The Big Gear Show’s Big Success

The Big Gear Show's Big Success

Launching a brand-new trade show in the middle of a pandemic is not a task for average show organizers. But then The Big Gear Show never set out to be average. In this rebroadcast of Virtual Lunch, go behind the scenes to discover how the team:

  • Created an “experiential wonderland” in a non-traditional venue
  • Designed a more affordable trade show option for both exhibitors and attendees
  • Made a lasting impression in their industry
  • Gained valuable lessons for next year and beyond

Big Gear Show headlines

Here are the links mentioned during the interview:

About Kenji Haroutunian

Kenji Haroutunian
Kenji Haroutunian

Kenji Haroutunian is a Business Event Strategist and Organizer with focus and expertise on the inter-connections of the global Outdoor Recreation Industry ecosystem. He served as vice president of Nielsen/Emerald Expositions and the Outdoor Retailer shows from 2007-2014. His current projects include building the California Outdoor Recreation Partners (a business coalition for the state), and leading business development for The Big Gear Show and for the Outdoor Media Summit, in addition to operating his own successful agency of Kenji Consults.


[00:00:00.000] - Marlys Arnold

You're listening to the Trade Show Insights Podcast season 16 Episode Twelve. I'm your host and exhibit marketing strategist Marlys Arnold, bringing you tools to improve your exhibit results on today's episode, brought to you by the Exhibit Marketers Cafe, we've got a rebroadcast of our virtual lunch with Kenji Haroutunian, giving us a behind the scenes peak at the debut of the Big Gear Show.

[00:01:02.750] - Marlys Arnold

Kenji Haroutunian is a business event strategist and organizer with focus and expertise on the interconnections of the global outdoor recreation industry's ecosystem. He served as vice President of Nielsen Emerald Expositions and at the Outdoor Retailer Shows from 2007 to 2014. His current projects include building the California Outdoor Recreation Partners, a business coalition for the state, and leading business development for the Big Gear Show and for the Outdoor Media Summit. In addition to operating his own successful agency of Kenji Consultants. So, Kenji, welcome to Virtual Lunch.

[00:01:40.640] - Kenji Haroutunian

Thanks for having me, Marlys.

[00:01:43.640] - Marlys Arnold

Well, I'm excited because it was so fun talking with you during Spark and getting all of these great behind the scenes of how the event was coming together. But for those who may not have been able to join us for Spark, can you give us just a little bit of kind of a background of what the Big Gear Show was all about, how it was structured and how it was different?

[00:02:04.180] - Kenji Haroutunian

Sure. So the Big Gear Show came out of a show called Paddle Sports Retailer that had been going for about four or five years due to some changes with the outdoor retailer platform which been happening. It move dates into a window that the paddle industry didn't feel great about. So they launched their own event and it traveled to Madison and it traveled to a few other cities, Oklahoma City and was great. And this happens. I've seen this happen in other sectors in the industry where there's a great feeling of camaraderie and togetherness, but it's a little bit small.

[00:02:45.630] - Kenji Haroutunian

It didn't create enough gravitational pull, for example, to draw media from outside the paddle world. So the idea was to expand it out to kind of invite in relevant categories. At the same time, there was this rising movement of experiential which you've talked about a couple of times. I'm going to probably beat it into the ground because I think it's one of the major trends for this, this, decade and maybe beyond is that people do want to really have experiences and that bar has been lifted even during the pandemic.

[00:03:22.570] - Kenji Haroutunian

So the idea to expand out include other categories was first recognize that PSR. In the meantime, the outdoor industry had moved and really focused at least about a retailer shows around lifestyle categories, which really do drive a lot of the profitability in retail stores. And there are many, many brands that only play in that. So that has a specific time and method that's really connected to the global fashion industry, fast fashion and apparel. So with that came this sort of opportunity for for hard goods and gear to gear and hard goods are slightly different in my mind anyway.

