Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), doesn’t just know how to beat up gear on adventures all over the planet. He knows how to sell it, too.
Before becoming president of ATTA in 2004, Stowell co-founded altrec.com, an online outdoor and adventure gear retailer. We asked him how the outdoor and adventure travel industries can work together to help each other attract customers and make sure they have the best experiences – with the best gear.
SNEWS: How are you seeing the adventure travel and outdoor industries come together?
Shannon Stowell: I think it’s a whole range of things. It’s companies like ExOfficio, Eagle Creek, Toad&Co and Columbia engaging in the space, so they’re actively working more and more with tour operators because they see the opportunity to have their products used and known by influencers in the travel industry. They want guides outfitted with their quality gear. But I’m also hearing more and more reports about retailers and manufacturers looking into how they can be more involved in the experiences. REI has had its own successful tourism business for a long time. I think we’ll see a lot more of that. We’re also seeing an increase in storytelling around adventure travel experiences, to show how brands’ products perform. Princeton Tec, for example, could tell the story of how their light kept an adventure from becoming a mishap. Last year in Nepal, I had an unplanned downhill mountain biking trip in the dark. Adventure travel is rich with great stories that can highlight how gear insures the best experiences possible.
SNEWS: How would offering trips be beneficial to specialty outdoor retailers who focus on gear?
SS: In several ways. One goal is to gain authenticity with customers by actually bringing experiences to the customer that are enhanced by their gear. There are of course revenue opportunities as well. In this era, everyone who relies on selling product needs something to Amazon-proof themselves. Retailers should be asking: "What activities could I take on that Amazon cannot imitate?" Amazon tried to do travel, and they backed out of it a few months ago. To my knowledge, it’s the only category that Amazon tried and backed out of. That’s telling. Experiences are hard to digitize and scale. If anyone wants to compete with Amazon, look at where they’re struggling. Our goal at the association is to help pair up the right operators and retailers or manufacturers to get into the experience space.
SNEWS: How do you define adventure travel?
SS: We define adventure travel based on studying travelers and what they think adventure travel is, because it kind of doesn’t matter what we think. At the end of the day, it matters what the customer thinks adventure travel is. It’s a very amorphous term; it means different things to different people. Three key elements that came out of 1,000 interviews with travelers are activity, immersion in nature, and a cultural experience.
For my folks, it could be walking in Scotland and staying in the local pub hotels, so it’s culture, it’s nature because of the countryside, and it’s an activity. Or, it could be climbing in Thailand or skiing in the backcountry of Alaska. It leaves a lot of room for how extreme adventure travel can be. It can be mellow, or it could be hardcore.
This definition leaves out places like Disneyland and Vegas. You can actually go to a foreign destination and still not be adventuring at all. So that’s where the important culture and nature aspects are key to the adventure travel experience.
SNEWS: How can specialty outdoor retailers capitalize on adventure travel?
SS: That’s always been my hope and my vision for the collaboration in this space, to keep customers going to specialty retail rather than Target or Walmart. I think each retailer will have its own challenges, and they know their own customer base better than I do. But knowing what their customers are doing with adventure travel is important, so they can connect them with the gear they need. If someone is coming in to buy gear to go to Peru, to Machu Picchu, or Brazil, or wherever, if you [the retailer] don’t know that, you’re missing an opportunity to sell them more gear.
SNEWS: What resources does ATTA have for retailers who want educate themselves on the industry?
SS: Retailers can tap into the free research we have and reports that we publish. Signing up for our newsletter to understand what sorts of things are happening in the industry is also free, and all of these things are great for education and learning more.