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Tim Canaday keeps an old wooden snowboard in his office at the Never Summer Industries factory as a reminder. The board, fit for a history museum, has rubber straps for bindings and metal fins bolted to the tail and midsection, to keep it steady in deep powder. He constructed the board in 1983 for his tenth-grade wood shop class at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, and he's been thinking about how to build better and better boards ever since.
After Tim made that prototype, he and his older brother, Tracey, operated Swift Snowboards out of their parents' garage for two years, shaping the boards and then testing them at places like Berthoud Pass and Ski Cooper, some of the first ski areas to allow the newfangled contraptions on their slopes. In the parking lots at the base of the mountains, they'd sell their boards — painted with big, swooping "S" logos — out of the trunk of their car. Then, as now, Jake Burton dominated the market with his Burlington, Vermont-based Burton Snowboards, but the Canaday brothers saw an opportunity to make their own tracks as a Colorado company.
"We were skiers when we were little kids, going up to Winter Park and Mary Jane with our family, and then one day a friend's older brother took us snowboarding on the back hills at Berthoud Pass," Tracey remembers. "We were hooked, and we started building our own boards pretty much the next day. I don't think either of us ever skied again after that first day, now that I think about it."
When the brothers made their way out to California for school and work, they took up surfing and let their fledgling snowboard business lapse. But then in 1990, while taking some runs at Snow Summit for old time's sake, they happened upon a small snowboard trade show at the base and realized that an entire industry was blowing up without them.
"There was so much attitude and so many kooks in the business at that time, and we were like, 'Damn, we've got to start another snowboard company and do this thing right,'" Tim recalls. He and Tracey returned to Colorado the following year and founded Never Summer Industries, named for the Rocky Mountain range they'd tromped around as kids, hunting and camping with their dad. "Never Summer was basically born out of the simple realization of that day: 'We can do it better than these chumps,'" Tim says. "We put our heads together and decided we were going to move back to Colorado, because where else would you want to be if you're starting a snowboard company?"
This week, SnowSports Industries America brings its SIA Snow Show to Colorado because, after 37 years in Las Vegas, its organizers apparently had the same realization as the Canaday brothers: If the snow sports industry is your game, where else would you want to be?
The SIA Snow Show, which runs January 28 through January 31 at the Colorado Convention Center, is the biggest and most important trade show for the $3 billion snow sports industry, with nearly 800 brands vying for the attention of retail buyers from around the world. The stakes are high: Tracey Canaday estimates he'll write orders for about 80 percent of the company's annual snowboard sales this weekend.
"I think a lot of people in the industry see leaving Las Vegas and coming to Denver as a sign that the party's over, and maybe that's a good thing," Tracey says. "Vegas is a great place to have a show, for obvious reasons, but I would love for it to work and be successful here in Colorado. It makes sense on a lot of different levels to have the SIA show here. It's a lot cheaper for our company, for one thing! But it's also the perfect place for the snow sports industry to get down to business."
Denver is the top urban market for snow sports equipment, according to SIA, and 107 of SIA's 620 members are based in Colorado. SIA estimates that one in five Colorado residents — approximately 730,000 people — participate in snow sports. And Colorado ski resorts reported 11.9 million visits last season, more than 20 percent of the U.S. total of 57.4 million ski/ride days. "Frankly, I'm not sure how they ever got away with having this thing in Vegas," Tracey says.
Still, snagging SIA was a coup: It's the biggest trade show booking yet for Visit Denver, the city's convention and visitors' bureau, projected to pour $352 million into the city over the life of the eleven-year contract. Show attendance is expected to be around 20,000 this year, and downtown hotels, bars, restaurants, strip clubs and other businesses are bracing for an epic weekend. Colorado's 26 ski resorts are also hoping to reap some of the benefits of having the entire snow sports industry in town, and many of the mountains are partnering with bars near the convention center for Visit Denver's "World's Largest Après Ski + Ride Party," offering discount lift ticket and season pass promotions.
Unfortunately, the convention comes to Colorado in the middle of a recession that has hit this industry particularly hard. Consumer purchases at snow sports retailers last year were at the lowest level in at least seven years, according to SIA's own numbers. Through November 2009, Internet sales of snowboards were up 40.88 percent, but overall snowboard sales were down by 10.42 percent, according to Kelly Davis, director of research for SIA.