Denver Hosts Outside Festival That Could Become the Outdoor South by Southwest | Westword

Take That, Utah: Outside Festival a Win for Colorado

"The way the industry showed up, the environment that was created, people were connecting, happy, there were tons of kids and families, it was safe, fun."
Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Mike Johnston were ready to welcome the first Outside Festival at the announcement.
Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Mike Johnston were ready to welcome the first Outside Festival at the announcement. Brad Kaminski/Outside Inc.
Share this:
Win some, lose some again.

The Outdoor Retailer show is the outdoor recreation industry's largest gathering; in 2017, it moved to Denver from Salt Lake City, where it got its start in 1982. But then in 2022, it moved back to Salt Lake City.

That's when Conor Hall, the new director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, got the idea to create a new Colorado event, one that had the potential to turn into the South by Southwest of the outdoor recreation industry. He found the perfect partner to push the idea: Outside Inc., the publishing and digital media company that had just relocated to Boulder from Santa Fe.

“The outdoors is the lifeblood industry of the State of Colorado, contributing more than $62 billion to the state and supporting over 500,000 jobs — that’s 18 percent of the workforce in Colorado,” Hall said in announcing the Outside Festival in February, as Governor Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock looked on. “Historically, Colorado’s outdoor industry has not had a voice that is relative to its size and importance. With the Outside Festival, we are creating a gathering that unifies our voice and empowers the industry and community it represents.”
click to enlarge two men with sign for festival
Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Mike Johnston were ready to welcome the first Outside Festival at the announcement.
Brad Kaminski/Outside Inc.
And by all the metrics available, the first Outside Festival, which filled Civic Center Park the first weekend in June, was an absolute success, organizers say.

"We were really happy with it," says Hall. "The way the industry showed up, the environment that was created, people were connecting, happy, there were tons of kids and families, it was safe, fun."

"There was a lot about the three days that certainly was far better than we had anticipated," adds Robin Thurston, the CEO of Outside Inc. "There certainly were concerns initially that people would only come for the music."

While music was a big draw at the event — with Thundercat on June 1, Fleet Foxes on June 2, and lots of other bands, including local acts, before the headliners — there were also plenty of family-friendly activities and vendors, as well as films and The Summit on May 31, which included speeches, films and other programs geared to industry stakeholders.

More than 18,000 adults attended the Outside Festival between May 31 and June 2. That number doesn't include children under twelve, who got in free, but even without counting them, the festival reached its goal of attracting 15,000 to 20,000 people over the three days. Among the ticket buyers, 31 percent identified as non-white, Hall says, noting that "it was super diverse."
click to enlarge people at an outside festival
Sponsors helped fill the park...and the coffers of the Outside Festival.
Special to Westword
The festival was also unexpectedly successful in bringing in out-of-state visitors, thanks in part to the global reach of Outside Inc. Thurston says he was only expecting non-Coloradans to account for 5 to 7 percent of the ticket sales, but they ended up at 20 percent. And more out-of-state visitors means "more heads in beds" for hotels, he notes.

Gear vendors with booths sold out of their supplies on June 1; Summit speakers Shaun White, Diana Nyad and Jimmy Chin each packed more than 600 guests into the rooms holding their panels; on social media, the Outside Festival collected about 2 billion impressions.

According to surveys sent out after the festival, more than 90 percent of respondents said they planned to attend next year's festival.

And there will be another festival, according to organizers.

"If we weren't successful, we likely wouldn't be doing it again," Thurston says. "And right now, we absolutely have plans to do this not only next year, but in the future."
click to enlarge
Hanging at the first Outside Festival.
Special to Westword
A "rough estimate" from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, which includes Hall's office, had predicted that the festival would generate $4.7 million for the local economy for every 10,000 guests who bought tickets, and "early data suggests we're in line with these numbers," Thurston says.

"When it's all said and done, I think the economic impact is going to be greater than we think," he adds. "But at least from a beginning stage perspective, we very much think it's in line with that range of...$4 to $5 million of economic impact on the city."

While city coffers will definitely benefit, Outside Inc. itself had to cover the costs of putting on the event. Since it's a private company, Outside doesn't share revenue numbers for any of its operations, whether a festival or the publishing side of the business, Thurston says. But sponsors anted up money, and the festival got a $440,000 grant from the state, from money left over from funding for the Outdoor Retailer show after it moved to Utah. Visit Denver also worked with Hall's office and Outside to put on and promote the fest.

While the main festival and the Summit were created as the core of the Outside Festival, "if we can successfully weave in other pieces, that's how we can get to that South by Southwest effect," Hall explains. "We want to be careful about not trying to go too big too quick. We want to just continue to really execute on a couple things and do them incredibly well. It could be five days, just continuing to add other pieces around it."

In the short term, Hall says the festival will work with organizations like trade associations and nonprofits that want to host smaller meetings, conventions or gatherings within the festival. "We're already getting a lot of interest that way," he adds. 
click to enlarge Bigfoot in denim vest
The Outside Festival attracted some wildlife.
Special to Westword
The festival is also interested in expanding to other events around the state that celebrate the outdoors, in what Hall calls  a "hub-and-spoke" model. "The core event is probably always in Denver, just because of the proximity to the airport, the proximity to a lot of folks and kids who maybe don't have easy, safer access" to other parts of the state.   

"But," he continues, "we are very interested not only in showcasing Colorado communities and small Colorado brands from rural Colorado at the festival, but also looking at those other events around the state and figuring out, can we bring some of these ideas or this brand to another outdoor-focused event to help lift it up and support it?"

"We talked a lot about that from the beginning," Thurston says. "How do you get different parts of Colorado engaged with a hub-and-spoke type model? I wouldn't anticipate that the spokes would get very far away, at least for next year — not until we've perfected the hub and how that fits around the Denver area."

So next year, the focus will be on scaling up the main festival and shooting for attracting up to 25,000 people. There will again be music acts and films, and definitely more food trucks, and "some quicker ones," since the main complaint about this fest was the long lines. Hall says that those resulted from "just having more people than anyone kind of thought or projected."

Based on positive feedback, Thurston is also looking at expanding the one-day Summit for industry stakeholders to two days. "We're going to try to perfect what we have," he says.

And in the meantime, Colorado isn't done trying to show up Utah. This week, the state submitted a proposal to move the Sundance Film Festival from that namesake Utah town to Boulder.
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.