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How South Cumbria became a hub for Britain’s outdoor industry

Published on: Monday 25th May 2015
Categorised under: Work , Business, Lake District, Lifestyle

THE Lake District has long been known as the outdoors playground of the UK.

So it seems fitting that as an increasing number big name brands in mountaineering, fell running, walking and climbing set up home in the region it has also become a hub for the outdoor equipment industry in the country.

More and more companies in the sector have set up bases in the area as the popularity of outdoor activities and the equipment that comes with it has soared.

In particular, anyone taking a walk around Staveley Mill Yard would be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into some kind of outdoor trade fair.

Fell running shoe brand Inov8, mountain adventure clothing specialists Haglofs, The North Face and Montane all have bases there, as well as Alpine and exploration equipment supplier Aiguille.

For Inov8 - which also has bases in Crook, County Durham, and Boston in the USA - the decision to set up an office in Staveley was a fitting one for a company with strong links to the county.

Founded in 2003 by Wayne Edy, Inov-8 found its first retailer in Pete Bland sports in Kendal and sponsors Tom Addison, from Kendal, the 2014 English Fell Running Champion.

"The Mill Yard in Staveley has become a hub for leading outdoor sports brands," said Mr Edy.

"Given that our heritage is born out of the fells, the decision to build a creative working environment in Staveley was an easy one. Our team in Staveley live the brand, helping test new footwear innovations on all the terrains nearby."

Kendal-based Peter Luscombe is director of Profile Outdoors, which produces the regular business-to-business publication Outdoori, as well as compiling statistical reports for the brands themselves.

He said there was a heritage for outdoor gear production and retail in the county.

“As the popularity of general outdoor recreational activities started to increase in the 1960s and 1970s many so-called enthusiasts, frustrated by the lack of product availability started to source product themselves, thereby creating the first generation of outdoor entrepreneurs," he said.

"Many opened up stores in and around popular outdoor destinations such as the Lake District, these included the Climbers’ Shop in Ambleside and George Fisher, Keswick."

The outdoor market has benefited over the past decade from increased participation and today is valued at £1.45bn at retail having grown from £1.2bn in 2005.

"Today, people want to get away from their urban environment and the outdoors, driven by their increased awareness of the benefits of exercise and a healthy lifestyle, offers the ideal solution,” said Mr Luscombe.

Across the Mill Yard from Inov8, Haglofs UK marketing manager Bruce Duncan says it was a natural choice for the company to set up a base there in 2008.

"Once one company comes then another comes and it slowly snowballs," he said.

"For most people who work in the outdoor industry it isn't the greatest pay in the world but it does come with perks like being able to go outside and play in great kit, it fits with the whole lifestyle.

"It also makes it very easy for buyers from the big multiples to come and see three or four different brands at once."

He says outdoor brands weathered the recent economic storm quite well, as many Brits decided to save money by holidaying at home but also realised they needed to invest in some warm and dry clothing to be able to do so.

However, the number of competing businesses means the brands are having to think carefully about how they position themselves.

In the case of Haglofs the brand's particular angle comes from producing extremely high end mountaineering equipment, focusing on those who are prepared to pay a reassuringly high price.

They also put a strong focus on sustainability and plugging into the market who want to know their kit has been made in an ethical and environmentally friendly way.

Away from Staveley Mill Yard, brands and distributors have various other bases around the county. Clothing manufacturer Marmot opened a dedicated store in Ambleside in 2013 and Lyon Equipment, based in Tebay, is the UK distributor for multiple brands including Petzl headtorches and La Sportiva footwear.

One company that has had one of the longest associations with the area is Lowe Alpine, which has its core design and marketing team in Kendal.

Giles Polito, commercial director for owner Equip, said having a base in the area fitted with the lifestyle of staff as well as adding authenticity to the brand.

"It gives us people who are attracted to living in the Lake District and who have an empathy with the product and as soon as they finish work they are out there and they use the product and understand it very, very clearly," he said.

"We are very conscious to keep the identity of Lowe Alpine and that history of being in the Lake District. We like to reinforce the Lake District element of our business whenever we can and I believe that adds increased value in this world where there are many brands and you are trying to find a point of difference and a unique position."

It is not just the well-known big name brands and distributors who are setting out their stall in Cumbria.

Last year Charlie Sproson and Nicola Merrett set up their online distribution company Mountain Lite.

Mr Sproson says their website www.mountain-lite.co.uk operates like a "mini-Amazon" selling gear by clothing brand True Mountain, torch manufacturers Suprabeam and Aarn backpacks.

Mountain Lite targets customers who are particularly focused on moving quickly with lightweight equipment.

"The other market is people who are interested in buying British and that is quite a big market," said Mr Sproson, who runs the business from Kendal.

The fells of the Lake District had never been more full of potential customers, he said.

"In the last 14 years I have seen the hills grow busier and busier," said Mr Sproson, who is also a committed mountain athlete and ultra runner.

"In the mountains there are so many more getting involved, you can pretty much guarantee you will always bump into someone every time you go out.

"Lots of brands have realised that the Lake District makes a great selling environment.

"If you get a buyer coming from a retailer and you can take them out running, or climbing or cycling and give them a nice day then the next day it is much more likely they will buy something."