Sum It Up
If I had to summarize OR with one word, I think that word would be "encouraging."
"Encouraging" because of many things, but particularly because one major trend I noticed at the show was a shift toward lighter gear. Hard goods (packs, tents, sleeping bags, etc) are tending toward lighter materials and construction, and soft goods (clothing) are becoming lighter weight across the board. More people are realizing that lighter weight doesn't necessarily mean a practical increase in fragility. With the exception of one vendor (who showed me a 1-pound propane cylinder fueled coffee maker), most vendors knew immediately who Backpacking Light is and what we're trying to do. The vast majority of them had quite a bit of respect for BPL and were legitimately interested in our feedback... we represent the shifting trend in the market that seems obvious to nearly everyone.
I found it encouraging that manufacturers do listen to our comments and use that feedback in product development... there are still companies who try to exist almost in their own world, darn the torpedos. For what it's worth, vendors regularly made positive comments about how BPLers are pretty much the only ones who ask the kinds of questions we do or get as into fabrics and materials as we do. Basically, I found a relatively high degree of mutual respect in our interactions.
Plays Well With Others
It was also great to see the degree of interaction between vendors. On one hand everyone's amped up a little and getting their promo on, but on the other hand everyone's a bit more laid-back and talking between companies about product development, trends, and how to improve things in the industry. Very good to see the community spirit!
Before flying out to OR I had been forewarned by a number of people to watch out for extreme marketing hype, but I encountered very little. I think the secret is to not let people pitch you while you're there... get them to just talk to you as a co-conspirator, because in the end that's what we really are. We're all trying to improve the industry. If I sensed someone launching into a bit of spin I smiled, made a joke about the spin, and tried to get people to just talk as, well, people. I think my personal Spin Filter is set to a pretty high level of protection, anyway, and I just ignore whatever hype might come out. I've found that if you can talk knowledgeably about the materials and construction of a product, vendors are much more likely to talk to you as the industry pro you are. Overall I think we sorted through the hype and brought you the good stuff.
I was also encouraged by behind-the-scenes trends I noticed between companies in product development arenas. It was honestly kind of surprising to see so many people headed in so many of the same directions with ideas, but good for us since so many of those ideas are aimed toward minimizing weight and maximizing function.
The overall level of passion, intelligence, consideration, exploration and pushing of limits within the industry as a whole is also quite encouraging. As I've said in a dispatch or two, the people we encountered are really into what they do in the industry. I'd call it amazing dedication, but it runs far deeper than that. It's much more than just dedication when a pursuit is really the best expression of your life.
There were at least four vendors on the show floor with products made of Cubic Tech materials! (Terra Nova, Brooks-Range, Granite Gear, Cilo Gear... and Big Sky at the show, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, etc.) I wouldn't go so far as to say Cuben is mainstream yet, but it's getting a solid toehold. I ran into a surprising array of people who had interests in different applications of Cubic Tech material.
A lot of companies you're familiar with were in the OIA/ASTM standardization meeting we covered. Great ideas and thought processes abounded, and the companies are communicating regularly online, but the next whole-group meeting is planned for next year's summer OR (perhaps a more limited winter OR meet, too). I know the reality is that we all have demanding jobs and limited time, but I would like to see more regular meetings to really get through some of the protocols we need to develop. A sort of standardization mini-lobby, if you will. A pipe dream I'm sure, but it would be great if the OIA or some other organization could have a small group dedicated to making these things happen. The end results will benefit vendors, consumers, and other industry pros.
I'm also encouraged by the increasing degree of social and corporate responsibility I encountered. Now, yes, I'm just cynical enough to say that some of it could just be feel-good marketing spin. But frankly, some of the companies we met are doing things far, far beyond the level of marketing spin. Practices are built into every level of corporate practice. One of my big interests in college and personal education has been in developing greater consciousness within corporate practices, and I think it's safe to say that the industry is headed progressively further in that direction.
The barefoot trend is impossible to miss. I don't want to step on Damien's toes (wait for it), but did want to throw out a few observations. Lotsa companies are tossing their own toed shoes into the ring. But many companies are also putting shoes on the market that are designed to get the shoe out of the way of your feet. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but it seems like Inov-8, for example, started out taking the minimalist approach to footwear seven to eight years ago. For those interested in switching over to a barefoot/minimalist approach, the Shok-Zone system of the Inov-8s might be a good way to step yourself down in support. Many other companies and shoes we're looking at are offering minimalist options, and I think those options are impossible to ignore. The quantity of Five Fingers we sell at retail is mind-boggling; it seems like the trend will have to taper off in the next couple years (as most trends do), but that tapering back isn't visible right now.
In other news, readers might find it encouraging that Will and I were able to develop a number of future project ideas for BPL. We'll continue with the same great depth and breadth that Will, Roger and others have pursued in their evaluation of the equipment we all love to use. I don't want to go spoil the surprises, but I think you'll be pleased with the continued evaluations you'll see on the BPL pages.
It's been fun! I hope you enjoyed our coverage.