When Debbie MacLagan walked into the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, she had no idea that within an hour she would be casting a fly rod for the first time.
But, about 20 minutes after registering for a Walk-On Adventure at an in-store kiosk, a shuttle picked up MacLagan and a friend and carried them to their fly-casting class at a nearby property owned by L.L. Bean.
"I had never cast before, and I was a little unsure, hoping I wouldn't hook anybody," she said with a laugh. "But I felt comfortable and safe, the instructors were great, and I knew I would be OK." She said she liked the idea that, on a whim, she could try something new, and do it in an easy and convenient manner. "It's a great way to learn new things," she said. And it helped that the Walk-On course only cost $15.
In 2009, L.L. Bean will mark its 30th year of offering programs that connect customers with outdoor experiences and reduce barriers to recreation. Since1979, L.L. Bean stores in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia have run trips for a wide range of activities, including fly-casting, kayaking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and even skeet shooting. Since the 1970s, L.L. Bean has offered Outdoor Discovery Schools that last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. And eight years ago, it launched Walk-On Adventures, which allow shoppers to spontaneously sign up for an activity, such as snowshoeing or fly-casting, and participate that very day. About 20,000 people participate in the Walk-On trips and Discovery Schools, and customer interest in the trips has really grown in the last 10 years, said Mac McKeever, senior public relations representative for L.L. Bean.
The Walk-On Adventures and Outdoor Discovery Schools are more prescient than ever because they address the outdoor industry's great challenge these days -- removing barriers to recreation.
"When you consider the barriers for participation, it's the accessibility of the equipment, having a venue, having the know-how and the money and time," said McKeever. "These $15 Walk-Ons eliminate those barriers to participation."
As with the Walk-On courses, the Outdoor Discovery School programs also make recreation more accessible. For example, a kayak tour lasting three to four hours costs $29 to $59 and includes all equipment and guided instruction. While these short tours for activities like kayaking or snowshoeing focus on just having fun, there are technical schools as well. For $95, customers can take a one-day kayak course and learn to roll a boat and develop other skills.
"The schools were designed to make it as easy as possible for people to engage in outdoor activities by providing all the equipment, instruction, having the venue available and approachable price points," said McKeever.
But the schools benefit L.L. Bean as much as the customers. "The schools also help put the L.L. Bean brand in action and personify the brand," said McKeever. "It's pretty neat for a multi-channel retailer to not only sell the items, but to also connect the dots through the continuum by giving folks a vehicle and forum to do them as well."
While L.L. Bean does not formally study the relationship between school participation and retail sales, McKeever said that frequently people come off their trips and buy the L.L. Bean gear they used during their outing. Perhaps more important than generating sales, the trips develop loyal customers.
MacLagan, who lives in Vancouver, said she visits the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, regularly. Over time, her comfort and trust with L.L. Bean employees grew, and this summer she participated in a three-day kayak camping Discovery School on Casco Bay.
"They have great equipment, well-trained people, and it was an amazing trip," she said. "The guides always made us feel safe, never made us feel like we were getting left behind, and accommodated everyone's abilities."
A high point of the journey was the first day when the group paddled up to a lobster boat. "The people on the boat taught us all about how they fish for lobster, the sizes of the lobsters, how they grow and mature. I never knew all that stuff," said MacLagan. "And then they arranged for us to have lobsters for dinner that night."
McKeever said that the kayak camping trip is the most popular of the multi-day Discovery School programs. Held on Casco Bay and also Chesapeake Bay, the trips cost $475 to $950 and focus on wildlife interpretation and, to a lesser extent, paddling instruction.
If L.L. Bean's trips make recreation more accessible, they also cater to an increasingly important segment of the market: families. "We get a lot of families, and more and more want to have a valuable, meaningful experience on vacation," said McKeever. "They want to come away feeling they have learned something and at the same time had a great adventure. "
MacLagan said that during her kayaking and fly-casting courses she noticed lots of parents participating with their children, and she thinks the Walk-On Adventures can be very beneficial for families. "If you can walk into a store and sign up and go out and try it, your kids might pick up a new hobby," she said. By investing a few bucks and a little bit of time, parents can introduce their kids to whole new world.