In the last decade, Bend, Oregon, has become an outdoor retail Mecca. Snowcapped volcanoes split the horizon and the sun always shines, but the real secrets to Bend’s success are things any town can replicate.
There’s something about Bend.
Transplants are pouring in, flocking to the ski hills, the world-class rock climbing, the tangles of mountain bike trails. A tidal wave of growth has caught the business sector mid-swing, attracting more people all the time. No one who lives in Bend seems to have grown up there. And yet, against all odds, it still feels like a small mountain town. Everybody knows everybody, and someone always has your back.
Meet the Cast
The Deschutes Brewery is always humming. Casks of beer age between packed tables. A pink-haired waitress whisks laden trays through the thrum of chatter that hangs over every booth. Fill a table with the entrepreneurs of the town’s outdoor industry, like SNEWS did one Thursday in February, and that local, conversational buzz—it electrifies.
As far as Bend’s outdoor industry is concerned, this is an all-star cast. Meg Chun of Kialoa Paddles, Rob Little and Bill Inman of Cairn, Leslie Hall of DrinkTanks, Gary Bracelin of Bend Outdoor Worx, Chris Kratsch of the Robert Axle Project, and James Nicol of Snoplanks. Every attendee bursts with commentary, leans into the table, and vibrates with passion.
In 2015, over 60 exhibitors at Outdoor Retailer Summer market hailed from Oregon. Of those 60, about 26 were from Portland. That’s not surprising—given what Steve Meineke, president of Portland-based KEEN, calls the “Nike effect” and Portland’s longstanding tradition of athletic and outdoor industry.
By a long shot, the second largest chunk of Oregon-based OR exhibitors came from Bend, a town of 84,000 on the edge of the high desert.
The city has a lot going for it as far as world-class recreation. But until a few years ago, that was about it. Bend is a three-hour drive from an international airport—the perfect amount of isolation for a summer home but not for a growing business.
Because it’s bounded by public lands (and now a straining urban growth boundary), the town is necessarily small. In fact, Bend-based outdoor industry mainstays Hydro Flask and Ruffwear have had to transition their shipping operations to Portland because that’s where the nearest warehouse space is. For most businesses looking to set up headquarters, Bend would be on the bottom of the list.
Despite all this, the town’s city limits now bracket some of the nation’s most promising outdoor startups, and the population has grown by about 40 percent in the last 15 years. Bend has succeeded where many aspiring gear towns have yet to.
Starting from scratch
In most towns, an avalanche of tourism dollars and entrepreneurial ventures would be celebrated, no questions asked. But Bend is different. There’s tension between celebrations of economic growth and wariness about crowded trails and lengthening lift lines.
People move to Bend to play outside. Because jobs come as an afterthought, these transplants are a very particular subset of go-getters.
“The mentality, ‘We’ll move to Bend and just figure it out,’ is common in the business community here. You end up with savvy enough individuals who can create their own careers,” said Rob Little, Cairn’s co-founder and CEO.
Five years ago, the result was a haphazard collection of entrepreneurs.
Van Schossler, now the president of the board of the Oregon Outdoor Alliance, a group that hosts advocacy meetings, lectures, and networking events for outdoor industry members, as well as the regional sales manager for Stanley, arrived then, finding a fragmented and struggling handful of businesses.
To address the issue, Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO) gathered pizza, beer, and local industry leaders to ask them what companies they’d like to attract to Bend. Meeting attendees took issue with that approach.
“We really felt we had to make it happen from within our community first to attract the outside community,” said Gary Bracelin, who left the meeting and founded outdoor startup accelerator Bend Outdoor Worx (BOW). When those involved realized that the incubator wasn’t going to have a wide enough reach, Van Schoessler, Gary Bracelin, and others threw together the Oregon Outdoor Alliance, the name of which reflected their hope for its future.
Now, Bracelin says meetings live up to that hope, attracting 90 to 100 people, including representatives from other cities and even from Senator Ron Wyden (D).
For many, the alliance has been indispensable. As a subscription box company, Cairn’s business model both assumes and requires brand partnerships. OOA has helped provide those relationships, and Cairn now features products from half a dozen local companies.
“The touch point with the outdoor industry keeps you aware of new businesses coming to town and new products coming in,” Little said. “You can commiserate together. You can celebrate together. It’s engagement. It’s networking. It’s education.”
That’s something even Portland is missing. Representatives from KEEN and Climb X, both Portland-based, were hard-pressed to think of any official outdoor industry networking groups.
