When Travis Campbell bought travel brand Eagle Creek in 2021 from VF Corporation, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging. Outdoor customers were spending their money on hardgoods like kayaks and bikes, not new luggage or other travel gear.
Fast-forward to 2023 and people are getting back out into the world, and sales of travel products are up. Campbell expects the Steamboat Springs, Colorado, company will double its business in 2023 compared to 2022.
“It’s nice to have a trend going in our direction,” Campbell said. “That always seems to change inevitably. But for right now it’s great.”
This September will mark two years since Campbell bought the nearly 50-year-old company. He’s still focused on Eagle Creek’s core business of rolling luggage, duffel bags, backpacks, and other travel accessories.
Campbell spoke with The Daily about how the business is doing, the return of travel, running a heritage brand, and more.
Campbell said 2022 was mostly a year of the company getting its footing and growing its inventory as demand picked up.
“We were just chasing inventory the whole year,” he said. “Now we’re in stock. We’ve built some new product that’s been well received. Demand is really strong. Really, really good momentum at this point.”
That’s counter to a lot of other brands in the industry that are suffering from weaker demand for products that consumers purchased during the pandemic instead of spending money on travel.
But there’s still one big challenge for Eagle Creek: Some retailers have finances tied up in those products that were hot during COVID, like bikes and kayaks, Campbell said.
“It’s limiting their open-to-buy and their ability to rotate and chase travel as effectively as we want them to,” he added. “Everybody’s recognizing that the travel demand is there. Not everybody has been able to rotate and stock the right products.”
To help with that, Eagle Creek is trying to keep inventory on-hand for retailers as they sell through other merchandise.
The company’s direct-to-consumer business has also been strong, according to Campbell.
Campbell said the company grew its e-commerce business faster than its wholesale business last year, but that has flipped this year as retailers have recognized that travel is back.
“We’re seeing really healthy orders coming out of wholesale now as they chase inventory,” he added.
Campbell said his best retail partners are those willing to highlight travel in their stores.
As for VF’s announcement earlier this year that it’s selling its packs business that includes the Jansport, Eastpak and Kipling brands, Campbell said he’s been asked a few times if he’s interested. He said that while they’re great businesses, they’re not a good fit for what he’s doing.
To his mind, they’re more bags businesses, while Eagle Creek is a travel brand. “Different usages,” he said.
Adding Back the Adventure
One area Campbell’s targeting for reform is putting the adventure back in the adventure travel part of the Eagle Creek brand.
“It felt a little bit too much homogeneously travel and not enough adventure travel,” he said. That means making products more durable or more waterproof, or adding enhanced features such as better zippers. Eagle Creek also prides itself on offering a lifetime warranty on its products, and Campbell has been pushing to make sure its products are repairable, both if they’re sent back to the company and in the field.
“We want things to be as easily repairable as possible,” he said. “Bad things happen on adventures.”
Heritage Is Hot
Certain outdoor legacy brands are having a moment of resurgence. See the widespread popularity of old-school company Stanley’s tumbler, for example.
Campbell pointed out that in this climate, it’s relatively easy to start a brand online with little infrastructure and have products made quickly.
“What you can’t replicate is heritage and history and experience,” he said. Some customers are recognizing and appreciating that legacy.
“It’s something very tangible and real,” Campbell said. “For Eagle Creek, it has almost 50 years of experience building adventure travel gear. The competitive set that started in the last five or 10 years can’t say that. It’s a nice point of differentiation.”
But Campbell hasn’t been coasting on that.
“You can’t just rely on the heritage,” he said. “It’s heritage, and what are you doing for the customer now?”
He also chalks up the current success more to the reopening of travel than to the legacy name.
“I don’t necessarily think that our growth over the last two years has been because people are pursuing a heritage brand,” he said. “It’s simply that travel has come back really strongly. We’re benefiting from that as much as the heritage.”
How It Happened
Campbell was working as VF’s president of emerging brands in 2021 and Eagle Creek was part of his portfolio. VF leadership had decided to wind down the brand instead of trying to sell it.
Eagle Creek was founded in 1975 by Steve and Nona Barker in California. VF bought it from the Barkers in 2007.
“A lot of people who’d been in the industry a long time were surprised that VF would want to get rid of the brand,” he said. Campbell listened to that feedback, and it made him think there was value and opportunity there.
So he made a pitch to spin off Eagle Creek, and VF accepted it.
When VF said yes to Campbell’s offer, it was just Travis and his wife starting from scratch.
“It was like trying to catch a moving train,” he said. “The brand was still moving forward. We had to build the infrastructure of this new business to catch up to the brand. We were like, ‘We’ve got this thing. Now we have to figure out how to run it.’”
VF gave Campbell a six-month transition services agreement, which helped him build infrastructure and hire staff. The company has grown to about 30 employees that work in a hybrid model.
Before his last staff job at VF, Campbell was president of Smartwool and general manager at The North Face, among other roles.
“The majority of my career I’ve always worked for other people, established businesses, and ownership groups,” he said. “Having had the opportunity to do this, I wouldn’t go back. I really enjoy the autonomy, the pace at which we can make decisions, and ultimately the independence of controlling our own destiny.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.