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Can Outside start the "SXSW of the outdoor industry"?

The outdoor media conglomerate is pitching a new Denver-based festival with lofty ambitions

Outside Magazine is hosting a consumer-focused festival next year that they’re hoping becomes the “SXSW of the outdoor industry” over the next several years.

The event is planned for the first week of June in downtown Denver, bringing together gear, music, film, consumers, and industry. The event will incorporate the “Big Gear Show” and a number of different ‘activation zones’ that brands can sponsor. There will be a measure of free access, but music, headliners, films, keynotes, and panels are likely to be ticketed experiences, sold through a multi-day festival pass. The event has the support of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, as well as the mayor of Denver and the governor.

Outside is still shopping the idea to brands, and there are very few details overall. Events are hard, and the planning involved has long lead times. Outside expects to have sponsors locked down by December 15th, but that depends on if brands are willing to throw down the $50k+ to sponsor one of the ‘activation zones’.

I think there is space for an event somewhere in this realm. The industry has often centered around B2B events like Outdoor Retailer, which is basically dead in the water at this point. There have been some notable attempts at consumer events like Outessa and the Outbound Collective’s Pursuit Series, although none survived for very long. Consumer events are incredibly hard to run in a financially sustainable way. Even the Big Gear Show, which started as b2b, and shifted to “business-to-buiness-to-consumer” seemed unable to stand on its own — it’ll be integrated into the Outside Festival this summer.

It’s not the first time Outside has delved into a ‘consumer focused’ format. The Outside Experience, hosted in Chicago, was supposed to be “the ultimate urban-based active-lifestyle festival”. It wasn’t really a success; only a fraction of the expected attendees showed up, and the second year of the event was cancelled due to covid. I think Denver is a far superior venue and demographic for this type of event, so that’s working in their favor.

The Outside Experience expo in Chicago

I think it’s a question whether Outside even has a strong enough brand to attract interest (I’ve written previously about the erosion of their brand loyalty and community). Outside is seeking a title sponsor in the six-figure range, and I think whomever this brand is this will be an important aspect of how the event is presented and branded. The same can be said for industry and brand participation – Outside remains big and influential…but they’re still not exactly a loved partner in the industry. Does the industry even want or trust Outside to be the arbiter of a culturally significant industry event in the style of SXSW?

It might be a stretch to expect brands to invest in a brand new, unproven event. Will brands invest in a Go Pro Games-lite, with all of the pomp but less actual outdoors + participation opportunities + competition + venue excitement? And given that there’s likely to be audience overlap, and the events are being held on consecutive weekends, will consumers go to both?

Digital details (or lack thereof)

Serious question...who at Outside let this event landing page ship? Not a single "link" in the footer works, the 'expand' map overlaps content, I wouldn’t recommend using a hamburger menu here (that doesn't close on click) and the mobile site is a strange amalgam of a responsive/desktop experience.

It’s indicative of a lack of attention to detail, user experience, and just…fully thinking things through, that seems to pervade the company these days. The execution feels remarkably similar to the NFT debacle. And it’s not just this microsite – I got ‘upgraded’ to Outside+ a while ago because of my GaiaGPS subscription. I tried to log into my Outside+ account on the Outside website to manage that and understand how a renewal would work. However, I can’t manage my Outside+ account from the Outside website. Even on GaiaGPS, it’s nearly impossible to understand my current subscription situation. What will I end up paying for next year? What subscription do I actually have?

“Kyle, these are hard tech problems, that have nothing to do with the event” Yeah, I know. Integrating a bunch of disparate systems is super complicated. But it’s been a while now, and to me (and others), it really doesn’t feel like things are getting better. And when you launch something that (to me) feels slapped together, it doesn’t give me great confidence in the organization and attention to detail for other related initiatives.

I’ll look forward to following the progress of the Outside Festival – it’s an interesting, if ambitious, initiative. Hopefully they can execute on an event that is run well and contributes to the outdoor community. I’ll be the first one to say that my gut feelings were wrong come June.

I'm Kyle Frost. Join 65,000 readers enjoying Here & There, my weekly outdoor/travel newsletter with nuance, questions, and complexity.

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