Attendance at Outdoor University rose in the double digits this year, reaching more than 200 retailers from more than 125 independent specialty shops, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. The growth indicates retailers are warming to a new format introduced by the OIA last year after it took over the training program in 2006.

Outdoor University opened its national tour July 23 at the new Midwest Outdoor Reps Exchange (MORE) rep show in Madison, WI. Many retailers, such as Mesabi Recreation, drove hundreds of miles to attend the event. In only its second year in the new format, the attendance of the Madison event tripled over last year, with many 2007 attendees returning with co-workers to benefit from the free learning opportunity.

“Last year’s event was incredibly valuable,” remarked Shawn Bojan from Laacke and Joys. “The program was excellent, and I learned a lot. This year, I made sure to bring my staff and fellow teammates. I look forward to attending more workshops like this in the future.”

The program then moved to Hartford, CT and Salt Lake City before concluding in Greenville this past weekend. Attendance at each event realized double-digit growth over 2007’s inaugural workshops.

Under the new format, OU focuses more on helping store managers improve profitability and less on helping the rank and file staff improve sales skills and product knowledge. In its latest iteration, it  offers seminars on sales benchmarking, leadership skills, recruiting and retaining employees, marketing and community outreach. Attendees were provided with actionable steps to implement to gain an immediate sales return.
“The Outdoor University curriculum is based on feedback from independent specialty retailers and is designed to meet their growing business needs,” said Ann Obenchain, VP of member services for OIA. “We are very pleased with this year’s response and look forward to working with the retailers to develop a curriculum for next year that will continue to provide tools to improve their business operations and market competitiveness.”

In addition to the educational seminars, attendees received items from the event sponsors and entered into a raffle to win prizes from Woolrich, KEEN, JanSport, CamelBak, 3point5, Redwood Creek, a free OIA membership and three nights lodging at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2009.

“Continuous education is important to our business,” said Mike Fowler, VP of operations at Uncle Dan’s in Chicago, IL. “Retail is part art and part science, and the resources OIA offers through programs like these and their member benefits are incredible tools for our staff use to make important decisions.”

The 2009 Outdoor University tour and program will be announced in January.