By Craig Patterson
Vancouver-based outdoor gear cooperative MEC is expanding beyond its typical retail operations this spring by launching an international travel program that is designed with a focus on outdoor activity and responsible tourism. It’s a unique example of experiential brand building as competition heats up with new sports retailers entering the market while others expand their operations in Canada.
Called MEC Adventures, the tours start in June of this year with 18 travel itineraries that include experiences such as:
A base camp trek of Mount Everest,
A hike of the W Circuit in Patagonia (Chile)
A tour of the mountains, city and coast in Morocco
A cycling tour in Vietnam
A food and wine hiking tour of Italy's Amalfi Coast
A hike to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania
A multi-sport adventure in New Zealand, and
A nature tour in Costa Rica
"While planning MEC Adventures, we asked 2,407 members and 524 staff about the destinations and activities they were interested in," said MEC Director of Adventure Travel, Allison Brownlie. "From there, MEC worked with local partners to plan and organize all of our trip itineraries creating seamless, active and all-around awesome experiences for our travellers."
The MEC Adventures tours range from eight to 15 days and cover five continents. Each has an activity rating from level 1 (more relaxed) to level 5 (more intense). Most trips feature at least one full day that is dedicated to choosing a personal itinerary so that travellers have the opportunity to try out additional activities such as rock climbing, mountain biking, snorkeling, paddling and surfing.
The tours are led by MEC Adventure Guides and each group allows for a maximum of 12-16 travellers.
MEC is seeking to create unique experiences and it has engaged with local partners and businesses where possible to ensure ‘responsible’ tourism and authentic travel experiences. That includes trip itineraries targeting locally owned accommodations, shops and cafes. MEC's operating partners have also identified local social enterprises that can benefit from tourism — while some have lamented potential damage caused by tourists in some places, a new trend involves tourism which aims to have minimal negative impact to the environment.
Ms. Brownlie described how MEC’s responsible travel tours would include "everything from child and animal welfare, to creating positive economic impact, having respectful interactions with Indigenous People, and environmental considerations such as minimizing the consumption of single use plastics while we travel."
More and more, brands are recognizing that creating ‘experiences’ is a way to get customers into their stores. MEC’s travel initiative not only engages its members, it also creates a market where particpants may also shop for gear at MEC stores. MEC, which was founded in 1971, is the largest cooperative in Canada with 23 stores nationwide and plans for new and replacement units over the next couple of years. A lifetime membership at MEC costs only $5, and the cooperative has more than 5-million members in its roster.
MEC’s move into travel provides the retailer with an extra element of credibility as it takes members on excursions where product can be showcased. It’s likely a smart move — Canada is seeing unprecedented competition in the outdoor and sports retail segments as new brands move in, and others expand their operations.
French behemoth Decathlon, for example, opened its first store in Canada in Quebec last year, and it plans to open two more in the province as it eyes a national expansion. Decathlon is the world’s largest sporting goods retail chain and similar to MEC, it is known for its value-priced outdoor gear. Decathlon’s stores are also highly interactive with areas for consumers to try out products in their stores, and virtual reality has even been introduced to virtually showcase tents in the wilderness.
Other homegrown chains are expanding as well. FGL Sports (operating under multiple banners including Sport Chek, Atmosphere and Sports Experts) has stores across the country in a range of sizes, including a handful of flagships that include innovative technological installations. Outdoor retailer SAIL, with stores in Quebec and Ontario, could see some market share loss in several of its product categories. Laval-based Sportium (part of the SAIL Plein Air umbrella), which operates four large store locations in Quebec, has said that it plans to open as many as seven more locations in the province over the next three years.
Retailers in Canada that carry sporting goods also compete with MEC — Canadian Tire, Walmart and other similar retailers include sporting goods departments in their stores. MEC’s value proposition and experiential initiatives could be advantageous in maintaining market share from such retailers.