposure, sales, and use of such equipment.
Located in the paddle sports area is another OGB member, Astral. Similar to ENO, they’ve also wisely included a second story structure along with their known artistic touch to create an inviting yet unique atmosphere, enjoyed during work hours by buyers and at happy hour hosted in the booths at the end of the day by all. When asked about their choice to be located in Asheville and Western North Carolina, Astral responds that ease of access for the activities their gear is intended, along with testing, was of great importance to them. Additionally, they personally know the users of their products, whether they be friends, neighbors, or professionals in the industry, and therefore realize that the gear needs to be of high quality or they will quickly hear about it. This seems to be a recurring theme among these local companies: That quality is greater than quantity and not just when it comes to their products, but with respect to the way of life as a company and the business practices as employer. Astral does recognize that Asheville needs more full-time employers and employment opportunities and believes that the best way to do so is to recognize the passion and interest in a myriad of aspects related to the businesses, products, and activities.
It is important to realize that while this conference is more retail-centric than many others in the industry—like the Outdoor Industry Association’s Rendezvous Experience that was held in Asheville, October 2014, or Overlandia 4×4 Expo that just held its second annual East Coast show this past fall at Taylor Ranch in Fletcher—there are still a number of non-retail businesses and individuals present and involved, yours truly included. One of these companies is Darby Communications, an Asheville-located public relations business focusing on media and brand relations for the outdoor recreation and gear industry. Coral Darby is the principal and she believes that Asheville now has widespread and prominent recognition in the industry, where before it was more of a niche locale. It is her opinion that the businesses which have started here have primarily evolved out of the recreational opportunities the region provides.
Those business owners have taken their involvement in activities and turned it into a practical product that they and fellow users can then apply. Additionally, she says it doesn’t hurt that we have a local airport hub (with several larger ones nearby in the region) and a city with a range of business abilities and services, things typically lacking from a rural location where people can play but can’t necessarily make a living or base commercial operations due to a lack of people and resources. Western North Carolina has that balance.
As mentioned previously, many of the local companies were created because users located here in the mountains realized that there was a need for new products or improvements/upgrades on those already existing. Bill Medlin, previously of Liquid Logic Kayaks and now an independent consultant for the industry, thinks that a while back we reached a tipping point where people “understood that their cool DIY project could be more than a hobby and took the jump to make it a business.” Medlin genuinely believes that much of the growth of a number of companies located here can be attributed to the strong innovative energy and people of the region. With a small pool of local purchasers and investors sharing similar interests and activities, that ingenuity was applied with success and these companies were able to slowly but surely increase their geographic sales region. Now, these companies are attending, demoing, and taking large nationwide purchase orders at the industry’s preeminent event in Salt Lake City twice a year, and there has developed a support community of professionals for testing, use, or professional services collaborating and assisting in their successful development and growth.
Striking A Balance
As I exit the tradeshow on Friday evening (it wraps up on Saturday morning), I pass Kyle Mundt and Tom Dempsey of SylvanSport trailers, an OGB Member based out of Brevard, holding a business meeting inside their product—the SylvanSport GO, a pop up camper trailer that can do many things. A big focus of SylvanSport, and most (if not all) OGB members and outdoor recreation companies, is the balance of use and preservation of those outdoor environments that enable the play and use of such gear. In that vein SylvanSport has partnered with Goal Zero solar power systems and batteries to provide even more accoutrements for their camper trailers and other equipment via a joint venture opportunity (a business model and opportunity which I had spoken about two hours before).
The following morning I’m moving forward in the Salt Lake City Airport security line when I hear the TSA officer checking IDs attempt to practice his self-admittedly limited Japanese with the gentleman in front of me. He’s part of a group of buyers from Japan that have come and collected vast amounts of production information, pictures, and contacts to take back to their own outdoor recreation industry and users. I’m next, and when he looks at my North Carolina license, he muses, “Huh, Asheville, there has been a lot of those coming through here today.” I smile and explain we are quite the East Coast mountain town and, as such, have strong ties with the tradeshow and people of the West Coast ranges. Not bad; in two back-to-back security checks he encounters Japan and Asheville and knows a thing or two about both. He hands back my license, waves me along, and tells me to “have a safe trip home.”
As I step forward in my DeFeet socks (another OGB member), I’m already thinking about what I’m going to go do when I get back—the kind of passion that so many of our gear companies rely upon both internally with respect to employees and product development, and externally by the retailers, buyers, and end users.
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