Fueled by the Internet, women's only adventure trips and the number of companies offering them are increasing rapidly in number and popularity. And it's this increase in women heading outdoors that presents a yet untapped potential for manufacturers and retailers, according to many of these outfitters.
Noting that more women, single or married, are taking trips with other women as personal retreats, Susan Eckert, owner Adventure Women in Montana, a women's-only adventure travel company founded in 1982, told SNEWS, "Now, if you don't do something by yourself once a year, people ask, 'what's wrong with your marriage?' I think women traveling together has become a trend, where it never used to be a trend."
Internet fueling rapid growth
No one feels that a cultural shift is the main reason for the rapid rise in women's programs though. Most companies attribute their success -- and the rise of competition -- to the Internet. It doesn't take much web surfing to see that women have a lot of trip activities to choose from, including backpacking, rock climbing, kayaking, fly-fishing, adventure travel, ice climbing and even dog-sledding.
"The biggest development in this business is the switch to the Internet as a way to find new participants. The Internet has helped sustain and grow the business. If I didn't have the Internet, I don't think it would have gone," Marian Marbury, founder of Maryland-based Adventures in Good Company, said.
New outfitters catering to women have been on the rise since the late 1990s, as more women from all walks of life are attending women's-only trips. Companies target young girls to women in their 60s and 70s. The average participant age is estimated to be in her late 30s to 50s, with middle to high income. Both married and unmarried women take the trips with most organizations saying they have a 50/50 split.
What makes women's trips so popular?
Why the attraction to women's-only programs? Laughter and camaraderie are frequently mentioned by women, as are the opportunity to learn new outdoor skills or rejuvenate their spirit. Women's-only trips also address the fact that men and women communicate and learn new tasks differently, and they design programs with that in mind.
"Women have different learning styles. They tend to want things explained to them fairly thoroughly whereas men are more likely to say, cut the talk, let me try it. It works better to have an environment where each sex can have their own learning style taught to," Marbury said.
"When you're nervous, you tend to do the things that you know how to do so you have some sense of control. What I see on coed trips is the men pitch the tents and they sit in the stern of the canoe and they start the fires, while women do the cooking and cleaning up and sit in the front of the boat. Women often think, 'Oh, I couldn't do this without a man.' What they learn on an all women's trip is that they can do everything. They are totally confident and competent to do it on their own," she added.
Laura Tyson, co-founder and executive director of the Women's Wilderness Institute in Boulder, Colo., said she's seen a rise in the last two years of travel companies scattering in one or two girl's or women's-only trips among their gender-mixed programs. Being a mission-driven non-profit that encourages "courage, confidence and leadership" in all its courses for young girls and adult women, her concern is the companies aren't changing their program styles to address the differences between males and females.
"I'm starting to see in mainstream outdoor ed programs, an outcropping of girl-only segments -- the little niche in the bigger company. A lot of those programs are separating the genders but not thinking a whole lot about how the program structure and philosophy needs to be different to work with girls," Tyson said.
Huge opportunity still being missed by the industry to meet the needs of women
And it's this increase in attention to women's programs outdoors that is presenting a huge opportunity for the industry, one that many outfitters say is being missed.
While the women we spoke with agree that manufacturers have finally "gotten it" when it comes to clothes and equipment that fits women, they also say that manufacturers need to learn how to "talk" to their female consumers.
"We've definitely gotten them to recognize that women have specific needs for outdoor gear, and I think that's been really encouraging in the last few years. Now they need to get more pictures of middle-aged women in their catalogs and ads. My average person is in her late 40s, early 50s. They're just not visible in the catalogs. They should think about who their target market really is and not just be focusing on younger people," Marbury said.
"It's in their interest to promote that because so many women on our trips are new to the outdoors. If you're looking at how to get new people in the outdoors, I'll bet over half the women on our trips haven't done it before or since they were a child. What a huge entry for new buyers," she added.
Retailers can also get involved in women's trips by forming partnerships with trip organizers and offering their clients a discount and inviting trip organizers in for slideshows about the trips. Adventure Women works with cataloger TravelSmith, which gives trip attendees 10 percent off their purchase. Even if geographically some attendees seem out of reach, retailers could make sales through their website or from women who forgot to bring a much-needed piece of equipment.
Outdoor Divas in Boulder, Colo., is a new retailer that not only offers a store full of apparel and gear just for active outdoor and fitness women, but is also starting a Discovery Center to teach outdoor skills and offer trips to them, too.
"We believe that there's a cycle. If we can get people outside and enjoy the sports that are out there, and there are a lot of them, then we can help them get the proper gear, get the proper clothing, help them understand why it's better to use a synthetic fabric than a cotton T-shirt. I definitely think there's an impact," Kim Walker, co-owner of Outdoor Divas, told us.
"It makes sense for retailers and trip organizers to work together. There are some organizations that'll send people to a specific store to get product. Some outfitters will have a small amount of retail product available. I think there are definitely relationships that are built. There's a calling for that and it makes sense," Walker added.