What the closure of Eagle Creek means for the travel baggage and adventure travel markets

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While the decision of VF Corp. shutting down the Eagle Creek travel luggage brand this fall was a blow to its employees and founders for the adventure travel category, it is not a death knell for the adventure travel category or market .

Instead, it begs the question: who benefits from losing the brand, and what does it say about the future of adventure travel and the travel product category after the pandemic?

SGB ​​Executive spoke with Eagle Creek co-founder Steve Barker, along with adventure travel market experts and industry analysts, to deepen the conversation.

VF, which also owns JanSport and Eastpak in the travel category and whose flagship brands include The North Face, Vans, Timberland, Dickies and Smartwool, is probably big on this.

The company acquired Eagle Creek in 2007 from co-founders Steve and Nora Barker. It weathered the recession, experienced a travel boom and tightened its belt during the pandemic.

VF vice president of corporate affairs Craig Hodges said in a statement that “VF has determined that it no longer makes strategic or financial sense to continue to operate the brand.”

Barker understands the reasoning, but feels that the gut control he created doesn’t match the future of gate controls. “I guess it’s a combination of things,” he said. “It was a big gap early on between VF and Eagle Creek.

Eagle Creek is a $ 30- $ 50 million business. VF is a machine designed to support half a billion dollar companies, which works for their shareholders, not necessarily for smaller companies that are more entrepreneurial. A short-sighted decision, but understandable. Eagle Creek might not be the best game for VF, but it still has a big following and reputation in a solid niche.

Reports show that the travel niche is relatively stubborn.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has had an impact on the global travel industry. Euromonitor’s travel forecasting model indicated that global travel spending fell by 75% in 2020. And the NPD Group said that with “consumer travel spending coming to a screeching halt in 2020, the US travel accessories market lost $ 1.8 billion.

But following the massive rollout of vaccinations, growing consumer interest in travel has resulted in increased baggage sales, which continue to rebound to 2019 levels. ”

NPD also reported that as of January 2021, travel spending tended to increase, with spending by airlines, accommodation and online travel agencies increasing 53% in March 2021 compared to March. 2020. And spending was almost 90% higher than in February 2021. In March and April 2021, the study found that baggage sales had returned to 80% of their 2019 levels.

In May, an NDP consumer survey also found that a third of respondents planned to return to their pre-pandemic leisure and business travel behavior in the next three months, and another quarter of respondents planned to do so within four to six months.

“While luggage sales in the United States have not yet fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the market is moving in the right direction,” said Beth Goldstein, NPD accessories and footwear analyst. “There is pent-up demand that is driving consumer travel aspirations. Both functional and innovative travel accessories will be the star items as consumers prepare for their next trips. “

Although challenges remain in 2021, vaccination rates are fueling a slow recovery in some markets.

“Adventure travel is going to come back strong and be strong and one of the first areas of travel to recover,” said Shannon Stowell, CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. “I think the industry will be stronger than ever in the long run because it will have to be better, more resilient and innovate. And some of the weaker companies will disappear, leaving the field to the stronger and new companies that are already appearing. “

Barker agreed. “Do not underestimate the challenge of COVID for the adventure travel market, but I have no doubts that as the pandemic emerges, we will see incredible demand for travel,” he said. “I think there is a lot of interest. People have been turned away and unable to do things, and their values ​​have changed. In addition, they want more balance in life.

He said it also affects businesses. “Businesses have a hard time getting people back to the office,” he said. “In 2008, the employer was king, and employees stepped up to the plate to keep their jobs. It turns it around. Employers will have to offer more benefits, including more vacations. Americans are notorious for not using their vacation time, and they don’t get much, so imagine what would happen if people just took the leisure time they have ahead?

Another indicator of recovery, he added, are passports. “Although not even close to the level in other countries, possession of passports in the United States has also increased significantly,” he said.

For this reason, he believes companies like Eagle Creek, which serve the travel industry, are still on a solid footing. “For the outdoor industry, travel is a good place to be,” he said, likening the equipment for travel to equipment similar to hiking. “Almost everything that is sold in an outdoor store has to do with travel; it is the hub that connects skiing with biking, surfing and hiking.

From a retail perspective, stores selling travel items also play a vital role. “The purpose of outdoor stores is to sell the experience. They are in a much better place to sell this experience than a traditional luggage store. Luggage and travel items acquire a character of their own. There is a lot of sentimental value for people in these products, ”he continued.

All of this points to a sector that is going nowhere but paving the way for companies like Eagle Creek to succeed. “As COVID comes out, things are converging to grow the category, from retiring people to millennials spreading their wings,” he said. “It’s going to be a lift for the next two years, but I see it as a great opportunity. If you are Eagle Creek, it will be a chore for the next 18 months, but the opportunity is still there.

While Eagle Creek was one of the few brands to focus entirely on travel, many more are offering it as part of their offerings, and others are starting to add travel items to their SKU lineup. In addition to a growing business selling adventure luggage from other brands, brands like LL Bean, with travel items like its Approach Rolling Gear Bag and Carryall Spinner Pullman, and REI, with its Roadtripper Duffel and Big Haul Recycled Roller, also market their branded luggage. lines, with indicators pointing to increasing sales. “The co-op has seen an increase in demand for baggage as consumers begin to travel again,” confirmed Rebecca Randall-Lally, REI Category Merchandising Manager.

Gregory is launching its adventure travel line in the fall, and Yeti is also jumping on board, capitalizing on its brand recognition in the cooler space to present a product line aimed at the traveler. Thule, which has owned a luggage line for nearly a decade, is also increasing its travel offering.
“Over the years, our luggage and travel bags have become one of our largest and fastest growing categories,” said Hilary Hartley, President of Thule Region Americas. “Eagle Creek was certainly a pioneer in adventure travel, but there is a lot of competition in space. As the world begins to open up again after the pandemic, we believe pent-up travel demand will create a boom for the industry, and we believe we’re uniquely positioned to fill some of the void that Eagle Creek will leave. “

Barker also agrees with the theory that “Yeti is all about selling travel,” he said. “These are people on the move. It’s not that far-fetched for them to include travel products. Thule was also part of the travel segment. Right now there are a lot of products on the market because the demand has slowed down, but companies that overcome this will see a big bump. “

Photos courtesy of Eagle Creek

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