The Outdoor Academy (OA), an educational training event for retail staff sponsored by outdoor industry manufacturers and their sales reps, wrapped up a ninth season of success in late April with two California events serving nearly 800 retailers.
Tom Shores, OA coordinator and an employee of the rep agency Outdoor Adventure Sales, told SNEWSÂ® that attendance was up nearly 25 percent for the Northern California event and by slightly more than 10 percent for the Southern California event.
"We changed our scheduling slightly in Northern California to a time frame that was better for more retailers," Shores told us. "But I think that the increase in both locations was also due to an improved economic climate."
The Southern California event was held at Irvine Regional Park in Irvine, Calif., April 20-21. Approximately 380 retail staff from Adventure 16, REI, Sports Chalet, Nomad Adventures, Outland Mountain Shop, Copelands and Big 5 showed up, with a few staff reporting they traveled more than four hours to be there. Clinics were offered in 50-minute slots by 40 reps focused on educating staff about the latest and greatest gear, footwear and clothing from 90 outdoor manufacturers.
One week later, April 27-28, Northern California played host to its own event, at a regional park just outside of Livermore, Calif. Over 40 reps presented personalized clinics and demonstrations to 400 retail staff providing highlights of gear, apparel and footwear offerings from 80 outdoor companies. Retailers represented included employees from Any Mountain, Copelands, Mel Cottons, Northern Mountain Supply, REI, Mountain Recreation, Redwood Trading Post, Sport Chalet, Sonoma Outfitters, Sunrise Mountain Sports and more.
Sponsored by Therm-a-Rest, The North Face and MSR, with additional support from Marmot, Jansport and Gregory, OA actually charges each retail staff member to attend -- $5 per day. Dennis Gafvert, president of Outdoor Adventure Sales, has told SNEWSÂ® in the past that the fee serves to ensure commitment from retailers.
Retail staffers don't seem to mind paying the nominal fee, because in addition to receiving a breadth of training they can't get elsewhere, they also receive a tasty lunch, free gear (Marmot, Jansport, The North Face and Gregory all anted up to provide free backpacks to the first 75 retail employees in line each day), and a chance at even more booty during the annual gear raffle at the end of each day, where thousands of dollars of gear from participating manufacturers are given to attendees.
Still, the history of California success hasn't yet translated into a successful expansion into the Portland, Ore., area, a target location Gafvert and company have been seeking for two years now. It was cancelled this year even though there was some interest.
"We are still determining how to best match the needs of the Pacific Northwest market with the structure and heritage that is Outdoor Academy," said Tom Shore of Outdoor Adventure Sales. "Once we figure out that recipe, we hope to have a successful event in the Portland and/or Seattle markets."
Gafvert added that for next year, his team might just decide to run an OA near the Portland Area with a "core group of reps and manufacturers that have told us they want to do this, and start small."
Shore told us that booths sold out early for the 2004 California events and that when
Outdoor Academy 2005 registration begins in November 2004 he expects the event will fill quickly.
When we asked Gafvert if he was looking to expand his innovative training program even more, he told us that OA would remain pretty much a California/Oregon thing for the near future because Outdoor Adventure Sales was focusing on developing yet another training program for retailers dubbed "Shoe University."
"Our first six events -- Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, Napa, Portland and Seattle -- were very successful," Gafvert told us. "REI has told us that the average employee stay is eight months, so we knew we needed to create a program that trained staff to sell footwear and sell them well in a very concentrated period of time -- kind of a Phil Oren light."
Gafvert stresses anyone really serious about learning to fit and sell shoes needs Oren's FitSystem program, but what Outdoor Adventure Sales has done differently is it spends one day working closely with sales staff in the footwear department teaching footwear selling techniques as much as footwear fitting techniques -- an ideal solution for training the entire staff, and not just the top sales folks.
"We pull out all the shoes in the footwear department and every employee at Shoe U tries on every shoe sold by that store to learn how fit differs," Gafvert told us. "We have created a chart that can hang in the footwear department that is easy to use and shows how each shoe fits what type of foot, so if a salesperson is fitting a foot that is like one of his sales team, he can look at the chart and see which shoes the store sells that fit that type of foot best."
Although Gafvert's rep team sells The North Face, his clinics are not brand-specific. In fact, one Shoe U event this past April was conducted in concert with a Vasque rep to add greater benefit to the sales staff of the store. Gafvert is working on a schedule to expand the Shoe University to other regions in the country located where REI stores are based.
"The bottom line in all of this is we want to inspire staff, all of the staff from part time to full time, to become more skilled at fitting and selling footwear," Gafvert said.
For more information about the Outdoor Academy or about the Shoe University and seeing if Outdoor Adventure Sales might be willing to conduct a Shoe U for you, contact Outdoor Adventure Sales at 707-252-9630.
SNEWSÂ® View: If we could recommend one thing to the Oregon contingent, it would be to stop being so territorial (yes, we know that reps have a tendency to want to hold close what is theirs) and open up your arms to embrace next year's Outdoor Academy. Trust us on this one -- it is worth it! We've watched Gafvert grow the California program with the support of a very passionate group of reps here, and know from firsthand experience (we used to be retailers too, gang) that it works. The goal is to help everyone -- even competing reps -- train retailers to better sell product to -- oh my gosh -- increase sales. However, we also know that this event will NOT work unless a large contingent of reps, and not just the dozen or so forward-thinking ones we know are already on board, say collectively, "Yes, this is going to happen," and then make it happen. Retailers will show up if it is worth their time. Consider this -- even as successful as the California programs are, nearly 50 percent of the registration happens only two weeks prior.