The second annual Midwest Outdoor University (OU) held May 20-22 at Devil's Lake State Park, just north of Madison, Wis., attracted 70 manufacturers, up from 40 companies last year, and 208 retailers, up slighly from 198 last year.
Event Director Ken Barmore underscored the event's success by donating $4,500, the net proceeds from the event, to Big City Mountaineers (www.bigcitymountaineers.org) -- significantly higher than the $3,000 he had promised to donate earlier in the year.
A large reason for the success is that Barmore upped the ante this year, creating an event with hundreds of clinics and programs that allowed store employees to paddle canoes and kayaks and climb under expert tutelage, as well as test gear and hone techniques through events that involved hiking, camping, trail running, map reading and more.
Face-time with vendors and hands-on experience with the products is what makes OU such a worthwhile event for retailers. Michelle Prior, manager of REI in Brookfield, Wis., told SNEWS, "We just don't get this (sort of hands-on training) in the store," she said. "Being able to actually handle the equipment and use it in the manner for which it was designed is the best training my staff can have."
Prior brought three employees each charged with the mission of learning as much as possible and passing along what they learned to their colleagues back at the store.
Eric Grundon, district manager of Chicago-based Erehwon, views attendance at OU as a means to get his staff motivated to sell the product in their stores, and his view appears to be well placed. Erehwon employee, Bob Lancaster, told us that the hands-on training he experienced at OU bolstered his sales confidence. "This way, I know what I'm talking about," he said.
Despite a challenged economic climate, Erehwon sent each of its managers and at least four staff members from each of its five stores. "In slow economic times," said Grundon, "this is a great way to keep the fires burning."
But low sales volume in recent months was among the reasons why some retailers did not attend this year. The pressure of diminished payroll dollars has made it difficult for some managers to justify the expense. Many dealers, such as Fontana Sports of Madison, gave their staff members the opportunity to go on their own, but without pay.
"We just couldn't afford it," Jeff Bederman, manager for Fontana Sports, told SNEWS. Timing also was a concern, according to Bederman who added, "With finals finishing up this week, I couldn't spare the staff."
OU's timing was why Don Dziatkiewicz of Laacke & Joys didn't send his staff this year. "The week of Memorial Day weekend with a promotion underway, it's all hands on deck and I just couldn't spare my staff for additional training."
Realizing that more than just a few retailers view OU as little more than an additional training opportunity has veteran reps wondering what they need to do to attract more interest.
"We did it to ourselves," said Bill Kaplan, veteran sales rep for Yakima, Jansport and Pearl Izumi. "We did such a good job providing in-store clinics, many retailers feel they don't need to send anyone."
Troy Kattreh, rep for Chaco, Horny Toad and MSR, agrees to a point, but he was also careful to change his approach to underscore the difference between OU and a simple in-store clinic. Kattreh emphasized the experiential aspect of sales training.
"More labs, less lecture," Kattreh said in reference to his stove presentation, and he made sure that everyone who attended his classes came away with a good practical understanding of how his products work.
Mark Gaicomino, rep for Merrell and Marmot, followed the same logic. Learning from his experience last year, Gaicomino scheduled more hands-on programs and saw more bodies at each clinic.
Overall, Barmore was very pleased with the event's attendance and energy and is already planning for next year. Mountain Hardwear has committed to being the principle sponsor and several vendors have already reserved their spots.
SNEWS View: By all accounts, this second Midwest Outdoor University was a complete success. Not only did it succeed in increasing its turnout of manufacturers and make a charitable donation that will impact local recreational programs, it drew a good percentage of area retailers who were motivated to learn and maximize the opportunities for hands-on training, not to mention a bucket-load of fun. The timing of OU, scheduled so closely to the first major holiday weekend of the year, appears to have had some impact on the potential attendance by retailers to be sure. However, knowing how sketchy the weather can be so early in the season, the alternative may have been conducting programs in the pouring rain. Barmore was prepared even for that contingency with large tents to provide shelter.
It was not surprising that those retailers who sent the most students were among the larger national organizations like REI, Galyan's and Cabela's. Although their larger staffs and deeper pockets allow the larger retailers more scheduling flexibility and budget, it is unfortunate that more local dealers were not there. This event is a great equalizer where shops, both large and small, have the same access to valuable information and experiences that will add value to the products and services they provide. By not attending this event, small specialty retail shops missed out on a rare opportunity to level the playing field and acquire resources their competitors will undoubtedly put to very good use. Outdoor University is a worthwhile training opportunity that retailers should invest in. Of course, now it is up to OU organizers and all the companies who attend the event, including the reps, to convey that message all year to the retail community.