Although alpine trails across Europe are storied in their challenge and beauty, the trail running phenomenon that overtook North America a few years ago -- seeing participant numbers grow and product sales jump -- has yet to hit its stride in much of Europe.
But organizers of the OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen, along with promotions by key manufacturers and suppliers at the late July show in Germany, are looking to build interest, spur product development and increase sales at retail.
At the show, coincidentally in the Lake Constance region speckled with some fine trails both near and far, Gore-Tex sponsored a series of trail running activities, including a running competition in the convention center's courtyard that was more of a steeplechase with its hurdles and jumps. Teams from companies and retail shops across the country went head-to-head in races that were over in a blink, making it hard to spur much energy in a gathering audience.
Morning forums' attendance sparse
In addition, Gore-Tex sponsored casual morning sit-downs for anyone who wanted to come and chat about trail running and its potential: "Come and learn how you can get your customers excited about this new activity," said the promotional placards and blurbs. One SNEWS® reporter dropped in on day three of three scheduled forums and found no one but herself and three Gore-Tex representatives, until another U.S.-based manufacturer showed up. No one showed up the first day, we were told, and only two retailers the second day -- when Germany's 5K Olympic gold-medalist Dieter Baumann was scheduled to appear. Granted, the venue was difficult to find, the information counter had no idea what we were talking about since it wasn't in the show brochure, and posters didn't describe the venue properly, leading us on a wild goose chase for 30 minutes, which could have put off all but the most dedicated retailer.
All that tail-chasing aside, during the forum we heard about why Europeans haven't grabbed onto "trail running" as North Americans have -- the Gore representatives seemed to think the name "trail" running didn't ring with them since it means nothing in various European languages where "off-road" running can have all kinds of meanings and interpretations albeit a much longer history in running off-road than elsewhere.
"The outdoor retailers here have no idea what do with trail running," said Uwe Bauer, footwear sales and marketing for Gore Europe. "The outdoor specialists have no idea. The big box know -- it's in the running department."
And this, said Bernhard Chemnitz, apparel sales and marketing for Gore Europe, is exactly why Gore put big promotional oomph behind workshops, competitions, a slick magazine and other product demos. "People are doing it, but how do we position it, how do we speak about it? That's the difficult part."
But what is this trail running?
And that's exactly what SNEWS® found poking around at European outdoor gear companies at the European shows. Many are still in wait-and-see mode, sometimes offering that multi-function/cross-training-type shoe that was so common for years before users here realized that was a do-it-all, do-nothing-great creature.
"Trail running is just not a topic here now like it is in the United States," said Jan Lorch of Vaude, which has a couple of multi-function models for now to fill that gap. "We're going to wait and see how it develops."
A few more pure European companies are dipping a toe into the water, but most are still dancing around the edges, afraid to call the shoes 'trail runners,' even when they were developed with full trail running features and outsoles. For example, this year Salewa announced a new trail running shoe, but called the category "Speed Hiking." Jack Wolfskin had a nod to the category for a few years, but killed it when no one paid attention, then came out this year with a category called "Cross Trail," that was in fact developed and tested by a serious in-house trail marathoner/product developer. Dachstein has had a few rather serious-looking models since last winter, but it too calls the category something else: "Active Sport." None of these names help the retailer know what to do with the shoes, where to put them, or to whom to sell them.
Most are just afraid that they could exclude folks who take on other endeavors on a trail, such as hiking or Nordic walking, or who do off-road, off-sidewalk endeavors but in urban parks or cities.
"The problem is," said Holger Blomeier, marketing manager of Austria-based Dachstein, "if you should call it directly 'trail running,' you'll close out a lot of people." He added that many Europeans seem to have some fear of something that has been pictured in the press and comes off seeming so extreme and they don't see themselves as that kind of trail user.
Even the Gore-Tex representative at the forum at OutDoor that SNEWS® attended didn't know what to suggest for names for the shoes, naming things like "fast and light" as an example, but only with a shrug. The name "trail running" is too "hard," said Chemnitz, since at least in Germany the users won't buy a shoe if they don't see themselves as that user -- even if they like the way it looks or feels.
Lifestyle and extreme use
What a difference: In North America, the trail running footwear category has skyrocketed, not only due to more runners on trails, but also to those who just like them as around-town lifestyle shoes (manufacturers and retailers admit it is likely a very large percentage).
Inov-8, out of the United Kingdom and barely launched a couple of years ago, is one of the few pure European companies that doesn't mince around. The company is all about trail and all about running on trails with its flats, shoes and -- as of this season's introductions for fall/winter '08 -- seriously innovative gaiters and hydration packs. Inov-8 IS trail running and has no intent to hide that.
For example, Salomon, based in France, has had a big presence in trail running for a long time with a cross-over into adventure racing, but has been one contributor to a more extreme face, even if that is not intended by the company. Nevertheless, it too was a driver of the trail running category at the OutDoor show with a large courtyard grandstand area that attracted its share of passers-by. La Sportiva, too, hasn't sat back but neither has the company really been able to truly launch the category on its home turf.
This is not to say that the North American companies with a presence in Europe, big or small, new and old, aren't still in the category. Think The North Face (Dean Karnazes and extreme are nearly synonymous), Montrail, Vasque, GoLite, as well as the other brands that stem from road running such as Asics, New Balance, Nike, adidas and others.
The various country's editions of Runner's World have tried to address trail running in special sections, as does now the U.S.-based edition. A Germany-based magazine called Trail Runner did try to debut a few years ago but went away just as quickly. The alternative to Runner's World in Germany, Running, is also trying special sections and has been promoting itself at the shows as the trail running magazine.
When it comes to promotion tied to events, Gore-Tex is hanging its hat on the likes of the Trans-Alpine run and, now, its inaugural Trans-Rockies run in September in Colorado as ways to spread the trail running gospel.
But aren't those too extreme and perhaps intimidating? No, they will act like marathons did to the masses, says Matt Schreiner, footwear sales and marketing for Gore-Tex North America: They are an aspirational concept that will show the beauty of being on the trail.
Both Bauer and Chemnitz noted that the European market is only at the beginning of its potential. They weren't phased that nearly no one showed up to the morning forums, and look to 2008 as the year the tide will begin to turn.
"We knew it from the beginning," said Chemnitz, "that we'd have to build it up here. We feel it will happen."
SNEWS® View: The problem is, unless the manufacturers can truly commit to the name trail running and products in that category -- call a spade a spade, or something like that -- the category cannot truly develop. Stand up and shout it. Stand behind it. Promote smaller, less intimidating events alongside the big scary ones. As in the North American market, the shoes could be used for all sorts of activities -- if the retailers are convinced by the manufacturers and taught how to sell them. But, of course, the manufacturers have to be convinced too. What you wanna bet that by the 2009 summer shows there will be more appearing in this category?