Zeppelins and Tipis
Every July the international outdoor trade gathers in the little town of Friedrichshafen (pop. 58,000) in southern Germany on the shores of beautiful Lake Constance. Across the lake lies the edge of the Swiss Alps, shadowy rocky peaks rising steeply through the summer haze. The Messe exhibition halls are on the edge of the town close to the Zeppelin museum, Friedrichshafen being the place where these airships were first built. It's not unusual to look up to see a Zeppelin floating above the museum.
Friedrichshafen is set in lovely rolling countryside with many woods, a far cry from downtown Salt Lake City and the Outdoor Retailer show. For the last two years, I've camped at Friedrichshafen in a tipi village provided by Merrell Footwear. The tipis are pitched in a meadow in quiet woods just ten minutes walk from the exhibition halls. It's ironic that at the big U.S. outdoor trade show, I stay in a city in a hotel, but that at the big European one, I camp in a Native American tipi.
A great feature of the tipi village is the relaxed communal nature of the place. After the high pressure of the show (and it IS high pressure, covering as many companies as possible out of the 800+ there during non-stop nine-hour days), it's wonderful to unwind and chat casually to other campers round a campfire. Sometimes guitars are produced and impromptu music sessions occur. There's a bar and a music player too, and even a small dance floor.
I spent one enjoyable evening talking to colleagues from other magazines, and our conversation went from sober analysis of the show to raucous and outrageous comments on what the outdoor industry should be doing, accompanied by thunderous heavy metal music, favorites of some of the other writers (I requested Neil Young, but I don't think anybody heard). Another good evening was spent chatting to the people from Alpkit.com, who are always knowledgeable and interesting.
I traveled to the Friedrichshafen OutDoor show on behalf of the UK hiking and backpacking magazine TGO, based, like myself, in Scotland. Friedrichshafen isn't the easiest place to reach from my home in the Highlands. In fact, the whole journey took nineteen hours, of which the major part was spent traveling south on the sleeper train to the only airport in Britain with flights to Friedrichshafen: Stansted in Southern England.
Once at the airport, familiar faces appeared, and the flight was packed with British writers, retailers, and outdoor company people heading for the show. In a sense the work starts then, picking up the vibes, rumors, stories, "must see" suggestions, and more.
Once inside the exhibition, the differences between the OutDoor and Outdoor Retailer shows diminish. Aircraft hangar-style exhibition halls - all hot bright lights and metal - are much the same anywhere, and the glossy displays on the booths don't vary much either. Many outdoor companies, including all the big names, are at both shows. The biggest companies have European staff who run the show at OutDoor and American staff who handle Outdoor Retailer.
However for many companies the same people work both shows, and the people I talked to on the GoLite, Integral Designs, Outdoor Research, Pacific Outdoor Equipment and High Gear booths will be there at Outdoor Retailer. OutDoor does provide the opportunity to talk to technical people and designers from European companies who don't go to Outdoor Retailer, and I had interesting conversations with people from several companies, Primus in particular (though Primus will be in Salt Lake, there's a good chance that the Swedish techies I spoke to will not be joining them).
Being the earlier show, OutDoor has the advantage that new product launches occur there first. Only those companies with no European presence save their product introductions for Outdoor Retailer. This year, the gap between the shows is two and a half weeks, enough time for a reasonable turnaround for companies. Next year it's just two days, which was a big talking point this year with most people agreeing it was ridiculous, and that the organizers of the two shows should talk to each other to prevent this happening again. I'd hate not to have a break between shows.
There is one noticeable difference between OutDoor and Outdoor Retailer and that is language. English is standard at Outdoor Retailer. No language is standard at OutDoor. Walking through a hall you can hear bewildering snatches of a mass of languages - German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean (not that I can recognize all these) and more - while booths have brochures and signs in a selection of languages. Luckily for typical Brits like me, whose language skills don't run to more than bad schoolboy French and a few words of Norwegian, English is largely understood.
This sense of internationalism, with a big Asian presence, adds an air of excitement to OutDoor that Outdoor Retailer perhaps lacks. But then for me, coming from wet and windy Scotland, hot and dusty Salt Lake City seems quite exotic by itself.
State of the Market
In my experience the atmosphere of the shows has more to do with the state of the outdoor market at the time rather than whether they are in Europe or America. Some shows have a buzz and positive feel; others are flat with a feeling of marking time. This year, OutDoor felt surprisingly buoyant given the economic climate, though it may be that this hasn't been felt as severely in most of Europe as it has in the States and, certainly, Britain. Some people I spoke to felt that more people would now go hiking and camping as these were less expensive than other holiday activities, and so the outdoor trade would, perversely, benefit from an economic downturn. I'll be interested to hear what the mood is at Outdoor Retailer.
Now to the gear itself. I won't jump the gun and preview the stuff that'll appear at Outdoor Retailer. However there are some companies who won't be crossing the Atlantic, mostly because they've never tried selling in North America, often because they are small.
One of the main ones of interest to lightweight backpackers is Lightwave, a British company who make top quality lightweight tents and packs. At OutDoor, Lightwave launched a new pack, the Wildtrek, available in a 55 liter size for women and a 60 liter size for men at weights of 1.45 and 1.5 kg (everything at OutDoor is metric, as it is in most of the world outside the USA and Britain - which is itself confused and does a bit of both).
Lightweight rather than ultralight, the Wildtrek packs look excellent for moderate to heavy loads. The pack design is a fairly clean alpine climbing one, though there are big mesh side pockets and a lid with a roomy pocket. The seams are welded and taped, so it's almost waterproof (the seams connecting the back system to the packbag aren't sealed, so a little leakage is possible, though I've not had any with a smaller Lightwave pack I've been testing).
The Wildtrek has a frame, a moulded back panel, and a wide hipbelt. Lightwave says it should support twelve- to fifteen-kilogram loads. I reckon it'll handle more, as I've been carrying that weight in the smaller Fastpack 50, which has a slimmer hipbelt. Overall, I think this is an exciting pack.
Another company who won't be at Outdoor Retailer is Yeti from Germany, who I've never seen outside the OutDoor show, and whose products don't appear in stores outside Germany, Sweden, and Denmark. Yeti makes nice looking clothing and wonderful looking down sleeping bags, some at very low weights such as the 440 gram V.I.B. 150 and the 630 gram V.I.B 250.
Also makers of excellent down bags (I've used them on many long distance walks), but not going to Outdoor Retailer, is another British company, Mountain Equipment. M.E., as it's known, also makes tents and clothing, and it was the latter in which they showed new products at OutDoor. Of most interest was a rain jacket weighing 295 grams in size large called the Particle. It's made from M.E.'s own 2.5 layer Drilite Ultra fabric and has a full mountain hood that looks good for the worst storms and two big mid-torso pockets.
Finally I'll just mention that, for the first time, lightweight tent maker Terra Nova will be at Outdoor Retailer.
I myself won't be at Outdoor Retailer this year, so like everyone else I'll be eagerly watching for the BPL reports to see what new gear has emerged that didn't appear at OutDoor or that I missed if it did. Then comes the even more interesting task of testing and evaluating it.