MEC Resumes Hosting In-Person Events to Sold-Out Crowds After Pandemic Shutdowns: Interview

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After a two-year break, MEC (Mountain Equipment Company) is re-establishing itself as a hub for the outdoor community – part of its mission to inspire people to explore the outdoors.

Michele Guimond

Recently, it hosted legendary climber and Edelrid ambassador Tommy Caldwell who spoke to climbing enthusiasts at the MEC flagship store in Vancouver.

The new flagship Vancouver store opened at the start of the pandemic and is home to several unique elements, like a bouldering wall and the ability to host upwards of 200 people for larger events in the community. Later this year, MEC is re-launching its clinics and workshops led by expert staff.

Michele Guimond, VP Marketing at MEC, said the recent 240-ticket event with Caldwell sold out in under 24 hours, which suggests the retailer is on the right track.

Tommy Caldwell event. photo: Milen Kootnikoff / MEC
Tommy Caldwell event, photo: Milen Kootnikoff / MEC

“It was absolutely phenomenal. That store was finished in March 2020. It’s a beautiful space to have and designed with community events in mind. Very set up for it and it felt pretty sad that we haven’t been able to do it,” said Guimond. “It sold out in like 12 hours. We had to add more tickets and they sold out in a couple of hours.

“Tommy has the ability to draw a crowd and the vibe was super, super high. It just felt so amazing. It’s so core to the brand. I think the audience was really a great mix of new consumers, young climbers. Really kind of full circle, full generation, and Tommy is just the most phenomenal speaker.”

Guimond said the event was really leaning into the company’s pillars.

On its website MEC says: “We aspire to be the most viable, vibrant outdoor retail business in Canada. We want to bring about a future where Canadians of all ages, and especially our youth, play outdoors in self-propelled ways more often and in ever-increasing numbers; have access to a comprehensive, carefully nurtured network of parks, wilderness, and outdoor recreation areas; and have a connection to nature that is stronger than ever. We want MEC and our members to set examples that inspire other organizations and individuals towards environmental, social, and economic sustainability. In short, we want to leave the world better than we found it.”

Tommy Caldwell event, photo: Milen Kootnikoff / MEC
Edelrid Climb experience, photo: Milen Kootnikoff / MEC

Guimond said there’s been a big move online by shoppers and retailers in the last few years and that’s been at a time when stores were not able to hold events such as the Caldwell one.

“I think we took them a little bit for granted prior to the pandemic but I think we see this macro level move of people wanting to come back to the stores and there’s this connection that happens through community. MEC has been grounded in our staff expertise. When you combine this in a physical space I think it really draws a deep connection to the brand, it amplifies community,” she said.

“It also allows us to amplify our platforms around sustainability and outdoor impact.”

Prior to the most recent event, MEC also held another event in early March for International Women’s Day.

The retailer, which began in 1971, currently has 22 stores in Canada. The last store opening was the Vancouver one.

Giumond said there are no plans to open any new stores this year.

“I think coming out of the pandemic what we really want to focus on is we just came through a rebrand and we really want to focus on stability in the business, we really want to focus on our staff, we really want to focus on our existing retail footprint and really elevating our experience within that,” she said.

“Really going back to our foundations before we think about expansion. We really want to stabilize the business and be really heavily focused on that.”

Climb with Tommy event, photo: Milen Kootnikoff / MEC
Empowerment Fest, photo: Milen Kootnikoff / MEC

For the first three years, MEC was run solely by volunteers. There were no paid employees until the business could support a store with regular hours and gear on the shelves. These early stores weren’t so much places to buy stuff as they were places to hang out, plan trips, get advice, and talk about gear, says the company.

In 1971 MEC was formally incorporated on August 2, with six members, and about $65 of operating capital.

In 1985, it opened a store in Toronto and in 1986 it reached 140,000 members.

By 1990, membership reached 250,000 and 330,000 in 1991 (its 20-year anniversary) with $36.5 million in annual sales.

In 1997 MEC reached one million members and at the end of the year, it launched, a small online brochure of backcountry information. By 2004, membership had grown to two million and three million by 2009.

As it turned 40 in 2011, annual sales reached $261 million. By 2013, membership topped four million people and five million in 2017.

Prior to the pandemic, the retailer faced some serious financial challenges and in October 2021 it rebranded to return the mountain peak design to its logo while renewing a focus on its core values.

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.

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