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Rocky Mountains

Special Series: How one Colorado retailer launched a wildly popular women’s event

Colorado’s Backcountry Experience built its Women Outside Adventure Forum from scratch. It wants other retailers to capitalize on what they’ve learned.

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Backcountry Experience Women Outside Event
The Women Outside Adventure Forum by Backcountry Experience has grown into a community-wide event, attracting hundreds of participants over three days. Photo courtesy of Monika Leopold

This article is the first in a three-part series about developing women’s events in specialty outdoor retail shops. Part 1 covers development and goal-setting; Part 2 covers securing speakers, sponsors, and brand involvement; Part 3 covers marketing the event.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the room. A crowd huddled at the back, cascading out the door and into the hallway where people stood on tiptoes hoping to hear. As ultrarunner Anna Frost took the stage, she waved to the back of the room and urged everyone to fill in. There was still plenty of sitting room on the floor. The audience squeezed in and Frost kicked off the second annual Women Outside Adventure Forum. 

During the last three years, Backcountry Experience’s Women Outside Adventure Forum has evolved into a major community event in Durango, Colorado. Featuring a diverse lineup of athletes, artists, and activists, the three-day forum has attracted speakers like Beth Rodden, Shannon Galpin, and Steph Davis, as well as thousands of attendees over the years.

As the event grows into its fourth year, we at Backcountry Experience (BCEXP) are reflecting on what’s made it a success and how other outdoor retailers can develop their own women’s programs.

Beth Rodden at Backcountry Experience Women Outside event
With the assistance of Outdoor Research, professional climber Beth Rodden spoke at the 2016 Women Outside Adventure Forum by Backcountry Experience. Photo courtesy of Monika Leopold

Why host a women’s adventure event? The concept for Women Outside—like most great ideas—was hatched over a couple of pints. We felt the type of stories being told about women were limited in scope and failed to portray the profound connection women have to the outdoors. We wanted to engage our customers on a more meaningful level.

The first Women Outside Adventure Forum in 2016 exceeded our wildest expectations. We overflowed the fire capacity of at least one venue. Since then, we’ve experimented with different formats, themes, and speakers— essentially casting our own mold for a women’s event. As it’s grown, our customers (both men and women) have come to regard Backcountry Experience as an accessible and welcoming hub for the local outdoor community. Women Outside has also allowed us to leverage additional support from our top brands like Osprey Packs and Outdoor Research.

Developing your own event doesn’t have to be as elaborate as a three-day adventure forum. The first, and most difficult step, is taking the nebulous idea of a “women’s event” and defining it.

What is your ultimate goal? Do you want to entertain and inspire, or strictly drive sales? Those can be two very different events and how you develop yours will depend upon your goals. Women Outside is not directly sales driven. It’s meant to build customer loyalty and awareness and develop long-term support for our business.

Who is your target audience? Is this event just for women or are men invited? In the case of BCEXP, we absolutely want men to attend Women Outside because we think it’s important for them to hear these inspiring and powerful stories. We’ve also taken our customers’ advice and made the event more accessible to families, so that kids can be exposed to strong female role models.

Steph Davis at Backcountry Experience
Climber and base-jumper Steph Davis with attendees 2018 Women Outside Adventure Forum. The event’s media sponsor, Adventure Pro Magazine, provided a “red carpet” photo booth for participants. Photo courtesy of Adventure Pro Magazine

Define what your women’s event will look like. The best part of the process is determining the format. This is where you can be creative. For Women Outside we decided on three, two-hour evening events featuring two thematically similar speakers and a prize drawing with big ticket items from our sponsors.

We’ve hosted athlete presentations, film screenings with the directors, book readings, and panel discussions. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try something new. You never know if something’s going to work until you’ve tried it. We’ve discovered that seemingly risky formats—like a private presentation with drinks and hors d’oeuvres—have been surprisingly successful.

Will you raise money for a cause or charity? Most Women Outside events are free and open to the public, but we raise money through a prize drawing with swag from our sponsors. For the last three years, we’ve supported a local non-profit, San Juan Mountain SOLES, which mentors girls in outdoor leadership. For 2019, Women Outside will benefit the San Juan Citizens Alliance, which is working to expand local wilderness areas, among other conservation initiatives.

Women Outside began as an experiment. We were never sure if it was worth the time and money…until this year.

Durango experienced one of the driest winters on record, followed by the 416 Fire which shut down the national forest and decimated summer tourism. Although lodging taxes were down in town—indicating a loss in tourism—Backcountry Experience is less than 1 percent off from last year. We believe that building strong relationships with the community and organizing events like Women Outside have helped drive local customers through our front door. What’s good for the community is always good for business, too.

Coming up next in Part 2: How to find speakers, secure sponsors, and get brands involved.