Camping Under the Stars -- Um, Fluorescent Lighting

Outdoor Retailer Bass Pro Draws Families, Builds Relationships With Free 'Summer Camps' in Stores

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There is a correction appended to this article.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Can't afford summer camp? Pack the kids off to Bass Pro Shops, where they can spend six weeks learning BB-gun shooting, archery, fishing, casting, tent-pitching and bird-watching. And it's all free -- including the s'mores.

The retailer's Family Summer Camp, now in its second year, is an "experiential" program designed to build a community for its outdoor-loving consumers. At a time when many families are cash-strapped and seeking summer activities, it seems to be building business for the chain. Bass Pro, which has built a fervent following around its retail palaces, said the camps have increased traffic and sales in its 56 Outdoor World locations. While the privately held company declined to offer specific figures, spokesman Larry Whitely said it's "very pleased" with the result. Though each Bass Pro location holds individual community-based events year-round, the company's summer camp and its annual Santa's Wonderland events are the only programs held company-wide.

COVER BAIT: Our writer Pardee poses
COVER BAIT: Our writer Pardee poses "with his catch" far right.
Jim Wargo, who manages the 225,000-square-foot Bass Pro store here, said the hands-on nature of the camps build customer loyalty. "[We could just] blast out advertising like a shotgun," he said (Bass Pro spent $23.4 million in measured media last year, according to Kantar Media). "But we'd rather have something interactive happening at the store that people can come in and experience."

Mr. Wargo said he saw a significant increase in tent and sleeping bag sales during the height of last summer's recession, reflecting a national trend toward less-expensive camping vacation options. And he said the program isn't only attracting existing brand loyalists. "It brings people into the store who wouldn't normally come," he said.

The company is marketing the event comprehensively through prominent play in its catalog and on its website as well as through TV and radio spots, billboards, print ads and a social-media campaign targeted primarily at parents. (Bass Pro has well over 260,000 "likes" on Facebook.) It has also partnered with Field & Stream magazine, which produced a special "Summer Fun" issue for the company detailing its camp programming. As part of the tie-in, campers can take their photo in front of a river backdrop, and within 24 hours access a free digital image of themselves on the cover of Field & Stream holding a large, digitally imposed catch of the day.

Brand affinity
Analysts say in-store events are often an effective marketing technique for retailers and can yield impressive results. Dave Walker, CEO of the Interpublic's hyper-local shop Geomentum, said event-driven marketing on a community level has the power to bolster brand affinity, an elusive asset for many retailers. "That affinity with the community in which you're doing business is made deeper by having more than just a transactional relationship with that community," Mr. Walker said. "It's more than just coming in to buy things."

According to Walker and Geomentum, retailers who employ hyper-local marketing techniques see most of their sales drawn from within a 14-minute drive time. Not necessarily so for Bass Pro; no two of its retail stores are the same, and many serve as veritable tourist attractions in some regions.

"We're a destination outdoor retailer, but we're primarily a retailer -- and really, so are Disney parks," said Mr. Whitely.

Mike Rogers, of Lock Haven, Pa., recently stopped by the Harrisburg Outdoor World store on the way to Washington, so his two young sons could participate in the summer camp activities. Just feet away from the shop's front doors, both kids practiced shooting stacked hay bales with Daisy BB guns under the close eye of a Bass Pro sales associate.

"We planned our trip to hit this," said Mr. Rogers, who coaches wrestling at American University. "It lets them get out of the car; they can do a couple of activities. ... And we're definitely going to pick up something."

While paid for out of Bass Pro's marketing coffers, sponsors get mileage out of their brands used during the demonstrations, including Coleman camping gear, Bushnell sports optics and Repel insect repellent, among others.

Daisy Outdoor Products supplies all air guns, BBs, safety glasses and targets featuring its logo next to Bass Pro's. Joe Murfin, Daisy's VP-marketing, said it's a fitting partnership considering the company is based on recruiting and training a next generation of outdoors enthusiasts, noting that there's no substitute for actual interaction with the brand. "It's easy for a corporation like Daisy to buy national advertising ... but this is putting [a Daisy] product in the actual hands of a consumer who is being predisposed to purchase it," Mr. Murfin said.

