Colorado's First Outside Festival Plans Gear, Movies, More in Denver | Westword


Conor Hall on the "Big, Bold" Outside Festival Coming to Civic Center Park

"There's a real goal to get people outside, get more kids outside. There's a real focus on equity and equitable access to the outdoors."
Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Mike Johnston  with Conor Hall at the Outside Festival announcement.
Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Mike Johnston with Conor Hall at the Outside Festival announcement. Brad Kaminski/Outside Inc.
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Conor Hall had just taken over as director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office when he pitched the idea for the Outside Festival, a celebration of the state's outdoor offerings, to Governor Jared Polis.

"The governor, obviously, from the very first time I mentioned this idea to him — which was my very first week on the job — he loved it," Hall says. "He loves big, bold ideas. That's what he's known for. I think he could see the potential. Mayor Mike Johnston loved it in that similar fashion."

On February 6, Polis and Johnston met Hall on the steps of the Colorado Capitol to announce plans for the inaugural Outside Festival, a big, bold event set for June 1-2 at Civic Center Park.

Hall, who grew up in the San Luis Valley, loves "anything that will get me outdoors," he says. "I'm a big snowboarder, hiker, camper, love to kayak, love to river SUP, truly anything. And we're so blessed in Colorado to have the incredible nature we have." Now 34, he joined Governor John Hickenlooper’s Office of Community Partnerships as the manager of special initiatives in 2015, then served as the director of Conservation Strategies, Policy and Advocacy in the West for the Trust for Public Land before returning to the state to continue advocating for the outdoors.

Hall often describes his vision for the Outside Festival as the outdoor recreation industry's version of South by Southwest, the annual celebration of music that brings thousands of people and more than $200 million a year to Austin, Texas. "That's our hope, that it will bring a similar economic benefit to Denver and Colorado," Hall says. "Even now as we get started, there will be a significant economic impact and benefit, but it's not right away going to be South by Southwest levels."

But the Outside Festival should bring Colorado plenty of attention from the start while costing "a couple million dollars to put the whole thing on," Hall says. "For what it is, it's very reasonable."

click to enlarge Conor Hall is the director of the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.
Conor Hall proposed the Outside Festival to Colorado's governor during his first week on the job.
Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade
In Colorado, outdoor recreation is a "lifeblood industry" that reels in more than $62 billion a year in revenue and supports more than a half-million jobs throughout the state, says Hall. As a result, it was "pretty easy" to get the governor and Denver mayor on board for the project, he notes: "They recognized what this could be for Denver and for Colorado. It's a chance to showcase Colorado on a national and, really, global scale."

The Outside Festival took root in part because Outdoor Retailer, a business-to-business event and the outdoor recreation industry's largest gathering, pulled out of Denver two years ago. It had started in Salt Lake City in 1982, moved to Denver in 2017, then returned to Salt Lake City after its Denver contract ended in 2022.

But Hall thinks of the Outside Festival as "more than just, 'Well, Outdoor Retailer is gone. Let's move on to the next thing,'" he says. Instead, the Outside Festival "was going to happen already, and it's a much bigger kind of vision that stands apart from Outdoor Retailer.           

"There's a real need for it, and there are people calling for it," he continues. "We're not just creating another B2B trade show. This is a dynamic, multifaceted event that engages consumers and the public in a way that those trade shows never did."

The festival's primary sponsor and "main driver" is Outside Inc., the Boulder-based media company that publishes Outside magazine and two dozen other publications, and "is fronting a lot of the cost," according to Hall. Outside is also bringing a major audience, because it can "reach 250 million people around the world every year," he says.

Other sponsors like the North Face and Red Bull will help foot the bill. The State of Colorado "has put in about $440,000," which is mostly "what was unused from the Outdoor Retailer funding package," Hall says.

While Visit Denver, which promotes the Mile High City for the convention and tourism industry, "is involved and likely will be contributing," Hall says that the City of Denver itself hasn't been asked to provide financial support, given Denver's current challenges with the influx of migrants. "They've been very excited and very supportive," Hall adds. "But obviously, with some of the issues like the migrant crisis, they're in a pretty tough budget situation, so we haven't even asked the city for any contributions at this point." 

But the festival itself will bring two days of action to downtown Denver. While it will showcase the newest gear for backpacking, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking and other outdoor sports, the Outside Festival will also sport other entertainment options, including lectures, films and live performances by acts like Thundercat, Andrew Bird and Fleet Foxes, as well as Colorado bands.

"It wasn't all that hard" to secure those marquee musicians, Hall says, citing the help of marketing companies Groundswell Experiential and Superfly, which are putting the concerts together. He also gives "huge credit to our partner in this, Outside," for attracting big names in outdoor sports like Olympic snowboarder Shaun White and legendary swimmer Diana Nyad, the focus of an Academy Award-nominated film, for the festival's panels.

"These are major, well-known, respected brands in the media industry and the entertainment industry, and without them it would have been very tough," Hall says. "They bring so much weight and credibility, and I think that we're going to continue to just get bigger and bigger names. I'm pretty confident of that, once people see what we're putting on and once we're pretty successful here."

click to enlarge A map of the Outside Festival.
The Outside Festival will take over Civic Center Park June 1-2.
Courtesy of the Outside Festival
But the festival has a range of goals besides showcasing the state as "one of the beating hearts of the outdoor industry and the best place to come to recreate in a sustainable, responsible fashion, to start your business, start your career and get your education in the outdoors," Hall says. "There's a real goal to get people outside, get more kids outside. There's a real focus on equity and equitable access to the outdoors."

Hall says he has been looking for ways "to bring the youth from the inverted L neighborhoods" — the neighborhoods on Denver's west and north sides like Montbello, Globeville and Valverde, which have more Black and Hispanic residents with less access to the outdoors because of a lack of money and time, according to the city

Residents of these neighborhoods "haven't historically had good, safe, easy, fair access to the outdoors," Hall says, adding that at the festival, he wants "them to be at the climbing wall with famous climbers, get inspired hearing a talk from someone who's done something incredible from the outdoors."

Hall is still figuring out how to transport kids and their families from those neighborhoods to the event for free, but adds, "I'm confident we'll figure something out."

If the outdoor adventures aren't enough to inspire kids who've never really had access to the outdoors, Hall hopes that going through the Denver Art Museum's nature exhibit Biophilia will do the trick. The museum will also be screening films and documentaries about nature and the outdoors during the festival, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science will host yoga and kids' activities.

And much more could be added to the festival lineup. "I think there's a lot we could do as we grow this thing," says Hall, adding that he "would love to see a real statewide impact" by partnering with other "outdoor-focused events around the state. Maybe it's satellite events in the future. I imagine if we're successful, the headliners could be playing at Red Rocks. And I would love to see the whole downtown activated." 

Hall is even open to the idea of hosting the festival in other parts of the state.

"We'll see," he says. "I think it makes so much sense to have kind of the core, main festival in Denver for transportation for those youth and their families who don't have good access to the outdoors. But again, we would love to build this into a major statewide impact, so I think it could look a lot of different ways."

Early-bird tickets for the Outdoor Festival can be reserved now. A one-day ticket is $39, a two-day ticket is $59, and VIP packages are available for $103; kids under twelve get in free. Find out more here.
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