A few months ago, REI Adventures, the outdoor gear company that creates adventure trips around the globe, made a radical decision. They announced that from now on, the company would no longer offer international trips. Instead they would focus solely on domestic adventures. It was dramatic move, but given the demand for US travel in a post-pandemic world, maybe not all that surprising. I asked Justin Wood, REI Experiences director of product development and national sales, if he could tell me more about the company’s decision.
Everett Potter: Justin, what was behind REI’s decision to discontinue international trips and focus on domestic itineraries?
Justin Wood: REI is making a bold investment in our domestic U.S. experiences because this is where we can have the biggest impact to welcome more people outside by making the outdoors more accessible for everyone. Key to this effort is our plan to expand aggressively across the U.S. with new points of presence designed to enable greater access to gear, guided adventure and camping access where people most need support. Discontinuing our international programs was a significant decision and not one that we made lightly. The kind of investment it’ll take to achieve our goals in making the outdoors more accessible for all through aggressive growth in domestic adventure requires commitment and focus.
EP: Are there areas of the United States that you think have been underserved by REI and other operators?
JW: This question, in many ways, gets right at the heart of our aim here – not only from the perspective of Place, but from the perspective of People as well. In terms of place, there’s a need and opportunity to connect people not only to iconic adventure destinations, but to their local outdoor spaces as well, which is an important aspect of our work at REI Experiences. But also critically important is to understand that for many people and communities, equitable access to outdoor opportunities and a sense of belonging in the outdoors is still, sadly, not a reality. That is why the co-op is using its experiences business and more to create a more inclusive outdoors for all.
EP: What are a few of your favorite new itineraries?
JW: On weekends close to home, and especially with the unusually warm Seattle weather lately (90 here yesterday and close to 100 this weekend), REI’s Boathouses at Enatai Beach Park and Meybenbauer Bay are a great way to get outside with kayak, canoe or stand-up paddle board rentals, instruction or guided tours. You can even rent a PFD for your pup!
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For epic multiday adventure, I’m excited about our new 5-day Yosemite Half Dome Backpacking trip. A self-supported wilderness backpacking trip has to be the best way to experience Yosemite, and summiting Half Dome with the long ascent up that iconic granite dome to unmatched views of the valley and surrounding peaks – it has to be the experience of a lifetime in every sense. Our 5 day trip includes added time in the backcountry to fully appreciate the beauty of the national park, as compared to our 4-day option.
EP: How has the pandemic changed the REI clientele? Do you have more first-timers?
JW: With most people’s travel plans still focused domestically and with so much disruption to large events and indoor entertainment, it has been remarkable to see the volume of people exploring new outdoor activities for the first time. Our trips are attracting a more diverse customer today than prior to the pandemic, and a bit younger customer on average as well. Our local experiences offerings across the country have also proven very popular as many have turned to the outdoors for health and wellness benefits. Another proof point that people are looking to connect with experts for outdoor education is our Virtual Outfitting offering. That team recently completed 10-weeks of live streaming and our entry-level backpacking session had 1,100 participants.
EP: If there are new growth areas for REI, which sports seem to be getting more popular?
JW: We’re seeing increasing participation across a broad range of outdoor activities. Hiking and camping have surged in popularity, as has backpacking, which offers a great way to explore otherwise popular iconic destinations without the crowds. Cycling and paddling have increased in popularity, too, keeping people active and offering a social activity while maintaining some distance from others at the same time. Beyond opportunities to be active, the outdoors offers the benefits of stress-reduction and emotional well-being alongside the chance to experience the beauty of natural places in unique and memorable ways. So even as we start getting back to our prior routines and activities, we expect that people who’ve newly discovered outdoor adventure in the last year, whether out of curiosity, necessity, or both, will continue getting out on the bike, the boat or on foot.