This article is the first in a series of stories about consumer-facing multi-day outdoor adventures this summer.

If one thing was clear at the conclusion of the first OUTFOUND Series in Hood River, Oregon in mid-June, it’s that small brands are testing the waters of new ways to connect with consumers.

This three-day “adventure sports and outdoor innovation festival” provided a glimpse into the future of marketing for up-and-coming outdoor brands who are looking for more direct consumer engagement. They're not as visible at national trade shows as bigger companies, some say, so they're looking to market their brand stories directly to possible consumers.

“As a baby brand, we weren’t doing well at the bigger shows,” said Amanda Schultz, VP of marketing at Jelt, a Montana-based belt company that makes their accessories from recycled materials. “We were seeing a horrible return, so we wanted to try something different.”

Schultz said that with the ever-increasing number of brands involved, it’s become tougher to stand out. She is looking to smaller events, like OUTFOUND, to engage with consumers on a more personal level.

Jelt was one of 16 brands on display at Hood River’s Waterfront Park in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge. A variety of companies were represented from upstarts like Purple Rain Adventure Skirts to established names including Red Bull and KIND.

OUTFOUND co-founders Antonio Aransaenz and Drew Neumann created the event as an enthusiast and consumer alternative to buyer-focused trade shows that don’t involve the end user.

“We didn’t want it to feel like a club,” Aransaenz said. “We wanted this to be interesting to an outdoor photographer, an up-and-coming athlete, or a student fresh out of college.”

The duo came together through mutual friends and backgrounds. Aransaenz had been running an event consulting business in New York City, primarily working on music festivals, while Neumann was leading Jansport’s collegiate event program. Both now live in Hood River.

OUTFOUND Series

Slacklining at the inaugural OUTFOUND Series in Hood River, Oregon.

OUTFOUND had an ambitious set of programming with a speaker series, vendor expo and startup competition all on tap. Many attendees said they came to the event specifically to check out new companies participating in the startup competition, but some glitches throughout the weekend meant late start times and unfulfilled programming, such as a start-up competition that started two hours late.

“It was a good effort, but a few things weren’t set up or ran as promised,” said attendee Alfredo Nava, a software engineer who drove in from Seattle. “I came to check out the startup activities, but this was more travel- and outdoor-focused. It lacked that duality.”

OUTFOUND Series

The OUTFOUND Series stage.

Regional incubator Bend Outdoor Worx chose recycled towel company Nomadix as the winner. They’re entered into a larger startup competition this fall in Bend and will receive advising from the incubator.

Roughly 500 people attended the weekend’s events, and were highly engaged with the activities offered. People were able to enjoy morning yoga classes, try out stand-up paddleboarding and check out new gear from the brands on site.

“Even before we decided to pull out of Outdoor Retailer (because of the public lands issues in Utah), we were starting to look at the value of large trade shows,” said Bryan Papé, CEO and co-founder of MiiR, who gave talks throughout the weekend. For them, it's not about skipping the retailer and going direct-to-consumer, but about finding new ways to connect directly with customers and tell their brand story.“We do see the value in both formats (consumer and trade).”

The speaker series was one of the festival’s key victories. The diverse lineup included high-level professional athletes, philanthropists and business leaders. Attendees heard from professional climber Cedar Wright, Founder/CEO of Oiselle Sally Jorgensen, and Co-founder and COO of Cotopaxi Stephan Jacob, among others.

As companies of all sizes search for new ways to peddle products to consumers, OUTFOUND’s model may become more the norm than outlier. It signals a trend toward more purpose-driven marketing efforts.

“If the event has a purpose, like the startup competition, then I think we’re game for anything,” Nomadix co-founder Zack Helminiak said.

Enthusiasts and industry members alike are appreciating the shift toward more thoughtful and relevant programming, while being able to demo gear and converse with thought leaders in a less intimidating and more informal setting.

“We don’t have the intention of being an OR -- it’s not about fulfilling orders for us,” Aransaenz said. “We want to focus on fun, creative ways of connecting.”

For growing brands, the lower cost of entry and smaller crowds presents the perfect environment for development and promotion.

“For a small brand like ours,” Jorgensen said, “every opportunity you have to create awareness is a good one.” 

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