Outdoor Professional Perks: Pro-Deals and Ambassadorships

I have been formally participating in outdoor recreation for two decades and teaching wilderness skills for 13 years – emergency wilderness survival, wildlife tracking, traditional crafts, and more. During that time, I have spent tens of thousands of dollars on gear. Even with opportunities to resell or trade pieces that did not work out, I’ve wasted tons of money. After nine years of purchasing equipment at full price, I realized that if I wanted to stay informed about products and provide quality input when asked for recommendations by clients, I needed to figure out better ways to finance future purchases.

Getting Started

I secured the first of my outdoor professional perks when I was 26. It was with what was at the time a small American-made company called Hill People Gear. A friend of mine had one of their packs, and I was impressed by the quality. After scrutinizing their website for weeks, I decided I wanted their Umlindi backpack. So, I wrote them an email explaining my background, why I was excited about their pack, what I would be using it for, and the types of clients I could help them reach.

Before my inquiry, they had never had anyone ask about professional discounts, and the process was awkward, though cordial. They ended up giving me a one-time use discount of 10% (due to sourcing and manufacturing in the US, this was virtually “at cost”). Since that time, I have arranged professional deals (ProDeals) with many companies. As my knowledge of ProDeals expanded, so too did my understanding of the industry. Below, I have outlined two standard outdoor professional ‘perks.’

This matters for you because these perks can damage the quality, authenticity, and accuracy of the information a ‘professional’ or ‘expert’ provides. Understanding where you’re getting your recommendations from, and the deals those pros might have behind the scenes is an important part of shopping for the best gear.

Professional Deals

ProDeals are one of the most common perks of being considered an outdoor professional, but all of them function a little differently. Companies that provide professional deal opportunities typically grant a 10-40% discount on their products. The ‘professional’ classification widely varies from company to company. Some require a brief email stating your background, why you are interested, and why they might benefit. If not satisfied with your initial ‘ask,’ they might request your resume or a link to your company bio. Chances are if the requirements are this relaxed, the company does not have a formal “pro” designation and will provide you a discount via checkout code. If you want to try another product in the future, you will likely have to reach out with another email.

Other companies, typically large ones, offer an application process for pros. These require some proof of work (paystub), credentials (guide designation), resumé, and a written component on why you should get a ‘pro’ designation (think college/job application). Receiving a pro designation from an application process is usually slower. You can be screened out of the process (via automation) even if you’re a perfect fit for the company. I tried in vain for many years to receive a pro classification from Eddie Bauer (one of the only companies to offer ‘tall’ sizing that isn’t code for ‘wide’). Eddie Bauer requires a guiding certification to consider someone for pro deals, which I do not have. I’m still a little irritated about it.

Companies provide ProDeals for a variety of reasons, some more honorable than others. For starters, outdoor gear is expensive (even small backpacking tents can cost thousands of dollars), and the industry is competitive. Most pros that I know, though certainly not all, operate on a relatively tight budget. The majority of their income goes right back into their profession since it often began as their hobby. Former pros themselves founded many outdoor companies, and they like to take care of their community, so they offer their gear at discounted prices.

While this might seem, and be, altruistic, it is not without impact on someone seeking a pro’s advice. For example, if I (the pro) have picked out two comparable fleece jackets from Patagonia and North Face, I will almost always purchase the fleece with the discount (all other things mostly equal). If asked by someone in a program I am teaching, I will happily disclose this ProDeal information. However, if not asked, my gear choices function as walking billboards. Even if you are not interested in a fleece jacket at the time, chances are the next time you go to purchase one; you will be psychologically primed. This is how marketing works, and ProDeals, while not exclusively so, is an arm of the marketing branch.

Ultimately, as far as outdoor perks go, ProDeals are innocuous. It is cheap advertising for a company, and there can be some questionable ethical practices among them. For example, some ProDeal authorizations request the pro not share their status within the company. However, a discount does not overly influence most pros I know. Instead, they’re an opportunity for outdoor professionals to become more informed about a wider variety of gear options than they might otherwise have been able to consider.

Ambassadorships

While I consider ProDeals innocuous – in fact, I actively encourage pros to pursue deals to bolster their overall industry knowledge – ambassadorships can quickly become ethically dubious. Like ProDeals, ambassadorships vary in structure and responsibility, but in my experience always include some form of financial opportunity that encourages a pro to push product.

