Billed as the first, the 2022 Outdoor Expo was a welcome back to pre-Covid times. Some two hundred exhibitors gathered to show off their products and services aimed at the outdoor community. Three Points of the Compass went along to the second day of the weekend exposition to see what was on offer to the lightweight backpacker.
‘Outdoor’ is a wide remit and those visiting were presented with a wide range of activity providers which diluted the more specialised content to the frustration of many, unless you wanted a map that is, with Ordnance Survey, Harvey and Splashmaps all attending. Optical suppliers were in good attendance too with binoculars, camera optics and tripods being one of the few product areas for which there were competing products on display.
Attending content was for those who like to walk, run, kayak, paddleboard, camp and eat outdoors, but not cycle!. There was also something for those who car camp, drink coffee and eat flapjacks. If you wanted to compare between brands, you were very likely to be disappointed. If you wanted a wide range of backpacking equipment to peruse and compare, you were likewise disappointed. As well as the small number of specialised providers, there were a handful of the usual suspects such as Decathlon, Salomon and Teva. Some decently priced show-offers could be taken advantage of but most stock seemed to be aimed at those spending between £10-£30 on impulse buys.
Where this sort of show succeeds most perhaps is inspiring some to actually attempt something different, more difficult, or outside their comfort zone. Muslim Hikers and the All Terrain Wheelchairs stands helped demonstrate that the outdoors is not necessarily confined to an elite few and that it can be far more inclusive than that.
I saw little in the way of innovation and new season kit. Vango were the only exhibitor showing a very small range of smaller shelters and at almost £700 I am not sure many lightweight backpackers are going to seriously consider their Vango F10 Project Hydrogen Airbeam shelter on display. Typically, smaller ‘pocket money’ products from their various brands- Firepot meals etc. were flying off the shelves.
I enjoyed my visit. Whether it justified five hours of travelling is another thing. Certainly if the event is repeated, I will not attend again unless the number of attending brands and suppliers increases dramatically. There was little to interest a lightweight backpacker and I came away with little more than some new dehydrated meals. Stopping to chat to a great many people, all of whom were engaging and helpful, also fitting in a brief meal and cup of tea, I was still away within three hours. I would have expected enough to keep me interested for twice that.
There was a definite buzz in the hall. You could see that visitors were eager to experience what was on offer. Kids (and the older kids) were enjoying the zip wire and climbing walls and there were many paddlers and kayakers on the lake outside in the bright sunshine. There is a short positive retrospective film here. Presentations from a large and varied bunch of speakers on both days were well attended though I found the sound system for the main Inspiration Stage quite poor. Sound for the smaller Outdoor Skills Theatre was better. Julia Bradbury was holding forth on some nonsense as I passed the main stage, while three informative young ladies were giving good advice on Leave No Trace at the smaller Ordnance Survey and Montane sponsored ‘skills’ stage. When they moved on to discussing ‘favourite gear’ which simply looked to be an advert for Montane products, I left. It was good to see that the organisers had balanced popular and inspirational speakers such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Ben Folgle with those who appeal to a younger media savvy audience. Some choices were odd however. Abbie Barnes has done great work highlighting the benefits of outdoor activity for those suffering mental health issues via her popular YouTube channel, so why-oh-why did they have her talking on map reading-both a lost opportunity and extremely odd choice of ‘expert’.
Tickets for the show were £10 but it was not difficult to snaffle a freebie from one of the attending exhibitors. Birmingham is a far better location than London for a national exhibition and show as it is more central to the country and evens out the travelling effort for attendees. That said, the National Exhibition Centre charges exorbitant rates for parking and on site catering isn’t cheap either. Franchised suppliers are limited though there were plenty of nutrition bars, flapjacks, dehydrated meal tasters and ‘new’ coffee blend products to be sampled from stall holders. Anyone attending such an event has to accept that this can be an expensive day out. Part of the problem is that it isn’t even a day out either, the show was not large enough and had failed to attract sufficient exhibitors to offer much to any visitor with specific and specialised interests. It was mostly a general product show that did little more than whet the interest, and that barely.
As we enter a post-pandemic period, it was pretty obvious that there was some uncertainty as regards the success or not of such an event. 10000 visitors were expected to attend over the weekend. Judging from my time there, visitor numbers were good but I suspect the target was not reached though it was hard to tell as the weather was good and there was a good deal of overspill to outside. If the Expo is repeated in the coming years it can only build on this years partial success. Hopefully not only will this years stall holders be encouraged to reattend but a good deal many more may be tempted into joining them. Three Points of the Compass felt the interest from the public was there and there is potential for this event to become a major player on the European wide stage. However it needs to be far larger, not lose sight of the target audience, attract bigger players as well as the smaller independents, showcase a great deal more innovation, and remain within the price point of a visiting public.