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For most outdoor folk, Ellis Brigham is something of a household name. At the very least, most of us will have bought a much-loved bit of kit, an outdoor wardrobe essential or a trusty guidebook from one of their shops or online. The company has a long-standing history of serving the outdoor community, and this year, they’re celebrating 90 years of being a key part of it with their inaugural Explore Weekend event.
The event is set to be a jam-packed celebration of all things outdoors, with activities including hiking, running, climbing and swimming as well as an inspiring line-up of speakers and a family-friendly, festival vibe. But with so much to celebrate, we wanted to dig a bit deeper, to find out how it all began, where it’s all going, and how exactly you go about planning a birthday party for an outdoor store that’s been around since 1933?
We caught up with marketing director Mark Brigham to find out.
Can you give us a little bit of an insight into your position within Ellis Brigham, and why it is that you do what you do?
Well, it’s always been a family business – I started out working on the shop floor and driving vans, and now have the position of Marketing Director which I really love as every day is different. Everyone at Ellis Brigham is really friendly and supportive and we are all united by a shared interest in the outdoors.
The company was established in 1933 by my grandfather, who was an avid outdoor fan really. He was mainly into bikes but was also quite an entrepreneur. He saw an opportunity to make things a lot better for people who were in the outdoors, so he set up the business. His background was in footwear, repairing and selling shoes, and the company grew from there, from really quite humble roots in North Manchester.
The aim has always been to make people’s outdoor experiences better by giving the best advice and stocking the best gear for adventure. That was the ethos back in the 30s and 40s and it still holds true today. So, my role is to facilitate that, to assist people in finding the right gear by finding their way to us.
During the time that you’ve been working within the industry, what sort of changes have you seen?
Being a family member, I’ve been around the business all of my life, but I’ve worked here for 20 years now.
We’ve always put an emphasis on customer service and prioritised that element. We still believe that our physical stores are a really important part of what we do, connecting with the staff in stores who have their own personal experiences of being outdoors is a really important part of it. Going back 20 years, online wasn’t anywhere near as big as it is now, so I think one of the main things that has changed has been trying to make that experience move into online and across different platforms – it’s something I think a lot of retailers are still struggling to get right. We’ve not quite cracked that nut yet, but we’re working towards it.
So it’s safe to say you’ve been in the business a while then! What sort of changes have you seen in the demographic of customers you get in your stores over the years?
Well, if you’d asked me that question five years ago, I would have said, it’s not massively changed. But I think in the last five years, particularly with COVID happening, we’ve seen a lot more young people come into the community, which is a great thing.
I think the perception of hiking in years gone by has been (wrongly) that it’s something for older people, but we now see a real broad age range embracing it as a hobby and form of exercise and a way to escape and regain that sense of wellbeing. It’s bringing in a younger consumer, and I think that’s being fuelled by a lot of younger brands like adidas TERREX for example. There’s certainly more youth coming into the outdoors, which is great because they’re bringing in a new and exciting energy.
So – The Explore Weekend. Why did you decide on a festival-type event to mark Ellis Brigham’s 90th year?
Well, the original idea for an event came up probably about 15 years ago! At the time, I sort-of dismissed it, I was like, oh, we’re not event organisers, we’re retailers. We do hold a lot of events in store, we’ve had a lot of speakers over the years, and we try and inspire people beyond just selling gear. I’ve always been quite passionate about doing more of that kind of stuff in the stores, but this was a whole new idea of taking it – literally – outdoors!
I thought, well, if you’re going to celebrate a birthday, you’re going to have some kind of party, aren’t you? The only place to really do it properly would be in the outdoors for us, doing what we all love, and that’s coming together and hiking and climbing, and facilitating other people doing it too. We found a great location in North Wales that will allow people to enjoy it all in the company of staff and family and friends.
Hopefully people will come along, have a great time, and they’ll learn something off the back of it, because that’s an important side of it as well. We want to help people develop their confidence in the outdoors. We’ve got a great lineup of speakers on Friday and Saturday night, and if the weather holds – or even if it doesn’t – I think it’ll be a really special weekend.
Hopefully people will come along, have a great time, and they’ll learn something off the back of it, because that’s an important side of it as well.
I get the impression from what I’ve read about the event that there’s a real community focus to it. Was that an important part of the event planning, that community building aspect?
Absolutely. We were looking for a way we could bring everyone together under one roof, so to speak, to do everything that we’ve enjoyed doing over our lifetimes. We’re encouraging families to come and we’ve got stuff going on for kids as well. We want it to be inclusive, it’s not about how quickly you can climb this mountain or how fast you can run, it’s all about having fun in the outdoors as a community.
And presumably it’s an opportunity for folk who might not necessarily have the confidence to go it alone, to come along and try something new in good company?
Oh yes, for sure. There are free guided hikes and runs, and I think people can come and feel confident that they can ask questions and join in at whatever level. I’d love it if in two year’s time someone suddenly sends me a message saying, I went to your Explore Weekend, and that was the start of my journey into the outdoors.
What’s the plan for Ellis Brigham for the next 10 years?
Well, we’re always considering opening new shops to better serve customers in certain areas – we still see shops as very much part of who we are. We’ll continue to improve the services we offer, and to invest in our staff; one of the key things about Ellis Brigham is we really invest in our staff. We get them out in the hills to try out the product, that’s a real central part of who we are. Our aim is to inspire and encourage more people outside, we’ve been doing it for 90 years and it never gets old!
Finally, how are you going to top the Explore Weekend for your 100th year?
Phew, it’s a big, big job, organising an event – I’ve got massive respect for anyone who organises any kind of event… The way I feel at the moment, I think the 100th year might just be sitting around and eating cake!
But really, if the Explore Weekend is a real success, there’s no reason why we can’t repeat it annually and build it into into a bigger event. At the moment, all eyes are on this event in September and on making it the best we can. We’ll see where we go from there!
The way I feel at the moment, I think the 100th year might just be sitting around and eating cake!
Tickets for the Explore Weekend are on sale now. The family-friendly, inclusive event takes place over the weekend of the 15th-17th September 2023 in Bala, North Wales, and there are multiple options for camping available. Check out the event page on the Ellis Brigham website for more information and to bag your spot!
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