[00:04:11.030] - Kenji Haroutunian

But anyway, the products that get people outdoors has really been the emphasis for to drive participation, to drive excitement among the public on what's coming and what's going to help my comfort level or my experience be better when I go out hiking, climbing, biking, paddling, whatever it is I'm going to be doing in the outdoors. And then as this came around, they invited me to join the team. And at the same time, this was actually really early in 2020, the pandemic started to rise up. And so that affects, of course, the entire events industry.

[00:04:52.900] - Kenji Haroutunian

And luckily, we had a very small team. And so the idea of pivoting and changing some of the methods and approaches we had was relatively easy. We didn't have a giant ship to turn. It was a startup, essentially. So how do we modify this event and make it work for the market needs today? And that's kind of what every show needs to be thinking about these days is being nimble on your feet and being able to change, listen carefully and plot a path forward that fits what the market needs now.

[00:05:27.750] - Kenji Haroutunian

And that may be different in two weeks or two months. So being nimble is key. So anyway, that's how it started anyway. And the idea of what bring bike and paddle and outdoor together for the first time.

[00:05:41.470] - Marlys Arnold

Well, and you were originally scheduled to start up last year, and you were going to be a little bit more of a traditional show where you were going to actually be held at a convention center. But then when you shifted things, you just kind of blew up the blueprint and just start it over. So I think the three key things that I think are so unique about the Big Gear Show was venue, the experiential like you mentioned earlier, and then you had a subsidy idea, a structure.

[00:06:13.800] - Marlys Arnold

So if you could kind of tell us a little bit more about those three things, and I'm going to actually put up here's here's some of the headlines in the media coming out of this. The response that people had was just phenomenal. So you can see there you can see a picture of what it looked like. But just that you can see pulls off a successful invitation only event. Big year show debut wins on quality over quantity. So talk a little bit about how you had the whole event structured.

[00:06:42.460] - Kenji Haroutunian

Sure. Back to the idea. Yes, it did start as a more conventional I'll use that term. So although every day of the show would offer demo opportunities, even if an original concept, one of the beauties of the venue is that it's even in the convention center in Salt Lake City as access to the testing venues, whether that's on mountains or on water or on trails or in campgrounds is really close by, like it's almost unique, I would say, in the country, although there are other places, but it's it's really, really great to be able to come into an international airport, have a a really nice large convention center, and have access to the experiential testing grounds.

[00:07:33.310] - Kenji Haroutunian

So even without a retailer back in the day when it was in Salt Lake, there would be these fields, field demo days that preceded the show, and then the show 100% take place in the convention center. So that the model that we had with the Big Year show was a little different than that from the beginning. So it was an easy pivot, relatively easy pivot to move it all out outdoors. In fact, Lance and I two of the key members on the team, I guess, I'd say, had already produced several events up at Deer Valley Resort, where we staged the Big Gear show.

[00:08:08.060] - Kenji Haroutunian

So we knew the terrain and the people up there really well, they were very accommodating and trusted us that we knew what we were doing. So if the wheels had been greased already with the outdoor press camps and the dealer camps that had happened earlier in the 20 teens will say yes. And then so the two other points that you had brought up or help me remember that the.

[00:08:33.380] - Marlys Arnold

Venue that you chose and then the structure of how it was a curated experience. And you also offered incentives, I guess we could say, for the attendees.

[00:08:45.110] - Kenji Haroutunian

Yeah. Yeah. Good point. The curation is really an important term, and it has to do with how we built this incentive or the subsidy program, which is something short of a hosted buyer platform, but something more than, you know, invite to come in, but you're going to pay your whole way. And I think that's part of the model that is changing in the trade show world is this in my experience, is that the curated events that are more focused that are bringing a specific audience with a specific goal in mind are doing better across the country, whether they're regional or they're focused.

[00:09:22.390] - Kenji Haroutunian

They're a national show, but they're focused on a very specific category, for example, like rock climbing. So I think that that is a direction of the future for us. The challenge is that we're still calling ourselves a trade show. We're still seen that way, and but we're trying not to kind of throw the doors open and have this measurement be based on how many people attended. We really from the beginning, we're working to create this qualitative different difference so that the people who are coming had a specific goal in mind.