Pulling it off
Though Bass Pro won't speak to how much it's investing in the summer-camp program, Mr. Walker said orchestrating retail events like this are incredibly resource-intensive. And if a company can't execute a quality event, it's money down the drain.

"One of the risks is doing this badly -- creating the event, then pulling it off with uneven execution," said Mr. Walker, who formerly led Toys-R-Us' similar Camp Geoffrey events as head of marketing for the toy retailer. "Having partners who understand how important it is to pull these off with a consistent level of quality and attention to detail is very important."

As Bass Pro continues its growth (two more locations are scheduled to open in 2011, adding to its current tally of 56) Mr. Whitely says the in-store events will keep up the pace. And as economic conditions continue to recuperate, both consumers and marketers will likely remain on the bandwagon.

Mr. Rogers will certainly be one of those consumers. "We'd better get shopping," he said as he watched his 7-year-old son Caden score an impressive near-bulls'-eye with his Daisy Red Rider. "He has two dollars burning a hole in his pocket."

Gone fishin': Ad Age's fun-filled day at camp

At Bass Pro, camping doesn't necessarily mean outdoors. When Ad Age visited the Harrisburg location, most of the seminars, crafts and workshops were being held at small stations inside the store near its waterfall aquarium, though a few of the more intense activities -- such as archery and BB-gun lessons -- were luckily being held outside, adjacent to the building.

Over the wide front doors the words "Welcome Fishermen, Hunters and Other Liars" appear carved into a decorative log. Just a few feet away, a small artificial pond is often used for kayaking and remote-controlled boat demonstrations, and is home to several kinds of bass. It's flanked by mounds of natural-looking grass, bright yellow flowers and large rocks that, like the indoor displays, kids are welcome to play on. Popular country music drifts from the speakers set somewhere high in the building's rafters.

For the camp events, a few small three-walled plywood structures were erected for temporary use against the store's outer walls, with bails of hay stacked high against the far inside wall, effectively serving as makeshift mini-shooting ranges. Kids lined up and waited their turn to don the sleek orange safety glasses and out-shoot each other.

Inside the store's aquarium, the glass near the bottom of the tank is smudged with kids' handprints but you can still see dozens of bass, trout and catfish.

Occasionally, store manager Jim Wargo says, one of the larger fish will eat a smaller one, which comes as a shock to some of the patrons. "But that's nature, it happens," he said.

Doner's risky social-media parallel pays off

It's no secret that Americans are spending more time in front of backlit screens and less time outdoors than in generations past, but a TV spot for camping gear marketer Coleman Co. brazenly claims credit for being "the original social-networking site."

BRIGHT IDEA: Coleman's Effie-winning campaign features print ads and an iPhone app.
BRIGHT IDEA: Coleman's Effie-winning campaign features print ads and an iPhone app.
"We're not saying that Facebook and MySpace got their idea from us, but we're not saying they didn't, either," a man's voice (actor Sam Elliott) quips in the spot over real user-submitted footage of families goofing around campsites stocked with Coleman products. It's a heartstring-tugging nod to simpler times which Coleman agency Doner hopes will resonate with a new generation of wired consumers.

Rob Strasberg, co-CEO and chief creative officer, said the agency's research indicated a surprising trend that led them to use social media as a creative springboard. "Our core target [consumers], who were outdoor enthusiasts, were actually more likely to be online than people who didn't camp that much."

The campaign, which began last summer, is being reprised this year after winning an Effie for what Coleman described as significant sales increases.

Mr. Strasberg said there's a balance in drawing parallels between online life and real life, as the wrong tone could read abrasively with the target demo.

-- Thomas Pardee

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The original version of this story incorrectly referred to the voice-over in the Coleman TV spot to as a woman's; in fact, the TV spot voice-over is a man's. The online ad is voiced by a woman.

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