ROTY winner Appalachian Outdoors breaks down barriers to connect people with the great outdoors

Inspiring kids, college students and adults to get outside, Appalachian Outdoors received the 2010 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for growing outdoor participation.
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The first days of college can be nerve-wracking, and many Penn State freshmen hit the bars near campus to shake off the jitters. But there’s a healthier way to settle into college life, thanks to Appalachian Outdoors in State College, Pa., and Penn State’s Orion wilderness program.

The Orion program, which receives money and other resources from Appalachian Outdoors (www.appoutdoors.com), takes freshmen on a six-day backcountry trek, which quickly relieves the anxiety felt by first-year students, said Susanne Dubrouillet, Orion’s program director.

“The barriers break down quickly, and they develop really strong friendships,” she said. At the same time, Appalachian Outdoors benefits because many of the students develop a lifelong love of hiking and become loyal customers or even employees.

Orion is just one of the many programs that Appalachian Outdoors supports to inspire people to hike, bike, paddle, climb and ski. (Click here for details on the program.) The winner of the 2010 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for growing participation in the outdoors, Appalachian Outdoors presents a wide range of free clinics for the public, hosts annual Outdoor Expos to get people onto local trails, and offers several seminars to prepare Boy Scouts for wilderness trips.

Fresh faces outdoors

According to Dubrouillet, 240 freshmen participate in the Orion program each summer, hiking six to eight miles a day in the backcountry of Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest. The students come from all types of backgrounds, and many have no previous hiking experience. “There are folks who have never even set foot on a trail,” said Dubrouillet. Naturally, many of the young men and women are not familiar with outdoor gear.

Appalachian Outdoors assists the participants by including on its website the gear list for the trip, complete with links to specific products. The store also gives the students a 10-percent discount on purchases and provides each person a Nalgene bottle with the Orion and Appalachian Outdoors logos. In addition, the store helps the folks at Orion purchase group gear, such as tarps, at a discount.

It’s certainly a smart business move, as college students represent about 45 percent of the Appalachian Outdoors consumer base, according to storeowner Geoff Brugler. But Brugler does not support Orion simply to ring up more sales; he said he knows he’s helping to develop the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists. And that’s not just his opinion. Dubrouillet said studies prove the experience has a lasting impact.

“We have research that shows their environmental ethic continues, and they are more passionate about making a difference for the environment,” she said.

After their initial wilderness trip, the students have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors through Penn State’s Outing Club, which has a close relationship with the Orion program. Dubrouillet said that many of the Outing Club members go on to become leaders in the Orion program. “And another interesting thing is that many of them also work at Appalachian Outdoors,” she said.

Scouting connections

While Appalachian Outdoors is succeeding in helping college-age people develop a love of the outdoors, the store staff also puts great effort into helping younger people by supporting the Boy Scouts. Brugler said that this is a personal mission for him, as he serves as a Cub Scout leader and his children are members of the Scouts.

Brugler said the store hosts about 15 clinics for the Scouts each year. “We have the Scout leaders and parents come in with the boys, and it’s not centered around selling, but providing information,” he said. “They learn about packs, shelters, sleeping systems, everything they need. It enables them to make informed choices of what gear to buy when they move into Scouting.”

When the kids are ready to purchase gear, the store offers them a 10-percent discount, while troop leaders receive a 15-percent discount, and there is a 20-percent discount when troop funds are used to buy equipment.

Bob Sutherland, Scoutmaster for Troop 380 (photo - right) in Boalsburg, Pa., has participated in the clinics for six years, and he said the store plays a critical role in the success of the troop. While the discounts make Scouting more affordable, he said the educational clinics are especially valuable. Sutherland said that on his own he just couldn’t put together a program with the expertise and volume of information provided by the store staff. “I don’t know what we’d do without Geoff and his store,” said Sutherland. “I learn so much, and I know the kids learn a ton.” He said that, without the clinics, “we’d be up the creek without a paddle.”

Free U

Sutherland said the Scout clinics are so successful because the staff members at Appalachian Outdoors are such good teachers. “They have great people. They make it hands-on, they’re really funny and put on a great show,” he said.

Brugler said he taps into his talented staff to reach not only the kids, but also adult consumers through a series of in-store clinics.

As far back as the 1970s, the store participated in a program called Free University, in which various individuals in the community offered free workshops on everything from environmentalism to cooking. Though the workshops eventually faded away, Appalachian Outdoors resurrected the idea two years ago with clinics now dubbed Free U.

Once or twice a month on Thursday nights, the public can attend free events that include presentations of trips that individuals have taken, talks by outdoor experts and product demos.

“Our cross-country ski clinics have been some of our best turnouts,” said Brugler, noting that 100 people have shown up on a particular night. “We cover it soup to nuts -- what to wear, what to take, where to go. And then we have rentals and people can sign up for a lesson or a tour, and we’ll take them out and show them basic techniques.”

Brugler said that there is great potential to grow participation in cross-country skiing in his area. “It’s inexpensive, accessible, can be easy to do, and it’s a good crossover for runners or bikers,” he said. “A lot of people are active three seasons and then fall off in the winter.” He said consistent snow and some consumer education could go a long way in motivating these people to be more active during the winter.

Through the Free U clinics, the Orion program and Scout seminars, the store’s main goal is to remove obstacles that keep people from embracing outdoor activities, said Brugler. “It’s all about lowering barriers to entry,” he said.

To further knock down the barriers and inspire people, Appalachian Outdoors launched the Outdoor Expo, a biannual six-day event that includes in-store seminars, outdoor activities, a store sale and a presentation of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour.

This year, Appalachian Outdoors partnered with other organizations, such as the Sierra Club and a local bike shop, to lead 10 outdoor excursions, including running competitions (photo - left), nature walks, bouldering and climbing day trips, mountain bike rides and road rides for different ability levels. “It lets people know about the trails they can ride on, where they can get gear, and what they need to take. This is a way for them to make that transition into actually doing it,” said Brugler.

The Outdoor Expo also generates a lot of activity within the store. It’s one of the few times during the year that Appalachian Outdoors puts items on sale, plus prizes are given away each day every 15 minutes, and as many as 20 reps are on-hand to interact with customers. “I’m astounded at how people come out for the chance to win a prize, and have a chance to talk with someone knowledgeable,” said Brugler.

Ladies’ Night

From young kids to college students to adults, just about every demographic has benefited from the work of Appalachian Outdoors. But Brugler is most surprised at how the store has been able to build a close-knit community of women outdoor enthusiasts. This has been achieved through the store’s Ladies’ Night gatherings, which can draw as many as 100 women.

Brugler said Ladies’ Night is primarily a social affair, and usually does not include some type of instruction. “We don’t really do clinics. We find they’re not necessary; the women are more into interacting and hanging out with each other,” he said.

The gathering includes massages and facials, plus the store offers wine and refreshments, and each woman is given a gift bag. It’s very casual, and Brugler said the main purpose is to just help people make connections. “They just love coming in and hanging out together and meeting other women. It’s become surprisingly successful,” he said.

Most gratifying are the comments Brugler hears as the women leave the event. “People walk out the door and say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’ And often they walk out with a shopping bag full of clothing,” he said.

Most important, they walk away with a certain level of comfort, knowing that there is an entire community to support them in enjoying the outdoors. Whether you’re a 40-year-old woman, a college freshman or a 12-year-old Scout, it helps to have some encouragement and someone pointing the way. The people of Pennsylvania are indeed fortunate to have Appalachian Outdoors pointing them in the right direction.

To read about the other ROTY winners from this year and in 2009, click here.

--Marcus Woolf

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