[00:10:02.400] - Kenji Haroutunian

They're specifically qualified to attend. And we weren't opening the doors, especially during a pandemic year, to just a large number of people with a very broad mission. Some are coming to sell to the exhibitors, some are coming to look for jobs, some are coming to talk about partnerships as an advocacy organization, for example. So lots and lots of different kinds of business get done at trade shows. The idea of curating and creating a focused event kind of pushes back against that. And, for example, creates this feeling like, oh, well, we're at a trade show, but it doesn't feel like buzzing and busy, like, like a trade show does.

[00:10:49.150] - Kenji Haroutunian

Yeah. And then the last thing you mentioned was a subsidy. And that is something we built in because part of the equation that we feel needs to get changed in the trade show world is who's paying for it? How much are they paying? And what are the levers of value for the attendees for the exhibitors and for the rest of the sort of ecosystem? Another overused word that I like to use. But there's a lot more to an industry than those that are in the supply chain. I'll just say that.

[00:11:26.900] - Marlys Arnold

Well, so tell us the numbers, what we're talking about because it was highly curated. People had to apply to attend. So how many did you have exhibitors and attendees? What were your numbers like?

[00:11:39.320] - Kenji Haroutunian

Well, our goals were to have 250 exhibitors and 500 retailers. And what we ended up with was 206 brands, 140 exhibits with 206 brands and 421 retailers and about 70, 71 working media. Those are the the raw numbers. We did say no to a lot of people. We were under a pandemic, a guideline or regulation with Summit County and the city and the venue. So we really couldn't actually throw the doors open if we wanted to at least and play by the rules of gatherings, even though it was outdoors and a different kind of event where we're much more spread out.

[00:12:30.350] - Marlys Arnold

But what I think is so cool because you look at those numbers, it was basically two to one exhibitors and attendees. So I can imagine it was a much more just kind of more of, like, kind of hanging out and everybody chatting and not so much that busy racing through the show floor kind of feeling. Victoria has a couple of questions here. So what metrics change to evaluate the qualitative success versus attendance numbers?

[00:13:03.850] - Kenji Haroutunian

That's a great question that strikes at the essence of kind of how the model we're trying to change here is not to use metrics like overall attendance or density of human beings per square foot. And at the same time, we're not we're trying to create a different model of measurement going forward. So what would be a qualitative aspect? Well, how many how many decision makers did you talk to? How many people that you talk to at the show were owners, or senior management versus kind of more line level folks or staff?

[00:13:44.240] - Kenji Haroutunian

And we have metrics on all that in the surveys that we did after that, that've pretty much been completed. Now we measure what the what the appetite was for different aspects of the show, including the open air venue, the value of having these cross categories put together, like, what do the attendees, the retailers and exhibitors think of this and what do they value? What do they think is important versus how we performed against those? So there are metrics around all of that. And then lastly, I'd say, knowing your audience intimately is really important.

[00:14:24.580] - Kenji Haroutunian

And I think that my experience in the show business is that in the past, show management have been really focused on being show producers, effective show organizers, who that is their expertise. But that now needs to be added to an expertise on the specific market that you're serving and insights and opportunities and changes that are happening in that market, which is happening in every market right now, not just because of the pandemic, but because of this thing called the Internet because of this emphasis on experience versus sort of more tactical or order writing or cost per appointment calculations.

[00:15:10.600] - Kenji Haroutunian

So I think the answer to the question is that it's still forming up what the metrics are. How do you do qualitative metrics that that are meaningful Besides talking about things like vibe, that's a really important thing. That's what people leave with, and it shapes their opinion about whether they want to come back next time or not.

[00:15:35.080] - Marlys Arnold

That's true. Yeah. And you can't attach numbers to that. Exactly. But it's definitely as we saw from the media that came out of the Big Gear show, the vibe was definitely positive. Victoria is also asking, I think we need to just clarify real quick. I know the answer to this, but the difference between exhibitor and retailer.

[00:15:55.420] - Kenji Haroutunian

Yeah. Great question. Because really, who isn't a retailer these days if you're doing direct to consumer, a retailer in our definition is a shop probably has a brick and mortar presence. Multiple shop storefronts maybe. But bike shops, paddle, liveries, climbing gyms are now retailers oftentimes because they sell products. It's a storefront. And the exhibitors in our world are manufacturers of products looking to sell through wholesale to these retail shops.

