Chris Morissette always worked from home, but the pandemic still changed things. Without travel and trade shows, Morissette, the principal sales rep at Sespe Group—which represents brands like Cotopaxi and Petzl—found himself doing virtual showings from his garage in Ojai, California. In search of a viable long-term solution, he rented warehouse space in town and recruited a friend who does display work for Patagonia to retrofit it.
“We built out this really cool, intimate showroom where I could do digital line showings and represent brands in a productive, professional way,” says Morissette, who has now upgraded to an even larger space. “I’ve found that brands and dealers both really appreciate the showroom—it’s helped out a lot with business.”
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For reps like Morissette and Justin Singer of Synergy Reps, who cover California, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii, the nuances of their region and variances in timing have made the national trade shows increasingly irrelevant. Singer set up his own Truckee, California, showroom last October, building a one-stop shop for his agency’s eight brands, including KUHL and Kari Traa.
“When you’re in a store, the buyer’s distracted, you’re cramming everything into a small room, customers are coming up and looking through samples—it’s not an ideal experience,” Singer says. “What takes two hours in a showroom can turn into eight hours in a store.”
Across the country in Norfolk, Virginia, Brad Decker, president of Decker & Associates, moved into his 800-square-foot showroom as neighboring tenants were moving out. Though he initially intended the space to serve as a “Zoom room,” clients kept asking to visit in person.
“People wanted to be able to see and feel the product, things you just can’t do virtually or through a catalog,” says Decker. “Some people would drive three hours to see us and we’d tag-team a day of showings with other reps in the area.”
The Denver Merchandise Mart, opened in 1965, once offered similar appeal for buyers. Strictly B2B, the Denver Mart was a collection of disparate showrooms—many focused on the outdoor industry—located in an unattractive building off I-25. Most of the Denver Mart’s revenue came from hosting weekly trade shows, and in February of this year it shuttered for good. With its closing, Axel Geittmann, owner of SuperFluent Sales and Marketing, saw an opportunity.
Geittmann, intent on launching a super-showroom, formed a steering committee with seven other local reps and reached out to developer Ken Gart, who had a vacant property in Lakewood, Colorado, a 15-minute drive from Denver. Within two months, the paperwork had been signed.
“The Denver Mart served as a proof of concept for what we’re doing now,” says Geittmann, adding that national trade shows are increasingly about networking more than about doing business. “There’s nothing like it out there and we’re excited to create this permanent solution.”
Known as the Outdoor Market Alliance, the 30,000-square-foot space will open in October 2021 with room to significantly expand, a likely scenario considering the buzz it’s already generating. Coworking company Thrive Workplace signed the showroom’s 10-year master lease, and everyone else—right now more than 25 outdoor sales agencies representing more than 175 brands—plan to sublease. There’s even talk of renting space in monthly increments, a more appealing option for smaller reps or those living farther afield.
For Sanitas Sales Group’s Keith Reis, a member of the steering committee, being able to display a robust line in good light makes a big difference. “Good reps can make do in any environment and have for decades,” Reis says. “Showrooms simply elevate the experience and make for a more positive, distraction-free line review.”
Reis acknowledges that for reps who are already hitting their goals, the showroom concept might hold less charm. And when it comes to educating and training retail staff, in-store visits will always be necessary. But like virtual initiatives, such as robust online customer portals or video check-ins, showrooms are a pandemic upshot that’s here to stay.
As travel opens up, Morissette hopes to fly key dealers into Ojai for a more experiential buying experience, complete with a stay at the funky Airstream hotel down the street and climbing in nearby Wheeler Gorge. “That’s my long-term plan with the showroom,” says Morissette. “Do line showings, have people actually use the gear, and build relationships.”
This story first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of our print magazine. Read the full issue here.