Retailer of the Year - Best in Growth of Outdoor Sports: Midwest Mountaineering inspires people to explore the outdoors

Through free clinics, monthly seminars and highly successful Adventure Expo gatherings held at the store, Midwest Mountaineering is succeeding in its mission to connect people with the outdoors and this year it received the SNEWS / Backpacker Retailer of the Year Award for Best in Growth of Outdoor Sports.
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This spring, Rod Johnson stood atop Mount Baden Powell in California as fellow through-hikers sang “Happy Birthday to You.” Johnson, owner of Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, Minn., turned 60 while pursuing his quest to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail.

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While taking a break from the trail, Johnson told SNEWS® that the journey not only quenches his desire to be outdoors, but he also hopes it will inspire others. He has created a blog to chronicle his trip (www.rodspct.blogspot.com), and he will likely put together a presentation for his customers to encourage them to explore the PCT.

Johnson said his hike represents the fundamental mission of Midwest Mountaineering (www.midwestmtn.com).

“The main reason for the store is to encourage people to get outdoors,” said Johnson. “I think it makes people healthier and happier.”

Through free clinics, monthly seminars and highly successful Adventure Expo gatherings held at the store, Midwest Mountaineering is succeeding in its mission to connect people with the outdoors and this year it received the SNEWS / Backpacker Retailer of the Year Award for Best in Growth of Outdoor Sports.

Leading by example

By now, outdoor enthusiasts in the Midwest have become very familiar with the adventures of Johnson and his wife Sharon. Each year, they present to the public the highlights of three or four of their trips, and offer detailed instruction on how others can follow in their footsteps.

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These seminars have become a highlight of the bi-annual Outdoor Adventure Expo that Midwest Mountaineering hosts each winter and spring. “We always put Rod and Sharon in a room that holds 225 people, and it’s always full,” said Rudi Hargesheimer, the store’s marketing manager.

Now in their 25th year, the expos feature 70 exhibitors, including manufacturers, camps, clubs, tourism organizations and groups like the Nature Conservancy. There are more than 100 presentations, including product demos, film festivals, clinics, trip seminars, and presentations from notable adventurers. 

To accommodate exhibitors and attendees, huge tents are pitched in a parking lot adjacent to the store, and rooms are rented at nearby University Of Minnesota. The most recent Expo held April 24-26 drew about 10,000 people.

Pat Padden, co-owner of the BP Associates rep group, said that Midwest Mountaineering’s programs for the public have been every effective in increasing participation in outdoor activities. “They are very impactful,” he said. “They’re one of the top shops in the country, and their events are without par. People come from a four-state area to attend them.”

The Expo is powerful in part because it includes a wide range of subject matter. “People can learn how to prepare for a trip up Kilimanjaro or get tips on picking out cross-country skis,” said Padden, who has worked the Expo since its inception.

Padden said that the store and its Expo make a great impact because they “get people stoked about trips” and provide practical information for would-be adventurers. The programs also speak to the store’s largest customer base, aging Baby Boomers, who can imagine themselves exploring the outdoors, particularly as they observe the pursuits of 60-year-old Johnson.

“Our core market is the aging Baby Boomers, and they’re as active as ever, going on their canoe trips and hiking trips,” said Hargesheimer. “This is why our sales are up in this down economy.”



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Free for the public

One notable aspect of the Expo is that admission is free, which goes a long way in drawing interest and building goodwill with the community. Though the store invests thousands of dollars to produce the event, it recoups a lot of that in co-op dollars from vendors, said Hargesheimer. Also, resorts and tourism agencies purchase ads in promotional materials, while gear sales during the Expo also offset the costs. Some years the store only breaks even, but the Expo serves a great marketing tool to push sales throughout the year.

The free admission makes sense financially, but also fits within a greater effort to offer customers a steady stream of free clinics. Each month, the store offers a half-dozen climbing classes, from Climbing 101, to women’s classes to instruction on bouldering. On a monthly basis, the store also holds five or six classes related to canoeing and kayaking.

“These cover everything from how a canoe works to paddling Minnesota and Wisconsin rivers to kayak touring,” said Bear Paulson, project manager for Midwest Mountaineering.

People especially appreciate the seminars on exploring the Boundary Waters, which is a major paddling destination for Midwesterners. “The logistics for the Boundary Waters can be tricky,” said Hargesheimer. “We do clinics on how to prepare for a trip and explain things like how you get a permit for entry points you want.”

Many of the in-store clinics are held in the Expedition Room, which is outfitted with a digital projector and wireless Internet access. Midwest Mountaineering regularly makes this space available for organizations to promote their causes.

“About twice a month we meet there, and it’s a great facility,” said Martin Kubik, president of the Boundary Waters Advisory Committee (http://bwac.homestead.com/). His organization helps to maintain the 190 miles of hiking trails in the Boundary Waters, and he said the meetings held at the store are critical in recruiting volunteers. “Our currency is people with passion and commitment, and this year we trained 65 volunteers,” said Kubik. “Without volunteers, only a third of the trails would be maintained.”

Kubik pointed out that the vast majority of people going to the Boundary Waters are paddlers, so the trail system receives less publicity. But Midwest Mountaineering has worked hard to put the trails in the spotlight. “Rudi is an ardent supporter of trails, so he often writes about them in the newsletter, which is important element in building public support and awareness,” said Kubik.

“We have a really active newsletter that we can use to help people,” said Paulson, adding that there are about 19,000 subscribers. With such a following, Midwest Mountaineering can shine a very bright light on an important issue.

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Reaching a new audience

Of course, a major issue facing all outdoor retailers is the aging population and the need to attract younger folks. While Baby Boomers make up the majority of Midwest Mountaineering’s clientele, the store sees climbing as a way to attract and develop the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts. Paulson said the store has a bouldering cave that is available free of charge and draws lots of younger people, particularly students from the University of Minnesota. “For the bouldering cave, you just sign a waiver, and you can climb as long as you want when the store’s open,” said Paulson. In addition, two or three employees are always available to provide instruction on the store’s regular climbing wall. “We have a lot of schools and non-profits that come through, and for them it’s a community service, free of charge,” said Paulson.

To broaden its consumer base, Midwest Mountaineering also highlights emerging outdoor activities at its Adventure Expo. “We look for additional, new programs that maybe we haven’t had in the past but would bring in a new customer,” said Jan Fast, Expo speaker coordinator. “I’ve brought in a Tai Chi studio, and now we’re looking more into yoga. We’ve had yoga for paddlers and will have adaptive yoga for paddlers, for people who have had injuries.” She cites Nordic walking as an activity that really took off after it was included in the Expo.

“I’ve been around the store for 20 years, and the products continue to change,” said Fast. “Going with that change and not staying the same is required to bring in new clientele.”

Johnson said the next step is to better utilize social media to expand the store’s reach and further influence people to get outdoors. While Johnson is blogging about his PCT trip, his store also has a Facebook page with about 275 fans. “We’re taking baby steps, but we have a lot to learn,” said Johnson. “It’s a great communication tool to let people know what we’re doing. We have all these clinics, exciting programs and promotions, and we want people to know about them and get enthused to get out.”

--Marcus Woolf

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