[00:16:32.460] - Marlys Arnold

And your retailers are your audience or your attendees. Your exhibitors are the brands that are selling to the retailers.

[00:16:38.550] - Kenji Haroutunian

Right, right.

[00:16:39.210] - Marlys Arnold

Yeah. So it is a little bit confusing in the terminology just for this particular show. So a couple of things. I saw the quote somewhere in some of the media experiential Wonderland. And I thought that was so great because it was like you said you would plan on doing the demos all along. But here it was like you just walk across the parking lot and do a demo. It wasn't like you had to transport all of your attendees somewhere.

[00:17:03.960] - Marlys Arnold

So it streamlined everything. So what kinds of things were you hearing from your exhibitors about how they were interacting with the attendees and then the response that they were getting from people?

[00:17:17.560] - Kenji Haroutunian

Yeah. Interesting question. Because I produced, I don't know, maybe 15 or 20 different demos up in the Wasatch range at ten different venues, both summer and winter for the outdoor retailer shows. And so I know that that demo thing pretty intimately. But what was interesting is that the outdoor group, who was a large part of the show, which also had bike and paddle, which were also represented pretty well. You know, different kinds of companies are more used to demoing than others. For example, bike companies are very, very used to it.

[00:18:00.750] - Kenji Haroutunian

Like there are events. Almost every bike event that happens is built around the idea of, hey, get on this bike, throw your leg over and try it, whether it's a mountain bike or an Ebike or a gravel bike or a road bike. You know, that's that's kind of what you do when you go in to bike shop. It's even similar, like they'll let you ride it outside, even here and dangerous streets of LA. But but I think some of the outdoor brands were a little bit like, oh, you want to try it?

[00:18:32.020] - Kenji Haroutunian

They weren't. They weren't expecting maybe that as much with companies, because we're all outdoors and a lot of things indoors you can't test like you can't light a fire, a in an open fires set up like that's just not allowed indoors. But out on the tarmac at Deer Valley Resort, we were easily able to do that. So stove companies and companies that did grills and fire pans and all that we're able to do it. Let's see what else. Paddle sports is also a category that's very used to being able to demo, like, you're not going to buy a boat from a manufacturer unless you've actually paddled it or a stand up board.

[00:19:15.940] - Kenji Haroutunian

So it's a regular part of the buying process, whereas in some categories and outdoor, it's not as used to it. So I think as we iterate through future help, future big gear shows that will become a bigger and bigger part of the platform as people get used to it. Oh, we can test things. It's sometimes not clear that you can.

[00:19:39.700] - Marlys Arnold

Yeah, well, and I loved a quote from our interview that you did for Spark. You said you wanted to focus on the people and products and less about the fancy presentation. So I love that that it really was. It was all about demoing and trying out the products and experiencing things. So what surprised you? I'm guessing there were a lot of because the way you were structured and the financial aspect that you had probably a lot of startups or smaller companies that protect anything that surprised you.

[00:20:12.790] - Marlys Arnold

As far as maybe who was exhibiting or who was attending or just things that were not what you expected.

[00:20:22.230] - Kenji Haroutunian

You know, I think, first of all, yes, one of the things that none of the media really talked about, and maybe it's because they weren't privy to it or that's just not something they're interested to report on, but the affordability of Big Gear Show is something of note. I mean, we are far less expensive than the other shows. And because this taps back into that sort of the one upsmanship, I guess I would call it a brand in a in a show setting. As a show gets longer along its arc of existence, the players kind of step up their game and they're competing with each other.

[00:21:06.340] - Kenji Haroutunian

They're competing for the interest or attention of investors. And so these sort of palatial presentations start to build up. And with the Big Gear Show, we really wanted to kind of like detune that a bit. And let's get back to kind of like what's important here. And that is getting people excited about participating in Outdoor reck. And and that means telling the stories of the gear and the product and making the connections with the people and a little bit less about kind of the just elaborate presence of a of a platform and in the outdoors.