Frequently, ambassadorships operate like this:

  • Professional (or influencer) receives an initial purchase discount. This discount is not all that significant (~10% range).
  • Professional receives an affiliate link or discount code to post on their website, Instagram, YouTube Channel, etc. – “Use my link, and you will receive XX off!” (10-20% range)
  • Each purchase made via that link/code grants a percentage kickback to the ambassador (3-5% of purchase).
  • When the kickback amount hits a certain threshold (set by the company), the ambassador receives a check in the mail. This kickback amount is wholly dependent on product sales and shifts depending on the industry the pro is an ambassador in. For example, in the canvas tent industry, where tents are potentially thousands of dollars, this threshold might be higher than an industry exclusively selling lower-priced jackets. If the ambassador sells some product, but not enough to meet the threshold amount, the company pays them nothing. Thresholds often reset after a year.

Given the way the ambassadorship incentive structure works, they are low stakes for a company. If the ambassador has a large following, the financial kickback is negligible for the company due to the moved amount of product. If the ambassador has a small following, there is a chance sales are bolstered a bit, with no cost to the company due to the ambassador not meeting the payout threshold. If that sounds ethically gross to you, you are not alone.

However, ambassadorships are also great tools for companies to gather targeted feedback and engage with the community. They’re also great opportunities for professionals to become more involved with companies that produce the products they love. One of my industry friends has worn the same wool garments for a decade; he has tested wool garments from other companies but thinks nothing compares. After singing their praises for many years, he accepted an ambassadorship. His does not provide him a direct financial incentive to push the product, but it does give him some additional perks. The company sends him free gear, especially new releases, looking for targeted feedback (“What do you think of the snap closure on this cuff? How does it function when riding/guiding?”). He’s also put in contact with prospective buyers looking for more information.

This is an ideal ambassadorship structure. My friend is still ‘biased’ but not in a way that encourages him to sell you something even if he is dissatisfied with its performance. The difficulty for you, someone that looks to a professional for advice, is that there is no easy way to discern an ambassador’s reward structure. It can be impossible to figure out if someone is hawking garbage to you for financial gain or if they genuinely love something and want to get it into your hands. This is especially true if you are limited by time and cannot do a deep dive into a company or professional’s history.

Shortly after writing this section, Hannah (girlfriend) and I were cold-approached on Instagram about becoming ambassadors for a company about which we know nothing. In this case, the ambassadorship functioned more like a Pro-Deal but with a promotional component. Keep in mind, all this company knows about us is that we work in the outdoor field, we have a small blog, and a modest Instagram following. It should come as no surprise that larger, more prominent “influencers” receive more lucrative (and problematic) offers. I have included some screenshots of the brief conversation.

Closing Thoughts

If you appreciated learning about a couple of the more common outdoor professional perks, then check out part two of this series. In it, I discuss Influencers, Affiliate Links, and Contracts; all perks that can significantly impact your ability to assess the validity and objectivity of a review.

If I sound like I am yelling at “Modernity” to get off my lawn, I might be. Just remember, I love the outdoors and want others to love being outside too, and I hate feeling buyer’s remorse. If any of those things resonate with you, then read on.

This article originally appeared on Stouttent.com

Stormy

As I write this, rain strafes the canvas panels above my head. We are snug in our Overland 5000 Sunforger tent during another day of stormy weather – not the largest storm that we have been through, but one with plenty of wind and rain. Living on the Oregon coast, we have experienced our fair share of storms throughout the past few months, and now that we are well into the rainy season, blustery days are the norm.

Recently, we went through a storm that had wind gusts of 60+ MPH accompanied by lots of rain. The wind was so intense that trees and branches crashed down throughout the night, making explosive noises as they cracked. The power threatened to go out when a tree branch fell on a transformer box down the road from us – thankfully, our power held. The rain drummed loudly on the tent, making it impossible to sleep until the wee hours of the morning. Despite being battered by wind, our little tent made it through the storm. 

