Scarpa CEO Kim Miller Talks Telemarking and Tradeshows with OIA

By Gareth Martins May 11, 2015

What we wear on our feet is arguably the most important element of our outdoor experience. Footwear commands a high presence in any gear closet with specific shoes of all types for specific activities. Immersed in a longstanding tradition of fine footwear craftsmanship, Scarpa was founded in Asolo, Italy, in 1938. Being based in Northern Italy, a hub for the sports of climbing and mountaineering, helped the brand begin to specialize its footwear to address the demanding needs of those sports. Distribution in North America began 50 years ago, in 1965. The brand has long been synonymous with climbing and skiing adventures around the world. Now the North American office and distribution center is located in Boulder, Colorado, among dozens of other outdoor brands. Scarpa is truly a cornerstone in the outdoor industry and community.

Recently, Gareth Martins, OIA’s marketing communications manager, caught up with Kim Miller, president and CEO of Scarpa NA.

Gareth Martins: Scarpa is a classic Italian mountaineering brand with a long history in the U.S. market. But how did Scarpa NA end up in Boulder with you at the helm?
Kim Miller: When Scarpa decided they wanted to place their own subsidiary in the United States, they were advised that they should put their business somewhere in the West in one of the hubs known for outdoor gear manufacturers. They wanted it to also be a place that was at the epicenter of where customers and potential new employees would be using and testing the product. That place was Boulder.

There is a lot of physical resemblance between Asolo, Italy, and Boulder, Colorado. The Italian headquarters is at the foot of the Dolomites, just as Scarpa NA is at the base of the Rockies. The size and look of the towns are similar, too. In particular, they really loved the city of Boulder more than anywhere they could have chosen in the Denver metro area. Boulder is a great outdoor community—it’s why so many outdoor brands and OIA are here. Time has gone by fast—it’s now been 10 years since we launched Scarpa NA here.

GM: We are seeing more European brands getting good traction in the U.S. market via distributors that utilize the same model as Scarpa, with a subsidiary in the States. Do you feel that American consumers have a good awareness of who is behind the product? If so, what do you see in these brands that appeals to the American consumer?
KM: As far as whether consumers have knowledge of who’s behind the brand, it really depends on the brand. If you think about the most successful brands, it really isn’t related to their country of origin. The European brands that resonate with U.S. consumers are at the top of their games globally. Some have gone that extra step to transform their branding and marketing to be approachable by American consumers. It’s a different kind of business culture in the States. We are a bit more causal and collegial and focused. Outdoor business is huge in Europe with a much wider range of sports represented and a more formal approach.

As for how these brands appeal to the U.S. consumer on a functional level, a lot has to do with the experience. These are high-end, technical products that have been around for years. That also applies to a wide variety of European consumer products, whether it’s appliances for your home or automobiles. Because these brands have been around a long time and are very skilled at making products that aren’t easy to make, we just haven’t seen a huge influx of competition from other parts of the world. Scarpa has been making climbing shoes for 80 years. Edelrid has been making ropes for 150 years.

GM: Let’s talk tradeshows. Which shows does Scarpa attend?
KM: We attend Outdoor Retailer, Snowsports Industries America (SIA), Grassroots Outdoor Alliance (GOA) and, off and on, The Running Event. We also do industry-specific shows, such as snow science symposiums and climbing gym shows.

GM: What’s the most important show for you?
KM: OR and SIA are the top two, without a doubt.

GM: OIA and Emerald Expositions are looking at ways to enhance Outdoor Retailer. What was your impression of this year’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market? Are there innovations or adjustments that can occur at OR (and in tradeshows in general) that could help your business?
KM: I think it’s a great time for our industry to be thinking about this. Tradeshows are one of the most expensive line items in our marketing and sales budget. OR is a selling event, but we are not just focused on collecting orders. We are using the OR show a lot more as a place to meet with our community and people, gain education and trade information and get industry insight and guidance. This is what I’m doing with most of my time at OR now. OR and OIA can develop more ways to help with this. 