[00:21:47.450] - Kenji Haroutunian

It's kind of hard to do that. Although I was one of the surprises is that several companies did bring, like, real booths they had I&D companies that came in. They had people setting it up, and they were, you know, well designed booths. They would have been fine indoors, but they were made to withstand any kind of weather elements that might come, which this was another surprise that we got really good weather. We split the gap between the storm tracks that were coming through the Rockies at that time, which had been going for a week, and then the smoke factor, which just came in literally the morning after we were done.

[00:22:29.900] - Kenji Haroutunian

It was we just threaded the needle on that one. We know that in the future, there's going to be weather events, but we're the outdoor industry and we know how to handle a little bit of weather.

[00:22:40.900] - Marlys Arnold

Right. Well, real quick, before we wrap up anything as far as lessons learned or something that, you know, I know we're only a month past your show, so things aren't really set for next year. But anything that you learned from this year that you're going to implement or try differently or wish you done differently this year.

[00:23:00.680] - Kenji Haroutunian

Well, yeah. The first lesson is don't have a pandemic. That's a really important lesson. So whoever's in charge of that, I really request out of you. But seriously, I think for us, I think investing in operations support, that was something we're going to do more of. And this had a lot to do with the pandemic. We lost a couple of key players to Quarantine and COVID not lost them. I didn't mean to get too dramatic, but they couldn't travel, and so we had to scramble a bit.

[00:23:37.450] - Kenji Haroutunian

And I think, in general, just having stronger support there having content ready the beauty of having stage this is not I don't have to say anymore. Close your eyes and imagine this ... I can actually show you. Here's the image, here video, but that's I think having more content is really important people want to see, especially when you're doing something different. They got to see what you're getting, what they're getting into. I think. And over communicating is the third thing I would say is you can't communicate enough to especially again if you're trying to do something different.

[00:24:17.760] - Kenji Haroutunian

And now you've just got to be okay bombarding people with information until they cry uncle a little bit like, look, this is the third time this week you sent me this message. Yes. Sorry about that. I'd rather apologize for overcommunicating. I think that's something you want to do better as we go forward.

[00:24:36.700] - Marlys Arnold

Well. And that is so true because like you said, it's hard to get everybody to see your vision of what this event is going to be. And now you don't have to try to explain that so much anymore. You can actually just share that with them and they can get the excitement and the vibe like you said earlier and feel that for themselves. So, Kenji, thank you so much. This has been so much fun. I've been following The Big Gear Show ever since your news releases first came out a couple of years ago that you were putting this together because it was going to be innovative.

[00:25:08.480] - Marlys Arnold

So I really want to say thank you and how much we appreciate having you on Virtual Lunch to come back and share your experiences like this. And we wish you so much success for next year and I'm going to be continuing to follow. And I know other people are too. So keep up the great work, Kenji.

[00:25:25.720] - Kenji Haroutunian

Well, thanks, Marlys. Appreciate you giving me a little attention over here and following the Big Year Show. It's something I'm excited for, too.

[00:25:39.210] - Marlys Arnold

You can find all the links mentioned during our interview in this episode show Notes at And if you'd like to join us for an upcoming Virtual lunch, you'll find info on that at If you you enjoyed today's episode and would like more, you can subscribe to the podcast and automatically receive future episodes on your chosen device. Simply search for Trade Show Insights in Apple Spotify Stitcher or virtually anywhere else that podcasts are found. Then click the subscribe button.

[00:26:26.740] - Marlys Arnold

Trade Show Insights is protected by the Creative Commons Copyright License. You may feel free to share this recording with colleagues or embedded on your own blog as long as it's shared in its entirety and is not used for commercial purposes. To learn more, please see the link in the Sidebar, the Show Notes at Well, that's it for this episode of Trade Show Insights. Be sure to check out our show notes and archives at You can also connect with me using the social media links or the contact page on the site.

[00:27:01.590] - Marlys Arnold

I'm Marlys Arnold. Thanks for listening and be sure to join us next time for more tools to improve your exhibit results.


The NEW version of Build a Better Trade Show Image has arrived!Click here to learn more