While checking into the campsite at my first camping experience earlier this month, a three-day outdoor festival experience called the Pursuit Series, I had flashes of step-mom Meredith from the Lindsay Lohan 1990s Parent Trap remake. I have a relatively severe allergy to dust, have no clue how to set up a tent and the majority of my travel gear is meant for touring museums or, if outside of city limits, wine caves.
I was curious about the expert-led activities on the schedule and am well aware of how beneficial even just a walk in the woods is for the system, but as soon as I unzipped my tent for the first time to set down my newly acquired outdoor-friendly duffel luggage and discreetly check my inbox, I realized that I both forgot my Claritin and had zero cell service. Thankfully, the team behind Pursuit has built the whole Outdoors 101-type concept around helping the inbox addicted and tent set-up-confused get comfortable outside and learn new skills to get more familiar with and excited about the outdoors It’s a brilliant concept, led by a brilliant team. And I really feel that these kinds of outdoor adventures are next big trend in wellness, as a necessary antidote to our time spent on screens and indoors.
So where did this concept come from and who are the master minds behind it? Former Morgan Stanley trader and professional runner Julia Stamp-Mallon co-created Pursuit Series with the idea to get more people outside. She and Pursuit now host two outdoor adventure festivals per year - one in New York and a second in California. Each experience takes camper-guests into the deep outdoors, far from city limits, for a series of expert-guided outdoor activities and skill-building. Weekend itineraries are filled with hiking, guided trail runs, technical mountain biking, stand up paddleboarding, some light arts and crafts and, unlike non-adult camp, nightly open bars. Hosting 500 adults for a weekend of fitness, food, drinks and skill-building is a large undertaking, but in under two years, Stamps-Mallon has grown the festival into a sponsor magnet and sold-out destination festival for city slickers looking to escape their inbox and breathe some fresh air.
I got to speak with her about how she did it:
How did you develop the Pursuit Series concept? How long has Pursuit been around?
"It’s hard to go describe the origins of Pursuit without going into Outessa, an all-women's outdoor retreat I previously founded that was eventually acquired by REI. A lot of women who attended kept saying ‘I want to bring my spouse’ or ‘can my husband camp with me?’. We realized that nobody was doing a version with men and women. With Pursuit, we really wanted to bring men and women together in these beautiful environments for adventure and education in the great outdoors.
The idea for Pursuit happened when we met with the Outbound Collective, whose founders I went to college with. They are an online community, and we had this real life community with Outessa, and together it really just gelled. Through our initial research with the online Outbound community, we learned that it seems like people are incredibly proficient in one outdoor activity, and curious about but not so proficient with others.
Our challenge was trying to create this kind of event at a more accessible price point: we charge $399 for everything in California and $499 in New York. These events are incredibly expensive to put on - between the food, and activities, and permits and campsites - and through partnerships who sponsored the weekend and brought in the equipment, we could do it for that one flat price to focus on getting more people outside. And getting people out there to try new things is the most exciting thing that I get out of the weekends we put on."
On The Outbound partnership
"Brian, one of the founders of The Outbound, and I were both athletes at Stanford. We never kept in touch, but I saw him on a 5 am flight on Southwest and realized we were both in the outdoor industry, way back when we were creating Outessa and he was creating the Outbound. He ended up helping us do some marketing with Outessa when we launched it, and when REI was running with Outessa after the sale was complete, we met for coffee and we realized it was a perfect fit. It was also something that The Outbound community was asking for. Through their customer service, they were hearing ‘do you put on events? and’ ‘Will you do trips?’.
It was probably in December of January in 2017 that Bart and I met for coffee, and literally our first event in August of that year. In that time, we found 40 partners and raised the money to do it and come up with the branding. We turned it around pretty quickly. Within four months, we launched the website and opened up registration and then had two events the first year, two events this past year and then we will have three events in 2019, including some category-specific experiences."
Where did your funding come from?
We didn’t raise any money in a traditional way, we did it through partnerships. Each partner is responsible for bringing equipment, bringing guides that meet our standards, and a bunch of other benefits. Our first ‘yes’ was CamelBak - they were our title sponsor last year. They really enjoyed the idea and concept. Honestly, it was pretty easy going forward. The partners I knew from Outessa trusted what we were doing and knew us. It’s a really cool synergy between the companies that we work with - we get to know them really well.
What in your background prepared you for this endeavor?
The outdoors was always a part of my life. I was in finance for ten years, working for Morgan Stanley and wearing many hats, and I also ran professionally. The Central Park loop eventually lost its excitement for me and I longed to do something healthier and do something outside. Even when I was a kid I was out backpacking and camping, and these skills were second nature to me. I have two girls, and I love camping with them, but I feel like there is this generational gap now and parents don’t know how to camp or have outdoor skills. So I thought how great would it be to help teach them how to do it. I definitely found my niche - it doesn’t feel like work - it feels more like a passion.
Can you describe the overall responsibility of creating this multi-day experience for so many people?
"My team likes to say they feel that I’m kind of like the hurricane with ideas and they are kind of like FEMA. At this point, we’re all reading each others’ minds. We have someone onboard who is totally dedicated to safety - so I know it’s the safest event possible. If anything, if there is something that keeps me up at night, it’s that there are other outdoor events who may not have the safety protocol that we have. The amount of site visits we do, what our medical looks like, being able to get to any participant in literally minutes - is always number one for us."
What are some of the hiccups in planning you’ve endured? How did you get through it?
"CamelBak is a partner and they were under a lot of controversy with their parent company. We had to figure out how we worked with that. I really value the people on their team, but we both mutually agreed that for the benefit of the event was to go our separate ways for the time being. When you’re aligning with your partners, you’re aligning with your partners. That was incredibly difficult, but I think we handled it appropriately and looked at what the situation was and moved forward and still produced two amazing events. The only thing I can say that I can say was a challenge at Bear Valley was our caterer. When we choose locations that are far enough out of the way, getting great food to 500 people that meets our standards can be tough. Some of these more beautiful places are more isolated, so getting to these locations, you’re there with what you have. You have to plan ahead of time so you have back-up options. This is something that our team is pretty phenomenal at but things do come up."
What’s next for Pursuit?
I’m heading up to Bend, Oregon on Monday for a site visit. We’re currently exploring locations and are finalizing those now and will be announcing them soon. In addition to our three 2019 events, we’re launching Pursuit Adventures - for the people who want something a little bit more category-specific.
Advice to others in the outdoor industry who want to pursue big dreams like this?
Do what you love and it’s as simple as don’t be afraid to try it. It’s a big change when you go from working in a job from 5 am to 7 pm, and I’m so grateful I did it. There is no greater time that the present to make the change.
While en route to Pursuit, don’t forget to explore San Francisco with our SF VitalGuide. Check it out here.