Our meetings with dealers are business meetings and no longer just sales meetings. OR should work to expand the reach of our customer base by finding new retailers that we can bring into the fold. This can be achieved, in part, by selectively bringing in new categories of product in an open-minded and thoughtful way, while managing that carefully with available space.

Overall, I think that OR is doing the right thing. We would like ORSM to be the North American debut show for the summer with clear hierarchy over regional shows that occur earlier and with better alignment to hardgood and softgood product cycles.

 

GM: You distribute a handful of well-known brands that are complementary to Scarpa. Tell me a bit about them and how those relationships work.
KM: We distribute Rotefella NTN telemark bindings, Edelrid climbing gear and Koflach boots. We are just finishing up as distributor for SkiTrab. The reasons why we’ve picked these types of brands is because they are complementary to the sports that Scarpa products serve or they are part of a system that works together—like bindings and boots. We also work strategically. Koflach is the leader in plastic boots in the world. Rather than compete against them, we work with them, thus complementing the Scarpa brand. Rotefella is a practical and a strategic alliance. We worked with them on 75-mm telemark systems forever. When they developed NTN, this helped us control the market. It’s much easier for a retailer to make one call and get a binding and the boot that goes with it. With Edelrid, we started as their fulfillment center. As we came to better understand how they work, particularly their expertise and history with ropes, we agreed to become their distributor. They are the newest addition to our brands.

 

GM: I have to ask the question. There’s been incredible innovation in alpine touring gear. Yet it wasn’t long ago that “Terminator” was synonymous with how one accessed the backcountry and skied powder. My first telemark boot was the T2. Will telemark skiing survive? Revive?
KM: It will survive. There is a small yet growing contingent of people in R&D, athletes and trend experts who believe that telemark is coming back—but in a different way. There are all sorts of cool innovations that are feeding that.

That said, we still sell a ton of 75-mm boots, almost on par with NTN. Lots of people just want to tour or hut trip on their boots, and they are content with 75 millimeters. More performance-oriented free-heel skiers want an NTN setup. I was there when the Terminator—a game-changing telemark boot for its time—came on line. The energy that will move us into the next phase of innovation is very similar.

A big part of the reason why AT has consumed the telemark market is because the boots and bindings are more efficient. That is a solvable problem. The desire to make the telemark turn will never go away. It is the ultimate hybrid skiing—you can’t telemark on AT gear, but you can parallel on telemark gear.

In the end, it’s all about boots and bindings. We’ve come to agree that skis are skis whether your heels are locked down or not. Our business is still really important in telemark. It’s important to remember that AT used to be a very small niche. I started skiing with Lou Dawson back in the day on Ramer bindings, and we thought we were the bee’s knees!

 

GM: What’s your favorite dawn patrol (before-work ski tour), and what boot are you wearing?
KM: Loveland Pass is dawn patrol favorite. There is so much to do and so many places to go. And it’s where I grew up skiing. What am I wearing? Whatever I am supposed to be testing. I am still the ad hoc ski boot product manager for Scarpa NA, so I still test everything. I don’t ever want to give that up.

GM: What’s your favorite after-work climb, and what shoe do you wear?
KM: Any climb on the west face in Eldorado Canyon—the West Buttress of the Bastille is one of my favorites on a summer evening. For shoes, right now I love the Vapor V.

GM: OIA is going through a lot of change and taking this valuable opportunity to really listen to our members. What can we do for you?
KM: OIA is already doing a lot of great things. Be really open-minded, and don’t be afraid to change and evolve. Really pay attention, do your homework and listen. It’s important that OIA be objective in regard to its relationship with Outdoor Retailer. How can OIA as a trade association help provide its members the best tradeshows possible?

As an OIA member, the most valuable thing for me day to day is information. OIA needs to remain a central hub for our industry. In general, the organization is doing a very good job. OIA gets a B in my book, and I give very few As. Finding good leadership is going to be really important for the future of the industry and facing the changes ahead of us.

GM: Keying off the athlete profiles on your website—favorite dance move?
KM: I like swing dancing. My favorite moves are spins and deep dips.

You can dance in a wide variety of Scarpa shoes, too. Pick your favorite, and learn more about the brand’s Italian heritage on Scarpa.com.