Coming out of Outdoor Retailer’s 2018 Winter Market, we had covered two major stories that were more pressing than gear – environmental conservation (or more specifically protecting public lands), and gender equity in the outdoor industry.
While at the show, Emily and I had a chance to sit down with College Outside Founder and CEO, Sarah Lockwood, who brought to our attention a third macro issue at play, and that is the state of outdoor industry sustainability as a whole.
“This is an aging industry. When we’re talking about industry sustainability, it’s not just environmental sustainability, it’s, can this industry survive? Can our businesses keep growing? And the focus on that is the next generation. How do we raise up and introduce more individuals to the outdoors?”
And that’s exactly what Sarah aims to do through College Outside.
Founded in 2015, the mission of College Outside is to support outdoor education programs and university outing clubs to help introduce more individuals to the outdoors.
“Our research shows that many people are introduced to the outdoors, or fall back in love with the outdoors (as was the case for Sarah during her time in the Tufts Mountain Club), in college. So we started out by building some intercollegiate events to bring different leaders from different colleges together, and as we continued to talk with those students, schools, and sponsors we realized there was actually a really strong need that wasn’t being served. The missing component and a major barrier to getting more people outside was simply access to gear and equipment. If you only have 10 backpacks, you can only take 10 students outside.”
With that in mind, Sarah set out to create the outdoor industry’s primary sales channel for university outdoor programs. How does that work?
A university outing club will apply to College Outside, and clubs are then vetted based on need, numbers, and legitimacy. Once accepted, the club and their members will have access to wholesale, or better than wholesale, pricing on over 50 brands in the outdoor industry.
Before a program like College Outside, if a university needed new backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, or skis, they would have to approach each brand individually, set up a vendor account for their club, and enter a lengthy negotiation period to secure pricing on specific items for their students.
“This is historically a huge hassle for university directors and club buyers, and while the brands in our space want to support these programs, nobody has time for the process. A big brand that is actually putting effort into this is at most working with 40-50 schools per year. And there’s probably like 2,000 outdoor education programs in the country and like 10,000 outdoor clubs. So the majority are buying at full price.”
College Outside is solving a couple pain points here. By providing a one-stop shop for clubs to receive pro-deal pricing, they’re saving time on both the university and brand side. In addition, they’re creating a more sustainable and scalable model for serving a greater number schools, getting more affordable gear into more students hands, and in the end, getting more people outside.
I was president of the Bryant University Ski & Snowboard club back in the day, as well as a member of the Bryant Outdoor Adventure Club, and while we would allocate some of our club budgets to subsidizing the cost of trips (lift tickets and transportation), if you didn’t have the gear you didn’t go.
We already had a couple hundred members in the ski club and I can imagine if we had been able to provide wholesale pricing on gear needed for our trips, we would have had a lot more members.
Some more established university outdoor clubs do have group accounts with brand suppliers and provide rental equipment for their members. I studied abroad in New Zealand at the University of Otago and whenever I used to ditch a Friday class to head out for a long weekend trekking around Fjordland, I would “hire” out a tent and sleeping bag for the journey.
For schools without those programs, the kids have to get crafty.
“For Tufts Mountain Club, it was like, we knew a guy in the club who’s cousin worked at Mountain Hardwear, who would hook us up with the pro-form once a year, and then we would abuse the sh** out of it, and so we lost it.”
College Outside is essentially legitimizing this practice by connecting brands with student leaders who are outdoor influencers and providing a college level pro site.
Right now, College Outside is serving 275 outdoor education programs and outing clubs at 230 universities. Currently, this year, over 20,000 student leaders have access to their site.
While the few-year-old College Outside is without question already making quite an impact on a previously under-served space, Sarah’s vision goes far beyond wholesale gear pricing for college clubs.
She sees College Outside as the nexus between the outdoor industry and the university space. Her goal is to build an on-boarding ramp for college leaders and outdoor club members seeking entry-level positions or internships in the outdoor industry, as well as to support new brands doing inspiring work that need a voice within the college community.
Upcoming generations of influencers and consumers alike care so deeply about social responsibility and eco-conscious business, and if College Outside can be a conduit between the brands doing it for the right reasons, and the people who care about the same initiatives, that is a powerful role to play.
At the end of the day, why does this matter?
“Having a connection to the outdoors makes you a better human, allows you to have stronger connections to those around you in a very disconnected world, and arguably most importantly it creates a connection with natural space around you.”
“How can you want to protect the natural world if you’ve never experienced it and never had that aha moment?”