Midwest Outdoor University hitting stride, inspiring retailers

South-central Wisconsin played host to the Outdoor University on the shores of Devils Lake for three days of hands-on specialty product training from May 18 through 20. In its third year, event organizers were pleased with the turn out of reps, manufacturers and retailers working toward building enthusiasm for the 2004 sales season.

South-central Wisconsin played host to the Outdoor University on the shores of Devils Lake for three days of hands-on specialty product training from May 18 through 20. In its third year, event organizers were pleased with the turn out of reps, manufacturers and retailers working toward building enthusiasm for the 2004 sales season. 

Drawing participants from eight states, this Midwestern version of the successful California program now called Outdoor Academy has matured into a thriving, eagerly anticipated affair that attendees believe has the potential to become a vital tool in driving the outdoor industry to new levels of customer service and professional excellence. Those who have invested in the Outdoor University concept believe that their efforts will resolve a problem endemic to many retail environments.

“What we were seeing at the retail level was that kids were just selling stuff,” said BP Associates sales rep John Horsnell. “We wanted to give them an opportunity to get some passion into their lives.”

That lack of passion, according to Horsnell, results in limited product knowledge and poor customer service. Outdoor University was created to provide retail salespeople with practical hands-on experience that can be effectively conveyed to consumers. The organizers' intention is to instill enthusiasm for and confidence in the products they purchase. However, Horsnell admits that it's difficult to quantify the event's effectiveness at retail.

“I would love to say, ‘Oh, it's been so effective.' But at retail the challenges are so varied we're looking at one thin slice of that. For me personally, even though it isn't very easy to measure, I believe it's true,” he said. “It's really easy to commit to this endeavor, because it gets people out doing stuff that we're selling gear for, that we should all have a passion for. Will it help the retailers' bottom line at the end of the year? I can't see how it can hurt.”
Independent sales rep Fred Hartey has an easier time seeing the results of his efforts. Representing several leading brands of kayaks, Hartey said he believes that teaching salespeople the difference between good, better and best boats, as well as giving them the opportunity to paddle them, helps create new customers as well as increase his retailers' profits.

“We're preventing the loss of two sales,” said Hartey. “If you sell your customer a cheap boat and they have a bad experience, they'll hate paddling and sell their boat to a friend. That's money the retailer will never see. If you sell your customer a (quality boat), he'll keep it and get a second boat for a friend or convince him to buy one for himself.”
Reps and manufacturers that recognize Outdoor University as an opportunity to grow their customers' business through advanced sales training were the most successful at the event. They drew the largest audiences and kept the attention of those who attended their presentations. Brad Werntz, sales rep for Leki, Gregory and Vasque, outfitted participants and took them on a trail hike above the lake.

“I could use the exercise,” said longtime retailer and former owner of the now defunct Erehwon, Rudy Meyer. “I haven't been up there for years!” Werntz's efforts helped new salespeople learn more about his products, while reacquainting veterans like Meyer with some of the passion even he may have been missing.

Bobby Carleton, a sales trainer from Watermark, was only moderately pleased with the attendance at her clinics. She wished that she had done more in advance to promote her presence there.

“We're still evaluating our programs,” she said, “to boost more communications.” Watermark sent out several hundred postcards inviting retailers to the event, but Carleton acknowledged that drawing a crowd is primarily up to her local reps.

And therein lies one of the biggest challenges facing Outdoor University. Unfortunately, because there are only so many hours in the day to attend a finite number of clinics, reps and manufacturers must compete for the attention of retailers. Those with the most exciting products and “sexiest” course descriptions will undoubtedly attract the most participants. In the spirit of creating passion for the outdoors, though, some have suggested that a less product, more skills-oriented approach would be a better way to go.

Lily Colby, sales manager of MTI Adventurewear, a maker of PFDs and other paddling products, said the clinics should be “more focused.”

“We should teach people how to sell in more specialized clinics and group presentations. Or maybe after dinner we could have recreational paddling with ACA instructors,” she said.

Colby expressed disappointment by the turn out for her clinics and acknowledged that as a manufacturer of a lesser-known line of paddlesport accessory items, attendees would feel less compelled to attend a product clinic. In the context of a more comprehensive presentation on paddling as a whole, though, she felt that her products would be viewed in a much better light. She would have enjoyed the opportunity to introduce her equipment to a portion of the participants who don't sell paddling products but may have an interest in learning about them.

Others expressed their disappointment in other aspects of Outdoor University.

“It's too spread-out,” said Don Dziatkiewicz, camping buyer for Laacke & Joys in Milwaukee. “The clinics should be shorter. I don't want to sit through a 40-minute clinic.” He also shared Colby's opinion that the clinics should be more focused on broader themes. “There should be a generic pack fitting clinic,” he said, as an example.

In spite of his criticisms, however, Dziatkiewicz proclaimed that “people come away psyched. I don't want the in-store clinic. People have enough to do with too many nights (in the store) per clinic.” He believes that Outdoor University is a more efficient, cost-effective way to train and motivate his staff.

Event coordinator Ken Barmore reported a record attendance of 234 participants. Just under 50 specialty retailers sent staff members representing a participation increase of 60 percent. Barmore also said there was a 49 percent increase in the number of individual storefronts in attendance. All surveyed participants said that they would be attending next year.

The proceeds of Outdoor University went toward a $2,000 donation to the Outdoor Reps Association Campership fund, which offers financial assistance to youth summer camps in Wisconsin.

When asked to comment on the criticisms shared with SNEWS® about the layout of the event, Barmore explained that there is nothing he can do about the placement of permanent park shelters. “The shelters are less expensive than setting up a tent. Setting up those big tents is not only expensive, but there are also a lot of pipes and electrical conduits underground that we have to be careful of, not to mention an Indian burial mound.”

When asked about making a more comprehensive program with generic skills-based clinics, Barmore agreed it would be a great idea, but added, “I can't make these people be creative. I can tell them what I think, but they have to make it happen.”

SNEWS® View: With true believers like Barmore running Outdoor University, reps, manufacturers and retailers now have an ongoing annual venue with unlimited potential to bolster training, augment clinics, and inspire passion for sales. However, a cautionary note here: Outdoor University is at risk of digressing into a sporting event in which reps and manufacturers aggressively compete for the attention of retailers to promote their particular product lines rather than an event that provides retailers with a solid foundation of information to build on enthusiastically throughout the year. We would suggest that reps and manufacturers attending future Outdoor University events find a way to work cooperatively to inspire retail salespeople to acquire general skills and knowledge, and in this way, participants will come away from the event full of the passion and excitement consumers find so appealing. We firmly believe that if Outdoor University is to become truly successful, all attendees must table territorial inclinations and work together toward the common goal of building enthusiasm for the business.