MEC goes experiential with adventure travel arm

The outdoor gear co-op is testing branded travel experiences to create deeper connections with its members.

Since the dawn of digital, retailers have been testing new and unique store formats to defend against online shopping. Adding an experiential layer, specifically, is how some retailers such as Staples (with its new “learning and working” concepts) and the still-fighting Toys “R” Us Canada are looking to draw crowds.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is continuing that fight by adding even more experiential components to the company’s retail operations. Soon, it will have a new Toronto flagship store that will offer features like a rock-climbing wall and, starting in June, it will offer specialized adventure travel experiences to members through its new travel services arm, MEC Adventures.

The Vancouver-based outdoor gear cooperative is extending its brand into the adventure travel space, and as part of that, MEC Adventures director Allison Brownlie says the company will bring more “holistic, end-to-end travel experiences” for its existing co-op members.

Brownlie says the co-op has been putting on races, events and clinics for the last seven years, but wanted to do more. Travel, she says, has long been on the minds of MEC customers that peruse its travel accessories sections to plan for their next adventure. “We wanted to take a bigger role in that experience, really tying together the retail side of the business with an experiential opportunity.”

MEC Adventures’ tours, which are already open for booking, will launch with 18 itineraries, including a Vietnam cycling tour, a food and wine-theme hike of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and a multi-sport adventure in New Zealand.

The itineraries were crafted following a survey of around 2,400 members and 520 staff last spring. Being highly active people, respondents revealed an interest in travelling to destinations around the globe – far from the all-inclusive resorts – where they could hike, cycle, paddle, sight-see and immerse themselves in the local culture. But many also indicated wanting to have optional days when they could “choose their own adventure.”

“People want to know that they can be outdoors and active,” but it doesn’t always have to be about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or doing an Mount Everest base camp trek, Brownlie says. “We have those, too. But they wanted a full range of intensities.” As such, MEC is offering trips across five levels of difficulty to help members find what that works for them.

The tours will see groups of a maximum of 12 to 16 travellers be led by MEC Adventure Guides. Travelling in small groups makes smaller destinations more accessible and enables MEC to keep travel dollars as local as possible by partnering with locally-owned restaurants and hotels, Brownlie says. That’s also part of MEC’s mission to support “responsible” tourism.

MEC Adventures debuted with a soft-launch in the fall, accompanied by a teaser campaign and the giveaway of an $8,000 travel package. Since then, it has continued to engage with its members through online channels, in store and at events, such as the Outdoor Adventure and Travel Show in Vancouver and Calgary. And, from a brand point of view, MEC is able to control the entire experience of its travel customers, Brownlie says, from booking on the company’s website, to preparing for the trip through training tips and packing advice.