This year’s Overland Expo West appears to have surprised a few folks. This was our third year in attendance. We arrived in Flagstaff with mixed expectations. There are several reviews published so far praising the event. Here are our thoughts.
A year ago, Danny and I rolled out of the OEW-18 with an assorted bag of disappointment. Five months later the OEE fell apart as the strain of expanded attendance and outright nasty weather overwhelmed the capacity of venue and event team.
Over the winter, a new management company took the wheel of the Overland Expo. As part of the acquisition, a portion of the proceeds continues to support ConserVentures, the charity established by the Overland Expo founders.
The months running up to OEW-19 left Danny and I rolling eyes in trepidation as registration & camping errors (ours) were left unresolved. Repeated email requests for information submitted to the event producers: unanswered. Access to sign up for Overland Experience classes opened late. The arrival, check-in, and camping process instructions appeared rife with bottlenecks.
Despite these perceived challenges, the rigs were prepared for weeks of travel. For us, a stoke surrounded OEW. We personally knew several of the exhibitors this year. Old friends were joining us. We carried a stash of newly minted Wildwood Expedition swag to hand out. This was going to be fun.
Angus didn’t have the smoothest journey to Flagstaff. Several mechanical problems delayed our progress. Stiff and shifting winds hung up on the high-stacked roof, swinging the stoic defender around the highway. Driving seemed more a wrestling match. Anxiety aggregated and manifested amongst the team.
Camping remained scheduled to open Thursday morning before the event. Our plan, based on lessons learned from ’18, was to resupply and circle the wagons in the venue as early as possible.
Approaching Ft. Tuthill, sparse signage for the event led to a bit of confusion. Believing we knew the correct attendee entrance (based on the pre-event email instructions), we questioned ourselves and followed the herd into what appeared to be the right choice. Waiting for what felt like an extraordinary amount of time (which really wasn’t) we were directed to the correct check-in location; Danny, conversely, was instructed to return to the highway and enter through a different gate.
Entrance parking was plentiful. Check in was organized, informative, and efficient. Anthony (Ant) and I took a moment to meet our (soon to be) new neighbors while waiting for Danny to catch up.
Camp assignment also well-organized experience. The parking team had clearly been given direction to maximize density. On our game this morning, we arrived early and were granted a campsite request. As morning pressed on and the flood of attendees pulled in, the latitude we had been granted did not last long and campers were stacked in machine-like rows.
Overall, our initial experience was, well – pleasant. Lightening Dave showed up in the event’s only Dodge Challenger. Team Wildwood now at full strength. Round 1 of libation cracked open. Shared gratefulness to be dialed and parked.
Content with the Wildwood Camp situation the decision was made to preview the expo. Without crowds, we strolled amongst the vehicle builds and took the opportunity to informally chat with folks as they were setting up shop. This turned out to be as helpful as it was enjoyable.
Getting in and out of the expo to head into downtown Flagstaff was only temporarily slowed by the uninformed volunteers directing traffic. A warm and sunny Thursday deteriorated into a rainy and snowy night.
The expo itself had been slightly re-organized from year’s past. 2019 occupied a larger footprint of the park and the layout improved (more intuitive). Increased exhibitors, additional demonstration areas. Skills areas were separated from the Land Rover driving course and the General Tire ride-along space.
Several food courts and food trucks, as well as a beer garden and “Safari” bar locations, were convenient additions. Multiple showcase vehicle and Do It Yourself zones were other improvements.
Long-standing features such as Sportsmobile, Four Wheel Camper and the motorcycle villages remained.
Educationally, for me, the Overland Experience classroom and training offerings were more exciting than previously. Of those I attended, I most enjoyed Simon and Lisa Thomas’ photography tips, Sam Manicom’s discussion of travel writing, and Dan Grec’s West Africa slideshow. Based on the number of texts I received from Ant, I’d say that he was impressed with the Camel Trophy Team’s Advanced Rigging for Vehicle Recovery skill session.
On the other end of the scale, the Unimog showcase vehicle walk-around was a bit of a non-starter… Not having a Unimog on hand (due to mechanical problems) for a Unimog demonstration hamstrings the impact. Solar power is a bit of a wide scope topic for this sort of crowd. Too many applications based on vehicle and personal preferences, maybe we are just a little advanced for the discussion. This session wasn’t my favorite.
This year, many more vendors exhibited. The expo has always been an open book to compare any element of overlanding kit or vehicle modification. The crew at New Legend 4×4 shared some great stories of their travels from Iowa. Two years ago, we met Ward of Tailgater Tire Table. The week after OEW17 we visited him at his home in Nevada, close to Lake Tahoe, to pick up a few of his tables. It’s encouraging to see how his business has grown. Danny had lots to talk about with the team from Wet Dreams River Supply regarding his annual river voyage prep. Long Range Automotive & Cruiser Bros were really welcoming while showing off their distance fuel tanks builds. ArkCorp (strongly represented by Matt Broadbent of Kakadu Camping) featuring their ArkPak battery system. Matt walked us through his newly-imported-to-North America UtePak Slide-in Aluminum Overland Canopy, which is wicked slick.
Close quarters in camp enabled some tight neighborly bonding. Endless celebration flowed in, out, and around Camp Wildwood. The team from Napa, CA competed in the Overland Expo Chef comp, and in their defeat fed the camp endless pizza late into the evening. The folks to our left, from Southern California, purveyed the finest whiskeys all weekend long. The lubricated conversation, the tales of exploits and laughter, camaraderie and exaggerations, added a familiar organic character to our experience.
This year’s event certainly exceeded our expectations. Looking back, I need to dig deep to find improvement opportunities to recommend. Depending upon how Wildwood Expedition and Wildwood Foundation grow in the next few months, maybe we attend in a different capacity next year. Certainly, looking forward to it.
Some parting thoughts.
- Lodestone Events delivered a well-organized and prepared event;
- Activities, demonstrations, presentations, and films were, for the most part, excellent;
- This year’s camp experience, while a bit intense at first, was the best we have participated in thus far;
- All things food and drink were, good! There is always a margin for improvement when it comes to food and beverage, so don’t stop now. This years’ experience is different and better, in my opinion.
- Clearer traffic signage starting at the highway exit, while seeming like overkill, would be helpful;
- Additional education/briefing/reference material for traffic control volunteers & coordinators would also be an improvement. These are the first and last members of the event team that attendees and exhibitors encounter;
- The addition of hot showers in the camp area was a welcome addition on the chilly mornings. A bit of better design would include some sort of floor grating, so not showering while standing in mud would be beneficial (wow, really nitpicking here).
Check out all of The Rigs of Overland Expo West 2019
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