By Eric Smith

<span style="color: #969696;">Challenging times are nothing new for Greg Williamson, president of Petaluma, CA-based hydration brand CamelBak Products.

When Williamson, shown above, was appointed to the company’s top post in July 2018, the brand had just been dropped by REI Co-op, one of its largest retail partners, because of parent company Vista Outdoor Inc.’s (now divested) ownership of a firearms maker.

Losing such an important sales channel for an extended period—CamelBak has since found its way back to REI—hurt CamelBak’s top and bottom lines, but it also forced the company to increase its focus on direct sales, through both its own website and its retail partners’ e-commerce offerings.

So when another disruption hit last month in the form of a global pandemic, Williamson said CamelBak was as well-positioned as possible to weather the collapse of traditional channels. The brand’s digital pivot had paid off.

He said CamelBak has “seen an increase in sales, higher engagement rates and more time being spent on our digital platforms,” a nod to the work he and his team spent on such capabilities during the roughly year-and-a-half banishment from REI.

Williamson and his CamelBak colleagues are, first and foremost, hopeful for an end to this crisis and the survival of channel partners and competitors alike. They also hope for a post-coronavirus boom in outdoor activities. The brand sees its hydration products—from bottles to belts to packs—growing in demand as the U.S. and the world come out of this crisis.

In other words, once stay-at-home orders are lifted and normal activity resumes, there could be a surge of “more people … going outside for a run or bike ride—and CamelBak will be there when they make that lifestyle shift,” Williamson said.

In this latest installment of SGB Executive’s series of interviews with industry leaders exploring how businesses are coping with the coronavirus, Williamson provides an update on product demand, ways that CamelBak is supporting front-line medical workers and the brand’s hope for a renewed emphasis on outdoor activities once the outbreak has ended.

How has the coronavirus impacted CamelBak in terms of staffing, production, distribution and sales? First of all, we want to send our best thoughts out to everyone in the industry and hope they are healthy and safe; especially to all of the business owners and retail workers who have been impacted. The team at CamelBak are all well and we have quickly adjusted to working remotely. So far, we have not had any reduction in workforce, salary or benefits and we even have welcomed some new members to our team the last few weeks. Like most businesses, we have seen order cancellations in some channels while other channels have increased their orders. As a diverse and global business, with many product categories and channels of distribution, we hope we are well-positioned to come through this situation and return to profitable growth.

What measures has the company taken to navigate those impacts? We started by reaching out to our customers and understanding their needs and expectations, helping them with adjustments to current orders, inventory needs and programming terms. We also worked with our suppliers around the globe to update forecasts and work on solutions for any revisions needed for product or raw materials supply. Finally, we have revamped our budgets to increase spending in some areas (digital) while naturally reducing in others (tradeshows, events, travel).

What has been CamelBak’s messaging to both retail partners and end consumers throughout this time? We have been active and supportive with our communication to retailers and consumers. We have maintained daily and weekly dialog with retailers to understand their needs and navigate through necessary changes. With consumers, our communication on social media and digital has been one of helpful-hope. Helping people understand the importance of hydration, having our CamelBak Athlete Team share how they work out at home, and sharing epic content to motivate and inspire when we all start to travel and go on adventures again. We are also reaching out and supporting our front-line medical workers who might benefit from having a CamelBak water bottle. (Note: Any interested medical group or other front-line organization can email with their request.)

When we spoke last fall, you said the company had trended more toward digital platforms; how has that approach benefited CamelBak during this crisis? The key advantage with digital is how fast we can communicate and adjust our message. We just launched our new Horizon Series Drinkware Collection and needed to change some of the content at the last minute based on how the world has changed around us (e.g., social distancing). To do that in printed form would have been near impossible. We have also seen an increase in sales, higher engagement rates and more time being spent on our digital platforms.

Are you seeing high demand for A) water filtration products, and B) for all products from retail partners that are still open because they’re “essential” businesses? If so, what is driving these increases? We have seen a spike in demand for filters for past CamelBak filtration products. The demand from “essential” partners has been mixed. Some have seen significant increases, but others have understandably been more focused on grocery and medical-related products for the last few weeks, but we’re told this is temporary.

There’s hope that outdoor recreation will emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever. If so, how does a core outdoor brand like CamelBak position itself to leverage consumers’ newfound interest in an array of outdoor activities? Thank you for asking this because we absolutely believe this and are seeing it in our social media engagement! The number of people who appreciate and celebrate the outdoors is going to increase, and we’ve been keeping a close pulse on predictions and trends. More people are going to go on a hike instead of to a movie, and they’ll want to vacation at a national park instead of on a cruise ship. As an innovative outdoor brand, our priority has been staying close to our consumers’ newfound needs and pivoting our product and marketing strategies to meet them. This pandemic has likely opened up an entirely new demographic for us. More people will be going outside for a run or bike ride – and CamelBak will be there when they make that lifestyle shift. We are privileged to be part of the Outdoor Industry, continuing our leadership position to help people stay hydrated while enjoying the many benefits of spending time outdoors.

Photo courtesy CamelBak