The founders of Eagle Creek – Steve and Nona Barker – have a lot to celebrate this summer. This year marks the 40th anniversary since the couple first started Eagle Creek in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California, where they built and tested backpacks by hand.
“It seems like a lifetime ago that Nona and I started building packs,” said Steve Barker. “Ironically, we really didn’t have a long-term vision for travel when we started Eagle Creek.”
Eagle Creek created the category of “adventure travel gear” five years after the start of their journey in the luggage industry. By then it was 1980 and the first travel-specific backpack was created and offered to consumers.
“We had to work really hard to get others to believe in two young people, in the future of travel as a category, and our mission of making products that make people happy,” said Steve. “Sourcing was a big challenge, as there was no one place to go to for fabrics, webbing, buckles… Back then, there was no real backpacking industry yet.”
Jump forward two years to 1982 and Eagle Creek saw the need for organizational panels in backpacks, and double-needle seam stitching to amp product durability. Steve reminisced, “We used upholstery fabrics, shoes findings, sailcloth, anything we could find that would allow us to build the designs we wanted with the quality we needed.”
Another two years (1984) and Eagle Creek unveiled a security category called, The Undercover, consisting of money belts and neck wallets designed to keep valuables safe.
In 1989 and 1991 the company focused on sharing tips and solutions to travel-related problems, and began advocating “Responsible Travel” to encourage globetrotters to support local economies and environmental initiatives while en-route.
Into the 90s, Eagle Creek spearheaded the first backpack on wheels, The Switchback, which truly revolutionized travel. Eagle Creek’s updated Switchback Max ES with a zip-off daypack was awarded 2015 Gear of the Year by Outside Magazine.
Eagle Creek’s consistent trend of travel gear innovation paired perfectly with the soaring popularity of the global adventure travel market. According to an August 2013 survey conducted in partnership with The Adventure Travel Trade Association and George Washington University, 26 percent of international travelers engage in adventure travel activities. The survey measured soft and hard adventure travel growth rates from 2009-2012, finding hard adventure increased 62 percent each year for all regions and 17percent in soft adventure travel. These numbers are astounding when compared to the 4 percent growth in mass travel during that time. The 2013 ATTA study concluded the adventure travel market is a $263 billion industry.
Joining the Powerhouse
In light of modest expectations, Eagle Creek withstood the test of nearly half a century, aided by its large-scale acquisition in January 2007 by VF Outdoor Inc., a subsidiary of VF Corporation, putting the mom-and-pop shop next to companies like The North Face, Vans, JanSport, Reef, Lucy, Timberland and SmartWool.
“Our outdoor brands all share several key attributes,” said Dave Gatto, president of VF Outdoor at the time of the acquisition. “They are managed by experienced leaders supported by talented associates, they are authentic brands that have global appeal within their target markets, and they are growing both domestically and internationally.”
Roger Spatz, current president at Eagle Creek and president at the time of the 2007 acquisition, said in an interview with SGB that, “the sale of the brand to VF was not due to a distressed situation. Eagle Creek was purchased at a point of strength that could be accelerated with greater resources.”
Spatz added, “VF is really good about letting its brands figure out their path to growth. They do not dictate how our brand is run, but instead focus on providing stable platforms.”
Another arena where Eagle Creek has benefited from being added to VF’s “A-List brands,” as Spatz referred to the company, is in leveraging the corporation’s Sustainability and Responsible Sourcing. “VF’s size and high-level commitment to these initiatives creates significant influence in the market. At Eagle Creek, we see this as a significant point of alignment with our heritage and DNA,” said Spatz.
Into the Future
Today Eagle Creek keeps its sights on outfitting the world traveler, with the ongoing goal of combining travel functionality with high quality product standards.
“In those first years we were innovating before innovation became a buzzword,” said Steve. “We were simply looking for new solutions that weren’t out there yet. From the very beginning we focused on function, quality and product longevity, and while we’d love for everyone to buy more Eagle Creek bags, we love seeing people still walking around with styles that are 15 to 20 years old.”
Spatz added,“40 years spent focusing on the travel needs of consumers gives us special insight and depth of understanding.” Looking to the next 40 years, Eagle Creek will dedicate energy to research and development for product design, new technologies and heightened durability and versatility for existing and new consumers.
The likely result will be an expansion of their product line. More importantly, Spatz said, “We envision an evolution of consciousness, to where collecting experiences outweighs collecting material things.”