REI officially makes female-specific events a staple of the industry.
By Jahla Seppanen
Throughout the past few years, we’ve noticed more running apparel and footwear brands reaching out to female consumers through women’s-specific destination races. For those coming late to the party, yes, women have buying power that cannot be ignored and yes, the majority of runners are female. But now it’s not just run brands who are investing in custom women’s events.
In August 2016, REI followed suit with its Outessa Summit, making women’s-specific events not just a fad but a staple in the industry.
If you remember the impact REI’s “Opt Out” campaign had on Black Friday shopping in 2015, you’ll know that when this specialty outdoor retailer takes a stand (whether to spend holiday time outside versus shopping lines, or to get more women into the outdoors) it gets attention.
For the first year, Outessa created a space for a women’s-only weekend escape, where any mother, daughter, hiker, biker, office clerk or CEO could explore their call to the wild. Men have their man caves; women will have Outessa.
Event creator and former NCAA All-American runner Julia Stamps Mallon, in collaboration with REI’s Outdoor Programs Event Manager Sally Johnson, gathered a roster of major active lifestyle brands and their pro athletes and experts to lead everything from sunrise SUP to GRID foam rolling, juicing seminars, photography tips from Chris Burkard and much more.
Here’s a quick hit of some of the brands that jumped on board: Prana, Osprey, Cannondale, BIC Sport, Petzl, Big Agnes, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Oru Kayak, Salomon, Trigger Point, Stance, Goal Zero, Nuun, Native Eyewear, GoMacro, Probar, Picky Bars, Honey Stinger, TomTom, EllptiGo, Luna Bar, Igloo Products, Leatherman, LifeStraw and Adventure Medical Kits.
When we spoke with Mallon and Johnson, they said so many brands joined Outessa because they, too, saw female customers not just wanting, but needing this type of outlet.
It was Mallon, along with her co-founder at Eventus Outdoors Bart Davis, who came to Johnson and REI with the proposal.
“I’m a female, and I know a lot of women who do stuff in the outdoors and even more women who want to be in the outdoors but don’t know how to start,” Johnson said. “These women may be asking, where are other women? Where is the access? Is it safe for me to be in the outdoors alone?”
“It’s become a very collaborative partnership,” Mallon said. “We had all the vendors come together back in the spring and began with a visualization of the women who would come and what challenges she would face. We said that whatever we do, we have to help affirm for her that her choice to be outdoors is right.”
What the running brands caught on to first, and Mallon crystalized for outdoor, is that the path for entry is a social one. “There is a lot of diversity in how women are recreating in the outdoors. They’re more likely to get into the sport through family and friends — a social format serves the woman,” Mallon said.
The social ingredient has come about largely from the different barriers of entry for women. “You have women with kids, not much time, working, attending school, keeping up friendships,” Johnson said, “and they’ll get outside if it’s with people they want to be around.” She laughed and continued, “going in the outdoors is sort of like dating. We need a match.com for hiking.”
What surprised Mallon and Johnson as the event gained steam was how broad Outessa’s appeal was. During registration for the Kirkwood, CA summit (August 19-21) and Powder Mountain, UT (September 9-11), Johnson recalled seeing 25- to 45- and 50-year-olds signing up, with mom/daughter teams, co-workers and lone wolves, too. The largest registration group was within the 30- to 40-year-old range. Diversity wasn’t restricted to age, but applied to geographies as well, with women registering from all over the country.
That was before the events, and now the inaugural year has passed. What do Mallon and Johnson want to see as a result years down the road? Actually, they’re already seeing it.
“We thought we had a good idea and thought women wanted to feel a part of the outdoor community, but when we hear from women, we hear how desperately they have been searching for this. Some of the emails we get from women are so heartfelt,” Mallon said. “One read, ‘I decided to change my life. I decided to live outdoors more often.’”
One Outessa attendee summarized her experience in a blog post, “Sweaty. Dirty. Happy. Why Outessa Matters,” (https://medium.com/@starnia/sweaty-dirty-happy-why-outessa-matters-64941bdc8a90#.s417yssvc) explaining how the event allowed her to be complete and unapologetically herself.
She recalled a mountain biking session she took part in (after not riding for 10-plus years) where the instructors held her bike, let her fall, let her play, let her dirty expensive equipment she would have otherwise been afraid to touch and showed unwavering patience in answering questions.
This attendee summarized the effects of Outessa and the feeling of answering her call to the wild this way:
I was dirty most of the weekend. I have a bruise the size of a grapefruit on my leg, and I couldn’t be happier. Women went skinny dipping. Women stopped shaving their legs. Women hiked in bras in the heat…Women Got Dirty. Really dirty. And had the time of their lives doing it.
Lead photo courtesy Christin Healey