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How a sports-gear company created the first virtual trade show for the outdoor industry, where media personalities and influencers can connect with brands in a video-game-style simulation

Thin Air Amphitheater Avatar
  • Outdoor Retailer is the largest biannual trade show for the outdoor industry, but it had to cancel its summer exposition due to COVID-19.
  • Gearmunk, a gear review platform, configured a virtual solution: the Thin Air Outdoor Media Show, which will run June 24 to June 26.
  • It's being recognized as the first virtual trade show for the outdoor industry, however, the idea for it has been floating in Gearmunk leaders' minds for a while.
  • Any type of content creator, whether blogger, YouTuber, or influencer, can apply for one of the 1,000 free media badges to attend the event, which feels a lot like a video game.
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The longevity of COVID-19 is murky, but one thing is clear: The virus forced industries nationwide to pivot in an effort to remain profitable in a world where human contact is inadvisable.
Outdoor Retailer (OR), the largest biannual trade show for the outdoor industry, fell prey to the coronavirus in early April when it canceled its summer exposition. This temporary loss of the biggest trade show of the year sharply stung known brands like Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear — but all is not yet lost. Thanks to the team at Gearmunk, a rewards-based, democratized gear review platform, the outdoor industry is about to meet the Thin Air Outdoor Media Show, a potential trade show solution that may overcome the realities of our antisocial new normal.
Erik Boles
Thin Air, running from June 24 to June 26, is being called the first truly digital trade show for the outdoor industry. While its inception feels like impeccably good timing, CEO and founder of Gearmunk Erik Boles — who spent a decade in the tech startup world before launching into the outdoor industry as a consultant for big and small retailers — shared with Business Insider that the digital concept has been swirling around at Gearmunk for a few years.

The idea for a virtual trade show is born 5 years too soon

In 2015, Boles and his business partner attended the summer OR Show as vendors. During a late-afternoon happy hour, the conversation topic switched to sustainability. As surrounding individuals chattered about carbon footprints and eco-friendly alternatives, Boles looked around the room at the monstrously glitzy booths, trash cans filled with waste, and thousands of folks who had hopped on an airplane in order to attend the event in Salt Lake City.
"Hell yeah, let's hear it for sustainability," his business partner sarcastically commented.
In that moment, Boles made the decision: He would bring a virtual trade show to life. But, he and his team needed to wait for technology to grow into their vision first.
"Back then, it would've been a website and a Webex with video and all that, but that's not a conference — that's a webinar," Boles explained. "In the business world, we've all heard of death by webinar, so we knew that didn't make any sense."
While still in its nascent stages, virtual reality (VR) was clearly the solution. However, in 2015 the world still tiptoed around VR technology. Innovations like Google's recently announced Google Cardboard headset and Facebook's acquisition of Oculus VR Inc. and their accompanying Oculus Rift headset dominated the headlines. Boles knew he didn't want to create a trade show where everyone needed headsets at their desks back home, so he and his team bided their time until virtual reality caught up with the real world.

Defying trade show standards by inviting social media personalities to the table

In the meantime, Boles began creating the messaging of the future event. With experience in three successful exits, including the sale of MX Logic to McAfee/Intel, Boles understands technology. As a result, he knew the trade show needed an "ecommerce play" that empowered consumers to advocate for their brands.
Trade shows like OR Show are mainly buying shows where retailers come to see new products from brands and place orders for their store. Media is a distant second priority. While successful, Boles believes that this process allows retailers to passively influence consumer spending.
"If you walked into a retailer and asked for a water bottle, the sales guy is going to show you his favorite from the options the store has already decided to carry," Boles explained. "But what if we can help brands by spreading their message directly to the public so you walk back into that store and specifically ask for a Liberty Works water bottle?"
The Thin Air solution is to invite more people to the initial round table. At present, any type of content creator can apply for one of the 1,000 free media badges to attend the event (although not everyone will be accepted). While this includes traditional media journalists, the show is also open to folks like Instagrammers, YouTubers, bloggers, and TikTok personalities.
This policy stands in stark contrast to OR Show, which has strict qualification standards regarding what's considered media, along with minimum traffic requirements for digital platforms. Bloggers with enough monthly pageviews can attend OR, but the guidelines exclude other social media personalities. To Boles, this is a big miss that Thin Air wants to change.
"Consumers don't trust brand voice anymore, and they haven't for a very long time," he said. "It's not 1986, and consumers know that pro athletes are paid to deliver a specific message about a product. Immediately, our BS detector goes off."
In inviting a broader range of content creators, Thin Air is doubling down on the notion that the general public knows, likes, and trusts their favorite social media personalities just as much (if not more) as they believe mainstream media or branding messaging.
Plus, Boles believes the direct-to-consumer mentality of social media is powerful. A YouTuber can sit down at their laptop immediately after the trade show and create a video about the best product they discovered, whereas print media typically has a three or four month lead time. In those months before magazines hit newsstands, Boles thinks social media can create a surge of brand loyalty that empowers consumers to publicly champion for their favorite brands — and help those who may be struggling during the current pandemic.
At present, there's space for 400 brands to attend the show, but retailers and buyers are not allowed in an effort to continue the empowerment of the direct-to-consumer messaging.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity and need for virtual experiences

The team at Gearmunk has worked through these intricacies over the past few years. But when COVID-19 effectively closed down the country in March 2020, Boles and his team paid close attention. While he's quick to say that Thin Air is not a replacement for OR, Boles knew that brands were left in a compromising position with retailers shutting their doors. Once OR announced their cancelation, his team jumped into action in an effort to fill a need in the channel.
The Gearmunk team began true code development in early March. The company's engineers leveraged existing digital infrastructures and their working knowledge of application programming interfaces (APIs) to make Thin Air possible on a pre-existing tech platform. Who the team is leveraging remains a mystery; Gearmunk is keeping that information white labeled. But, Boles did disclose that it's a company with decades of history in the video-gaming space.
How does the virtual trade show work for attendees?
Using a customized avatar, content creators will move through the virtual convention hall by using the mouse or trackpad on their computer at home — no special gear needed. Gearmunk helps brands build out digital assets and videos for their booth, so media attendees can view the products while virtually meeting with the brand rep.
Thin Air Show Floor Standard Booth
If they find something interesting, media can click on the digital asset to store it inside the avatar's backpack, which they can then access at home.
Thin Air Dedicated Hall Avatar
Thin Air is using three-dimensional spatial audio, which basically provides the same auditory environment as real life. For example, attendees will hear snippets of conversation as they pass by other avatars, but the sound will fade as they put distance between themselves and others — just like in everyday life. This audio also allows for networking as attendees can chat with others they encounter while perusing aisles.
Thin Air Show Floor Human Interaction
The entire event exists in real time, too: If a vendor steps away from their computer to use the restroom, their avatar will not be available at the brand's virtual booth. 
thin air floor tradeshow
Thanks to the initial number of registrants, Gearmunk is already planning on hosting a winter show for the 2020-21 season. But until then, the team has their work cut out for them in the coming weeks.
"In these times of economic uncertainty, we know we need to leave these brands in a better position than they were prior to the show," Boles said. "At this point, everything we're doing comes back to that so they know Thin Air is a good move."
SEE ALSO: A new video-pitching platform aims to help women and people of color entrepreneurs shrink the funding gap and reach eager investors. Its cofounders explain how they're rolling it out.
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