Specialty outdoor retailers are tapping into the growing adventure travel market.Partnering with tour operators and guide services can help shops make money and build loyalty through off-the-beaten path adventures for their customers.
WHETHER IT'S A TREK TO MACHU PICCHU or a bike ride along the Tour de France route, people are increasingly using their vacation days for adventure travel — and outdoor stores are getting in on the action.
From wicking layers to trekking poles, shops have long been selling the gear people need for international adventure tours, but they are increasingly partnering with tour operators and guide services and more directly associating their name with cool trips. And, while the journeys can generate revenue themselves, retailers are finding they're getting a sales bump from people willing to spend on expensive gear they think will help make their trips more enjoyable.
Lee Neathery, co-owner of a seven-shop Houston-area bicycle store chain called Bike Barn, has found that referring customers to trips offered by Trek Travel has boosted her floor sales. While her business doesn’t have an official legal partnership with Trek Travel, she has Trek Travel representatives come speak locally, and her sales staff talks up their trips. Trek gives trip-goers a checklist of items to bring and refers them to their local Trek dealer. And after the trips, Trek gives each customer a coupon for a new bike they can redeem at their local dealer. “They hit them before and after,” Neathery said.
Before trips, people tend to spend $800-$2,000 on new gear like shorts and jerseys, she said. Then, customers tend to upgrade their rides after coming back from trips where they’ve gotten to use the latest Trek models.
Neathery estimates Trek sells 25 to 30 trips, which cost $4,000 to $6,000 apiece, per year to Bike Barn customers, and her business probably sells one to two bikes a month to people using those coupons.
In quest for experiences, customers also buy gear
While there don't seem to be any industry-wide numbers on retailer-specific travel opportunities, a recent Adventure Travel Trade Association survey showed North American adventure travel tour operators expect a 26 percent rise in revenue and a 33 percent growth in net profit this year over 2015 primarily because of new customers. In 2013, the trade organization estimated the value of the adventure travel market for the Americas and Europe at $263 billion. The percentage of adventure travelers from the Americas and Europe rose from 26.3 percent of international travelers to 41.9 percent from 2009 to 2012, the organization said.
“We believe it’s an experience economy,” said Luis Vargas, chief brand officer and president of travel for The Clymb, an online gear retailer. “People want to collect moments, not things.”
Since starting to offer adventure travel trips in 2012, The Clymb has seen revenue in that segment double each year, surpassing growth in the retail segment, he said.
The Clymb curates the trips from various operators and gets a commission on trips it sells, but the trips have also driven gear sales, he said. Needing gear for their adventures gives people a reason to turn to The Clymb’s retail business, and knowing they’re going on a trip triggers spending that is outsized to what they would normally spend without such a big event. “When people buy a trip, they are ready to disproportionally spend to have the gear for that trip,” he said.
When selecting trips from what Vargas said are the best operators in the world, The Clymb vets them with a due diligence process and make sure they deliver on the brand promise of the company, which focuses on human-powered adventure. Other companies can partner with The Clymb to set up trips and link them to their website, he said.
Chris “Chez” Chesak, a travel and outdoor industry consultant, said anecdotal evidence points to more tour operators reaching out to guide services and outdoor retailers.
Many are turning to trip giveaways to increase their customer base, said Chesak, who has worked on dozens of promotions such as the foodie-focused Peru on a Plate giveaway that involved clothing retailer Toad&Co, luggage company Away, adventure travel company Intrepid Travel and others.
The trip giveaways he’s worked on tend to bring in 20,000 to 90,000 leads from people who enter, but the numbers are dependent on having partners involved that are dedicated to promoting the sweepstakes, he said.
For retailers, the upside is a fresh list of new customers to market to, a new story to tell in their marketing and potential longer-term partnerships with tour operators that could provide white-label trips or in-store seminars, he said.
It’s not all Everest; "soft adventure” sells too
Tour operator Journeys International has partnered with gear companies Kelty, Sierra Designs and Eddie Bauer on international trip giveaways. The company sees expansion potential in tapping the market for retailers looking to get into adventure travel offerings, said marketing director Sally Grimes-Chesak, who is married to Chesak.
Adventure travel is becoming more accessible amid the growth in “soft adventure” trips with activities like leisurely bicycling on a paved road through karst formations in China, she said.
Because retailers have been selling the type of gear used on adventure travel trips for years, they are uniquely positioned to engage local customers with adventure travel programs, she said.
For Rob Mardock, owner of Estes Park Mountain Shop in Colorado, running adventure trips is nothing new. The shop has been offering local dayhiking, climbing, snowshoeing and cross country skiing adventures for years.
Adjunct services including in-house guiding and an indoor climbing gym at the shop probably add less than 10 percent to revenue each year, he said. Meanwhile, it’s hard to tell how much the guided trips boost sales on the retail floor. “What we like about doing it is (that) it makes us more well-rounded,” he said. “It’s kind of fun to have it. It’s not just a profit motive.”
Still, running a guide service means staying on top of the latest in liability insurance requirements and finding enough flexible staff who can handle the intermittent nature of guiding, he said.
Do your homework
Launching a travel program isn’t something to step into lightly, Vargas said. Shops need to have subject matter expertise, understand risk management and the travel industry itself, he said.
Partnering with an established tour operator to offer white-labeled trips is much simpler than the do-it-yourself approach because the tour operators are already familiar with legal issues and working with operators in different countries, Grimes-Chesak said.
“You’re constantly having to adjust to the world,” she said, noting that diversity of offerings is important because political and economic developments in other countries can throw a wrench in plans. Operators who don't do many trips or don't have a long-standing relationship with tour operators have less leeway when negotiating the intricacies of making sure spots are filled, she said.
“At least until the volume increases significantly, a DIY retailer would eat up all of its margins by the (time) they put the legwork and employee-hours in place to run their own trips,” Grimes-Chesak said.
Neathery advises shop owners looking to branch out into adventure travel first to go on the trips they are interested in themselves and with employees so they can talk about the trip with potential customers. She took her first Trek Travel trip as a customer in the summer of 2004.
“You have to get people in your store and be able to talk about the trip because you’ve been on it,” she said. “You have to reduce the intimidation factor.”
Beyond sales, offering trips is just plain cool
Todd Walton, marketing and communications manager with the Outdoor Industry Association, is seeing more partnerships between independent retailers and guide services. He said it’s a natural evolution for retailers as an outgrowth of their relationships with customers and reputation as a local information hub.
And as smaller retailers do more community outreach and create partnerships with guide services, it can create a lucrative feedback loop where customers then buy gear, he said.
“When a retailer can be that resource, they’re going to have a long-term customer,” he said.
For Neathery, that’s just what has happened with her advocating the Trek Travel programs. And in addition to the retail sales those trips help generate, there is also a certain associative boost her stores get by being linked in people’s minds with adventure travel trips.
“We’ve created loyal cycling adventure vacation customers,” she said. “You change the way people think about vacation. That’s … intangible marketing for a bike shop like us.”
Matt Whittaker is a natural resources and adventure sports journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, VICE Sports, Backpacker and other international publications. He has reported from the Americas, Europe and Asia. Follow him on Twitter @mattswhittaker.