How 7 Outdoor Brands Have Adjusted to COVID-19
From Orvis to Cotopaxi, Outdoors Journalist John Briley explores how seven top gear companies have navigated the pandemic.
Even now, ten months and counting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to grasp the magnitude of the changes this virus has forced throughout society, from shuttered bars and restaurants and cancelled family traditions to attending school, medical visits, weddings, and funerals via Zoom.
In the outdoors industry, the companies that make some of the top gear have had to adjust as well. Here’s how they’ve done it.
Klymit: Supporting Opportunities Outdoors
Cory Tholl, CEO of camping gear maker Klymit, says the pandemic has forced some hard choices—including moving the small company to almost 100-percent remote work—but has also created opportunity.
“The Black Lives Matter initiatives have allowed us to pause and reflect,” Tholl says. “Life is better when you’re outdoors, hands down, but many people don’t get to experience that, or have had bad interactions” during their rare forays into the backcountry.
Tholl notes that most people don’t like the outdoors unless they learn to appreciate it from a young age.
“So we asked ourselves: What’s our role in the community in helping fix that?” One answer was to partner with Girl & Her Backpack and Camping to Connect, two organizations dedicated to getting youth—especially those from underprivileged communities—outdoors to camp, hike and grow their self-esteem and leadership skills. Klymit donated gear to both organizations. “We know that will pay huge dividends in the future for the kids—and I hope it leads to expanded groups” of kids getting outdoors, Tholl says.
Mountain Hardwear: Creating Masks and Donating Gear
Many companies shifted quickly into pandemic support mode.
“We saw industry and retail partners struggling, and we wanted to help,” says Mountain Hardwear Marketing Director Snow Burns. “We converted our gear repair department into a mask-making operation, and donated those masks to employees, stores, and the community.”
The Richmond, Calif.-based company also shifted a huge amount of energy into e-commerce to help retail partners, specifically small specialty shops, earn affiliate commissions. Mountain Hardwear also donated gear to first-responders and, early in the crisis, set up a COVID recovery hospital in its headquarters—a converted Ford auto assembly plant.
Cotopaxi: Adapting Company Strategies
Other gear makers took a hard look at their strategies. Davis Smith, founder of Cotopaxi, which makes travel packs, jackets and other wear, immediately closed company offices and its two retail stores in Utah, and reduced salaries across the board.
“I read an article in Forbes about how fear drives unfocused decisions and how strategic thinking drives focused action. I gathered my team and we decided to focus on what we can control,” Smith recalls. “That led us to pivot our service and products, including by creating Questival Quaranteam”—a pandemic-modified version of the company’s city-wide scavenger hunts—“and it was the most successful of the over 100 Questivals we’d done. It really resonated with people that we can still have an amazing time with our families and our loved ones.”
Cotopaxi also started making facemasks—the Utah government ordered 500,000—and looked for other ways to elevate its brand by giving back. One result of that was the #OneUtah T-shirt, developed in partnership with the Utah Jazz NBA team and sold to raise proceeds for COVID-19 response personnel.
Point6: Integrating Support Into Orders
Peter and Patty Duke, founders of Point6 merino wool socks and baselayers, began donating $1 from every pair of socks sold to COVID-19 relief efforts, and including a cotton-nylon blend facemask—made on the company’s sock machine—with every order. Point6 also ramped up its online presence, with a sleek website redesign and a 15%-off offer for buyers who sign up to receive the company newsletter.
Meier Skis: Considering Seasonality
For some gear makers, the timing of the initial pandemic shutdown wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Denver-based Meier Skis, for example, was already dialing back activity for the season when the economy ground to a halt in March 2020. “So, in a way, we got lucky with that,” says CEO Ted Eynon. “Had that [initial shutdown] happened in fall or mid-winter, it would have been really difficult to navigate those waters.” But in the end, sales the first half of 2020 were solid compared to the same period in 2019.
Now, however, Eynon is a little antsy. “I’m just hoping there’s a ski season. It’s kind of hard for us to make a plan based on no skiing.”
Nemo: Focusing on Longevity
Nemo, a New Hampshire-based maker of tents, camp chairs, and other gear, decided to “move quickly to our worst-case model,” says founder Cam Bresinger. “We accepted the trajectory in front of us and faced the truth—that we needed to conserve cash and extend our longevity. In the end, as a business, survival is about having cash.”
It’s also about planning, Bresinger says. “As a company, we feel like we’re headed in the same direction and not working against ourselves. If you’re successful in having a baseline you can consistently meet or exceed that and it changes the whole team dynamic.”
Like Cotopaxi’s Davis Smith, Bresinger says thinking down the road instead of simply reacting helped Nemo staff move out of a phase of fear and anxiety and move forward. “We made sure we had a plan for not laying off and furloughing anyone. As a family-run business we didn’t want to live with that permanent blemish. But I also have empathy for companies that can’t do that. Bresinger did make the tough call of reducing pay—“60 percent for me and 40 percent for much of the team,” he says—and he now looks back on those as wise decisions to help the company emerge stronger.
Bresinger also sees the COVID-19 effect on his business as an acceleration of an already established trajectory, that is, the digital transformation of making, marketing, selling, and buying outdoor gear. “There’s no doubt in my mind retail is not going away. It’s a byproduct of human nature—sensory interpersonal experiences—but the industry has lost millions of square footage of retail in the past couple of years. We will not go back to the old normal.”
Orvis: Aligning to Customer Needs
One of the outdoor gear sectors that has thrived during COVID-19 is fly fishing, with legions of hobbyists finding they could work remotely near their favorite fishing holes. “When this crisis hit, we really leaned into meeting our customers’ needs,” says Simon Perkins, president of Orvis. “They quickly gave us signals that what they needed aligned with our vision but we needed new ways to meet it.” For the 160-year-old company that meant ramping up online content such as virtual casting clinics and finding other ways to supplant the in-person connections that brick-and-mortar businesses nurture. Curbside pickup quickly became one of those ways.
“Traffic to the stores of course is way down but conversion is way way up,” Perkins says. “That’s showing us that [our stores] are still places where people want to come. We’re not planning to close!”
Essentially, outdoor retailers are doing during COVID-19 what they’ve always done: trying hard to stand out in a competitive marketplace while doing everything possible to meet their customers wherever they are. Very few people could have forecast the turbulence of 2020 but, at the same time, the dedication, loyalty, and enthusiasm of outdoors lovers has kept many companies afloat--and even thriving in these trying times.