As Ana Blaskovic/Poslovni Dnevnik writes, many might have knocked on it, but very few have actually managed to successfully open the door to the challenging and fast-paced American market. That’s why the fact that the obstacles in the trek ”across the pond” are being unstoppably demolished by a group of innovative mountaineers from the Slavonian Plain is so astonishing. With the now very well known Croatian Highlander brand, they have created a global business in as many as twenty countries – from nothing but a love of nature and mountaineering.
After breaking the ice last year with their very first event in Big Bear Lake, California, this year they, the Croatian Highlander brand is organising five hiking events from the west to the east coast of the expansive USA.
“Our main goal is to conquer the American market, we’re proud that the very first American Highlander was done in San Bernardino County, California, one of the most regulated countries for business in the USA,” stated Jurica Barac, the executive director of Avantura zivota (The adventure of your life), the company behind of this wildly successful brand.
The rapid growth of the Croatian Highlander brand is also reflected in their number of employees, which has grown from seven to an impressive thirty in the last year and a half alone. The story of the Croatian Highlander brand began as a local hiking adventure more than six years ago. Fascinated by the rugged and imposing beauty of Velebit, a group of enthusiasts created an adventure that combines the natural beauty of those mountains and the ultimate long-distance hiking experience – Highlander Velebit.
“Five days in the mountains with no phone signal, with nothing but your backpack on your back and 100 kilometres of trail ahead of you. No suits, no stress, everything is up to you – it’s a total ‘reset’ for the head. To put it bluntly, you feel as you once did as a child; dirty, under the stars, free, carefree… For people, it’s a dopamine hit in a healthy way,” they stated.
The success behind Highlander is a consequence of the wave of turning to a healthier life and escaping out into nature that has been strong as a human desire for the last ten years. Although when it comes to the Croatian national level, the statistics on obesity are devastating (two-thirds of Croatian adults are overweight), the number of people who play sports of some kind has grown tremendously in this country as well. This is reflected in the registrations for Highlander Velebit, which grow year after year, with last year having more than 650 participants.
In a short time, this Croatian mountaineering adventure crossed local and regional borders, and coronavirus pandemic restrictions provided an unexpected spring in their step. In the year 2020, dominated by the novel coronavirus, the rights for the event were sold in a number of countries. With that, the Croatian Highlander brand really came to life, and in addition to Croatia, on 12 mountains in Austria, Greece, Portugal, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia, Spain, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, the idea was born.
That was the moment when the company began to think about a further business step forward, searching for a fund or a bank that would finance their expansion. The choice, unexpectedly, fell on a strategic partner, the world’s leading event brand Spartan Race, which became a global partner back during the summer of 2021. That investment amounted to more than one million dollars for a 20 percent ownership stake. It marked a turning point for Highlander and a key recipe for their entry to the USA.
“The American market is highly specific, you need a strong partner, otherwise everything takes a long time and the costs overwhelm you. Americans like to be sold things by Americans, be it a product or a service. Everyone advertises their products as the best, that’s marketing, so it’s extremely important that what you offer has a story behind it, especially if it’s sustainable. “Sustainability” is now a hit among consumers there,” they explained.
Highlander’s target audience is very specific; athletes, recreationists and enthusiasts who love being out in nature and destressing by pushing their own physical limits. Managers and politicians are often found among them, such as Gordan Kolak (Koncar), Damir Djurovic (of the video game fair Reboot Infogamer), and former minister Josip Aladrovic have all passed through gorgeous Velebit several times, and allegedly in enviable physical form.
The franchise for the Italian Highlander was bought by the former leader of the Giro d’Italia. American consumers, noted Barac, are very engaged, they read reviews, ask and check, because compared to Croatia’s typical three or four weeks of annual time off, the average American only has eleven days off and they want to make the most of them.
Armed with plans and with the help of Spartan Race, last year they organised the Big Bear Lake Highlander event with more than 250 participants from 31 states turning up, and some even came down to California from Canada as well.
“It’s easier to work in the USA, the way a job looks is a big deal there, what kind of numbers you have counts for a lot and making sure the maths holds water is important. At first, everyone is skeptical, especially of someone who comes from Eastern Europe, but when you do what you promised you’d do, the door is swung open for you,” Barac said.
“Given the positive feedback we had, we decided to put our feet to the pedal this year and arrange five events. Big Bear Lake remains the flagship event, and in 2023, North Lake Tahoe in California, Ogden in Utah, Kalispell in Montana and Shawangunk in New York are all on the calendar,” stated Barac.
They carry out the entire organisation process themselves, and one event takes about six months to set up on average. While the overall impression is that the USA is more open to entrepreneurial ideas like these, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to wade through the paperwork involved. Environmental protection, for example, is very high on the list of priorities of the local authorities.
“You need to secure a number of permits, for example, a botanist went out into the field where we planned the trail to determine if there could be any threats to the flora there, if there is a risk of fire etc, there are a lot of little details like that to take into account,” he said. The costs of the organisation rose to about half a million dollars in total, and most of it was covered by the registration fees for the 500 or so participants at an average of around 650 dollars each. Their sponsors and the local tourist board also gave their share, but at Highlander, they look at that amount as an investment in breaking into a new market.
This year’s events, from mid-August to mid-October, are now all planned. The investors, including Barac himself and former minister Ivan Vrdoljak, invested over one million euros in the company, and last year’s revenue roughly amounted to that amount as well. This year’s finances reflect their expansion with a planned income of three million euros.
The global partnership with Spartan Race, whose events are attended by 1.5 million participants annually, and the cooperation with this Croatian company was evaluated as an opportunity to expand their “tough fitness” portfolio to include mountaineering. It brings them into Croatia as well. In Sveta Nedelja near Samobor, a Spartan Race will be held, races with obstacles (such as crossing a net, fire or mud), and a large Spartan trail event is planned on the rugged hill above Dubrovnik for October 2023.
“We intend to do 70% of our business over in the USA, that’s our target market. Not only because they do good work there, but because their feedback is extremely good. We already have 150 applications for this year, our goal is to reach between 1,500 and 2,000 participants”, Barac explained in an optimistic tone. In two or three years, he can see the Croatian Highlander brand becoming even more global and being present in 45 countries.
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