It is difficult to describe what storms are like out here. I found myself at a loss when trying to explain it during a phone call with my mom. Words like ‘intense’ and ‘powerful’ seemed right, but weren’t able to convey the massive, raw energy of the wind as it went howling by, loud as a jet plane. Or the way the trees danced in circles and swung about wildly, creaking and groaning. Or the way the rain sheeted down, filling the lower cow fields until a lake appeared, overnight. I wanted to share exactly what it felt like to stand outside at night in the midst of the swirling energy of a storm, but fell short. It was both exhilarating and frightening; powerful and cleansing. 

I used to have a disproportionate fear of storms. This fear was heightened when we began living on the land in our tent – first a Nylon tent, and then a canvas bell tent.  I worried all the time when the weather turned – I was afraid of trees breaking and smashing us, or tent poles snapping in the wind, or one of us getting soaked and becoming hypothermic. After gritting my teeth while riding out several storms, I finally realized that it was not the storm itself that I was afraid of, but the fact that I had no control. I had no power over the wind, whether it was light or gusting. I could not gentle the rain when it beat down wildly, shaking our shelter. I could not lessen a storm as it squalled over our farm for three days and nights, keeping us awake at night. It was a humbling lesson – I had to realize, and accept, that worrying was a choice since I had zero control over the natural forces around us.

My journal entry for a storm system we weathered on September 23, 2020 reads:

“I thought I wouldn’t have a lot to write about today, as most of the day was spent knitting, reading and holding Penny. It was a blustery day, with high winds and rain off and on. I drank cup after cup of tea and hung out with Pat & Pen.

Around 4 PM, it started really pouring – we could see sheets of rain coming down across the valley. It was a torrential downpour with some big wind. The garage started flooding, and we were worried it would reach the refrigerator. We worked on the flood issue during the evening: I swept the water out of the garage with a broom, and made a flood barricade from plastic and paper bags, while Pat strung up a tarp to direct water away from the garage doors.

It feels like so much is out of my control right now with the wildfires/smoke situation, storms, etc. I hate feeling powerless. But I can think reasonably: maybe this experience will show me that when faced with challenges, I can be powerful. I can keep Pat, Penny and myself safe. That no matter how scared I get, I can access something within myself that will get us through it.

I wonder if tonight as I lay in our tent and feel damp and listen to the rain, if I can find the beauty in the present moment. Despite my nerves feeling wound tight, I can feel gratitude for this rain that will nourish the land, fill the ponds with fresh water, clean the smoke out of the air, help put out the wildfires, on and on….”

Fear can be an important teacher. It can also be limiting, a boundary set that restricts our freedom. My fear, manifesting as excessive worrying, had kept me from growing, from deeply knowing that I was resilient and capable. At the outdoor school we used to work for, we taught a weeklong survival skills course for kids, teens and adults. During the course, campers had the opportunity to go on their own multiday survival trek, either in groups or solo. Part of the curriculum of the course was focused on overcoming challenges and working through fear.  While we taught hands-on skills such as building shelters, creating fire and foraging for food, the most important part of the course to me was that each person had the opportunity to realize their capability. They could experience a situation that was tough, or felt unmanageable, and find the tenacity within themselves to get through it.  Or, they could experience failure and realize that that was OK, too, and that they could try again when they were ready. Fundamentally, the outcome was their choice.

During one stormy day on the farm, I found my mind drifting back over these outdoor school memories, and realized that I, too, had a choice. It made me think of a Ram Dass quote, “you can do it like it’s a great weight, or you can do it like it’s a dance.” I could experience the variations of weather out here on the farm as something I had to “get through,” or for my own peace, I could see more: I watched how the wind danced through the tall trees, deeply bending them; I saw the clouds sweep across the sky, trailing mist; I learned the patterns of the small streams and rivulets created by heavy rains. When I saw past my fear, I was able to appreciate the wild, powerful beauty of the coastal storms.

My journal entry for January 2, 2021 reads:

“Stormy days, stormy nights! This weekend’s storm rolled in around noon today. Right now at 5:30 PM there are some pretty monster gusts coming in. There is a lot of power in the wind and this storm – it hurtles through the big trees, bending them until I imagine they will have to break, but they don’t. There is a certain beauty to it, raw and coursing. I’m learning to not fear it, I can see the beauty, too….”

There is great opportunity here, in being challenged and working through it.

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