Flyfishing and kayaking trips help L.L. Bean, Orvis sell more gear and attract more customers

Key Points
  • Outdoor clothing and equipment brands are expanding adventure trips and education programs to introduce customers to different outdoor activities.
  • After their first time participating in one of L.L. Bean's outdoor discovery programs, customers spend 30% more with the apparel brand in the next year, the company said.
  • The programs range from free, short education programs to week-long international trips that cost more than $5,000.
Orvis fishing and outdoor gear.
Source: Orvis

It's all there when you arrive. The fishing gear, the boat, the waders, the guide that knows that one secret spot where the trout are sure to bite along the Madison River in Montana's Ruby Valley.

Orvis outdoor apparel and gear company has taken care of all of it — for $3,275. All you have to do is focus on the rhythm of your cast and the cool, clear water moseying by.

This is the vacation experience outdoor retailers and apparel companies are gunning for as they expand beyond merchandise into planning adventure trips and outdoor activity schools. The Orvis Fly Fishing school wants to make planning your vacation easy.

Orvis fishing and outdoor gear.
Source: Orvis

Wingshooting school

Those looking to dip a toe into new activity can try a one-day wingshooting school in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, learning the basics of shotgun safety and bird hunting for $575. Experienced adventurists can opt for a week-long trip kayaking around glaciers in Argentina for $5,600.

Orvis isn't the only retailer to sell adventure trips. The companies see the trips as a way to build loyalty, retain customers and attract new ones. L.L. Bean, which has offered overnight trips for more than 20 years, said customers who participated in one of its paid outdoor discovery programs spend an average of 30% more at L.L. Bean in the next year. About 25% of participants become repeat customers.

The Maine-based apparel company began expanding its program in 2016 and now offers 18 adventure trips ranging from $275 for an overnight camping trip to almost $4,000 for a week-long, multi-activity trip along the coast of its home state. It also has smaller education events, which are cheaper or even free.

Orvis fishing and outdoor gear.
Source: Orvis

Buying growth

"These programs pay for themself [sic] because these participants become customers," said Stephen Smith, the CEO of the L.L. Bean. "And we're a direct business and we're highly data-oriented, and we see fantastic buying growth from people who go through the outdoor discovery program. And it's everything. It's apparel, it's gear."

Orvis has also expanded its program with international trips as customers come back to explore new locations, said Tyler Atkins, a marketing manager at Orvis. Fly-fishing on the Rio Corcavado in Argentina can cost more than $5,000. There are also similar outdoor school programs, which also run into the thousands of dollars but are geared toward teaching novices a new activity in a dream destination for experts.

"Customers have really enjoyed that, and we're seeing folks who have gone to Montana, and then they hear we've got one in the Bahamas and they've always wanted to go saltwater fly fishing," Atkins said. "So they pop to a school in the Bahamas and kind of get a couple of different skill sets that they're learning through the education program."

Orvis fishing and outdoor gear.
Source: Orvis

Brand loyalty

Retail sales for outdoor products have been soft for the past few years, said Matt Powell, senior industry advisor for sports at NPD Group. A June report from the group said sales of camping accessories and equipment had grown just 0.2% year over year. Powell said brand loyalty is key in the space, and being able to test out products on these trips helps to build that.

"I can see what the difference between a middle price in one product is and a higher price in that product are and decide which of that is more important to me," Powell said. "I think all of that really matters to brand loyalty."

Education has long been a strategy for finding new customers for outdoor brands, which have offered low cost or even free programs for decades. The majority of vacationers either do no or very few outdoor activities in a given year on their trips, according to a 2018 study by market research company Mintel. Just 16% of people who went on a vacation in the past year did four or more outdoor activities on their trip and just 23% said they purchased equipment for a vacation.

Expanding customers

By teaching people how to do new activities, the apparel and gear companies are expanding their customer pool.

"We start from a base of we want people to be interested and learn skills and learn those activities. Of course, once they do those activities, they fall in love with those activities, they become lifelong outdoors people, and then of course they start buying stuff," Smith said. "But it really starts from a pure place of wanting people to get outside and learn those skills and activities."

The education programs can also help the brands reach younger generations. Atkins, who previously worked as a fly fishing instructor at Orvis, said he has seen the number of family units that attend the classes together increase in recent years.

Orvis fishing and outdoor gear.
Source: Orvis

Selling the experience

Even companies without their own branded trip programs, such as Stansport, are trying to sell customers on the experience of being outdoors. Stansport has made it a key theme of its marketing for the past two years, said Robert Lafferty, the company's director of e-commerce. This focus has helped drive a roughly 20% increase in social media following since the start of 2018 and a 10% increase in direct-to-consumer sales this year, according to Lafferty.

Lafferty said his company would be open to partnering with other firms and organizations that are finding ways to lower the barrier to the outdoors for customers. One of these is a California-based start-up called Arrive, which ships camping and hiking gear to event locations or a nearby FedEx store for customers who don't want to travel with gear or don't own any.

Urban millennials

"If it's someone who reaches out to [Arrive] and says 'hey, I have two kids and we're looking to go to Yosemite for four days, but we've never been. What do we do?' That is our target market. That is our customer," Lafferty said.

Arrive rents out equipment starting at 15% of the retail price, said Rachelle Snyder, one of the co-founders, attracting younger customers without a garage full of gear.

"Many of our consumers are urban millennials," Snyder said. "Living in cities, they don't have a lot of space. And even our consumers who have large homes and have storage space are choosing to rent with us time and time again because of the hassle of ownership."

For those who are open to owning equipment, or aren't up for striking out on their own, companies like L.L. Bean and Orvis are there to let customers give their gear a test ride. The paddleboarding course from L.L. Bean, which starts at just $25, has customers coming back again and again.

"People come off the water like, 'Oh my god, I didn't really know you guys did all this stuff. I didn't know you had all this equipment. I love it.'" Smith said. "And now there's those who'll be like 'oh my god this is tenth time I've done it.'"