Outdoor University makes a splash in the Southeast

Retailers sloshed through rain-soaked fields at the first Southeastern Outdoor University held April 25-27 in Black Mountain, N.C., but despite the weather, the retail education program likely secured a good foothold in the South with this successful event.
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Retailers sloshed through rain-soaked fields at the first Southeastern Outdoor University held April 25-27 in Black Mountain, N.C., but despite the weather, the retail education program likely secured a good foothold in the South with this successful event.

In January 2006, Outdoor Industry Association acquired the five-year-old Outdoor University program, then expanded it beyond Wisconsin to included events in North Carolina and Massachusetts. (Click here to read the SNEWS® article, "OIA acquires Outdoor University education program.")

Held at Camp Rockmont near Asheville, N.C., the Southeastern Outdoor University drew a respectable number of retail attendees and vendors for a first-time event. Ninety-nine retailers pre-registered, and 90 actually attended, while reps from 50 companies offered 400 hours of instruction on everything from Nordic trekking poles to tents.

Granted, the event has a ways to go before it matches the success of the Midwest Outdoor University, which drew 277 retailers and 70 vendors last year. Still, Ken Barmore, the organizer of Outdoor University, said he is optimistic about the event's future. "We had three more people than we had at the first Midwestern event," he said. "From reading the retailers' surveys, we're on the same path and learning curve."

One thing the North Carolina event has going for it is a convenient and attractive location. Rockmont is an idyllic boys summer camp, with a small lake surrounded by lush mountains. Reps pitched their tents in a grass field near the lake, and attendees camped out in a soccer field on the mountain flanks, just below a beautiful ridge. If there is any drawback, it's the spring weather -- locals say that most days begin with a 30-percent to 40-percent chance of rain, and it came down in buckets this year. But that's why we invented tents and rain gear, right?

Another challenge is that Asheville is a long haul for employees of some major Southeastern retailers, and we didn't see folks from key stores in Mississippi and Tennessee. But we did catch up with three employees from Alabama Outdoors who squeezed into a Honda and drove seven hours, arriving at Camp Rockmont at 6 a.m. on the first day of the event. "As for a major outdoor industry event, that was my first rodeo, and it was very helpful," said Matt Bruce who works in the Florence, Ala., store.

Of course, the main draw of Outdoor University is that it provides retail employees with knowledge and experience they might not get otherwise. "I'm so glad I came to this!" Nancy Armstrong remarked during a GPS clinic at the Garmin booth. Armstrong, who works for Townsend Bertram & Company, a specialty retailer near Chapel Hill, N.C., said Garmin reps do not visit the store often, and she attended Outdoor University in part to beef up her GPS knowledge. Garmin reps not only conducted clinics in their tent, but also took retailers on walks for hands-on training.

While Garmin was doing a good job of taking its training beyond the tent, the majority of clinics were not field exercises. Whether by design or due to weather, most clinics were confined to tents. Not that this was necessarily bad. Atop a wooden tower overlooking the lake, we joined three employees of Jesse Brown's Outdoors for a clinic in the Northwest River Supplies tent. A new whitewater park is about to open near three Jesse Brown's shops in Charlotte, N.C., and the store is bringing in NRS product. So, staff members Karey Digh, Rob Patton and Matt Long were getting a detailed look at apparel and accessories. The session was focused, and Long said, "The great thing about this is I don't have to jump up and go help a customer."

Perhaps the most interesting seminar concerned salesmanship. On the second day, we joined 12 retailers in a tent at 8:30 a.m. for a surprisingly lively session on sales techniques -- the type of basic training sorely lacking in the outdoor industry.

The instructor, Tom Richard, trains salespeople in many markets, including the fitness industry. "I'm not going to tell you the normal steps to selling because it's dry and you've heard it all before," he said. Instead, he talked more about building confidence, understanding your role as a salesperson and interacting with customers to get them out of a defensive mode and into a positive "buying" mode. The seminar included frequent (and great) exchanges between Richard and the retailers as they explored the psychology behind why a person says, "I'm just looking."

At the sales training seminar, we caught up with Brenda Binning and Chris Hayes who were doing a recon of Outdoor University for Mast General Store. "Mast does its own training program, and we're trying to see how this might fit into that," said Binning.

SNEWS View®: Mast General is an extremely squared-away operation with a handful of top-notch stores in the Carolinas. Its participation would help the Southeastern Outdoor University plant strong roots. And looking ahead, the success of the Asheville event over the next couple of years could indicate whether the Outdoor University concept can truly spread and grow.

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