Bend Outdoor Worx is a little different. As an incubator, it holds pitch challenges with cash awards. James Nicol, CEO of craft snowboard company SnoPlanks and Chris Kratsch, CEO of bike axle adapter company The Robert Axle Project, both at the table in Deschutes, are Bend Outdoor Worx alumni.
“Gary’s to blame for all Bend’s growth,” Kratsch said, clapping his mentor on the shoulder. “I’ve got a thousand things to do, but when Gary asked us to be here, I dropped everything. I owe that guy.”
“BOW is a game changer,” Nicol said. It’s the only outdoor industry incubator in the country.
According to Chezzie Brungraber, founder of Gobi Gear, which produces backpack organizers, the atmosphere in Bend is dramatically different from that of southern California where her startup took its first steps.
“It was so competitive there,” she said, “People wouldn’t reach out or help one another because they were afraid of disclosing their ideas.”
In Bend, the situation is the opposite.
It didn’t matter what outdoor industry figure was mentioned at the Deschutes Brewery. If that person lived in Bend, his or her name received a unanimous nod of recognition from those at the table. They all knew each other. And they heaped genuine praise on every name they dropped, peers and competitors alike.
DrinkTanks stored extra pallets in Cairn’s office (part of an office share complex called The Bridge intended for outdoor industry startups) and came to Hydro Flask to get questions answered about producing its growlers. Ruffwear is Hydro Flask’s landlord. The two are close.
“When we entered Europe, Ruffwear said ‘Here’s where we had challenges. Here’s the tradeshow we go to. Meet our distributors,’” said Scott Allan, CEO of Hydro Flask.
Those partnerships extend beyond the business world.
Portland State and Oregon State universities have worked with outdoor companies in Portland to provide industry-specific curriculum. OSU’s new Bend satellite campus, OSU Cascades, is now taking applications for 2016, its inaugural fall semester. Allan said his company is already talking to faculty about internship opportunities.
A nearby college will turn out a steady stream of potential new employees, but bringing experienced talents to Bend hasn’t been a problem so far. It’s no wonder.
An employee’s ideal habitat
In the spacious and well-lit Hydro Flask offices (which look remarkably similar to Ruffwear’s, probably because Ruffwear’s CEO designed them both), an employee walks passed tastefully-placed dog beds in various states of occupancy. Outside the window, another wheels his bike to the nearby Phils trails for a lunchtime ride.
Why is Bend great? Livability is the unanimous answer. Not world class skiing or rock climbing, but the ease of getting around the city, public lands access, and community. Unlike Breckenridge or Vail, Bend isn’t just a ski town.
“People want to raise their kids here,” said Allan.
One of Oregon’s oft-cited attractants is the state’s nonexistent sales tax. But, according to the unified table at Deschutes’ Brewery, tax means nothing.
“The tax climate doesn’t matter. Once you lose the livability, we’re out,” said Kratsch.
The outdoor industry exists because of people who value work just as much as play. It follows that the industry’s leaders would prioritize livability above all else. Entrepreneurs select livable places to grow their businesses.
Bike lanes, well-maintained trails and green spaces are on the list of requirements, but thanks to outdoor companies’ love for their playgrounds, putting in these places might require only an initial investment from towns trying to attract outdoor retailers. Unleash a bunch of outdoor enthusiasts on a set of trails, and, at least in Bend’s case, maintenance takes care of itself.
In Portland, KEEN partners with local parks to build trails. Allan and his employees do the same in Bend. They have to. The benefits are too tangible for those whose top priority is getting outside.
Allan pushed a photo across the table. It was two of his employees standing on top of a mountain just after sunrise, arms to the sky in triumph. “This is really indicative of the spirit of the people here,” he said. “You come to work physically tired, but you’re energized and excited and fulfilled.”
Livability extends beyond outdoor amenities. Ashley Williams of KEEN said the bar and restaurant scene has been quite the selling point for Portland, and the same fascination with craft food and beer has spilled over into Bend. Deschutes is one example. Business attracts food and amenities, which attract business. It’s a snowball effect that’s caught Oregon in its inexorable forward momentum.
“Oregon sells right now,” Nicol said. “It’s got this authenticity to it. For many people, it’s still the Wild West.”
Bend is still a frontier town. The connotation sells its products, and the spirit bolsters its entrepreneurs. To the Wild West, it’s the intrepid self-starters that flock. And in Bend, they thrive.
Corey Buhay spent 10 days investigating Oregon’s outdoor retail scene in February, 2016, courtesy of Travel Portland, Travel Oregon, Oregon’s Mount Hood Territory and the Central Oregon Visitors Association.