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If you want to get to know Lise Aangeenbrug, OIA’s executive director who stepped up to lead the organization this March, there’s no better place to meet her than on the trail. A passionate outdoor adventurer with a professional background that has included stints at the National Park Foundation, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Department of the Interior, Aangeenbrug is never more at home than when she’s putting in some miles in the mountains.
OIA has faced hardship this year like everyone else, but under Aangeenbrug’s leadership, the organization has managed to keep its head above water while rethinking its funding model and continuing the important work it does for its wide membership across our industry.
This week, OBJ associate editor Andrew Weaver went on a hike with Aangeenbrug in the hills outside Golden, Colorado, to reflect on OIA’s year. Among other things, they chatted about how OIA is working to open new revenue streams, how the group deepened its relationship with its members this year, and what the future of the industry will look like once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.
Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
This has been a tough year for OIA, which used to rely heavily on Outdoor Retailer revenue for much of its funding. After the OR cancellations this year, is OIA rethinking its funding model?
To put it simply, yes. We essentially pivoted this year to a brand new model. Two of our big areas of focus in 2020 have been growing our membership and helping members better understand the value of what we do. The way our funding model worked in the past was fairly imbalanced. If you came to Outdoor Retailer, you paid a lot each year to support what we do at OIA. If you didn’t come to OR, you paid much less. That created an unnecessary division in the membership, I think, and made the revenue stream very uneven and susceptible to major disruptions. We’re trying to even that out by restructuring our membership payments. We’re asking members to pay more than they have in the past, while at the same time trying to understand their needs better so that they’re getting more value for their money, so to speak.
How are you framing that request to member companies?
It all started with a big push to talk to our members and learn from them. This summer, we started calling all of our members and asking what was most important to them about OIA—what they need most from us. During those calls, we also pitched people on the value of the organization. We tried to explain what OIA can do for members that no one else can.
The results of that effort were clear. Research, policy, and in-person engagement were the themes that everyone identified as OIA’s most important value-adds to the industry. Those are the common values among most of our member companies. What that means is, if we’re going to ask people to pay more for their membership, we need to make absolutely sure we’re delivering in those areas.
To deliver on the research component, we need to continue providing data that helps sales or business needs, like the participation report we do every year. We also need to focus heavily on research that helps the planet, like the work we do through the Climate Action Corps.
For the second piece, policy, it tends to center around trade. Our trade-focused advocacy and education work over the last four years have been very important to members. We heard that over and over again. The trade environment is going to be a lot more stable with this new administration coming in, but member companies are still going to need guidance, so we need to make sure we continue those efforts.
Finally, in-person gathering right now tends to center around those first two themes—research and policy—as we’re not sure when the next in-person Outdoor Retailer will happen. Because there’s no trade show this year, the convening has taken place through the Climate Action Corps and our various policy efforts focused on trade.
So, to answer your question, we started by doing all of this work, listening to the members, and talking honestly with them. Only after we heard from them did we come back and say, “Here’s what we can do as a trade organization. We can deliver X, Y, and Z. Do you value those things? And would you pay a slightly higher price for them?”
One thing that’s important to note: We held small retailers harmless. For them, there was no increase at all. Our feeling was, they’re all struggling, and for some of them even a $50 increase would be a lot. But for brands and other members, we asked if they would be willing to pay more.
Has that effort been successful?
So far! We’ve raised more than $3 million since August, which covers about 80 percent of our budget for next year. We’re trying hard to close the gap by January 1. Reaching our goal will mean we’re no longer dependent on the trade show for the bulk of our revenue and will be primarily supported by our members. We’re still exploring some other revenue sources, but at this point, membership fees will cover most of our base budget for 2021. So it appears the model works. We were successful in communicating our value to the industry, and in return, they’re making sure we can continue to work for them.
You mentioned the Climate Action Corps and its value to the industry. How is the CAC different from SIA’s new, similar climate initiative, ClimateUnited?
We’ve been talking to [SIA president] Nick Sargent for the last year about it, so it’s not like it came out of the blue for us. In short, it’s a good thing. I think Nick ultimately came to the conclusion that, while the Climate Action Corps is great for the outdoor industry, the snowsports industry has unique needs of its own. I think he was mainly concerned that there could be a cost to SIA members if they wanted to join the Climate Action Corps, and he wanted to offer something to his members for free.
Ultimately what I would say about it is: It’s great. I’m glad SIA is pursuing this. The more people we have trying to curb greenhouse gases, the better.
Do you think the two initiatives can coexist constructively?
Absolutely. Our program functions a lot like a consultancy. We work with a lot of experts in the field and we do a good deal of one-on-one assistance for members. I can’t speak to whether or not SIA is doing that, but even if they are, the model is not competitive. We’ve been up and running with the Climate Action Corps for over a year, and we know there’s a deep need for this work. People appreciate the assistance, the networking, and all the programming we offer. It’s not as if there’s limited demand for this kind of work.
Where do you see the industry heading in the next few years?
I think this crisis has been the beginning of a meaningful shift, honestly. We have more than 300 million people in America, and studies indicate that nearly 50 percent of them currently don’t get outside at all. There’s still a huge upside in this industry and a lot of room to grow. During the pandemic, we’ve started to see that change. One of the things we know about changing people’s behavior is that you have to repeat and reinforce experiences to build habits. COVID has lasted long enough that people are being forced to repeat their experiences in the outdoors to the point at which habits are being built. People who otherwise would have stayed inside are getting out. Over the course of a year, people have been driven outside again and again. That is going to have powerful long-term effects.
We still have a long way to go to make sure we can accommodate all those people, of course. If you look at some of the studies that have come out this year, you see that we have 28 million kids in the U.S. who don’t live within a 10-minute walk of park. The questions on my mind right now are: How can we build more places to play, how do we protect the ones we have, and how do we make those places more equitable for everyone?
But we’re getting there. It’s important to remember that the last major element in forming a habit is joy. At this point, we know people have experienced joy in the outdoors this year—it has truly been our great escape. That’s why I feel really optimistic these days. This crisis has been difficult, but it may be the start of a whole new chapter for the outdoor industry.
A few final questions, just for fun
At the end of the hike, Aangeenbrug wrapped things up by rattling off answers to a lightening round of fun, personal questions. Here’s what she said about her preferred camping meal, favorite Fourteener, and more.
1. Piece of holiday gear at the top of your holiday list
Nemo Stargazer Recliner Luxury Chair
2. Favorite camping meal
Pasta with smoked salmon
3. Favorite place to ski in Colorado
For cross-country, Devil’s Thumb. For downhill, Crested Butte.
4. Favorite ice cream flavor
Mint chocolate chip
5. Favorite national park
6. Down, wool, or synthetic?
7. Last piece of gear you bought
8. What kind of car do you drive?
9. Patagonia or The North Face?
“I can’t choose babies.”
10. Favorite Fourteener
Kit Carson Peak